The “x might plausibly encourage y” argument against free speech has been with us for a very long time. It was the basis for the persecution of heretics in the Christian world, the censorship that John Milton criticized in the 17th century, the suppression of war protesters in the United States (the legal justification of which is the origin of the ubiquitous “fire in a crowded theater” trope), and the effort to censor and marginalize rap music in the 1980s, a project that brought to public prominence a woman called Tipper Gore, at the time Mrs. Al. Mrs. Gore’s name became, for a generation, the national shorthand for prudish blue-rinsed tight-assery allied to scheming political opportunism. She was a figure of fun, loathed by all right-thinking people. But Tipper Gore–ism, like the poor, syphilis, and usury, we shall always have with us.
One of the genuine pleasures of middle-age is seeing stupid intellectual trends come around again. I mean that sincerely. I’m not one of those who wear a veneer of hard-bitten cynicism to cover a core of progressive idealism. I’m not crying inside as I watch former defenders of free speech turn into moralistic censors. I’m honestly chuckling at the absurdity of this cultural game of musical chairs. When I was an adolescent, it was Christian conservatives (and opportunistic liberals like the Gores) who wanted to bowdlerize popular culture and stop the lovable kids in Footloose from dancing at their prom. Now it’s po-faced progressives who find everything fun to be “problematic” and life-threatening. No one is immune to this conceit, and no one is “progressing” toward anything. Human souls may not reincarnate, but ideas and impulses surely do. Leaves will bud, flourish, blaze and fall; notions formerly dismissed as passé will be refurbished and reintroduced. It’s simultaneously amusing and reassuring to understand that there’s nothing to do but enjoy the spectacle in all its ridiculous glory. Mencken! Thou shouldst be living now. Your country has need of thee.