Robespierre’s America

Robespierre’s America, by Bret Stephens.

An hour or so earlier … I’d spotted a tweet from the author Reza Aslan, who had accused me of jumping “out of the white nationalist closet” for a column that attempted to channel the negative way “ordinary people” might have viewed last week’s Democratic debates. I replied that his accusation would be “shameful if it weren’t so stupid.”

Within minutes, I was being described as a “full on bigot,” “ghoul,” “racist,” and so on. As the retweets piled up into the thousands, I felt like I had been cast in the role of Emmanuel Goldstein in some digital version of Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate.”

It’s upsetting to experience this kind of social-media frenzy, however preposterous the charge or negligible the effect. But it can be terrifying for anyone who utters a controversial view without the benefit of powerful institutional protections. Nobody enjoys being slandered. Nobody wants to be the next Justine Sacco, the woman whose professional and private life was nearly destroyed in 2013 on account of a single misunderstood tweet.

The result is now well documented. This has got to end.

The result has been the self-silencing of much of America. According to last year’s “Hidden Tribes” report on U.S. political polarization, “Around two in three Americans feel that there is a pressure to think a certain way about Islam and Muslims, as well as about race and racism.” Similarly, a 2017 poll by the Cato Institute found that 58 percent of Americans, most of them conservative-leaning, “believe the political climate prevents them from sharing their own political beliefs.”

The data confirm what one hears and experiences anecdotally all the time: In the proverbial land of the free, people live in mortal fear of a moral faux pas. Opinions that were considered reasonable and normal a few years ago are increasingly delivered in whispers. Professors fear their students. Publishers drop books at the slightest whiff of social-media controversy. Twitter and other similar platforms have delivered the tools of reputational annihilation (without means of petition or redress) into the hands of millions, so that no comment except the most private is entirely safe from the possibility of instantaneous mass denunciation.

Who won the cold war? So why is the West now like Communist East Germany?