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Brownstone Institute

Free Speech on Trial

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From the Brownstone Institute

BY Jeffrey A. TuckerJEFFREY A. TUCKER

Free speech is everything. If we don’t have that, we have nothing and freedom is toast. All other problems pale in comparison. There are plenty of them, from healthcare to immigration but if we don’t have free speech, we cannot get the truth out about any of them. The censorship industrial complex is wholly dedicated to making sure that we have no debates at all and that dissident voices are not even heard.

In a lifetime of observing policy controversies and court cases, we’ve never witnessed anything as crucial to the future of the idea of freedom itself compared with what will transpire on March 18, 2024. On that day, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Murthy v. Missouri concerning whether the government can force or nudge private companies to censor users on behalf of regime priorities.

The evidence that they have been doing so is overwhelming. That’s why the 5th Circuit issued an emergency injunction to stop the practice on grounds that it is inconsistent with the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The censorship industrial complex is working right now and hourly to delete free speech in America. That injunction was stayed pending a review by the highest court.

The case itself hasn’t even gone to court. This decision is only about the injunction itself, which was issued based on the alarming results of discovery alone. Essentially, the lower court is screaming “This must stop.” The Supreme Court is trying to assess whether the violations of liberty are extreme enough to justify a pre-trial intervention now.

A positive ruling for the plaintiffs doesn’t solve every problem but at least it will mean that freedom still stands a chance in this country. A ruling for the defense, which is essentially the government itself, will give license to every federal agency – including those that operate in secret like the FBI and CIA – to threaten every social media and media company in this country to delete any and all content that runs contrary to the approved narrative.

There will be celebration in Washington if this happens. On the other hand, there will be tears if the court decides for the defense. It could be that the court will take an in-between position, refusing to let the injunction go ahead and promising some possible decision at a later date pending trial. That would be a disaster because it could mean three or more years of full censorship pending an appeal of whatever the outcome of the trial is.

Free speech is everything. If we don’t have that, we have nothing and freedom is toast. All other problems pale in comparison. There are plenty of them, from healthcare to immigration but if we don’t have free speech, we cannot get the truth out about any of them. The censorship industrial complex is wholly dedicated to making sure that we have no debates at all and that dissident voices are not even heard.

As it is, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook – and many more besides – already heavily restrict speech. They work in cooperation with government and those tasked by government to do elite bidding. We know this for a fact.

When Elon Musk took over Twitter, he discovered a vast censorship machine operating on behalf of the FBI and other agencies. Millions of posts were being taken down along with users. He has done his best to rip out the guts of this borg. Doing so entirely changed the character of the site. It became useful again.

Not even the scale of the problem is widely understood. Usually people say that free speech is necessary to protect minority opinions. In this case, the numbers don’t matter to the censors. You could have 90% of users trying to advance an idea and still have it censored. This is what the old Twitter did. It was daily and hourly attacking the company’s user base. This was their job, no matter how much it contradicts the whole point of social media.

Brownstone is predictably throttled by all these companies but it is not just about us. It is about everyone who disagrees with the Davos “Great Reset” agenda. This could pertain to EVs, gender transitions, lockdowns, immigration, or anything else. Even now, the Google Artificial Intelligence engine extols the glories of lockdowns, masking, and mass injections while completely ignoring contrary science. This is how they want things to be. Google’s search engine is no better. It might as well be a federal agency.

The Justices hearing the case will be in an awkward position. My guess is that none of them even know that this was going on to the extent it is. They will likely be shocked when they look at the evidence providing that there is a trillion-dollar industry in full operation that has massively distorted the public mind. Every federal agency is involved, deeply embedded in the operations of all media companies and digital technology, which in turn requires universal surveillance and persecution of contrary voices.

Until just a few years ago, this entire industry – which involves federal agencies, universities, nonprofits, shadow companies, bogus fact-checks, and every manner of spook-operated front companies – was not known to exist. Now that we know, we are shocked by the extent of it. It has invaded the whole of our lives to the point that we cannot tell the real news from that which is fed to us by intelligence agencies. Even worse, we’ve come to expect that most of what passes for approved opinion is flat-out false.

The Justices will discover this truth. They will likely be astonished. But they will also be taken aback by how integral to our lives it has become. As it turns out, the federal government for nearly a decade has placed a very high priority on curating the public mind, lying at every turn for its own benefit and that of its industrial partners.

Everyone in the old Soviet Union knew for sure that Pravda spoke for the Communist Party. But do people understand that their Google search results and Facebook timelines are no better? It’s not clear whether and to what extent people do understand this but it is our reality.

Will the Justices really be willing to pull the plug on the entire machinery? Doing that would be more disruptive of an established interest group than anything the court has done in many years or even ever. It would fundamentally change the way our technologies work. It would be devastating to federal agencies. Policing such a new system called free speech would be another matter entirely. It would mean that thousands of people would suddenly have nothing to do. That would be wonderful, but would it happen?

As I say, censorship is now an entire global industry. It involves the world’s most powerful foundations, governments, universities, and influencers. It seems like everyone wants a part in crushing what they called “disinformation,” “misinformation,” and “malinformation,” which is true information that they don’t want out. We are surrounded by this machinery of control and yet most people have no clue.

Every federal agency at this point has taken it upon themselves to cajole every information provider into rigging the system so that only one perspective gets out. This has a massive impact on public opinions.

As an example, four years ago, I wrote an article that accidentally made it through the censors and I watched as millions read my piece. Even now, I hear about it at cocktail parties coming from total strangers who don’t know that I’m the author. Nothing like that has happened since that magical day. Most of my writing goes into a dark hole, and this is despite writing daily for the 4th largest newspaper and having access to a huge public forum at Brownstone. People without such access do not stand a chance. Their posts on Facebook are disappeared the instant they post, while YouTube slams their content as contrary to community standards, with no other explanation.

Self-censorship has become the habitual practice of the intellectual class. Otherwise you only beat your head up against the wall and make yourself a target. Minute-by-minute in real time, public opinion is being shaped by this wicked industry, which dramatically distorts political outcomes.

As I say, this is surely the most important issue we face. A decision by the Supreme Court to let this go on – seeing no real issue here – will lead straight to our doom and the death of freedom itself.

There’s an additional problem that is very serious. These days, there is a massive race on to program censorship into the algorithms themselves so that no one is actually doing it, so that there cannot be any real defendants in a case against them. AI will soon be running everything so that Google and Facebook etc can simply say that their machine learning is doing the dirty work.

Perhaps one of the reasons AI has hit us with such a rush is precisely because of this case before the court. The deep state and its industrial partners are not going to give up easily. Everything depends on their victory over free speech, so far as they are concerned.

This is very worrisome, which is why one should hope for a sweeping statement by the Supreme Court that reaffirms the fundamental American commitment to have government completely out of the business of manipulating public opinion through curating what information you see and read and what you do not see and read.

It’s tragic that such a fundamental human right should so heavily depend on the majority decision of this one body. It’s not supposed to work this way. The First Amendment is supposed to be law but these days, the government has built an entire empire around the idea that it simply does not matter. The job of the Supreme Court is to remind our overlords that the people are not merely putty in the hands of deep state agents. We have fundamental rights that cannot be abridged.

There is a rally scheduled outside the court on March 18th, with many speakers making themselves available to the press. Note the sponsoring organizations: these are the freedom fighters in America today. You are welcome to join us.

It won’t sway the court, of course. And the crowds will surely be thinner than they otherwise would be given how much success the censorship industry already enjoys. Still, it is worth a shot.

Truly, we should all shudder to think of the future of American freedom in absence of a decisive statement by the court on behalf of the basic liberty the Framers intended be protected for everyone.

Author

  • Jeffrey A. Tucker

    Jeffrey Tucker is Founder, Author, and President at Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Life After Lockdown, and many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

Brownstone Institute

A Coup Without Firing a Shot

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From the Brownstone Institute

BY Jeffrey A. TuckerJEFFREY A. TUCKER  

We all have a different starting place and journey but each of us has the following in common. We’ve realized that official sources, the ones we’ve trusted in the past, are not going to make any sense of the above for us. We have to seek out alternatives and put the story together ourselves. And this we must do because the only other choice is to accept that all of the above consists of a random series of disconnected and pointless events, which is surely not true.

The last few years can be tracked at two levels: the physical reality around us and the realm of the intellectual, mental, and psychological.

The first level has presented a chaotic narrative of the previously unthinkable. A killer virus that turned out to be what many people said it was in February 2020: a bad flu with a known demographic risk best treated with known therapeutics. But that template and the ensuing campaign of fear and emergency rule gave rise to astonishing changes in our lives.

Social functioning was wholly upended as schools, businesses, churches, and travel were ended by force. The entire population of the world was told to mask up, despite vast evidence that doing so achieved nothing in terms of stopping a respiratory virus.

That was followed by a breathtaking propaganda campaign for a shot that failed to live up to its promise. The cure for the disease itself caused tremendous damage to health including death, a subject about which everyone cared intensely before the shot and then strangely forgot about after.

Protests against the goings-on were met with media smears, shutdowns, and even the cancellation of bank accounts. However, and simultaneously, other forms of protest were encouraged, insofar as they were motivated by a more proper political agenda against structural injustices in the old system of law and order. That was a strange confluence of events, to say the least.

In the midst of this, which was wild enough, came new forms of surveillance, censorship, corporate consolidation, an explosion of government spending and power, rampant and global inflation, and hot wars from long-running border conflicts in two crucial regions.

The old Declarations of rules on the Internet put free speech as a first principle. Today, the hosting website of the most famous one, signed by Amnesty International and the ACLU, is gone, almost as if it never existed. In 2022, it came to be replaced by a White House Declaration on the Future of the Internet, that extols stakeholder control as the central principle.

All the while, once-trusted sources of information – media, academia, think tanks – have steadfastly refused to report and respond in truthful ways, leading to a further loss of public trust not just in government and politics but also in everything else, including corporate tech and all the higher order sectors of the culture.

Also part of this has been a political crisis in many nations, including the use of sketchy election strategies justified by epidemiologic emergency: the only safe way to vote (said the CDC) is absentee via the mails. Here we find one of many overlapping parallels to a scenario hardly ever imagined: infectious disease deployed as a cover for political manipulation.

Crucially and ominously, all of these mind-blowing developments took place in roughly similar ways the world over, and with the same language and model. Everywhere people were told “We are all in this together,” and that social distancing, masking, and vaxxing was the correct way out. Media was also censored everywhere, while anti-lockdown protestors (or even those who simply wanted to worship together in peace) were treated not as dissidents to be tolerated but irresponsible spreaders of disease.

Can we really pretend that all of this is normal, much less justified? The exhortation we receive daily is that we can and must.

Really? At what point did you realize that you had to start thinking for yourself?

We all have a different starting place and journey but each of us has the following in common. We’ve realized that official sources, the ones we’ve trusted in the past, are not going to make any sense of the above for us. We have to seek out alternatives and put the story together ourselves. And this we must do because the only other choice is to accept that all of the above consists of a random series of disconnected and pointless events, which is surely not true.

That leads to the second layer of comprehension; the intellectual, mental, and psychological. Here is where we find the real drama and incalculable difficulties.

At the dawn of lockdowns, what appeared to be a primitive public health error seemed to be taking place. It seemed like some scientists at the top, who gained an implausible amount of influence over government policy, had forgotten about natural immunity and were under the impression that it was good for health to stay home, be personally isolated, avoid exercise, and eat only takeout food. Surely such preposterous advice would be revealed soon as the nonsense it was.

How in the world could they be so stupid? How did they gain so much influence, not just nationally but all over the world? Did the whole of humanity suddenly forget about all known science in every field from virology to economics to psychology?

As time went on, more and more anomalies appeared that made that judgment seem naïve. As it turns out, what was actually taking place had something to do with a move on the part of security and intelligence services. It was they who were given rule-making authority on March 13, 2020, and that’s why so much of what we needed to know was and is considered classified.

There were early initial reports that the virus itself might have been leaked from a US-backed lab in Wuhan, which introduces the entire subject of the US bioweapons program. This is a very deep rabbit hole itself, thoroughly exposed in Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s The Wuhan Cover-Up. There was a reason that topic was censored: it was all true. And as it turns out, the vaccine itself was able to bypass the normal approval process by slipping through under the cover of emergency. In effect, it came pre-approved by the military.

As the evidence continues to roll in, more and more rabbit holes appear, thousands of them. Each has a name: Pharma, CCP, WHO, Big Tech, Big Media, CBDCs, WEF, Deep State, Great Reset, Censorship, FTX, CISA, EVs, Climate Change, DEI, BlackRock, and many more besides. Each of these subject areas has threads or thousands of them, each connecting to more and to each other. At this point, it is simply not possible for a single person to follow it all.

To those of us who have been steeped in following the revelations day by day, and trying to keep up with putting them together into a coherent model of what happened to us, and what is still going on, the ominous reality is that the traditional understanding of rights, liberties, law, business, media, and science were dramatically overthrown in the course of just a few months and years.

Nothing operates today as it did in 2019. It’s not just that functioning broke. It was broken and then replaced. And the surreptitious coup d’état with no shots fired is still ongoing, even if that is not the headline.

Of this fact, many of us today are certain. But how common is this knowledge? Is it a vague intuition held by many members of the public or is it known in more detail? There are no reliable polls. We are left to guess. If any of us in 2019 believed we had our finger on the pulse of the national mood or public opinion generally, we certainly do not anymore.

Nor do we have access to the inner workings of government at the highest levels, much less the conversations going on among the winners of our age, the well-connected ruling elites who seemed to have gamed the entire system for their own benefit.

It’s so much easier to regard the whole thing as a giant confusion or accident on grounds that only cranks and crazies believe in conspiracy theories. The trouble with that outlook is that it posits something even more implausible; that something this gigantic, far-reaching, and dramatic could have happened with no real intentionality or purpose or that it all fell together as a huge accident.

Brownstone Institute has published more than 2,000 articles and 10 books exploring all over the above topics. Other venues and friends are out there helping us with this research and discovery, issue by issue. Even so, a great deal of responsibility falls on this one institution, the main work of which is providing support for dissident and displaced voices, which is implausible since it was only founded three years ago. We are deeply grateful for our supporters and would welcome you to join them.

As for the intellectuals we once revered for their curiosity and wisdom, most seem to have gone into hiding, either unable to adapt to the new realities or just unwilling to risk their careers by exploring hard topics. It’s understandable but still tragic. Most are happy to pretend like nothing happened or celebrate the change as nothing but progress. As for journalists, the New York Times publishes daily commentaries dismissing the Constitution as a dated anachronism that has to go and no one thinks much about it.

There is a lot to sort out. So much has changed so quickly. No sooner than the dust seems to be settling from one upheaval, there is another and then another. Keeping up with it all causes a level of psychological brain scramble on a scale we’ve never previously experienced.

It’s easier to wait for the historians to tell the next generation what happened. But maybe, just maybe, by stepping up and telling the story as we see it in real time, we can make a difference in stopping this madness and restoring some sane and normal freedom back to the world.

Author

  • Jeffrey A. Tucker

    Jeffrey Tucker is Founder, Author, and President at Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Life After Lockdown, and many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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Brownstone Institute

Is the Overton Window Real, Imagined, or Constructed?

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From the Brownstone Institute

BY Jeffrey A. TuckerJEFFREY A. TUCKER 

Ideas move from Unthinkable to Radical to Acceptable to Sensible to Popular to become Policy.

The concept of the Overton window caught on in professional culture, particularly those seeking to nudge public opinion, because it taps into a certain sense that we all know is there. There are things you can say and things you cannot say, not because there are speech controls (though there are) but because holding certain views makes you anathema and dismissable. This leads to less influence and effectiveness.

The Overton window is a way of mapping sayable opinions. The goal of advocacy is to stay within the window while moving it just ever so much. For example, if you are writing about monetary policy, you should say that the Fed should not immediately reduce rates for fear of igniting inflation. You can really think that the Fed should be abolished but saying that is inconsistent with the demands of polite society.

That’s only one example of a million.

To notice and comply with the Overton window is not the same as merely favoring incremental change over dramatic reform. There is not and should never be an issue with marginal change. That’s not what is at stake.

To be aware of the Overton window, and fit within it, means to curate your own advocacy. You should do so in a way that is designed to comply with a structure of opinion that is pre-existing as a kind of template we are all given. It means to craft a strategy specifically designed to game the system, which is said to operate according to acceptable and unacceptable opinionizing.

In every area of social, economic, and political life, we find a form of compliance with strategic considerations seemingly dictated by this Window. There is no sense in spouting off opinions that offend or trigger people because they will just dismiss you as not credible. But if you keep your eye on the Window – as if you can know it, see it, manage it – you might succeed in expanding it a bit here and there and thereby achieve your goals eventually.

The mission here is always to let considerations of strategy run alongside – perhaps even ultimately prevail in the short run – over issues of principle and truth, all in the interest of being not merely right but also effective. Everyone in the business of affecting public opinion does this, all in compliance with the perception of the existence of this Window.

Tellingly, the whole idea grows out of think tank culture, which puts a premium on effectiveness and metrics as a means of institutional funding. The concept was named for Joseph Overton, who worked at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan. He found that it was useless in his work to advocate for positions that he could not recruit politicians to say from the legislative floor or on the campaign trail. By crafting policy ideas that fit within the prevailing media and political culture, however, he saw some successes about which he and his team could brag to the donor base.

This experience led him to a more general theory that was later codified by his colleague Joseph Lehman, and then elaborated upon by Joshua Treviño, who postulated degrees of acceptability. Ideas move from Unthinkable to Radical to Acceptable to Sensible to Popular to become Policy. A wise intellectual shepherd will manage this transition carefully from one stage to the next until victory and then take on a new issue.

The core intuition here is rather obvious. It probably achieves little in life to go around screaming some radical slogan about what all politicians should do if there is no practical means to achieve it and zero chance of it happening. But writing well-thought-out position papers with citations backed by large books by Ivy League authors and pushing for changes on the margin that keep politicians out of trouble with the media might move the Window slightly and eventually enough to make a difference.

Beyond that example, which surely does tap into some evidence in this or that case, how true is this analysis?

First, the theory of the Overton window presumes a smooth connection between public opinion and political outcomes. During most of my life, that seemed to be the case or, at least, we imagined it to be the case. Today this is gravely in question. Politicians do things daily and hourly that are opposed by their constituents – fund foreign aid and wars for example – but they do it anyway due to well-organized pressure groups that operate outside public awareness. That’s true many times over with the administrative and deep layers of the state.

In most countries, states and elites that run them operate without the consent of the governed. No one likes the surveillance and censorial state but they are growing regardless, and nothing about shifts in public opinion seem to make any difference. It’s surely true that there comes a point when state managers pull back on their schemes for fear of public backlash but when that happens or where, or when and how, wholly depends on the circumstances of time and place.

Second, the Overton window presumes there is something organic about the way the Window is shaped and moves. That is probably not entirely true either. Revelations of our own time show just how involved are major state actors in media and tech, even to the point of dictating the structure and parameters of opinions held in the public, all in the interest of controlling the culture of belief in the population.

I had read Manufacturing Consent (Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman; full text here) when it came out in 1988 and found it compelling. It was entirely believable that deep ruling class interests were more involved than we know about what we are supposed to think about foreign-policy matters and national emergencies, and, further, entirely plausible that major media outlets would reflect these views as a matter of seeking to fit in and ride the wave of change.

What I had not understood was just how far-reaching this effort to manufacture consent is in real life. What illustrates this perfectly has been media and censorship over the pandemic years in which nearly all official channels of opinion have very strictly reflected and enforced the cranky views of a tiny elite. Honestly, how many actual people in the US were behind the lockdowns policy in terms of theory and action? Probably fewer than 1,000. Probably closer to 100.

But thanks to the work of the Censorship Industrial Complex, an industry built of dozens of agencies and thousands of third-party cutouts including universities, we were led to believe that lockdowns and closures were just the way things are done. Vast amounts of the propaganda we endured was top down and wholly manufactured.

Third, the lockdown experience demonstrates that there is nothing necessarily slow and evolutionary about the movement of the Window. In February 2020, mainstream public health was warning against travel restrictions, quarantines, business closures, and the stigmatization of the sick. A mere 30 days later, all these policies became acceptable and even mandatory belief. Not even Orwell imagined such a dramatic and sudden shift was possible!

The Window didn’t just move. It dramatically shifted from one side of the room to the other, with all the top players against saying the right thing at the right time, and then finding themselves in the awkward position of having to publicly contradict what they had said only weeks earlier. The excuse was that “the science changed” but that is completely untrue and an obvious cover for what was really just a craven attempt to chase what the powerful were saying and doing.

It was the same with the vaccine, which major media voices opposed so long as Trump was president and then favored once the election was declared for Biden. Are we really supposed to believe that this massive switch came about because of some mystical window shift or does the change have a more direct explanation?

Fourth, the entire model is wildly presumptuous. It is built by intuition, not data, of course. And it presumes that we can know the parameters of its existence and manage how it is gradually manipulated over time. None of this is true. In the end, an agenda based on acting on this supposed Window involves deferring to the intuitions of some manager who decides that this or that statement or agenda is “good optics” or “bad optics,” to deploy the fashionable language of our time.

The right response to all such claims is: you don’t know that. You are only pretending to know but you don’t actually know. What your seemingly perfect discernment of strategy is really about concerns your own personal taste for the fight, for controversy, for argument, and your willingness to stand up publicly for a principle you believe will very likely run counter to elite priorities. That’s perfectly fine, but don’t mask your taste for public engagement in the garb of fake management theory.

It’s precisely for this reason that so many intellectuals and institutions stayed completely silent during lockdowns when everyone was being treated so brutally by public health. Many people knew the truth – that everyone would get this bug, most would shake it off just fine, and then it would become endemic – but were simply afraid to say it. Cite the Overton window all you want but what is really at issue is one’s willingness to exercise moral courage.

The relationship between public opinion, cultural feeling, and state policy has always been complex, opaque, and beyond the capacity of empirical methods to model. It’s for this reason that there is such a vast literature on social change.

We live in times in which most of what we thought we knew about the strategies for social and political change have been blown up. That’s simply because the normal world we knew only five years ago – or thought we knew – no longer exists. Everything is broken, including whatever imaginings we had about the existence of this Overton window.

What to do about it? I would suggest a simple answer. Forget the model, which might be completely misconstrued in any case. Just say what is true, with sincerity, without malice, without convoluted hopes of manipulating others. It’s a time for truth, which earns trust. Only that will blow the window wide open and finally demolish it forever.

Author

  • Jeffrey A. Tucker

    Jeffrey Tucker is Founder, Author, and President at Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Life After Lockdown, and many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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