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What Jonathan Franzen and the Left Get Wrong About Free Speech

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Novelist Jonathan Franzen, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, explained why he refused to sign a letter to Harper’s defending free speech norms from the left. “There’s a chilling of nuanced discourse …” he conceded, “but I also think, until people start being sent off to Lubyanka for having said the wrong thing to the wrong person, the risk is probably overblown.”

Franzen’s line has drawn fawning praise on the left. It is one of the most insane yet simultaneously revealing statements I have ever seen.

Franzen’s position is a common one among liberal intellectuals: He concedes the threat to free speech norms on the left is real, but insists it is too insignificant to merit criticism. Obviously, different problems have different scales. Treating illiberal norms on the left as the single greatest crisis in the world strikes me as an overreaction, especially given the Republican Party’s institutional descent into outright authoritarianism.

But Franzen isn’t merely cautioning against overreaction. He is not arguing that left-wing illiberalism is too small a crisis to merit fleeing the country in panic, or voting Republican, or even writing an op-ed against it. He is arguing that left-wing illiberalism is too small a problem to merit even the meager step of signing a letter somebody else wrote for him.

Franzen’s position, a common one on the left, implicitly concedes that there could be a point at which the problem grows to a level that it does merit criticism. Usually, that point is left unstated. Franzen takes the clarifying step of making that level explicit: when “people start being sent off to Lubyanka” — the headquarters of the Soviet secret police — “for having said the wrong thing to the wrong person.”

I would suggest that, once we have gotten to, or anywhere near, the point at which stray comments result in abduction, torture and execution, it will be a bit late to speak out. Yet that is apparently the point at which Franzen is willing to start complaining publicly. I’ll take Franzen at his word that he is personally willing to brave a bullet to the head, which makes him far braver than me, but I find it very strange that he considers any critique of the illiberal left before it’s carrying out mass murder premature.

Franzen’s mind seems to have particular difficulty calibrating and ordering multiple problems; the same befuddlement once inspired him to argue that environmentalists should focus on saving birds because mitigating climate change is........

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