The Moral Scolds of the New Illiberal Right Are Coming For Your Internet

From Sohrab Ahmari to Josh Hawley, what the new right really wants is to squelch free expression.


It is probably not an accident that the first word in the titles of the two most notable pieces outlining the tenets of the post-liberal right—Sohrab Ahmari's recent First Things essay "Against David French-ism," and an earlier manifesto, "Against the Dead Consensus," also in First Things—is "against." The post-liberals know definitively what they oppose. The question is: What are they for

As National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke wrote last week in a sharply argued piece, there is something profoundly incoherent to the post-liberal ideology, a lack of discrete and practical steps that might be taken to achieve their ends, or anything like a concrete sense of what that end might look like, were it to be achieved. It's remarkably unclear what, exactly, the post-liberals actually want. 

The Dead Consensus manifesto leans heavily on hopelessly vague generalities like, "We stand with the American citizen" and "We oppose the soulless society of individual affluence." The manifesto has a distinctive vibe, but it's not exactly a to-do list. Ahmari's anti-French essay argues for "[fighting] the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good." Ah, yes—not only the common good but also the Highest Good. Surely that won't be too difficult to determine. Everyone knows and agrees on exactly what that is, and why it deserves to be capitalized. 

And yet it is possible to detect something that connects the post-liberal worldview, a shared sensibility that is, if not a platform or a program, at least a sort of guidepost suggesting a way forward. And that is an underlying sense of censoriousness. It is a prevailing belief that free expression has simply gone too far, and that the state should probably do something about it. 

Think of the incident that prompted Ahmari's essay about French-ism, a Facebook ad for a "drag queen story hour" at a Sacramento public library. This was the display, the cultural occasion, that sparked his ire: Not a restriction on religious liberty or an imposition on his faith, but a positive depiction of a lifestyle he disagrees with in a public venue. This is the sort of thing a David French-ist might not fundamentally object to, but that Ahmari would. Ahmari, in other words, is against a public square that is open to forms of personal expression he doesn't approve of. 

You could see the same censorious tendency at play in Ahmari's now-deleted Twitter post praising Alabama public television for refusing to air an episode of Arthur, an animated PBS kids show about an aardvark, because it depicted a gay wedding. 

Perhaps the right compromise here is that there shouldn't be publicly funded television or libraries. But the proper role of public funding is not what Ahmari is arguing about. 

What he and the post-liberals like him want is a popular culture shorn of the images and ideas and lifestyles they deem wrong for society, or just plain don't like. Which helps explain why First Things editor Matthew Schmitz, in defending Ahmari's worldview, chided French for watching and referring to "an explicit TV series, Game of Thrones." This isn't a dispute about public funding for libraries; it's about casting scorn on forms of cultural expression that the post-liberals regard as ugly and indecent. It's an argument that some forms of expression cross the line of social acceptability.  

Combine this with their stated willingness to use the force of government to achieve their ends and their distaste for individual autonomy, and it becomes clear that much of what they are after is a kind of soft censorship, in which the post-liberals use state power to discourage, if not actively suppress, disfavored forms of expression for political, religious, and personal ends. It's about controlling what people say. 

Which brings us to Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.). In Washington Free Beacon Editor Matthew Continetti's recent taxonomy of the right, he identified Hawley as "closest the post-liberals have to a spokesman in the Senate," noting that the young senator "has already established himself as a social conservative unafraid of government power." 

As if on cue, Hawley last week introduced a bill to revoke current protections afforded to large internet companies by Section 230, which essentially indemnifies tech businesses from material posted by their users. In order to keep those protections in place, Hawley's proposal would force large tech companies to obtain a certification from the Federal Trade Commission that they are politically neutral. 

Hawley has framed his proposal as a way of preventing censorship, arguing that the largest and most powerful technology companies are biased against conservatives. His bill is thus predicated on a convenient misunderstanding of what censorship is: A private company, like Facebook or Twitter, suspending an account or deleting a post is no more censorship than a bar owner kicking out an unwelcome patron is censorship. 

But when the government sets up a board of political appointees as the arbiter of what is and isn't politically "neutral" on the internet's largest platforms for personal expression, a recurring process that effectively determines their right to exist, it may not quite be censorship in the strictest sense—but it's awfully close. It's a way of giving the government control, a de facto veto power, over privately-owned forums for self-expression. It's a proposal driven by the same censorious impulse that drives so much of the post-liberal right. 

Hawley's legislation probably won't pass, at least not any time soon. The passage of legislation may not even be the point. But even if that's the case, the introduction of the bill is, at minimum, intended to put tech companies on notice, to bully them, in the way that only a sitting senator in the U.S. Congress can bully, into setting speech rules that are more to the liking of, well, Josh Hawley, and those who think like him. 

That is what the post-liberal right wants, perhaps more than anything else: To control the venues for speech, both public and private, and to discourage and punish lifestyles and ideas and expressive acts they view as unpleasant or depraved or inappropriate or immoral, using the force of the government if necessary. They are pursuing this campaign under the usual social-conservative guise of helping families and protecting children and restoring decency to an immodest and vulgar nation…presumably with someone modest and tasteful, like Donald Trump—who Ahmari praised as someone whose "instinct has been to shift the cultural and political mix, ever so slightly, away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion"—as president. This isn't about families, not really. It's about power. 

The post-liberal worldview is priggish and intolerant, an ideology rooted in a moralizing authoritarianism. For it is predicated on the assumption—the assumption that the censorious always make—that the world would be better if people weren't free to speak and live peacefully as they choose, because they, the enlightened few, know best.