It is often said that “the first casualty of War is Truth.” It is a powerful but slightly inaccurate statement. The first casualty before truth is free speech. Lies only triumph when unchallenged. That is why one of the most consistent responses to war, including in the United States, has been an attack on the free speech of dissenters. This anti-free speech impulse rests like a dormant virus in the body politic and it has emerged, once again, like a fever during the Ukrainian War. From Congress to the arts, critics of the war are being labeled “traitors” and “agents of Russia.”
Many of us have denounced Vladimir Putin and Russia for this unprovoked war, including the commission of war crimes against the Ukrainian population. Yet, our disgust at what is unfolding in Ukraine should not blind us to the dangers at home from these anti-free speech campaigns. Indeed, there is a growing anti-free speech movement in the United States in favor of speech codes, censorship, and blacklists. There is now a danger that many will unwittingly be pulled into this movement to silence those who question the war.
This movement began by targeting Russian artists and athletes who were told that they will be cancelled or blacklisted if they do not expressly denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin. In the Metropolitan Opera, famed Soprano Anna Netrebko announced that she would be suspending performances after the Met demanded that she publicly denounce Vladimir Putin. Met Manager Peter Gelb publicly decried “a great artistic loss for the Met and for opera,” but stressed that the Met left little choice: Netrebko had to denounce Putin or stop singing.
According to media reports, Met officials “made several attempts to convince Netrebko, who has made statements critical of the war, to rebuke Putin but failed to persuade the singer.” Gelb bizarrely added “Anna is one of the greatest singers in Met history, but with Putin killing innocent victims in Ukraine, there was no way forward.” Liberal New Yorkers (who flock to plays lionizing defiant artists in the McCarthy period) applauded the Met’s effective blacklisting of this artist after 192 performances.
Netrebko is not alone. Tugan Sokhiev, the chief conductor at Bolshoi Theatre and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, resigned rather than be coerced into such public statements. The Munich Philharmonic also dismissed chief conductor Valery Gergiev after he failed to condemn the invasion.
Sokhiev wrote on Facebook “during last few days I witnessed something I thought I would never see in my life. In Europe, today I am forced to make a choice and choose one of my musical family over the other.”
We have also seen such rising intolerance in politics. Former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has long been a critic of foreign wars and a lightning rod for many of the left after she opposed Hillary Clinton. (Clinton painted her as someone being “groomed” by Russians). Her meeting with dictator Bashar al-Assad and challenging claims of mass deaths also caused many to denounce her. However, this week, Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah) went after Gabbard for raising concerns over U.S. supported bio labs in Ukraine. The Biden Administration has acknowledged that bio labs exist but denounced suggestions that these were bio weapons labs, though Gabbard insists she only referred to bio labs.
Many disagree with Gabbard’s take on this and other issues. Fine. Free speech allows such issues to be hashed out to allow citizens to reach their own conclusions.
However, Romney was not satisfied with simply disagreeing with Gabbard. He declared “Tulsi Gabbard is parroting false Russian propaganda. Her treasonous lies may well cost lives.” Treason? The claim that Gabbard (who serves in the reserves as an Army Lt. Colonel) is a traitor is a shocking statement from a U.S. Senator. It is particularly unnerving as Putin calls his critics “traitors” and calls for cleansing Russian society of dissenting voices on the war.
Others have made similar claims about Gabbard and others who question our position in Ukraine. Former Senator and MSNBC contributor Claire McCaskill declared “Tucker Carlson and others are really, really close to treason in terms of what they are saying and parroting what is Putin’s dream.”
Likewise, on The View, the hosts went after Tucker Carlson for defending Gabbard and raising his own criticism of mainstream rationales in favor of Ukraine. Alyssa Farah, a CNN contributor, declared “I think Mitt Romney is absolutely right… this is… the Russians are spreading propaganda . . . it’s helping them get away with acts against Ukrainian civilians.”
That triggered a free-for-fall against free speech. Co-host Ana Navarro called for Carlson to be cancelled because “we cannot be Russian state TV.” She then added “I think DOJ, in the same way that it is setting up a task force to investigate Russian oligarchs, should look into people who are Russian propagandists and shilling for Putin. If you are a foreign asset to a dictator, it should be investigated.”
Moderator Whoopi Goldberg seemed to love the idea of arresting people with dissenting views on war: “They used to arrest people for doing stuff like this,. If they thought you were colluding with a Russian agent or putting out information or taking information and handing it over to Russia, they used to investigate stuff like this.”
It is certainly true that we did “arrest people for doing stuff like this.” They were liberals, socialists, pacifists, and others who spoke out against wars. Indeed, this month, we passed the anniversary of the infamous ruling in Debs v. United States upholding the conviction of Eugene Debs, a socialist who ran for President. He was convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 for opposing World War I.
Then there were the hundreds of actors and writers blacklisted or prosecuted during the Red Scare and the McCarthy period. They included figures like the great singer Paul Robeson found themselves barred from performances due to their refusal to condemn others or Russia.
Now it is the left that is calling for blacklists and arrests over dissenting viewpoints. Indeed, they are calling for arrests on the very same basis of being aligned or supportive of Russia.
Other countries have also cracked down on free speech in the name of fighting tyranny. If you praise Putin in the Czech Republic, you will be thrown into jail as an enemy of freedom. Yet, such hypocrisy pales in comparison to artists calling for other artists to be fired or declared traitors.
Figures like Whoopi Goldberg are not the only ones apparently longing for the good old days for summary arrests. As the hosts on The View were listing enemies of the state, their counterparts on Russia-1, a state-owned Russian television channel, were talking about how in the old days they could hang dissenters and how such public hangings should be brought back for Ukraine.
It is not surprising that McCarthyism could come back in vogue. What is surprising is that it is the rage on the left. The victims of the Red Scare are now leading the mob to root out the Russian sympathizers and traitors among us. Blacklisting and censorship (both public and corporate) are now considered righteous acts. It is all in the name of defending freedom by preventing its exercise.