It may surprise you to learn that there is very little record of the Founding Fathers’ debates over the First Amendment at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. But through careful forensic research, historians are sure it went something like this:
Benjamin Franklin: “Americans will never fully be free until they are unshackled from speech constraints by the central government.”
Elbridge Gerry: “So I can say anything I want?”
Franklin: “Yes, Elbridge, that is what that means.”
Gerry: “I like beer. I still like beer.”
Franklin: “Yes, Elbridge, everyone does. That sort of speech doesn’t need protecting.”
Gerry: “Ohhh…I get it. I have to say something people will hate.”
Franklin: “Yes, popular speech doesn’t need to be shielded from government interference.”
Gerry: “Okay, you’re a lispy queer.”
Franklin: “Yes! You’ve got it! No, wait …”
This historic event was the seed that would one day grow into the least-thoughtful copout in American politics: Arguing in favor of someone’s right to say something, rather than the propriety of that person saying it. Freedom of speech guarantees our right to say whatever might be on our mind, but it doesn’t—and shouldn’t—protect us from the social or even financial consequences of saying it.
Which brings us to right-wing commentator and “comedian” Steven Crowder. This week, YouTube demonetized his video page, citing Crowder’s frequent harassment of Vox host Carlos Maza. Crowder frequently referred to Maza as a “lispy queer” and sold T-shirts on his “Louder with Crowder” site saying things like “Socialism Is For Fags.”
Maza has been trying to get Crowder banned from YouTube, complaining about all the harassment he has received from Crowder’s fans. Even though Crowder has been demonetized, Maza still complains that YouTube won’t “protect its creators.”
No one serious questions that YouTube can take whatever action it wants against Crowder—it is a private company, not the government, so it has every right to disassociate itself with his comments. If Crowder were, for instance, standing in a Chick-fil-A calling the guy at the register a “fag,” he would be dragged out sans sandwich.
On Crowder’s end, there is no debate that he can say whatever he wants, even if it means he loses ad revenue or has to find somewhere else to host his videos. But Chris Rock had it right when he said just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. As Rock observed, “You can drive a car with your feet if you want to, that don’t make it a good fucking idea.”
Nonetheless, “conservatives”—whatever that means now—sprinted to their keyboards to defend Crowder on primarily specious grounds.
A number of his allies noted that Crowder was a “comedian,” and should thus be given a wide berth for irreverence. But typically, if someone is a comedian, they don’t have to spend a great deal of time reminding people they are a comedian.
It is true, America gives a lot of slack to once-in-a-generation comedic talents when they veer into offensive territory. Comics like Dave Chappelle are evidence that you can get away with a lot if you can make people laugh.
But these people are actually funny—Crowder’s shtick is based primarily on saying things to trigger the libs. His monologues elicit about as much laughter as a do-it-yourself home appendix removal kit.
Take, for example, Crowder’s 2014 video in which he tries to convince us Islam is a religion of terror by donning a turban and reciting lines so wooden you could expect cast members on The Bachelorette to say, “Wow, he needs some work.”
It’s one thing to point out that liberals sometimes get away with more, like advocating throwing milkshakes on right-wingers (such “dairy-based activism” is encouraged by Maza, incidentally). Or when Samantha Bee get away with, for instance, calling Ivanka Trump a “c—t” on the air and posting it to YouTube (even if it was bleeped.) But this only sets up an arms race of theatrical offense—if you want to argue Bee should be censored, then Crowder’s homophobic rantings certainly clear that bar.
Of course, we are in an era of all-out partisan war, where even the smallest capitulation to decency results in traditional conservatives being cast out. Where one’s manhood is tied to his willingness to direct slurs at other people. The process argument simply gives Trump fans and other disruption enthusiasts the cover to support Crowder on free speech grounds while ignoring what he’s actually saying.
But ultimately, you can’t dodge the central question of the MAGA era: If you consider yourself a decent person, how far are you willing to go to defend indecent behavior in the name of lib-owning?
In the meantime, demonetizing Crowder’s videos until he meets their standards is certainly within YouTube’s powers. Sadly, one thing YouTube can’t do is make him funny.