Episode 590: Big Trouble in Big China

On the Overthinking It Podcast, we try to get ourselves banned in China by talking about censorship, protest, and Tom Cruise’s jacket in Top Gun.

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Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather overthink the chilling effect of business and pop-culture support for state actions to limit freedom of speech and thought.

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19 Comments on “Episode 590: Big Trouble in Big China”

  1. John C Member #

    The interesting thing about the “our presence will naturally liberalize the repressive regime” idea is that it only works if the presence isn’t retailored to be repression-friendly. I know it used to be joked that we could overthrow the Soviet Union by air-dropping Elvis records and blue jeans, and…that’s arguably analogous to how it fell, at least in the short term. I went to college with an Iranian kid who had a similar view of how things could go, back home, especially since the country was so “bottom-heavy” after the request to have more babies in the ’70s, so literally access to early MTV would have been life-changing for them. But it doesn’t work when you create content that’s very friendly to the regime you want to liberalize.
    Regarding the “platform-x is violating my right to free speech,” it shows the dishonest intent, not because “only governments can censor” (which I’ve said, myself, to defend moderating a community), but because the private actors running the platform have their own rights to freedom of speech and that includes editorial control; it’s literally the “your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose” explanation used to excuse so much bad but “victimless” behavior. They don’t want free speech so much as they want their speech to freeload on big platforms that include (in extreme cases like 8chan) hosting, security, an audience, and so forth. It’s like they all skim an article on Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance and somehow think it’s the ultimate Get out of Jail Free card.
    As for the issues around talking about politics, at the end of the day, one of the things Overthinking It has been pretty good about is acknowledging that there aren’t many discussions to be had that aren’t political. Superhero stories either interrogate or accidentally take a position on the very political issues of appropriate use of force, the role of policing, and so forth. A lot of science fiction and fantasy raises (and then usually ignores) questions about slavery. Horror stories are have been not-so-veiled counterparts to whatever group the writer sees as a threat, with early vampires being every anti-Semitic trope and zombies often literally just being all the people the writers don’t like, especially.


  2. Three Act Destructure #

    “Freedom of speech” is ultimately a bit of a silly and reductive concept, no matter how you slice it. Even in the Constitution, it’s undercut immediately by being separated from what we now generally refer to as “freedom of religion”. Even in the beginning, one form of expression is clearly held to be superior enough to deserve its own part of a sentence; separate but equal, via semi-colon.

    There is no genuine discussion of freedom without the admission of competing layers of authority. We like to cede this idea to “the discourse” or to “civility”, as if even the roughest cross-section of any group of people would yield exactly conforming results on what does and does not constitute bad behavior. In reality, only cults are that precisely dogmatic.

    Freedom is stolen, rewarded, and moderated every day, mostly by a select culture of wealthy donor class schmucks and their intersections with cowardly or sinister post-national corporations, as well as the ever-present thumb of intelligence agencies. The people at Pixar who artificially stagnated wages across the entire VFX industry will one day share a bunker with the same folks who read daily reports on you as part of the Five Eyes agreement.

    So yes, talking about freedom and censorship is complicated. It needs a new paradigm if we’re ever going to have an honest discussion about it.

    And, honestly, maybe the idea of a civilization is part of that. Maybe freedom can’t exist as an end goal in the ways that we wish it could. Maybe, if we want a society with certain kinds of discourse in it, then it’s necessary to ban ideas or expressions contrary to that.

    Maybe there are no individual rights and never should have been. Maybe the concept is outright bizarre anyways, as if we aren’t constantly affecting the people around us. In the case of freedom of speech, we often default to this concept through the “marketplace of ideas” and are then shocked when what’s discussed is genocide.

    Hint: maybe certain ideas that weren’t ever good are still dangerous because they’re so sticky.

    And that doesn’t just cover hate speech. One of the foundations of the Age of Enlightenment is Voltaire’s “tend to your own garden” idea. It is entirely dysfunctional.

    It is a “recycle your household products” solution to a “mega-corporations are going to kill us all with climate change” problem. It empowers useless individual action at the cost of actually effective collective action.

    Put another way: you can’t change the world. Only the world can change the world.


    • John C Member #

      Specifically on the “Marketplace of Ideas” (an idea which, appropriately for this community, seems to have been first floated by John “Paradise Lost” Milton), NPR’s Code Switch has a great post on how it’s going wrong in ways that, though they don’t seem to mention it, are analogous to how actual markets fail to work: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/05/03/483264173/hate-speech-and-the-misnomer-of-the-marketplace-of-ideas
      My real problem with freedom of speech is less direct than yours, though, and more along the lines of “discredited and obsolete ideas don’t deserve protection unless you genuinely have some new evidence.” Like, we’ve proven that racism, sexism, and totalitarianism aren’t worth the effort of “debate,” as evidenced by the fact that the ideas only really cling to society because there’s a lot of money (predominantly from folks with a lot of petroleum) funding their spread and the cultures that cling to them are still managing to fail despite that money.


      • Peter Fenzel OTI Staff #

        John Stuart Mill’s take isn’t quite so fragile, though I hesitate to embrace it fully. For example, in On Liberty, to not be compelled into silence is just as fundamental a moral right as speech, as is the right to pursue whatever tastes you like whether they are moral or not, and the right to assemble if you’re not bothering anybody without being harassed.

        In the case of racism and other sorts of prejudicial hostility, both deliberate and structural, there are certainly people being compelled into silence, certainly people who are punished because other people think their tastes are immoral, and certainly people who aren’t being allowed to assemble.

        If you’re not backing them, you’re not doing much to protect liberty.

        And when these problems areignored, the idea of a “marketplace of ideas” is not so much being disproven as offered disingenuously. When people show up in masks and murder your family or your elected officials, or deny your vote or your right to assemble, and then later claim that their free speech is being infringed upon, this does not even begin to pass muster on the harm principle.

        And what Code Switch seems to be claiming is that adhering to a rhetorical tactic of promoting free speech isn’t working in achieving their stated aims. That isn’t what Mill is proposing free speech does – free speech doesn’t triumph over other tactics, like force, by nature. It is very possible to silence somebody, and doing so doesn’t mean you’ll inevitably lose.

        But in the long run, mutually, everybody will be worse off. It’s a recommendation for how to run society, not a playbook for defeating your enemies. And certainly if the other guy isn’t abiding by it, that’s a problem that you abiding by it yourself doesn’t solve on its own.

        Also, if you were to extend Mill’s ideas (though I’d guess Mill himself, being a white guy from the 19th century, was pretty racist) – the idea of the harm principle also connects to the idea of punishing consequences rather than actions, and punishing repeat offenders most of all. And with that sort of mindset the kind of trolly, baiting, peripherally violent white supremacist mode of intimidation would not hold up as “free speech.” Like if you run somebody down with a car at your protest, and you bring guns to your next protest, that’s not passing the harm principle – that’s showing yourself to be habitually dangerous.

        The problem in this kind of argument comes not from protecting free speech, but from only protecting it selectively.

        And it also falls under the “The Prince” vs. “Discourses on Livy” dichotomy of thinking about order and prosperity in Republics.

        Intimidating large swaths of your society to stay invisible is itself a crime against free speech, so you’re not starting from a neutral place.

        And yeah, it’s not that free speech always wins, it’s that, if you were to win, and you were to be in charge, if you could guarantee free speech for _everybody_, then you would generate a mutual benefit. And people who compromise free speech in order to win are diminishing mutual benefit, though that in itself is not persuasive.

        Although that also suggests that social improvement is something that generally comes in addition to conflict, not as a result of conflict, and I know that’s a controversial idea for people with more of a war/revolution-centric notion of history.


        • Peter Fenzel OTI Staff #

          John Stuart Mill also thought public education was evil, though, so take everything he writes with a big grain of salt.


        • Peter Fenzel OTI Staff #

          And reading the Code Switch piece again, I don’t think it’s against free speech – it’s just, as it says suggesting that “When it comes to racism, the “marketplace of ideas” is not laissez-faire and never was.” And that makes sense, since what the whole body of literature is generally about is suggesting governments have an obligation to protect people doing this, and in practice they don’t (which is why it’s in the Bill of Rights in the first place – if it’s something governments just did by virtue of existing, you wouldn’t have to push through an Amendment trying to reinforce it – whether it succeeds or not).

          Or, rather, as we discussed on the podcast, there is an issue of positive vs. negative rights as well – when the richest person is the king or the nobility, then suppression of free speech tends to come from the government. But when the richest people are not the government, then just limiting the government loses some of its potency in protecting rights.


          • Chimalpahin #

            I’m still listening thru but what do you mean by “liberalization” I hope you don’t mean it in the way that Western Capitalist do?

            Again I also ask why Hong Kong pulls at the heartstrings of liberals yet Haiti, without whom there would be no revolution in the Americas, which is in even worse revolts than HK is right now!

            Also on Tiananmen, there was no massacre. The majority of deaths were soldiers and police who were lynched by reactionaries.


            Also as Fenzel pointed out China has a lot of internal dynamism. I would also point out that we aren’t much different, you only have to look at the DAPL protests to see the US break out the militarized police to brutalize Indigenous people under 500 years of colonialism

            So much to to go thru :( sorry for being too verbose but hey I have a lot of opinions and the net is a place for them I guess

          • Chimalpahin #

            Do Vietnamese & Chinese citizens know the limitations? I suppose. I mean do most Usonians realize their limitations? If you live in the ghetto/barrio you realize your limitations immediately & are never allowed to forget it. If you’re a boojy white person, maybe you never realize it because you’re less restricted & can do what you like because they like what you do.

            I think the language barrier is a really good point. The CIA thought so too. When Grenada was also a communist country the CIA feared that the Grenadans who were black could speak English would be able to directly speak to the people of the US, with no language barrier, . Which is part of why he was assassinated & the country massacred.

            To tie This back into pop culture when I was watching Bumblebee, the good guy soldier, John Cena, joked about his military tour of Grenada. So I guess Bumblebee is friends with a war criminal. I assume the movie had DoD funding like every other transformers movie.


          • John C Member #

            Chimalpahin, “liberalization,” in the context of trade relationships with countries like China, is the (pretty hilariously dumb) theory that the mere presence of Western brands in these countries will ultimately pull those countries’ governments into a more freedom-respecting position. I think Matt hit the nail on the head that it’s really just a bedtime story to excuse exploiting the population for a quick profit.
            As for the focus on Hong Kong, they’re the only group we can see in most of the media. My guess would be that there’s a colonial aspect, in that journalists still remember it as part of the UK; plus, American companies are now involved. It’s a shame, and now that you bring it up, even the “we’re going to criticize the media over what stories it fails to cover” outlets like the Intercept and Fair and Accuracy in Reporting apparently can’t be bothered. Even Global Voices has Hong Kong articles under “the Americas” (because of Blizzard and the NBA) and nothing about Haiti.
            Would you mind my asking what outlet(s) you’d recommend to fill that void?

        • John C Member #

          I think the key point, regarding Mill and getting to your point about the overlap between government and wealth, is that the speech that we ideally want to protect is (to borrow a much later phrase) “speaking truth to power,” not just announcing whatever thoughts come to mind.
          And our instinct is to protect the (related) “Galileo moments,” where one person stands against the orthodoxy to insist “and yet it moves.” (Last I heard, the evidence actually says that Galileo’s real problem was atomic theory, since that makes transubstantiation a hard sell, but his friends in the Vatican steered everybody to heliocentrism as a sort of plea bargain. But you get the point.) By contrast, Ernst & Young teaching employees about how women’s brains are pancake-like, we have less of a stake in protecting.
          The procedural problem, though, is that any test is necessarily going to produce false positives (identifying legitimate speech as something that needs to be moderated) and false negatives (letting useless or harmful speech slip through the cracks). And the ethical problem is obviously that the authority to censor generally overlaps with being the power that truth may be spoken to, causing a conflict of interest.
          I think that’s how we consistently land on absolutism, here, even when we know it isn’t quite working the way we expect. It’s Mo’ Trolleys Mo’ Problems all the way down…or something.


  3. Chimalpahin #

    Man I love you guys but man I’d rather not see my favorite internet people support a clear Color Revolution.

    I don’t think y’all fully realize that the CIA & probably MI6 is supporting these petty booj reactionaries, Hell Ted Cruz, Famous FREEDOM Lover that he is, has been to Hong Kong & is actively supporting these timults.

    Look you don’t have to love China to not support a Capitalist backed destabilization campaign.

    Also Marc, I love ya but to say that the British “brought the rule of law” to Hong Kong would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious. The British literally segregated the place for about a century. Yikes

    I hope y’all talk about Five Armies again like last time

    Oh and strange that you talk about Hong Kong & not say, Haiti, Ecuador ir Chile oh maybe that’s because those are either proletarian uprisings or reactionaries in Bolivia.

    Ugh :(


  4. Chimalpahin #

    Speaking of censorship remember guys we aren’t in a neutral space. The internet was born from ArpaNet & SAGE, the doomsday military defense network, which was itself developed from appropriated Nazi tech. What kind of ghosts would you expect to find in such a machine?

    We have our censorship here but it’s usually market based, if you don’t have the funds you don’t have a voice. As Old Chomsky has pointed out, or put much better by Michael Parenti, mass media is served out by people who believe in the nonsense they spew. “You can say what you like because they like what you say.”

    I’m rambling a little but what I’m trying to get at is that the internet is born from fascist bones. It’s easy to point at the Firewall of China & laugh it off as paranoia & authoritarianism but the Capitalist west spends billions to neutralize any opposing forces, whether they be socialist like Cuba or just independent like Iran, this means CIA agents on your message boards. The firewall is meant to stem that & radicalization & keep toxic sites like 4chan & 8chan from existing & radicalizing others… Fun fact the FBI knew for a long time that 8chan was being used by reactionary terrorists & pedos but did nothing, the Christchurch terrorist allegedly posted his manifesto there too. Curious.

    This leads into dissenting opinions. People in China have all sorts of opinions. What the firewall is meant to stop is pepe frogmen fascist cells from forming. How well it does that varies as we’ve see the fascist appropriated frog be used in Hong Kong. So that’s very troubling.

    (Still listening thru)



    • Three Act Destructure #

      There’s a fantastic documentary, produced by Disney of all people, about how our current surveillance state was built on Nazi foundations. It’s called The Winter Soldier.


      • Chimalpahin #

        Kind of they cop out by saying all conflicts were orchestrated by Hydra, the not Nazis, to gain power eventually. To their credit they did reference operation paperclip in the first Captain America, guess it’s old enough now that it doesn’t matter.


        • Three Act Destructure #

          That’s one reading, although not the only one available. It is important to note that the Operation Paperclip is actually in the Winter Soldier and NOT The First Avenger, for example, since it more explicitly ties SHIELD to the Nazis.

          You’ve gotten a few facts on here either wrong or just, well, a little stretched out. Your interpretation of the events in Grenada conveniently leaves out that the socialist government there had already been toppled by a military coup before the Americans showed up, for example.

          Your interest in FBI monitoring of message boards leaves out the fact that their failure to crack down on violent “lone wolves” is the direct result of efforts by a Republican Party deeply in the pockets of foreign state actors.

          Your comments on Haiti are a clear whataboutism that leave out the obvious factor of their, frankly, unsolvable crisis. Haiti has a long and complex history with the US but us putting our thumb on their scales right now can’t do anything to fix the situation, especially since it would only be one more instance of meddling with their government which would likely come back to bite everyone on the ass.

          But hey, we all get things wrong from time to time. No harm, no foul. Pro tip, though: it’s usually spelled “bougie”.


  5. Mike o #

    Politics is the allocation of human lives (determines the quality, and it’s length).
    Discussions WILL get heated. And anything can be injected with politics. Lady ghostbusters – a fight for women in the world? Or a fight against cynical corporatism?
    Hong Kong: america crumbling against a new red menace? Or america gearing up for cold war 2.0?

    These two examples might have clear right and wrong sides to you. So, how do you respond? How much education do you throw at it? Is it getting into propaganda territory? Do you silence the opposing side? How far do you go? Can these mechanisms be controlled or misused? Even people that agree will get emotional about the responses because lives will be impacted. It’s politics.

    Playing the middle of the road is politics too. “You can’t be neutral on a moving train” and all that. I have strong emotions and very defined views. I could say a thing or two about a thing or two. You think corporations restructuring to appease Chinese markets is bad, wait until you learn about pro Israel loyalty oaths states are making into law to punish peoples and groups who aren’t pro Israel enough. Or try to think how America would be as a country if China had ships in the great lakes and gulf, bases in Canada, and coaching seperatists in California.

    My final view on overthinkingit plunging into overt politics is – do what you want and navigate the consequences if you want it bad enough. You got one life to live (although the Buddhists might disagree).


    • Three Act Destructure #

      Agreed. To add, I don’t believe that there’s any valid interpretation of the lionizing of “centrism” or “civility” that doesn’t accept its primary purpose as being a form of social control.


  6. Ben Adams OTI Staff #

    My personal favorite recent example of the long-arm of Chinese censorship on American corporations:


    Tl;dr: a random throaway map on a wall in a Dreamworks movie took the trouble to include China’s Nine-Dash Line (i.e. their excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea)!

    It’s great because it’s so overbearing and obscure – like, maps don’t normally show sea borders! That’s just not something that people normally do, regardless of their view of China’s rights to the Spratly’s or whatever. It’s so unnecessary that you can’t help but read it as a test of fealty more than an actual attempt at political manipulation.


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