Art in the Age of the Mechanical Enforcement of Political Correctness

Last night, Facebook censored a work of art I shared on the social media site in the context of a political argument. I may be leaving Facebook on account of this; it is bad enough that I allow the platform to use my data for profit, but censoring political speech is very troubling for a service that functions more like a public utility than a private corporation. I am in the process of curating my profile. It will be difficult to leave, if I decide to, given the importance of Facebook as a virtual town square, and the fact that nearly everybody with whom I would care to interact is on it. Moreover, I am administrator to several pages and groups of importance and popularity. However, my personal experience with censorship is relevant to our ongoing struggle against censorship.

Here are the circumstances: I shared Al Brandtner’s “Patriot Act” in an attempt to defend political art. When I first saw Brandtner’s piece, it struck me as a visual manifestation of the dilemma conjured by horror writer Stephen King in The Dead Zone, where the main character, Johnny Smith, clairvoyant with the power of precognition by accident, shakes the hand of Greg Stillson, a local politician with an impulse problem and a penchant for violence and treachery, and sees an awful future wherein Stillson, now president, launches global thermonuclear war. The central question becomes: if you could go back in time and kill Hitler and save lives, would you? Smith answers yes and plots to assassinate Stillson. I won’t spoil the ending of the story; the premise should suffice to convey the connection I am making here and the point of the Brandtner’s piece. 

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Ironically, it was the other side in the Facebook argument (I am leaving all the participants unnamed, as it is the principle I am interested in here, not the particulars) who first shared a controversial image, that of comedian Kathy Griffin with a mock-up of Trump’s severed head. Griffin was aggressively assailed by conservatives for her performance piece and, in response, she lost work. Under siege, she made a tearful apology, which she later retracted when she saw, as many of us did, the way she was being used by the forces of reaction to silence dissent on the left. The person sharing the image in the Facebook argument compared her piece to the work of ISIS, the Muslim terrorist organization known for the dramatic staging of beheadings as a threat to the West. As if Griffin represented a threat to Donald Trump and his family… 

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The Griffin image flew on Facebook no problem, although the point of why the image was used was lost on the room, except for what appeared to be three brothers, some or all of whom were marines. A band of brothers sort of affair it seemed. Not that I had to go to any lengths to find out their military status (or cared to); rightwing marine types let you know upfront they’re marines because they believe it makes their arguments right and true however wrong or irrelevant are their arguments. At any rate, they knew what was going on. One of the brothers claimed to have shared an image depicting a horrible image allegedly threatening to the other side that was censored because, while Facebook allows the horrific Griffin image to appear, any image where an Obama or Clinton is the graphic target of heinous political attack is censored. Implication: Facebook, like the rest of the corporate media, has a liberal bias.

Yet Facebook censored my Brandtner contribution almost immediately and kicked me off the platform. It made for a fine point about how Facebook works to defend the establishment regardless of party (the Bush family is well liked by establishment power); there is no double standard. However, without the audience knowing what the image was, and some among them unable to piece together what should have been obvious in the unfolding context, I was left to explain it (I was still cleaning that up this morning). That is, after I was allowed to return to Facebook. I first had to verify my account. Then I was subjected to a lecture from the social media platform about “community standards.” Maybe I just didn’t know the rules, they charitably excused my first offense. Then they wanted me to tell them how much I enjoyed the experience of being censored and ejected. So I did. 

Some background: Brandtner’s work is from the 2005 exhibit “Axis of Evil: The Secret History of Sin.” It features mock stamps designed by several dozen artists addressing such issues as the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal, racism, and the Iraq War (all contemporary issues). Back in 2005, the exhibit was on a college tour and the Secret Service (alerted by a patriotic citizen) started harassing artists and venues. They even got to the chancellor of my institution, Bruce Shepard, and persuaded him to censor the piece in question when it came to the Lawton Gallery. His pathetic compromise to civil libertarians was to allow the book version collection to be on display in a corner of the exhibition. I was part of the protest against this act of censorship. The protest included a panel at the exhibit in which one of our art professors openly wept while speaking about the assault on free speech and expression censorship represents. I was deeply moved by this expression of love for freedom.

(The protest was personally difficult for me because it came not long after a lengthy period of harassment to which I was subjected by right-wing goons over my opposition to the Iraq War. The campaign was a clear attempt to deny me tenure by smearing me as un-American. Chancellor Shepard piled on and it wasn’t until the faculty rallied around me that I had hope I would pull through it with my career intact. But this is another story that perhaps I will tell one day.)

The 2005 episode portended a troubling and renewed tendency in America to censor political speech and expression, building on the political correctness movement that had emerged the previous decade. My first academic publication was a book review of John K. Wilson’s The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education, published in Nature, Society, and Thought, in 1996. In that work, Wilson’s documents the aggressive suppression of speech and expression critical of rightwing politics and ideology. Since then, political correctness has spread to cover the left and the right, suppressing speech critical of identity politics. The movement represents the return of the norms of a value-free education and an alleged necessity for political centrism, with those engaged in critical and politically conscious speech on either side of the spectrum forced to the margins, the effect of which is to legitimize establishment politics (which explains why the campaigns of the recent midterm elections had so little to say about the fact and the costs of perpetual war).

Facebook reflects this trend, cowing to the censors for fear of being regulated, bringing on board the Atlantic Council to ferret out objectionable political opinion and expression. I recently wrote about this for Project Censored: “Defending the Digital Commons.” The political censorship is not really a left-right thing, but runs in favor of establishment politics. That this happened to me when I used the very image of the 2005 controversy, with all that history and emotion, plus the chest thumping of marines—it all combined to really piss me off.  

There are few things I loathe more than censorship and jingoistic reflex. Last night was like spending time with Juan “Johnny” Rico and Mobile Infantry gang in Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. One of the brothers actually said to me, “You didn’t have to tell us you didn’t serve.” You know: You’re not a citizen ’cause you never suited up. I’m just a civilian. Virtual spaces can feel quite real. For the record, patriots of secular republicanism defend freedom. And most of them don’t wear uniforms.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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