Elon Musk speaks at an unveiling event for The Boring Company in 2018. But this column isn’t about Musk and his purchase of Twitter. It’s about someone entirely different named Melon Husk, who bought a platform named Dither. (Robyn Beck/Getty Images)
Let’s all imagine that in a parallel universe to our own, a peculiar billionaire named Melon Husk bought a social media site called Dither.
This social media site had seen better days, but it enjoyed outsized influence in the world of politics, technology and news media. Melon Husk reckoned he knew about all three, and he believed wild tales about how it suppressed differing viewpoints. So he bought Dither.
Our Mr. Husk soon found out that owning a platform and criticizing it were two very different things. His promises of an open public square collided with the reality that advertisers didn’t want to support hate speech. His new employees eagerly leaked unflattering stories. What’s more, many of the platform’s best-known voices decided to simply ridicule his wild scramble to make something of his $44 billion investment.
This would not do.
So Melon Husk decided to silence dissent. First he suspended people who used their accounts to make fun of him. Then, last week, he suspended journalists who reported on his beef with an account that shared the location of his private jet. He claimed that information put his family at risk, which sounded slightly suspicious coming from the world’s second-richest man. Regardless, news outlets have a responsibility to cover news. Going after people for doing their jobs chills free speech, precisely the principle that Husk claimed to value.
Indeed, this totally imaginary billionaire threw his weight around to such an extent that columnists in this parallel universe decided to write about him using silly fake names like Elbow Tusk. Better that than having their own Dither accounts suspended.
Similar scenarios play out here in Kansas, in government and education and business.
Power and wealth change people fundamentally, in ways they may not understand. These fortunate few don’t face everyday challenges. They don’t have to worry about paying bills, about seeing the doctor, about a secure old age. They have been handed the proverbial golden ticket. That means they experience the slightest criticism or setback as a brutal attack. Merely succeeding beyond all measure won’t suffice: They also want slobbering praise.
Take Kansas Supreme Court Justice Caleb Stegall. He resigned a teaching post at the University of Kansas law school because students protested an antigay speaker.
The lawyer in question, Jordan Lorence, made his speech. The student chapter of the Federalist Society succeeded in its aims of exposing students to a different (some would say bigoted) viewpoint. But Stegall took exception to the fact that students expressed unhappiness.
Take this richly hypocritical passage from Stegall’s conveniently leaked resignation letter.
“Lawyers of all people must resist the temptation to turn our backs on the liberal public square — even when it may feel justified by the perceived offense given by one’s political opponents. In fact, lawyers ought to form the last and best line of defense of the liberal public square and its pillars — a fair hearing for all voices, dispassionate and deliberate judgment, individual not group guilt, protection for dissent, and an ethos that, if not quite capable of walking a mile in another’s shoes, can at least tolerate a few minutes of quiet listening in another’s presence.”
So, of course, once a Federalist Society speaker was threatened, the justice quit.
Why couldn’t he manage those “few minutes of quiet listening,” I wonder?
Foot in mouth
Ken Hush, the Koch-connected president of Emporia State University, serves as another apt example. Under his leadership, the university has gutted tenure and fired dozens of senior staff.
It may well be, as Hush claimed, that leaders simply had to “address the university’s structural deficits that have been ongoing for several years.” But his office’s reaction after those cuts didn’t suggest confidence.
Kansas Reflector editor in chief Sherman Smith reported on Sept. 22: “Hush’s office is now guarded by a chain, and the student newspaper, the ESU Bulletin, photographed him being driven off campus by police.” How’s that for an open exchange of ideas in a higher education environment?
You might have predicted that response, however. In August, Hush put his foot in his mouth repeatedly when addressing the closing of an early childhood center.
“I laugh when I hear that,” he said, according to the ESU Bulletin.
He later tried to walk back that unfortunate quote. As the interview continued, he all but threatened the student reporter. “I think this interview today will determine how our relationship is going to exist on a go-forward basis,” Hush said. “And I’m meaning the whole newspaper on campus.”
Hush enjoys remarkable wealth — $2.7 million in assets as of 2015. He landed a plumb job without any advanced degrees. But he appears to perceive students and faculty as a threat. And wouldn’t you know it, the student newspaper’s future looks uncertain.
Finally we come to incoming Kansas Speaker of the House Dan Hawkins.
I wrote about his most recent fit of pique, threatening Democrats’ committee assignments if they ran a speaker candidate in leadership elections. Given the GOP supermajority, the opposition party wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance of earning the post. Instead, Lawrence Rep. Boog Highberger hoped to draw attention to a lack of transparency in the chamber.
My column on the subject likened Hawkins’ tactics to former President Donald Trump’s calls for suspending the U.S. Constitution. Some of my readers complained that the two were worlds apart. Perhaps they had a point.
Yet Hawkins and our imaginary Dither CEO, Melon Husk, have even more in common.
No one threatens their hold on power. Husk’s billions of dollars insulate him from any repercussions from his actions. A few social media messages won’t change anything for the businessman. Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, has steadily accumulated power at the Kansas Statehouse. A few minutes listening to opposing views won’t change anything for the politician. But when you’ve grown accustomed to hearing about your cleverness and rightness every hour of the day, dissenting voices strike a discordant note. They must be extinguished.
The real threat to free expression today doesn’t come from progressives or “woke mobs.” It doesn’t from social media platforms, which have grappled with the challenges of content moderation for years. It doesn’t even come from right-wing echo chambers on cable news or the seamier corners of the internet.
No, the threat comes from those with power, money and lack of conscience. It comes from those determined to muzzle their critics.
In both this universe and all the others.
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