In his bold second book, Michael Knowles throws the book at free speech absolutism in favor of a pragmatic approach toward destructive PC culture.
Daily Wire podcast host Michael Knowles just sent the final draft of his second book, “Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds,” to Regnery, his publisher. He sounds reasonably excited, and hopefully ready to face the wrath of the institutional leftist mob. His first book, published in 2017, was titled “Reasons to Vote for Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide.” It was a No. 1 blank bestseller lauded by former President Donald Trump as “a great book for your reading enjoyment.”
“I felt, having written a blank bestseller, that it might be an interesting challenge to write a book with words. So that was one of the first thoughts on it. And I thought it would be ironic to follow up a blank magnum opus with a book specifically about words,” Knowles told The Federalist, laughing. “This book is on a topic that has really come to prominence over the last few weeks. I knew a couple of years ago that I decided to write the book, but the timing is coincidental or providential. It was ever thus. Because what we refer to now as cancel culture, or woke ism, or political correctness is not a new phenomenon.”
Knowles’ new book challenges conservatives to revisit the American tradition of free speech, as well as the plague of what is now called “political correctness.” It traces the roots of PC culture back to Marxist philosopher and Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci in the 1920s.
Gramsci, he says, is the “godfather of political correctness” for his notion of a “cultural hegemony” that claims the capitalist bourgeoise maintains a “superstructure” of the institutions. Knowles also noted that the Frankfurt School’s development of critical theory has rippled for generations. This led, he says, to philosopher Herbert Marcuse becoming “the father of the new left” in the 1960s with his book “A Critique of Pure Tolerance,” putting forth that tolerance implies intolerance for right-wing ideology.
“At [Marcuse’s] most basic level, what he is saying is that tolerance and free speech have limits. And he has a perverse reading of that. But this is an argument we’ve known going back to John Locke, the father of liberalism, and John Milton, who wrote ‘Areopagitica,’ the most famous defense of free speech in the English language,” Knowles said.
But Knowles is not a free-speech absolutist—a designation that has gained steam. Instead, he believes conservatives ought to approach political correctness and the cancel culture phenomenon through an ordered liberty lens.
Knowles said he thinks conservatives are establishing a flawed argument in the opposition to the left’s perpetually changing standards of what is permitted to be said or done. Knowles describes two kinds of “squishy” conservatives; one that submits to the left’s orthodoxy, and the other that resists based on the perverse notion of absolute free speech.
“Political correctness is a sensible and cogent political strategy that has been extraordinarily effective at attaining the radical’s political ends. Specifically, the way that it does is by laying a trap for conservatives,” Knowles said. “No matter how hard conservatives fight against political correctness, we always lose ground… The reason for this is that PC lays a trap whereby however the conservatives respond, the radicals’ agenda is advanced.”
“So the clearest way to get into the left’s demand is for the squishy conservatives who just acquiesce to the new political order. So they start using the new PC language, they start behaving in a new PC way. And by definition, the left gets what it wants,” he continued. “But there’s a subtler way that the left wins. And this is through, what would appear to be the opposite reaction—those conservatives who say they will not acquiesce. In the name of free speech, they say we will not adopt the left’s new standards. But by declaring their allegiance to absolute free speech and their opposition to censorship, they abandon standards altogether. Both groups of conservatives misunderstand what political correctness is, which is a campaign to destroy traditional standards. PC replaces old moral codes with speech codes.”
Knowles argues in “Speechless” that conservatives today are not making a proper attempt to honor foundational moral principles as a means to stave off the left’s “anti-culture.” This anti-culture, he says, is the only logical way to characterize the leftist movement to intentionally hit the self-destruct button on civil society and principles we hold dear. Daily Wire co-founder Ben Shapiro affirmed this in a recent tweet, as did his 2020 book “How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps.”
“We no longer have a culture and a counter-culture. We have an anti-culture, designed at tearing down all traditions and institutions,” Shapiro said.
Most on the political right look at what is going on with Big Tech censorship as evil. Knowles does just as well, but he argues that the means to fight the left’s quest for power is to establish what is moral and immoral in public life; what ought to be legal versus illegal. In other words, what detrimental norms do we wish to subvert so that others can be promoted?
“Conservatives going back to the pre-Christian philosophers and to Christianity and to Lord Acton, and to the founding fathers, understood that liberty is not the same as licentiousness,” Michael noted.
Perfectly mainstream, truthful, and well-researched books such as scholar Ryan T. Anderson’s “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment” are being called blasphemous by oppressive institutions like Amazon. Instead of lamenting over this kind of censorship from an absolute free speech perspective, Knowles seeks to move the homogenous discourse toward a conversation on the actual content: such as why a given book or type of speech ought to be safeguarded.
In turn, he believes there are indubitably ideas and speech that ought to be censored–such as obscenity, fraud, and sedition, as put forth in the American founding tradition.
“Conservatives are only willing to make formal or procedural arguments. They’re only willing to defend free speech in the abstract, but they’re not willing to make actual substantive claims, moral claims. They’re not ‘allowed’ to hold a substantive political vision. As a result, we like to pride ourselves on understanding free speech, far better than the left has, but I actually don’t think that’s true. I think the left understands free speech, and censorship and practical politics a whole lot better than the right does. And my book tries to lay out the history and makes the argument that we need to not just dismiss our opponents but learn something from them because time is running out,” Knowles said.
Knowles sees the cancel culture and political correctness problem in modern society as the product of a brewing culture war, which his Daily Wire colleague Andrew Klavan discussed with The Federalist in February. But he also views things in terms of the tension between freedom and liberty.
He referenced William F. Buckley’s seminal work “God and Man at Yale” as justifiably arguing for truth and ordered liberty over exclusive freedom. Taken to its logical conclusion, he says, the expansion of Robin DiAngelo’s critical race theory ideology would spread across the country based on a reliance on unrestricted freedom. So will other flawed ideologies.
“I don’t think the conservatives can simply use the idea of changing the culture as a cop-out from engaging actual political action,” he said. “You know, conservatives seem to have bought into a lot of these arguments on inclusion, diversity, and buzzwords you see on the left. So when we embrace free speech absolutism, we say, ‘We never want to suppress any speech, we will just defeat any speech with our speech in the free marketplace of ideas.’ Okay, we say that at one time, but then out of the other side of our mouth, we say that we need to go back and take over Hollywood and take back the universities. When we say that, we are implying that we’re going to suppress all the left-wing voices in Hollywood, and we’re going to suppress the radical leftists in universities, and are going to tell professors to teach one thing and not teach another thing.”
The Daily Wire host’s book grapples with this inflamed tension across the country between censorship and discourse, and in the process makes a thorough attempt to historicize the roots of political correctness ideology.
Knowles also commented on the digital book burning of his friend Anderson’s book from Amazon. He said his own book will be “far more provocative” by the standards of the woke mob and predicts it will also be removed from the platform. Time will tell.
“It would be off-brand for me to like anything about Michael Knowles, but if I did, it would be his writing,” Andrew Klavan joked. “It’s sharp, incisive, broad-minded, and deeply researched. I assume he hires someone to do it for him.”
“Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds” is available for pre-order and will be released on June 22.