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The Atlantic December 2021 Issue: The Commons

The New Puritans

A growing illiberalism, fueled by social media, is trampling democratic discourse, Anne Applebaum argued in October. The result is a chilling atmosphere in which mob justice has replaced due process and forgiveness is impossible.

The paramount value of the university has always been academic freedom, the freedom of university departments and professors to decide what to teach and how. But academic freedom cannot survive in an atmosphere of academic cowardice, where its beneficiaries—those who were assumed to have the courage to protect it from destruction by either governmental or ideological interference—are willing to sacrifice it to pacify their students.

From our December 2021 issue

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The “new Puritans” can succeed only if they’re joined by these “new academics,” who have forgotten what a university education is all about.

Rick Nagel
Mercer Island, Wash.


Thank you, Anne Applebaum. We cannot leave it to the likes of Tucker Carlson to define this issue and use it as another culture-war weapon. Enlightened minds of all political stripes need to speak out with courage and force.

Joseph Urbano
Audubon, Pa.


Perhaps the overwhelming lack of “due process” involved in this social shunning is a direct result of decades (centuries, really) of our existing justice system protecting and insulating such actors from any sort of accountability whatsoever. When so few rapes are prosecuted, and so few of those prosecutions lead to conviction, what hope can anyone reasonably have that mere claims of sexual harassment—even a pattern of repeated offenses—can be adequately addressed and remedied through our justice system?

Teresa McQuade
Inman, S.C.


Q & A

Facebook is acting like a hostile foreign power, Adrienne LaFrance argued in “Facebookland” (November). Here, she answers questions from readers about her essay.


Q: LaFrance writes, “Facebook is a lie-disseminating instrument of civilizational collapse. It is designed for blunt-force emotional reaction, reducing human interaction to the clicking of buttons. The algorithm guides users inexorably toward less nuanced, more extreme material, because that’s what most efficiently elicits a reaction. Users are implicitly trained to seek reactions to what they post, which perpetuates the cycle.” There’s no real arguing with that. But think about how much those same words apply to Twitter. Yes, you can argue that Twitter does a better job of policing and removing misinformation. But is it not designed for the same sort of blunt force emotional reaction? — Bert Clere, Durham, N.C.

A: Twitter can be an absolute cesspool, it’s true. But it’s also a much, much smaller cesspool than Facebook. (Twitter has roughly 200 million active daily users; Facebook has nearly 2 billion.) Facebook’s enormity matters; its size is a major part of what makes it so influential, and so dangerous. That said, addressing the threats posed by Facebook alone wouldn’t be enough. The public deserves a better understanding of several other platforms that disproportionately and opaquely shape our informational environments. In my view, Google and YouTube (which Google owns) both deserve far more scrutiny.

Q: What Facebook has become leads us to what ought to be a blindingly obvious question: Why are social-media companies still immunized from lawsuits under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act? They are not, and never really were, neutral content transmitters, and the notion that we have any chance of reining them in while immunity remains is a fantasy. — Steven E. Mittelstaedt, Ferndale, Wash.

A: Without these 26 words of Section 230, passed in 1996, some of the most powerful companies in the world would not exist: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” It’s kind of amazing, isn’t it? Facebook would never have achieved megascale if it had been liable for the toxicity and harm posted on the platform. Instead, the law treats social platforms as though they’re neutral distributors—like telephone wires. But I’m with you: It’s obvious that the major social platforms aren’t neutral at all. Their algorithms are designed to add weight to different kinds of content, and to different user reactions, in ways that affect distribution and vitality. I believe you’re right that Facebook is not going to change without substantial intervention. I used to believe that market competition would eventually do the trick—that consumers would have the opportunity to flock to better-quality platforms. Now I’ve been convinced by arguments that government regulation is not just necessary but overdue—and perhaps inevitable.


The Facts

What we learned fact-checking this issue

In “The Autocrats Are Winning,” Anne Applebaum invokes a popular historical example of autocratic indignation: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev brandishing his shoe during a United Nations meeting in 1960.

The moment is often referred to as the “shoe-banging incident,” in part because The New York Times reported the next day that Khrushchev had slammed his footwear on a desk after a Filipino delegate criticized the U.S.S.R. In the following decade, references to the event appeared in such diverse locales as an episode of the spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and a chapter of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.

More recently, historians and journalists have debated the details of how this moment unfolded. Did Khrushchev really bang the shoe, or merely wave it around? Did he remove his shoe during the meeting, or had it slipped off on his way to the desk? Some have speculated premeditation: the presence of a third shoe.

Although images of Khrushchev wielding a superimposed loafer have occasionally fooled the public, actual photographs of the session attest only to a shoe on his desk. Still, the supposed shoe-pounding remains a common reference in discussions of national leadership—an image of authoritarian belligerence or righteous political umbrage, depending on one’s outlook.

In his memoirs, Khrushchev conflates the incident with an earlier UN outburst, summing up his diplomatic method like so: “I decided to add a little bit more heat.”

Sam Fentress, Assistant Editor


Behind the Cover

In “The Autocrats Are Winning,” Anne Applebaum argues that democracies like the United States are losing influence across the globe as the leaders of Russia, China, Turkey, and other autocratic states strike self-interested deals to circumvent sanctions and ensure their own political longevity. On the cover, five world leaders—Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—stand in a row, suggesting a coordinated threat to liberal democracies the world over.

Oliver Munday, Design Director


This article appears in the December 2021 print edition with the headline “The Commons.”

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