Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The registry of dissent

I wonder if you've heard about the latest attempt to turn the state of Florida into an autonomous authoritarian oligarchy.

No, I'm not talking about Governor Ron DeSantis's virtual takeover of Disney, although for a party that is supposedly staunchly pro-corporation, it seems like a hypocritical thing to do.  "We're staunchly pro-corporation as long as the corporation toes the far-right line" is nearer the mark.

The particular move I'm thinking of today struck closer to the bone for me, because it's targeted specifically at bloggers.  A bill called "Information Dissemination" proposed by Senator Jason Brodeur would, if passed, require bloggers who post anything critical of Governor DeSantis or other elected officials to sign onto a state registry -- or face fines of up to $2,500.  It's unclear from the wording of the bill if this would apply to bloggers out of state who criticize Florida officials.  This certainly doesn't seem to be overtly excluded, but if so, it raises serious issues of jurisdiction.

The bill tries to dodge First Amendment concerns by limiting itself to bloggers who are financially compensated for their writing -- ostensibly to restrict people from taking money from lobbyists and engaging in criticism-for-pay -- but just about all bloggers get compensated in some way, even if it's just through ad monetization.  So the fact is, this bill is meant to do only one thing: stifle dissent.  

The spirit, and even the wording, of the bill have drawn speculation that it was inspired by a similar law passed by the authoritarian régime of President Viktor Orbán of Hungary in 2010.  This may sound far-fetched, but Orbán is a revered figure amongst the far right, and the elected leaders of Florida have praised him before.  Right-wing commentator Rod Dreher, who is currently living in Budapest, described in an interview a conversation with a reporter who had "talked to the press secretary of Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and she said, 'Oh yeah, we were watching the Hungarians, so yay Hungary.'"  Steve Bannon calls Orbán "one of the great moral leaders of our time."  It's not certain if Brodeur's bill is a case of imitation or just parallel processes from like minds -- but either way, it's horrifying.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Madelgarius, Freedom of speech (3), CC BY-SA 4.0]

Even some GOP members seem to realize Brodeur's bill is a case of serious governmental overreach.  In a statement that would be funny if it weren't so appalling, none other than Newt Gingrich tweeted, "The idea that bloggers criticizing a politician should register with the government is insane.  It is an embarrassment that it is a Republican state legislator in Florida who introduced a bill to that effect.  He should withdraw it immediately."  Which brought to mind the trenchant quote from Stephen King: "Conservatives who for years sowed the dragon's teeth of partisan politics are horrified to discover they have grown an actual dragon."  Gingrich, perhaps more than any other single individual, is the architect of the far right; the fact that the careening juggernaut he created has lurched into authoritarian neo-fascism should come as no surprise to him, or to anyone else.  The subtext has always been "We're the party of small hands-off government until we want big intrusive government;" bills like Brodeur's, and (even more strikingly) the current tsunami of anti-trans legislation being passed in red states across the country, just pull the mask off the ugly agenda that was there from the very beginning.

The optimists say that even if Brodeur's bill passes, it'll be struck down on First Amendment grounds almost immediately.  Me, I wonder.  DeSantis and his ilk are in ascendency, and I'm perhaps to be excused if I suspect it's not so certain as all that.  Here I sit, in upstate New York, far away from the epicenter; but I hope my writer colleagues in Florida will not be cowed into silence.  Believe me, if I did live in Florida, I'd be criticizing Brodeur, DeSantis, and the proposed legislation for all I'm worth.  I'm not usually a "come at me, bro" type, but we can't keep quiet about it and hope that the First Amendment will shield us.  If this bill passes -- and I think it probably will -- it will act as a template for other state legislatures intent on crushing dissenting voices.

If you think this kind of thing can't spread like a contagion, I have only refer you to the history of Germany in the 1930s for a counterexample.

Whatever the legality of extending this law to apply to out-of-state bloggers criticizing Florida legislators, allow me to go on record as stating that this is me, criticizing the absolute shit out of the whole lot of them.  And as far as my ever signing onto a registry for doing so, I am also going on record as stating that Brodeur can take his blogger registry and stick it up his ass.



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