The No-Snoopers Club

“I think the very fact of a censorship cramps one’s style, no matter how innocent one’s prattle.”

So carped the late drama critic and bon vivant Alexander Woollcott to a stateside acquaintance while serving as a medical corps private during World War I. Woollcott raged against the Sauronian “Censor” during his wartime epistles, as it inhibited his expression in unknowing, Kafka-esque ways.

The frustration is understandable. But so is the alternative: the U.S. was at war with a major world power deploying the most sophisticated killing methods. Espionage abounded; Congress put a law on the books to combat traitors and spies, which, in America’s glorious tradition of ingenuity, continues to be applied abusively today.

So what’s the Gray Lady’s excuse for playing Mother Censor today? Oh, sorry, did I skip a step? Ah, do forgive me, cher lecteur: in my personally concocted throughline between the heavy surveillance of communiqué during the Great War to today’s less stratonic snooping, I elided over the media’s self-appointed charge of language-policing in the name of the public good. The New York Times isn’t contending with mustard gas and Sturmpanzerwagens. But its payrolled tattle-tales are truffling out wrongthink, which, in their sophisticated minds, is more deadly than any blister agent.

The Times’s in-house wokescold Taylor Lorenz is in a tizzy because nobody is inviting her to the secret club. What sub rosa salon, you ask? The new, aptly named social media app Clubhouse, which, in offense to our shamelessly open age, is invitation-only.

The reason for the exclusivity? Like any good snug, Clubhouse is a respite from the judgy bloodhounds who run in self-righteous packs. Clubhouse provides a nifty feature all other social-media platforms have done their darndest to snuff out: free speech. The heavily restricted entryway ensures that candid conversation can take place without fear of reprisal. Should cancel culture waltz up to Clubhouse’s door, it can’t get past the bouncer. Additional precautions preclude the dreaded “internal leak” that would otherwise spoil the comfortable ambiance: Clubhouse doesn’t allow its members to record conversations, nor does it archive the gabble taking place within its digital foyer. It provides a real zocalo to bring out the best elements of conversation: spontaneity, playfulness, sharpness, fearlessness, rawness, and even innocence.

Lorenz is having none of it. Like a good progressive puritan, she lives with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is speaking unmonitored. Clubhouse’s “unfettered conversations,” Lorenz writes, have led to “complaints about harassment, misinformation and privacy.” Who exactly is kvetching in this context? One female doctor was reportedly bothered over one Clubhouser questioning the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. (Was it VP Harris?) And journalists are having a difficult time ingratiating themselves into closed discussions. Lorenz explains the predicament: “Clubhouse has a ‘blocking’ feature to give users more control over their spaces. That has in turn sometimes created disputes about access, including with a New York Times journalist.”

The absolute cheek! Try and picture the horrendous display: private citizens wanting to chat out of the ear-range of click-chasing scandalizers. No better than Al Qaeda terrorists, these circumspect scum!

Lorenz isn’t alone in her concerns. Other left-leaning aspiring hall monitors have adopted her line. “Because your words [on Clubhouse] don’t follow you the same way that they do with a Twitter account, you do feel more relaxed, and that means the app is working as intended. But of course, it means it also poses particular dangers,” warns Emerson Brooking of the Atlantic Council. The dangers being the spread of unvetted, PolitiFact-unapproved opinions. Brooking explains: “Clubhouse’s model allows users to feel inclined to speak freely, without necessarily contemplating whether they’re sharing accurate information—or the consequences of spreading misinformation.”

If that’s the standard for informational threats, every single bar stool in the country should be gathered up, smashed to splinters, and then burned in a giant bonfire.

“Clubhouse is successful, in part, because you say dumb stuff and it’s harder to be held accountable for it,” tweeted professional mad guy Judd Legum. Notice the vague rectification: how do you hold someone “accountable” for inane utterings on an internet forum? Are they kicked out of the club? Is a Verizon technician dispatched to the offender’s home to cut off the internet? Is his or her tongue cut out?

The journalists trying to poke their heads into Clubhouse’s chat rooms are interloping for all the wrong reasons. They’re attempting to surveill a surveillance-less place, befouling a much-needed digital “third place” and turning it into another boring Facebook group where some underpaid and overworked moderator in Dublin is liable to shut down the entire thing because someone used an outdated, non-derogatory name for the smashmouth childhood pastime called “muckle.” Clubhouse arose out of a want for a comfortable place to converse—a “safe space” for badinage without moral busybodies squashing the fun.

It is the nature of free speech to breed misinformation. Who wiseliest speaks, to the fool speaks foolishness, said Dionysus. The fools were with us when the kingdom of Thebes reigned, and remain with us today. Their fatuousness is the price paid for being able to say the truth whenever you please.

The internet went from a haven for open communication to, in Anthony Lane’s phrasing, a place “where words are in peril of being policed.” The Censor is back; his services have just been outsourced to private companies and ideologues providing pro bono enforcement. As the Censor’s hired eyes scour the web for the un-wokened, Clubhouse has become the new oral samizdat.

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Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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