In recent years, the right has turned free speech into a wedge issue, claiming that a rising tide of liberal intolerance has made it difficult or even impossible to express conservative views. But is that what’s really going on? Last year, comedian Hasan Minhaj memorably took on the president and the press corps when he hosted the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. This week, Mehdi sits down with the “Daily Show” correspondent to discuss comedy, free speech, and whether the news media are doing a good job covering the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Hasan Minhaj: Nobody loves this country more than immigrants, man. I fell in love in this country. Six years old, Janice Malo. I saw her in the sandbox. I run up to her, first grade, I was like, “Janice! I love you.” She’s like, “You’re the color of poop.” That’s memory number one.
Mehdi Hasan: I’m Mehdi Hasan. You’re listening to Deconstructed, a new podcast from The Intercept, and that was a clip of today’s guest from his Netflix special, “Homecoming King.” He’s a writer, actor, comedian soon-to-be talk-show host, and, I’m pleased to say, also a good friend of mine: The Daily Show’s very own Hasan Minhaj.
HM: The news is almost like the comments section on Facebook, where there is no, “Hey, we went to the moon.” Everything is a moon-landing debate.
HM: Objective reality is just as debated thing.
MH: So this week: free speech. Or should I say, the war over free speech.
President Donald J. Trump: I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.
Bill O’Reilly: There is an organized effort, primarily on the left, to shut down all free speech.
Katrina Pierson: I mean this is obviously another left-wing liberal organization out there trying to shut down free speech.
MH: Is free speech really under assault in the United States right now? Are people actually being silenced for having unfashionable or even offensive views? Really? Conservatives in particular have made free speech into a wedge issue. Tune into Fox News almost any night of the week and you’ll hear dire warnings about political correctness run amok, or Stalinist attacks on our God-given right to free speech.
Laura Ingraham: Bullies on the left aiming to silence conservatives.
MH: The right has basically weaponized the First Amendment, in order to paint themselves as victims, as free speech martyrs even. Constantly being harassed, hounded and silenced by liberal bullies, by the intolerant forces of political correctness and media censorship.
Recently, they were up in arms over the Atlantic magazine’s decision to fire its new conservative columnist Kevin Williamson, who merely, merely called for women who have abortions to be executed — specifically, to be hanged.
Conservatives have also spent much of the past few years hysterically claiming that college campuses in the U.S. have gone all totalitarian, because some student groups dare to protest guest speakers who make money out of trolling people with racism and sexism.
All of this, and more, say conservatives — and some liberals — is evidence that free speech is under assault across the U.S., especially from the left, both in the media and on campus. But you know what? That’s bullshit. It’s complete and utter bullshit. And I want to say three things about why it’s such BS, about why this is all such a fake controversy generated by the right.
Number one: Just take a look around. The most un-PC president in modern history sits in the Oval Office right now. A former NBC reality TV star, who constantly openly, proudly, loudly traffics in racist, bigoted, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic language on a near-daily basis. He has no issues with free speech, I’ll tell you that. And yet 63 million Americans voted for him, and he won a presidential election, off the back of what one study described as billions of dollars worth of free, and largely uncritical, media coverage.
Today, Fox News remains the top-rated channel on cable news. ABC has brought back the explicitly pro-Trump Roseanne, as part of a deliberate post-election heartland strategy. Liberal media organizations from the New York Times to the Atlantic to MSNBC continue to fall over one another in hiring more and more card-carrying conservative pundits. Being a climate-change denier and an anti-Arab bigot, for example, didn’t stop neoconservative writer Bret Stephens from being given a regular and very prestigious column in The Times.
Number two: This whole free speech issue has been blown way out of proportion. Yes, there are fringe examples of fringe organizations on campus shutting down the odd public event by a far-right or ultra-conservative speaker. But look at the data, as Matthew Yglesias of Vox did last month. The numbers are pretty clear. Whether it’s data from the General Social Survey, the GSS, or whether it’s Gallup polling carried out for the Knight Foundation, the facts are that free speech isn’t dying out in the U.S. and isn’t under assault from the left on campus.
In fact, public support for offensive speech, with the exception of racist speech, has been on the increase and not in decline. And people on the left are actually more supportive of offensive or controversial speech than people on the right. College graduates are more supportive of offensive speech than non-college graduates. And you know what? Young people are more supportive of offensive speech than older people. Those are the facts.
In fact, the real threat to free speech and free expression comes not from powerless lefty students on campus or marginalized people of color, but from the government — and specifically from the current occupant of the White House. From a Republican president who wants to be able to sue his critics.
DJT: Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness. So we’re going to take a strong look at that.
MH: Who likes to threaten news media organizations.
Newscaster: The president also taking a remarkable step, appearing to attack the First Amendment, tweeting about NBC News and the networks: “At what point is it appropriate to challenge their license?”
MH: Who wants to deny black athletes the right to peacefully protest police brutality.
DJT: Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say “Get that sonuvabitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!” [Cheers and applause from the crowd.]
MH: Who has encouraged violence against protesters at his own rallies.
DJT: You know, the guards are very gentle with him. He’s walking out like, big high fives, smiling, laughing. I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell ya.
MH: And whose press spokesperson called for the firing of a TV anchor simply because she dared to criticize the president.
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders: I think that’s one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make. And certainly something that I think is a fireable offense by ESPN.
MH: Number three: I know you Americans love your first amendment and your holy right to free speech, but let me be politically incorrect, to borrow a phrase. The reality is that there is no such thing as free speech. Not in absolute or limitless terms. Free speech doesn’t exist in some abstract way. There have always been practical, legal restrictions on speech, whether it’s laws on slander, copyright, treason, incitement to violence et cetera.
There are also not just legal limits, but social and moral limits that we have as a civilized society brought in: taste and decency restrictions on free speech. You may have the right to be offensive, bigoted, crass or crude. Doesn’t mean you have a duty or obligation to be offensive, bigoted, crass or crude or that people have to offer you a platform on which to be offensive, bigoted, crass or crude.
And, look, let’s not fetishize free speech in some sort of abstract or mystical way. There are a lot of grey areas when it comes to speech. Things aren’t always black and white. And let’s not forget that we all self-censor on a daily basis. We do! In order to get along with the people around us, in order to show respect and tolerance for others, in order not to come across as boorish idiots.
So I want to get into some of this stuff with my guest today and really drill down into the limits on free speech, especially in the news media, in comedy, on television, who gets to draw the line, where the line’s drawn. And he and I don’t always agree on this stuff.
Look, my view is that in America right now it’s not that the First Amendment is under attack. The First Amendment is safe and secure; it’s that the long-standing ability and freedom of a lot of men, of white men, of especially conservative white men, to be racist and bigoted without consequence, as they were back in the good old days when women and people of color were seen but not heard, that’s what’s under attack. And, you know, I for one — I really don’t have a problem with that.
MH: My guest today is one of the funniest people on TV right now, and he calls out bigots and buffoons on a nightly basis. Here he is on “The Daily Show” the other week, reacting to the “Punish a Muslim” day hate campaign in the UK.
HM: Actually Trevor, I’m optimistic! I know it’s scary, but they’re proposing punish a Muslim day. Day, Trevor! One day. That’s 364 days less than normal. I take that as a double-u. All right?
Brown folks, listen to me, eyes here, all right? April 3rd. We all stay home, Amazon Prime everything we need, catch up on Peaky Blinders. And then we walk outside, April 4th — boom! Islamophobia, done!
MH: That was Hasan Minhaj — comedian, actor and soon to be talk show host on Netflix. His performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner last year earned him plaudits across the globe, and his recent “Homecoming King” comedy special on Netflix made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.
So. How does he navigate the thorny issues of free speech and political correctness of what can and can’t be said, especially in an age of Trump?
MH: Hasan Minhaj, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
HM: Thank you for having me.
MH: And congratulations on the big new show on Netflix.
HM: Thank you.
MH: You’ve been doing “Th Daily Show.” That’s what a lot people know you from.
MH: And obviously your stand-up. Now, you’ve got the new talk show.
MH: You’re also doing stand-up on campuses. You go to a lot of universities.
MH: Recently you were at Texas A&M in College Station, and one of the other people who’s been at Texas A&M at College Station is Richard Spencer, the neo-Nazi, the white nationalist.
MH: You share great company there with your fellow speakers. What is your take on this whole debate about free speech on campus? When you were at A&M, when you were at universities, do you feel you’re restricted? Do you feel that some kind of assault on free speech, that people aren’t being allowed to speak on campuses because some people don’t like neo-Nazis getting platforms?
HM: Yeah. So, for me, I’m in a very unique position because I don’t “push the boundaries” in terms of language or I don’t try to be offensive for offensive’s sake. The topics that I’m usually hitting are more sort of like political debates, et cetera, which are a little bit less — they’re less intense than say, saying that you want start a white nationalist state. Right? You know what I mean?
MH: You’re not calling for a brown state.
HM: Yeah, yeah. Making fun of senators, or, you know, making fun of the administration.
MH: We do now live in this era.
MH: Where there are a lot of “provocateurs,” especially turning up on campuses, almost to try and incite a riot or have a row, or become a free-speech martyr. What is your view of where that debate is? Is there a kind of war over free speech right now? Do you think people — people don’t understand where the line should be drawn or differ on that?
HM: A lot of people are arguing that, but my fundamental take is this — and look, some of those speakers will go to, you know, Milo Yiannopoulos’ events have gotten shut down.
MH: Richard Spencer’s.
HM: Richard Spencer’s events have gotten shut down. That only feeds into their street credibility.
MH: The allure of the forbidden.
HM: Yeah. Totally.
MH: There is an argument that says, “OK, you’re making them into free speech martyr.” Yes. On the other hand, by denying them a platform you are preventing the circulation of some pretty abhorrent views.
HM: But then we enter that really, really slippery slope, which is: who gets to define what you can and cannot say?
And, you know, look: We’re talking about college campuses and universities, which are supposed to be marketplaces of all ideas. Like it’s really about the exchange of ideas and critical thinking. So there could be somebody who comes to campus that I love. So, I would love to see Noam Chomsky speak. There may be a programming board that says, “No, no, no, I don’t like Noam Chomsky.”
MH: I’m British, right? When I come to — I’ve been living in the U.S. for three years. You guys love the First Amendment, and the First Amendment is a great piece of work.
MH: It’s a great defender of free speech.
MH: But there, it’s almost been interpreted in recent years by many Americans, especially on the right, as some kind of untrammeled right to say whatever you want, wherever you want. And that’s never what it’s meant.
For example, I’m Muslim. Right? You’re Muslim.
MH: We get lectured a lot about free speech. “Why aren’t you guys OK with people making fun of your prophet or making fun of the religion of Islam?” I often find, OK, yeah we have sacred things that we don’t get upset about. But so do you, so do a lot of liberals — maybe not religious things, but you know we’re sitting in New York City.
New York Times wouldn’t publish jokes or cartoons mocking 9/11 on the front page. You just wouldn’t do it. Not because it’s against the law. Because of taste, decency, offense.
HM: Yes. And look: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. That’s purely a taste thing.
MH: Yeah. I always say: You have a right to fart in an elevator, doesn’t mean you should.
HM: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
MH: And you don’t expect everyone to fart with you in solidarity.
HM: The fart analogy is great. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It’s great. Yeah. So I fundamentally agree with that. But there’s a lot of people that are fighting for the right to fart. For real!
MH: And how do you react to that?
HM: Look, here’s — here’s the crazy thing. Sometimes some comedians have to fart on stage. They have to — they are tinkering with, what if we, what if we do take it to this point? And look: The audience may not go there. I think these things should be done with tact. I really do believe, like, free speech is like a lightsaber. Only certain Jedis can truly wave that lightsaber responsibly.
MH: The problem is, people don’t like certain types of speech or how we exercise them.
MH: So when people boycott Laura Ingraham on Fox News for basically mocking a child who survived a shooting on Twitter.
MH: When she’s boycotted and advertisers pull out, that’s not an attack on free speech.
Laura Ingraham: The chilling effect on free speech in the workplace, in the media and in society at large is palpable. We all feel it.
HM: No, no, no.
MH: This is a misunderstanding.
HM: You have free speech. You’re not free from consequences.
MH: Exactly. So the First Amendment doesn’t say you have to have advertisers on your show.
HM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MH: There’s no constitutional right to have advertisers.
HM: Full agreement.
MH: If people don’t want advertise on your show because of your awful speech.
HM: Full agreement. What’s happening is a lot of the fringe, right-wing, sort of online community, they’re arguing that: Hey, we are being restricted on Twitter. We’re being restricted on YouTube. That was a huge grievance for the YouTube shooter, that my freedom of speech is being suppressed. They are controlling the messaging.
MH: It’s so ironic, because a reality star right-winger is sitting in the Oval Office. I just find it so bizarre. “Roseanne.”
HM: Uh huh.
MH: “Roseanne” is back on ABC with record ratings.
Laurie Metcalf (as Jackie Harris): How could you have voted for him, Roseanne?
Roseanne Barr (as Roseanne Connor): He talked about jobs, Jackie. He said he’d shake things up! I mean, this might come as a complete shock to you, but we almost lost our house the way things are going.
LM: Have you looked at the news? Because now things are worse.
RB: Not on the real news.
LM: Oh, puh-lease.
MH: What’s your take on “Roseanne” and what that represents right now in our moment? Because New York Times did a story recently about how this is part of ABC’s heartland strategy, to reach out to people who weren’t reached before who voted for Trump.
MH: And I saw Reza Aslan tweeting about how his show, he had a Muslim sitcom that had been in, was in the works with NBC and they dropped that and decided to run this. What do you think about how networks are dealing with these kind of issues.
HM: OK. So I think there’s multiple layers to this cake and we have to take it one layer at a time. The first layer is that is that look, when people go: “How did ‘Roseanne’ come back?”
First of all, let’s be honest, we’re living in the age of reboots, number one.
Number two: It’s an existing, extremely popular property. It wasn’t a niche show. When “Roseanne” was on the air —
MH: I watched it in the UK growing up, as a teenager.
HM: So if someone goes, let’s just take this as an objective decision in a vacuum, if you’re an ABC studio executive and you’re sitting on that property, much like “Home Improvement” or other properties they’ve had, it’s one of the most successful properties that they’ve had over the past three decades. So that decision to bring it back, irrespective of your political beliefs, is a good decision. Right?
MH: And when you describe it in those terms, fine.
MH: But when you look at the context.
HM: Now, under the context of what’s going on, yes, it becomes very strange. You know, the character of Archie Bunker was a character, right? Norman Lear behind closed doors was not an insane person. Roseanne happens to be that.
MH: In real life?
HM: Yeah. So, she’s not —
MH: Conspiracy theorist. Bigot. Says horrible, anti-Arab things all the time.
MH: It’s interesting that ABC is the same network that shelves an episode of “Blackish,” which was going to talk about the take-a-knee protests of black athletes, because that was seen as maybe too divisive.
HM: Right. Right. Right.
MH: No debate about, no conservatives jumping around saying, “What happened to free speech in ‘Blackish’?”
HM: Right. Yeah. Yeah.
MH: And here’s the question to you, we’re sitting in Manhattan, the heart, you know, liberal media-land, East Coast.
MH: You, for a living, kind of make fun of politicians, especially conservative politicians, often on late-night comedy shows, kind of the epitome of liberal comedians.
MH: Do you feel responsible for Trump?
MH: Do you think Trump won because people like yourself antagonized all these, the real authentic Americans?
HM: 100,000 percent no. And I can tell you why. When we went to the Republican National Convention in 2016, we were doing all these field pieces at the RNC. Nobody recognized who we were. OK?
So if I was responsible, people would go “You’re Hasan Minhaj, and I saw that chat that you did about Laura Ingraham.” No. No one knew who we were.
I really do think that, you know, entertainment and news and all of those things have become like an a la carte salad bar: You go to the sources that you want and you make your dish the way you want it to be.
HM: Yeah. It is really depressing. But it’s depressing in some ways, and it’s good in some ways. Everybody gets to curate the things that they really, really like, and there’s not four TV stations to give you all the information you need in the world.
Conversely, objective reality is a thing that we can’t agree on anymore.
MH: Yeah. Post-truth era.
MH: Yeah, it’s depressing. As a journalist, sometimes I wonder what I’m going to do when a significant chunk of the population doesn’t believe anything I say, no matter what facts or figures I bring to marshal.
HM: Do you feel like it’s tough, because as a journalist, and I don’t know if it was like this when you went to journalism school and you were coming up, wasn’t there a big movement — you have to be, you cannot be biased. What is called? Not biased.
MH: Objective. ‘The view from nowhere’, as it’s called in the U.K.
HM: Yeah. Yeah.
MH: It’s bullshit. I never signed up to begin with.
HM: But now, right, yeah —
MH: But there’s a difference between taking a position, I’ve always taken positions, and being fact-free, being anti-fact. I mean that’s the difference.
HM: Right. Right.
MH: I just want to move the conversation. It’s very easy to go after Trump and right-wingers and conservatives over these issues of double standards on free speech and anti-fact and racism and bigotry.
MH: But I just want to talk about the liberal side of the equation.
MH: We shouldn’t give liberals a pass here. There is a kind of liberal bigotry, liberal misogyny, liberal Islamophobia, something that you and I have probably experienced a lot of.
HM: OK. Can you give me an example?
MH: Well, now I want to ask you for an example. Have there been times in your career, maybe at a club or in a TV network or at a media party, where somebody said something so bizarre or offensive or ignorant, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps with the best of intentions and you’ve kind of had to either let it go or challenge it.
HM: Yeah. So that goes into an interesting thing. I’ve heard, you know, misinformed or things that can seem on surface level relatively Islamophobic. Yeah, I’ve experienced those things in my life. The big thing that I try to understand, and maybe this is again, like where you’re saying, how liberals we have such, you know, as an artist I’m such an empath, I try to have empathy. I try to think about intent versus impact.
What is the person trying to say to me? And I think, right now everybody’s just on tilt. We’re not even looking at intent.
MH: So give the benefit of the doubt.
HM: Try to, or try to see what is this person trying to communicate to me?
MH: Do you remember at the Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton gave a speech. He said, “American Muslims if you love America.”
HM: Come help us.
MH: Stay here and fight with us. If you love America. And it was like — OK.
President Bill Clinton: If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom, and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you. [Cheers and applause from the audience.]
HM: It’s like, yeah, good Muslims — your cousin is probably a terrorist, so you can serve as our liaison to the sleeper cell. It’s the subtext. Yeah.
Look I can’t talk about what journalists do. I try to use my platform to talk about hate. “This is why that is not a specifically nuanced take. Let’s break down what you’re saying. You are implying that if I love this country, the way I can prove my love to this country is by pre-emptively stopping terrorism.”
MH: Before we finish, I want to talk about the White House Correspondents Dinner.
MH: You headlined at the White House Correspondents Dinner last year.
HM: Donald Trump doesn’t care about free speech. The man who tweets everything that enters his head, refuses to acknowledge the amendment that allows him to do it: Think about it. It’s almost — what is it, 11? It’s 11 PM right now. In four hours, Donald Trump will be tweeting about how bad Nicki Minaj bombed at this dinner. [Audience cheers and applauds.]
MH: Your speech, your gig, your routine went viral.
MH: You had some great gags, you were suitably savage about Donald Trump.
Is it true that they asked you not to go after Donald Trump that night? Because you made a joke about you were told not to.
HM: Yeah. Look, they wanted to be. That year — it was a very contentious year and I think that the WHCA just wanted to be.
MH: The White House Correspondents —
HM: — Association. They wanted to just be sensitive to everybody’s feelings. They were put in a very tough position because they are the liaison between the people, the press and the administration.
MH: And the administration virtually boycotted it.
HM: Yes. Yes. That being said. they never stopped me from saying anything, which is really cool. Yeah. Yeah. But that that to me is awesome, that they can advise, “Hey, perhaps, maybe you shouldn’t do this.” But nobody from WHCA stopped me from doing any of that material or vetting any of the material. And that to me is what makes that gig so amazing. And I think it actually makes me kind of really proud to be an American.
It was a different crowd for you: Were you nervous?
Yeah, totally. It’s not an ideal crowd. You’re going into their party to make fun of them.
MH: Indeed. And you didn’t just go after Trump, you went after the media that night, specifically cable news and the White House press corps.
MH: There was one bit where you said, “You guys have to be more perfect now, more than ever.”
HM: Because you are how the president gets his news. [Audience laughs and applauds.] Not from advisors, not from experts, not from intelligence agencies — you guys. So that’s why you’ve got to be on your A game. You got to be twice as good. You can’t make any mistakes.
MH: Do you think they’ve been on their A game over this past year? How would you rate the media’s coverage?
HM: So I would think certain people have been.
MH: Certain people.
HM: Yeah. Yeah. There’s journalists that are doing great work right there. There are guys and gals in the business that are doing excellent work. And then, CNN still has panel shows with 16 people. So — yeah. They haven’t changed.
So, again, I don’t want to speak in absolutes, but the point of that reference —
MH: But if you have to give the media a rating now, since you spoke about them in those terms.
HM: Oh, that’s tough.
MH: What would you give them, one year in, Trump coverage? Holding him to account?
HM: Cable news. I would say cable news is awful. “Fox and Friends,” “The Five.” These are awful shows.
MH: Print press is better.
MH: I don’t think Fox News is trying to hold him to account.
HM: Right, right.
MH: What worries you most about this current climate?
HM: What I was talking about earlier is that, especially as a performer and someone who’s trying to present facts and information on “The Daily Show” and, you know, hopefully on the new show, is that objective reality is just this debated thing. So that you can present your studies or your facts ad infinitum. It’s like, we’re living in an age where people — it’s like, the news is almost like the comments section on Facebook, where there is no, “Hey, we went to the moon.” Everything is the moon landing debate.
MH: And to be fair to Trump, he’s more of a symptom of this than a cause of this. This has been around pre- Trump. I mean, I remember reading that “Daily Show” viewers were more informed about Iraq and WMDs and all of that stuff, 10, 15 years ago than Fox News or cable news viewers were, at a higher level of understanding. That’s how much misinformation was still coming out of U.S. cable. That ignorance and the misinformation, and the question of facts, I think has been around for a while.
HM: So, do you think, the bigger question that I’m trying to ask myself as a performer and you know a political comedian is has that Pandora’s box been opened? Can you go back? Because for the most part, and in a lot of phenomenons in life, I just don’t want to be that guy, “Back in my day.” That’s done.
MH: I think it’s only going to get worse. I worry with the whole debate on Facebook and Zuckerberg at Congress, I don’t see how you put the genie back in the bottle.
What makes you optimistic?
HM: Man, I see a lot of people doing incredible work. And, I think it is far better to be optimistic about tomorrow than it is to be pessimistic or nihilistic. That just doesn’t get you very far.
And I genuinely have that concern about my own heart. I look at a lot of people that I, that I really loved as comedians growing up. Your George Carlins, all of these guys, I noticed as they got older, got really, really, really pessimistic and nihilistic, and it got to a point where you’d see them in the last couple of years of their life and you’re like, “Man this just isn’t, this is not really fun.”
And I leave the show. You’re not there to just make me laugh, you’re also there to make me think. But, am I supposed to leave the show and also just feel sad?
So look, I just think about every day you can be in one of three positions. You can look at it in a positive way, a neutral way or a negative way. And so I want every day to at least present things to be in a net positive and I’m seeing people doing that.
And so, again, I’m not happy with the current state of the way things are in the world. But I think there is, especially in America, there’s a tremendous amount in potential for change.
MH: Hasan Minhaj, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
HM: Thank you, man. Yeah.
MH: That was Hasan Minhaj of “The Daily Show” and soon to be host of a new talk show on Netflix.
That’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept and is distributed by Panoply.
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