Police shut down the National Conservatism Conference in Brussels. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Censorship in the Name of “Safety.” Plus. . .

NPR suspends Uri Berliner. South Korea’s baby bust in America’s future. Plus: cloud seeding in Dubai. Zynsanity. And much more.

Today from The Free Press: South Korea’s baby bust is coming to America, safetyism as censorship, Zynsanity, and more. But first, an update on Uri Berliner. 

It’s been a week since we published NPR veteran Uri Berliner’s essay detailing how the broadcaster has lost its way, and the fallout continues. NPR CEO Katherine Maher is still being haunted by her old tweets. A former senior NPR executive has said Berliner identified a “real problem.” And yesterday, NPR’s own media reporter revealed that Berliner was suspended without pay for a week and issued a “final warning” as punishment for writing for The Free Press. Oh, and the (second?) richest man in the world is keeping tabs

The ongoing saga at NPR is of a piece with a growing closed-mindedness across the West, as are two other stories this week, one in Brussels and one at USC in L.A. Let’s start with Brussels, where police yesterday shut down a gathering of prominent European right-wingers after the local mayor banned the event to “ensure public security.” 

Speakers at the National Conservatism Conference included Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, Brexit standard-bearer Nigel Farage, French politician Éric Zemmour, and Suella Braverman, who was, until recently, Britain’s home secretary. In other words, this was not a group of brownshirted goons planning a street fight, but major figures on the European political right, ranging from the mainstream to the more radical. 

In a farcical-sounding standoff, a group of cops entered the event as Farage was speaking, then retreated. It was less of a shutdown and more a blockade: attendees were banned from entering or reentering. By all accounts, there was no violence, but a mighty media scrum at the door, major disruption, and understandably outraged attendees trapped in the building.   

Look at any case of contemporary censorship and you will almost always find the same justification for silencing an unwelcome voice—safety. The rationale will invariably be light on specific threats—and is, in reality, a cowardly cover for an ulterior motive. 

Yoram Hazony, the event’s organizer, said there was “no threat to public order” at the gathering. And I believe him. Belgian authorities have cited no specific threats. And as someone who has covered National Conservatism gatherings in the past, I find the idea that this tweedy crowd would get into any scraps difficult to believe. The only risk to my safety was nearly dying of boredom at a breakout session on common good constitutionalism

But of course, public safety isn’t what this is really about. Hazony’s event was targeted because of objections to the ideas being discussed there. 

Hazony takes it as a sign that he and his ideological comrades are onto something. “They tried to shut down this conference because they know that national conservatism is the greatest threat to the totalitarian, liberal NGO-cracy in Brussels,” he told The Free Press. (Note how such bans flatter the ideas they target: NatCon opponents should be among those most frustrated by this censorship.) 

The second day of the conference is due to take place today and Hazony was adamant that the show would go on. “NatCon Brussels will continue undeterred.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali notes that Emir Kir, the mayor who ordered police to shut down the event, is no stranger to extremism. He was expelled from Belgium’s Socialist Party after he met with a delegation that included representatives of a far-right, ultra-nationalist Turkish party. 

Hazony’s politics could hardly be more different to those of Asna Tabassum, an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, but she faced the same cowardly excuse for censorship this week: “safety.”

Tabassum was selected as USC’s valedictorian, but as well as having a top-notch GPA, Tabassum appears to possess some, shall we say, robust views on Israel.

Several student groups complained about her selection and pointed out that Tabassum’s Instagram bio links to a post full of noxious anti-Israel rhetoric, including a description of Zionism as a “racist settler-colonial ideology”—in other words, the sort of thing professors are teaching college kids at top schools across the country. One group, Trojans for Israel, said that by choosing Tabassum as valedictorian, USC had turned commencement into an “unwelcoming and intolerant environment for Jewish graduates and their families.” 

USC is not famous for its commitment to free expression—it once suspended a professor for simply saying a Chinese word that sounded like a racial slur. And the school had a decision to make. Administrators could have said they had made a mistake in picking Tabassum because her views were at odds with USC’s values and stripped her of the role. Or they could have stuck by Tabassum and ridden out an uncomfortable commencement day in the name of free speech. Instead, they opted for a weaselly fudge, keeping Tabassum as valedictorian but preventing her from speaking. 

“Tradition must give way to safety,” said Provost Andrew T. Guzman in a letter to the USC community. It made references to the “alarming tenor” of the response to Tabassum’s selection and “substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement” but was light on specifics. 

Tabassum called the decision “cowardly” and accused the school of “succumbing to a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.” 

USC had no constitutional obligation to select Tabassum as valedictorian. It does have a duty to be straight with students and faculty about its decision-making. 

Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), told The Free Press she thought USC’s decision was “a very calculated move” designed “to avoid censoring the student or yanking her valedictorian status, instead blaming ‘safety concerns.’ ” 

“The suggestion is that authorities are concerned about true threats, but rarely is that the case,” says Morey. “If there are genuine safety concerns that local authorities simply can’t handle, the school must be as transparent as possible. The alternative is that they end up looking like censors trying to cover their tracks. That, of course, can chill campus speech.” 

In Brussels and Los Angeles, the targets of censorship could not have been more different. But the insincere justification was the same. 

The decline in marriage and fertility in America has been a focus for us. So what can South Korea, which can’t fill its first grade classrooms, tell us about our own situation? Anna Louie Sussman reports: 

South Korea Is Running Out of Kids. Is This America’s Future? 

If you’ve been on TikTok in the last few weeks, you might have seen that American women are talking about 4B. The South Korean feminist movement gets its name from the “Four Nos” its adherents commit to: no dating, no sex, no marriage, no childbirth. In short, 4B, which began around 2019, encourages women to actively avoid men as much as possible. That it’s now trending in the U.S. raises an uncomfortable question: Are our gender politics starting to look like Korea’s? And if so, will the demographic consequences be as extreme?

Right now, South Korea is running out of kids. Last week, it was reported that the Education Ministry plans to reduce the number of teacher training places, citing the precipitous decline in students, which is so extreme that in March of this year more than 150 schools across the nation had no new first graders. Six years ago the average number of children a South Korean woman had in her lifetime was 0.92, a figure rarely seen outside wartime; since then, it’s fallen all the way to 0.78, with a projection of 0.65 in 2025. In Seoul, the capital, it’s already at 0.59

When I visited Seoul in 2022 to report on why Koreans aren’t having babies, I often found myself wondering: Could this happen in America? Our nation’s fertility, though significantly below the replacement rate of 2.1, is currently higher, at 1.8. But, in the course of dozens of conversations with Koreans of reproductive age, I heard more extreme versions of sentiments I’d started to observe at home. 


Ten Stories We’re Reading 

  1. The IMF expects the U.S. economy to grow at double the rate of any other G7 country this year. (FT)

  2. Has Biden considered having an Iran strategy? “When I asked the U.S. official what Biden’s Iran strategy is, I was immediately met with laughter.” (Politico)

  3. Google staffers stormed the company’s offices (also known as showing up to work) to protest its $1.2 billion contract with Israel. (New York Post

  4. Republican hard-liners are gunning for House Speaker Mike Johnson’s ouster. “I’m not resigning,” said Johnson, doing his best Wolf of Wall Street. Other Republican House members said it was a “clusterfuck” and that “we are screwed.” (Punchbowl

  5. Knife, Salman Rushdie’s new memoir, recounts his near-fatal stabbing in 2022. “Why didn’t I fight? Why didn’t I run? I just stood there like a piñata and let him smash me,” Rushdie writes. (AFP)

  6. A federal appeals court has overturned a West Virginia ban on transgender participation in girls’ sports. The judge found that it violates Title IX. (AP)

  7. While Biden frets about the left, the voters he needs to win over are in the center. Sixty-one percent of independents are worried Biden is too liberal. (WSJ)

  8. Where’s this country headed? Michael Lind says that the future is miserable. . . and Democratic. (Tablet)

  9. Iowa phenom Caitlin Clark was picked first in the WNBA draft Monday, but will make just $76,535 in her first year in the league. Caitlin, have you considered something more lucrative, like journalism? (Daily Beast

  10. Lessons from a 20-person polycule, in case you thought a throuple sounded like too much work. (NYT)

You may have noticed people around you toting hockey puck–size containers around with “Zyn” emblazoned on the side. The Swedish brand of nicotine pouches has become a political hot potato. Senator Chuck Schumer wants to ban them, while Tucker Carlson counts them as a performance-enhancing substance. And was AOC packing Zyn at the State of the Union? Kiran Sampath reports on Zyn-sanity: 

On Our Radar

→ Singing in the Dubai rain: A year’s worth of rain fell in Dubai on Tuesday, causing flash floods in the desert city. The downpour partly stemmed from cloud seeding—experimental weather manipulation to try to increase rainfall. This has caused Luddites, the non-technically minded, and anyone afraid of giant barrages of rain to fret about the dangerous risks of playing God. 

But for Augustus Doricko, the CEO of Rainmaker, a cloud seeding start-up based in El Segundo who I profiled for a Free Press article on the burgeoning e/acc movement last year, the United Arab Emirates’ cloud seeding experiment is less man-made disaster and more proof of concept. 

“Historically, cloud seeding has been viewed as pseudoscience at best or nonsensical conspiracy theories at worst,” he told me Tuesday. “Dubai’s innovation and results is making the science impossible to ignore.” They are “leading the world in one of this century’s most important technologies, and learning lots along the way,” Doricko explained. “Their vision for a better future, an engineered desert oasis, should inspire and catalyze us to action.”

Doricko acknowledged that the cloud seeding experiments were not without risks, but said they are worth it: “Better to take a calculated risk with limited downside and the chance to build a paradise than continue to live in arid squalor.”

Thus is the e/acc mindset: that investing in technology and innovation at a rapid pace is what will save, not destroy, us. —Julia Steinberg

→ Why I fear FISA—and you should too: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, is facing fresh scrutiny on the Hill as lawmakers consider its renewal. FISA is touted as a vital tool for national security. Its use, we’re told, is to gather intelligence on foreign governments and terrorist organizations to prevent another 9/11 from happening. That is all true. But the law has also enabled government agencies to wiretap and collect vast amounts of data on American citizens without any real oversight or transparency. 

Last week, the House of Representatives voted not just to renew but vastly expand these surveillance powers, reauthorizing Section 702, which will enable the collection of communications of noncitizens located outside the U.S. without a warrant. It might seem like a common sense measure in theory, but in practice the FBI has misused its authority from Section 702 hundreds of thousands of times, targeting everyone from BLM protesters to January 6 rioters. 

It gets worse. The proposed Turner-Himes amendment would allow, with very few exceptions, the government to compel any entity or business with “access to equipment that is being or may be used to transmit or store wire or electronic communications,” to fork over data. Have a phone or a Wi-Fi router? Sorry! You’re now obligated to help the federal government spy on Americans. 

Even if you’re not too worried about the pesky Fourth Amendment, you should know that this law will continue to be used against American protesters, journalists, and political actors. If this vote passes the Senate and is signed into law by President Biden, we all have good reason to be afraid. —Isaac Grafstein 

For the other side of the FISA debate, here’s the WSJ editorial board. 

→ Books are back, baby! Some days, I think civilization is suffering death by a thousand Instagram reels. On others I am more hopeful. Today is an example of the latter, courtesy of this chart from business news site Sherwood

Spending on books surged during the pandemic and just kept on rising after the economy reopened. Whether we’re actually reading the books we buy is another story

Oliver Wiseman is a writer and editor for The Free Press. Follow him on X @ollywiseman.

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