The left-wing podcast Know Your Enemy engages seriously with conservative thinkers. A deep-pocketed conservative foundation tried to destroy the podcast with a serious lawsuit. Which side is serious about the free exchange of ideas?

Young Americans for Freedom ride in a car as they participate in the Loyalty Day Parade in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 1, 1966. (Leif Skoogfors / Corbis via Getty Images)

Know Your Enemy (KYE) is a podcast about the Right cohosted by two democratic socialists, Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell. It’s far from the only left-wing show to focus on the other side of the political spectrum, but in both tone and substance KYE feels unique. A typical episode might involve Matt and Sam doing a deep dive on Whittaker Chambers’s 1952 book Witness or William F. Buckley’s quixotic 1965 run for mayor of New York.

Sam has always been a progressive, but Matt was a young conservative intellectual before he moved to the left. They both take the title of their show seriously. They don’t just want to mock or denounce their ideological enemies. They want to understand them.

In February, a deep-pocketed right-wing foundation launched a spurious lawsuit in a transparent attempt to shut down the podcast. The suit was finally withdrawn last week — but the whole incident says a lot about the contemporary American right.

Satire, Free Speech, and “Young Americans for Freedom”

Like many podcasts, KYE is supported by Patreon subscribers. The subscription levels all have satirical names. At the most generous level of support, you can be a “John Bircher.” That entitles you to bonus episodes, a digital subscription to Dissent magazine, a KYE-inspired Spotify playlist updated every two weeks, and a monthly video chat with the hosts. Just below Birchers, getting everything but the video chat, are “West Coast Straussians.” (If you don’t know the difference between the East Coast and West Coast followers of conservative philosopher Leo Strauss, you probably aren’t a regular KYE listener!). And if you just want the extra episodes, you can sign up at the five-dollar “Young Americans for Freedom” (YAF) tier.

The reference is to a conservative youth organization founded at William F. Buckley’s house in 1960 — the same year as YAF’s ideological nemesis, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Young Americans for Freedom doesn’t exactly exist anymore. In 2011, it merged with Young America’s Foundation. But in Februarythat YAF, which has a giant budget and a large role in Republican politics — it’s one of the sponsors of the Republican presidential debate coming up in August — tried to run this modestly successful socialist podcast into the ground.

They launched a trademark infringement lawsuit, despite a wealth of case law establishing that trademarks aren’t infringed by obvious satire. Their official claim was that the name of the subscription level constituted “deception” and was “likely to cause confusion.” If we take this at face value, they were concerned that conservatives who intended to give their money to Young America’s Foundation would be fooled into giving money to a left-wing podcast through the following series of steps:

First, some hapless conservative would navigate to a Patreon page that starts with the name Know Your Enemy and the tagline “Creating a podcast about the American right.” At this point, if they clicked on “About,” they would see the description, “A leftist’s guide to the conservative movement, one episode at time.”

The Know Your Enemy Patreon page.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that this hypothetical conservative doesn’t click on “About.” Let’s also not worry about how they found their way to this particular Patreon page in the first place. In this scenario, they have no context for the website they’re looking at but too little curiosity to click on “About.” Instead, they impatiently scroll down to the subscriber tiers. They pause on the one that says “Young Americans for Freedom.” The description for that starts with the sentence, “This tier is to make sure Sam doesn’t subsist exclusively on hot dogs.”

What, I wonder, would be going on in the head of the deception victim at this point in the story? Perhaps they would think, “Huh, what an odd way for the YAF to describe itself! I wonder who this ‘Sam’ is and why this right-wing student organization is so concerned about his diet, but whatever. No time to worry about that now. I need to give them my money!”

The Right vs. The Free Exchange of Ideas

This all gets less funny when you remember that YAF has approximately a hundred times the budget of the podcast it was trying to destroy. With five thousand subscribers and a partnership with Dissent magazine, KYE is quite successful by the standards of socialist podcasts. But by the standards of the billionaire-funded right-wing foundation world, the KYE Patreon might as well be some loose change someone found in the couch. The cost of legal representation could have easily wiped out Sitman and Adler-Bell even if they’d beaten the lawsuit.

Fortunately, the American Civil Liberties Union stepped up to represent the podcast, and the foundation eventually dropped the lawsuit — apparently because of questions about whether it would even have a legitimate claim on the “Young Americans for Freedom” trademark in the first place. It withdrew the suit “without prejudice,” meaning that it hadn’t disavowed its legal claims and reserves the right to try again another day. At least for the moment, though, it looks like the ordeal is over.

So: Why did the foundation press the suit in the first place? I don’t necessarily think it felt that a bookish left-intellectual podcast represented a profound threat either to the American right in general or to that organization in particular. Aside from the jokey tier name, KYE has barely mentioned either of the two YAFs in its 150 episodes — although the hosts have said that they plan to do a YAF episode now.

Instead, it looks to me like the foundation saw an excuse — however flimsy — to destroy people it ideologically disliked, and its institutional instinct is to grab at such opportunities as a matter of course. That says a lot about it, and about much of the rest of the Right. In lockstep with the conservative movement in general, Young America’s Foundation makes a great show of caring about “woke” threats to free speech on campus. But from laws cracking down on the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement to the panic about “critical race theory,” and from censoring teachers who discuss “controversial ideas” with their students to laws making it easier to get away with hitting protesters with your car, the Right has displayed a disturbing eagerness to shut down the free exchange of ideas it dislikes.

Imagine a right-wing version of KYE. It devotes episodes to things like a deep dive on the career of Bayard Rustin or a close reading of Michael Harrington’s book Socialism: Past and Future. It has a sense of humor about what it’s doing, so it calls its Patreon tiers “Democratic Socialists of America,” “Socialist Workers Party,” and “Communist Party USA.” Unlike Young Americans for Freedom, all three of those organizations still exist. Would any of them waste their members’ dues on a nonsense lawsuit? I’d like to think not.

What’s more, it’s very difficult to imagine this hypothetical popular conservative version of KYE coming into existence in the first place. There’s just not much evidence of the requisite level of curiosity about left-wing ideas in the contemporary conservative movement. And it’s hard not to connect this lack of intellectual curiosity with the Right’s appetite for censorship.

Why go through the effort of knowing your enemies and engaging with their ideas? It’s so much easier and more satisfying to throw around your money in the court system and shut them down.

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