Review: The Short Life & Curious Death of Free Speech in America

In the review (attached below), I said I would deal with two issues that Ellis Cose touches on but does not elaborate. The two matters are: first, a principled way to draw a line between acceptable speech and unacceptable speech in a liberal, democratic, political order, and second, how to prevent or significantly reduce garbage speech (lies, propaganda, even if technically acceptable) automatically so that it does not overwhelm true speech without having armies of censors passing judgment on every post. I’ve written about both of these points elsewhere, but not here on the blog, so I will lay out the argument.  

First, a tolerant society (liberal democratic order) cannot remain stable if it tolerates intolerance. Put another way; it is illogical for a tolerant society to tolerate intolerance. Why? I begin with what a tolerant society would look like. In an entirely tolerant society, every social institution would accept every other institution, with no exceptions. This does not mean that every social group would agree with every other group. Still, disagreement is not permitted to rise to the level of intolerance of any group’s existence. Such a society would be stable. If any intolerant group arose, they and their speech would be immediately suppressed, and the group banned if for no other reason than that they are intolerant.

Now let us look at a quintessentially intolerant society. By definition, such a society cannot be a liberal democratic order. Intolerance inevitably, over the longer or shorter term, rises to the level of national power and suppresses all dissent. See below for why this is so. This society is also technically stable (though uncomfortable and potentially dangerous for dissenters) because the intolerant government can theoretically maintain its position indefinitely, having a monopoly on legal violence. Of course, there are other reasons why such a society might someday unravel, but not merely because those in power are intolerant. Nazi Germany provides a good example.

Finally, I offer modern America as an example of a mixed society. Mostly, historically a blended culture, we try to maintain civility and tolerance. We tolerate intolerance in the mistaken view that a “tolerant society” must do this. Intolerant groups arise from time to time, and over time, intolerance tends to win out politically over tolerance. Sometimes this happens quickly, and sometimes more slowly. America has survived attempts to bring down its liberal order, but we are now very close to losing it; the Supreme Court and Congress are controlled by persons representing fewer than a third of the adult population. 

Why does this happen? The reasons are straightforward. First, to the intolerant, ends always justify any means, while the tolerant must strive with means constrained by fairness. Second, in any radical transition in political power, the better-organized group always wins out. The Nazis and the Communists in Germany were both intolerant, but the Nazis were better organized. The same in Russia, where the Mensheviks (relative liberals), having overthrown the Czar, were overthrown six months later by the better organized Bolsheviks. The intolerant are [usually] better organized because they have only one agenda (their intolerance) around which to rally, while the tolerant must deal with competing programs. Contemporary America illustrates this in the unanimity of intolerant Congressional Republicans compared to the competing demands of various liberal and quasi-liberal Democrat constituencies.   

The second issue is how to filter junk (lies, propaganda) from quality material without having armies of censors on salary. Ninety years ago, Paul Otlet envisioned a global network of content consumers and creators. It was not the Internet it rested upon, but it did mimic something like the world-wide-web built on top of today’s underlying Internet architecture. Otlet’s insight concerning our issue here was this: while readers could remain anonymous, if content creators were allowed anonymity, or effectively so, one would have, well, what we have now, a global social media filled with lies. 

When the American government opened the Internet to commerce in the early 1990s, there was good reason to insist that every user who wishes to put something onto the net be verifiably who he or she claims to be. Social (in an online context) problems surfaced even before the net’s commercial debut. I wrote about them in the 1980s! It isn’t specifically the web or its underlying architecture that is the problem here, but the anonymity of content providers in any architecture.

That is all I’m going to say here. Other than missing these two points, the Ellis Cose book is an excellent read.

The Short Life & Curious Death of Free Speech in America by Ellis Cose 2020

An excellent review of the U.S. constitution’s first amendment, its motivation, limitations, problems, and how its interpretation has varied. No one should be surprised that things have changed. The free speech debate (not to mention religious freedom also mentioned in the amendment) is considerably different today than it was in the past when the U.S. government, in WWI, for example, banned any speech criticizing the war effort.

The book roughly falls into two parts or themes. In the first, Cose mainly covers literal speech and how the idea of permissible expression has changed since the writing of the first amendment down to today. Propaganda is covered here. The best counter to lies and misinformation is truthful, competing information, a mantra still believed by some. This idea, sensible at one time, is no longer valid in a world where false information reproduces itself many times more rapidly than truth. The issue turns back to the matter of what are acceptable expressions. When does a lie become a dangerous lie? Cose asks this question but never quite answers it. 

In his second theme, Cose turns from speech to the structure of our political institutions, which, as it so happens, are hardly respectful of the notion that voting is political expression and so metaphorical speech. The founding fathers compromised on institutions like the electoral college and the senate (never mind restrictions on suffrage) as well as more recent efforts to limit or dilute political expression by various voter-suppression, all-or-nothing electoral college rules, and gerrymandering schemes, not to mention “Citizens United” allowing corporations to sway elections through unlimited campaign donations. 

The founders thought (1) they were ensuring only the qualified become candidates, or for that matter, voters, and (2) that they blocked a “tyranny of the majority.” Instead, as things have turned out (and not all to the blame of the founders), we now have a system in which the worst can become candidates, and vicious minorities control political policy and debate. 

There is an answer to the question: where to draw the line in acceptable speech freedom, at least in general terms. Cose never quite states it, and it demands a little explanation. I will address the matter in my blog. Overall this is excellent coverage of both direct and indirect free speech issues, historically and concerning our present cultural and technological environment.