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. 

Book Review: The Know-it-all Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture

As noted in the review (included below), Lynch raises the question of intolerance in a tolerant society, but he does not answer it. “Must we listen to Nazis”, or must a tolerant society tolerate a social group (Nazis are not the only intolerant group in the western world, but they are a quintessential example of intolerance) who are intolerant? If the answer happens to be no, a related question is what sort of behavior constitutes intolerance that need not be tolerated?

North America, Europe, and associated “western nations” and India are presently the world’s more “tolerant societies”. These societies, taken as political entities, are beset by problems arising from the conflict between tolerance and intolerance, the mistaken belief that a tolerant society must tolerate intolerance. 

An ideal tolerant society would be one in which every social group and every political alignment is committed to a tolerance of every other group, not merely in principle but in practice, the group’s declarations, documents, political appeals, and so on. The people of a tolerant society need not agree with one another intellectually, need not have the same ideas of what constitutes a good or better society. They have the right to vote for their views and, if their numbers are sufficient, dominate the society’s political process. Permitable differences include income disparity, at least to the point where it becomes effectively intolerant by precluding those on the downside from acquiring resources needed to continue their [tolerant] activities. The tolerant collective cannot advocate for advantage that precludes the same right to support whatever social, political, or economic policy any other group happens to hold, provided only that they are likewise tolerant. 

Since, in our ideal tolerant society, every other tolerant group must be tolerated, there cannot develop any motive to cheat on the political process because the rule of tolerance, everyone must have the same opportunity for social and political expression, would preclude it. No group could justify its social or political ends on grounds that other [tolerant] groups have no right to their expression. Intolerant means never yield tolerant ends except in the single case of ridding society of intolerance. In that one case, tolerant means cannot work because the intolerant will always refuse to accede to the tolerant. Refusal on the part of a tolerant society to rid themselves of intolerant groups is the source of the intolerant group’s political advantage. More on this below.

Obviously, in such a society, there could be no Nazis for the simple reason that what makes a Nazi a Nazi (speaking of the collective) is not their economic theories, but their intolerance of certain groups, notably Jews, people of color, homosexuals, and so on. In the end, their intolerance becomes intolerance of every other group that disagrees with them on any subject. 

By intolerance (on the Nazi part) here, I speak of the target group’s illegitimacy in the views of the intolerant group. The target group (or groups) have, in the eyes of the Nazis, no right to suffrage of any kind, even to the point (ultimately) of their right to exist, not merely as a social or political entity, but as individuals! Intolerance of this sort ends up asserting an “end justifies the means” social (and so political) attitude. If the target group does not even have the right to exist, the Nazi has no problem breaking with the “rules of tolerance” up to and including taking life. 

An intolerant social or political group can only be comprised of intolerant individuals. That intolerant individuals might exist in an otherwise tolerant society cannot be ruled out. So long as intolerance is confined to them personally by criminalizing intolerant behavior (for example, hate crimes) and forbidding them to form collectives with any political or social voice the tolerant society survives. Groups of intolerant individuals might come together to express their mutual intolerance, but no such group can apply to be a political party or formal social group having any recognized political legitimacy, special tax status, or what have you.

When a tolerant society signals an intolerant group’s acceptance (socially or politically) by granting it political legitimacy, a certain inevitable, historically documented dynamic begins. The intolerant group has an inherent political advantage. Since, for the intolerant, the ends justify the means, they are free to cheat while those who are tolerant are not. Though it may take some time, the intolerant gain advantage, politically and economically, because their intolerance is [mistakenly] protected by the tolerant. This brings more people into the group (they sense an economic or political advantage in belonging) giving it even greater political influence. The cycle is self-reinforcing. The intolerant group eventually grows to overwhelm the formerly tolerant society. 

This is why the answer to the original question: must we listen to Nazis, is no! Tolerating intolerance, possibly defensible on some theoretical grounds, is illogical because the intolerant are intrinsically corrosive to any society that tolerates them. Intolerance, like cancer, is inevitably destructive of the body that harbors it. It is not logical to do anything but struggle to root it out. 

This commentary is already long enough, but I would briefly address the second question only implicitly covered in the above discussion: what counts as legitimately disallowed intolerance? Suppose I am the publisher of an astronomy magazine. Must I allow the publication of an article arguing that the earth is flat and at the center of the universe? If I sponsor a conference of astronomers, must I allow the flat-earther an official voice with a formal presentation? Must I allow her to attend the conference at all? 

To all but the last question, the answer is no. As noted above, the issue is political and social intolerance, not intellectual disagreement. In my view, intolerance of intellectual viewpoints (“your ideas are idiotic”), even ad hominem (“you are an idiot”) do not automatically count as intolerance of the disallowed sort. My position as conference sponsor allows me to reject papers and speakers whose intellectual views clash strongly with my own. I am not denying this person a political or social voice or within her social group, nor social interaction with my group.

Forbidding her even to attend my conference might amount to disallowed intolerance provided she has not proven to be a disruptive influence at past conferences; this because a conference is a social as well as an intellectual event. To avoid unrealistic restrictions on human psychology, the tolerance demanded of every social and political organization is limited to the right of each organization as such to exist legitimately in the eyes of every other organization. The association of astronomers is not intolerant of the flat-earth society politically or socially, only intellectually. 

We might go on to examine a more complex and perhaps realistic case. Must the flat-earther be permitted to teach astronomy or earth science in a public school? Imagine she is otherwise qualified by having the appropriate teaching certificate. What complicates this example is the public nature of the school (supported by taxes on the community of all social groups in its district) coupled with the curriculum approved (presumably) by that community. I leave this example as an exercise for the reader. 

Review Know-it-all society by Michael Lynch (2019)

Another book about the polarization of American politics, this time, the viewpoint of individual and social psychology. Lynch makes some excellent general points about extreme polarization and unwillingness to listen to other views poisoning American politics. He well describes the harm this does to democratic polities in general and the U.S. in particular. There is nothing new in this. There have been other periods of extreme polarization in American politics, but not like this one since before the Civil War.

Among the new features, this time around, the Internet and the sheer scale of many modern corporations contribute to the problem. The Internet market is filled with people who actively seek to limit their exposure to ideas running counter to their own. Providing individuals tools to build these barriers to alternatives  (the same tools can explore alternate viewpoints) is just good business. Individuals, of their own free will, choose to use them to limit perspectives to which they are exposed. 

The Internet is but one facet of this problem of know-it-all arrogance infecting polities all over the world. Still, the pain is both acute and different in the U.S. and Europe because these are among the few places in the world (Australia, Japan, among others) where political and ideological alternatives are not criminalized. Lynch lays out the problem and its consequences both for the health of society and “the truth,” which he points out, is always out there even if not directly accessible or utterly denied by postmodern critics.

While the book is good in general terms, Lynch elides specific problems. He asks at one point, “must we listen to Nazis?” In other words, must a tolerant society tolerate intolerance? He asks the question but never really answers other than to point out that opinion on this goes both ways. 

If this is not a great book, it is a good one and another solid addition to the literature about dangerous sickness in Western cultures.

Book Review: The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla

I include this book and commentary here on the blog because it is an important contribution to the American political debate, not that anyone will be listening. There are few philosophical implications not brought out in the book itself. My purpose in this commentary is to note other of my reviewed books that address this issue, and to describe, briefly, my own experience with identity politics.

First Slavoj Zizek who in his recent book “The Courage of Hopelessness” (linked) and several other recent books, gets into this subject at some length making, in Zizek’s inimical style, exactly the same points. Another is Cathrine Mayer’s “Attack of the 50 Foot Women” (linked), and also Mickel Adzema’s “Culture War, Class War” (reviewed, but not on the blog. Link is to book on Amazon) which touch broadly on the same issues. All four of these books make the same point: Identity Politics has had a corrosive impact on the ability of liberal voters to come together with a coherent program offering any hope of countering the rise of intolerant Right-Wing politics. Adzema blames all of this on the political Right, but the other three note correctly that the Left is complicit in the process.

My own experience with identity politics comes from social media, the 21st century editorial arena. I was some years on Google+ (now defunct) and so now with an outfit called MeWe (MeWe.com) which is structurally similar. I am also on Twitter. As for Face Book, I have no account, but my girl friend has and she shows me plenty! All of these forums both illustrate and facilitate the corrosive impact of identity politics. This has become especially noticeable as we enter the 2020 election cycle. Identity politics narrows dialog between groups. Social media reinforces that constriction (the “silo” or “bubble” effect well noted by many authors) by allowing users to choose those and only those whose views they will see and to which they respond.

The various identity factions simply do not (or very rarely) talk to one another. I have been hammered (and blocked) by those identifying with the LGBTQ+ community, sub-segments of the black community, American natives, or sex workers, merely for suggesting that their political interests might be better served if they aligned, politically, with a wider community. None of them seem to get it. Hyper-narrow political self interest cannot foster the kind of broad consensus needed to take and hold political power in the United States.

The present Democratic field illustrates the problem. Half the candidates in the race are perceived (rightly or wrongly) as supporters, primarily, of one identity or another. Back on social media I cannot tell you how disappointed I am to note how many of their various supporters say they won’t vote if their favorite candidate is not the nominee, exactly the attitude (on the part of Bernie Sanders supporters) that got Trump elected in 2016. If I try to point this out to people, if I try to say in one way or another that electing a broadly liberal democrat, whomever it might be, is more important than any emphasis on a particular identity I am summarily rejected from the community of that particular silo.

You might think that climate change would be the sort of issue that could unite everyone. It is, like world war, a matter that impacts everyone. But climate change, while it will become far more disastrous than any world war to date (not to mention possibly spawning the next one), grows more impact-full over generational time scales, far longer than an election cycle. Compared to the immediacy of perceived identity discrimination, no one today has the patience to work for a solution to the already-upon-us effects that will continue to grow more severe for the next three or four generations even if we acted, as a world, both decisively and immediately.

In his conclusion, Lilla extols liberals to find a vision that will transcend narrow identity issues and gather the flock. Roosevelt did it in the 1930s, but his vision promised, and mostly delivered, change-for-the-better that could be felt over a single generation. I do not know what can be offered now that will fill that requirement!

The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla (2017)

This is the story of what ails the American Left, really the center-left, the vanishing species called “the American liberal”. Lilla begins with what he takes to be the furthest left America has ever been, roughly that period from 1934 to 1970 (the “Roosevelt Era”), quickly fading and dead with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The American Left wasn’t socialist, and certainly not communist. It did represent the redistribution of tax wealth into projects that uplifted the broad swath of the American people producing infrastructure, regulation, and services that made possible all the subsequent wealth coupled with a clean environment generated from 1980 to the present. It also kicked off the social movements that resulted in a more inclusive American society. Not only was it inclusive, it was a vision of shared moral responsibility, citizenship. A vision that motivated even the hippy movement of the 1960s.

In a sense the left did too well. The social fabric of the country and its booming economy made it possible for individuals to abandon the moral demands of a citizenship and focus instead on their individual aims, goals having no moral obligation to the nation. By 1980, the Roosevelt vision of a shared America where people and their government worked together to uplift all had lost its luster. In his re-election campaign, Jimmy Carter told the American people that recovery from the excesses of “Great Society” spending and the Vietnam war would take work, conservation, a shared vision of doing the hard work now so things would be better again in the future. In short, Carter advocated austerity (ironically, had America taken that path we would be now much farther along in the process of curtailing greenhouse gas — this an aside, not Lilla’s subject).

Reagan guessed correctly at the new national mood. He resurrected the myth of American hyper-individualism in a later 20th century form (ironically beginning the debt-fueled-growth America remains locked in today). Moral obligation to “the nation” disappeared from the American dialog, all the way down to the elimination of civics lessons in public schools. This, the “Reagan Era” has continued on down to today. The election of Donald Trump marks the logical conclusion of this doctrine, the idea that if everyone just does the best he or she can to get what he or she wants, the country will do fine. But when a national people are shorn of any obligation to think in national terms they gradually lose the ability to do so. The result is a loss of shared identity, a reason to compromise with others with whom you may have political disagreement.

Meanwhile back in the late 70s, on to Reagan’s election and beyond to today, the Left, the liberals, having accepted that things had changed, made a strategic blunder, really two of them. First, they put their energy into higher education figuring that a technologically savvy America would require large numbers of people with advanced educations. Surely their choice proved correct from an economic viewpoint, but not the political. The universities became separated from the broad middle of the country, their graduates perceived as effete snobs “out of touch” with the average person.

The second blunder was worse. Liberals abandoned the “all in it together” vision that had given liberalism its power in the post WWII period. Instead, liberals began emphasizing more narrow definitions of identity, dissipating what had been previously unified. This proved highly popular with students because it reinforced their natural tendency to identify with people more like themselves instead of making broader and more difficult connections demanding compromise. The result emphasized the Reagan vision of hyper individualism and helped corrode away any pull that a broader concept of “belonging as citizen” might have had.

This then is the problem we face today and for the next (2020) election cycle. The Right’s hyper-individualism has wiped out much of the middle class creating a nation of the hyper-rich few and the mass of the rest whose economic prospects have steadily dimmed over the past 50 years. But the modern left (the liberals and progressives) have offered no unifying vision. Instead they are trapped in the monster they created, the intolerance-of-difference of modern identity politics. Lilla ends here, extolling the liberal-left to articulate a new “all in it together” vision. Alas, I see no evidence of this happening.

All of this is the subject of Lilla’s book. I have tried to summarize it here, but there is more in the details he gives us.