February 2010

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What's Going Wrong


by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net



            A mere three months ago, I published a piece here called Language, Lies and Power, in which I analyzed the frightening Republican propensity for wielding relatively content-free accusations like “socialism” to regain power and sap the ability of the Democratic majority to carry out any legislative programs whatever. I was still taken completely unawares by the result, evidenced by the election of Tea Party Republican Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy's old seat in Massachusetts, that the  Obama administration has been almost completely eviscerated by these tactics, in a single short year.


              Our democracy, which was never so robust in the first place as we thought, has been hollowed out like the body of a caterpillar attacked by a digger wasp. The Supreme Court's decision last week, that corporations are people and can, under supposed First Amendment tenets, spend unlimited amounts of money attacking political candidates, is a nearly final nail in the coffin. (I half expect a ruling in the near future that  individual human “small speakers” without money are NOT people).


            I am a first amendment absolutist, and present as proof of my credentials that the libertarian Cato Institute published two of my papers on free speech issues. Nothing that follows should be construed as a plea for less speech or more censorship. It is, instead, a look at what happens when the American individual fails to remain strong enough to deal with the speech.


            I have written in a number of contexts that there are two kinds of people which exist within every political or philosophical subdivision of humankind. There are idealists, who believe that if their prescriptions are accepted, nothing bad can ever result. A prime example are naïve libertarians who believe that if the market were perfectly free, there would be no hunger, no pollution, no global warming etc. More powerful, if smaller in numbers, are the pragmatists who know their programs will have some negative or destructive consequences but believe these are acceptable. These are the libertarians who know that free markets will result in some starvation and pollution but who believe that the benefits of a free market dictate that we should tolerate the damage.


            In all such groups, the foot soldiers tend to be the idealists, while the pragmatists sit in the smoke filled rooms making the decisions. Let us postulate a third group, the corrupt pragmatists. These are the ones who don't even believe that their actions, as an abstract good, justify any consequences. They tolerate evil outcomes for selfish corrupt reasons, because they are personally enriched or made powerful.


            Freedom of speech itself is a system in which these large questions are rarely analyzed, let alone answered. Most Americans stopped on the street probably couldn't tell you what the First Amendment says. Those who learned a little about it, in a con law class in college, may be like economic libertarian idealists, naively believing that utterly free speech is Always a Good Thing, in that It Will Always Lead to Adoption of the Best Ideas.


            One of the most fateful decisions ever made in American free speech jurisprudence was to draw an analogy between ideas and products. The metaphor of the “marketplace of ideas” was not inevitable. Justice Holmes gave it us, in his famous dissent in Abrams v. US: “[T]he best test of truth is is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market...” But Holmes also revealed himself to be a pragmatist; in another less well-remembered turn of phrase, also in dissent in Gitlow v. U.S.:


If in the long run, the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way.

            In its clarity and fatalism, this is one of the most remarkable turns of legal writing ever. Holmes is recognizing that free speech, like democracy, can result in its own destruction. For the latter proposition, let us not forget that Hitler came to power in Germany originally through an adroit, almost completely legal manipulation of the electoral process. That is not the only example of a democracy voting itself out of existence, or trying to.

            I submit that we are on that same cusp today, where an apparently active and loud democratic discourse is resulting in a draining away of actual freedom.

            By the way, freedom of speech and its discontents, and democracy and its discontents, are not two separate subject matters. They are not completely coextensive either, but substantially overlap. Neither can exist without the other. Free speech is an underpinning of democracy, a necessary if not sufficient condition.

            The single most important factor in the loss of democracy is the loss of the free thinking individual who is its basic unit. Naïve idealists will assume that in an atmosphere of completely free speech, where every idea can get a full examination and airing, only the most beneficial ideas will receive acceptance, and the rest will be revealed as scurrilous and chased out of the market. The accession of the Nazi party in what had previously been one of the most democratic nations in the world proves that the opposite can be true, that the loudest, most simplistic, most brutal speech can triumph over the more nuanced and difficult.

            Just as our jury system assumes a juror who can't be fooled—the only justification for allowing the litigants to advance quite wild theories—free speech assumes a freeholder, citizen, voter, who similarly can't be manipulated or tricked. Using Holmes' marketplace metaphor, free markets work so long as a shopper can examine the apples and tell a rotten one from a good one. When the shopper loses this ability, and there are no other negative consequences of selling rotten apples either, markets lose the ability to regulate themselves. While the naïve foot soldiers of libertarianism are unwittingly being used to promote oligarchy, their view of the self-regulation of the markets certainly includes the individual citizen as an important player. The entire libertarian argument is that minimal government guarantees the liberty of the consumer. They are not knowingly pitching a dictatorship of the manufacturer, with the consumer forced to buy rotten apples or go hungry.

            Whenever, in a democracy, the informed voter no longer exists as a cornerstone, judging ideas like apples, speech will run wild for only the time necessary for one prevalent and authoritarian creed to take hold. Without the jealous, vigilant and independent individual mind as a check on the system, freedom of speech, like any other aspect of democracy, ceases being an end in itself and becomes simply a means to power. Once the party which rides the horse of democracy in this way, reaches its destination, it has no further need of it, and can switch over to a completely autocratic system.

            Earlier today, working on a ten year old PC I inherited from my mother, I was unable to complete anything I started. Trying to upload the files for the back and front of a theatrical postcard to the printer, I realized I needed to change the names of the files to assure the success of the upload. I tried to open Windows Explorer, and the system froze, necessitating a restart. I had to log back into the printer's website, and then when I clicked the file upload button, nothing happened. In the end, I emailed the two files to myself, switched over to a newer computer, and uploaded them from there.

            There are two related issues which increasingly guarantee that projects I undertake on the old computer will result in system freezes or crashes. One is the amount of information coming in, which increases algorithmically from day to day. For someone who first ran a business on a PC in the days before hard drives, I vividly remember sophisticated business software which fit on 256k floppy disks and ran in about that much RAM. I also remember how simple the first web sites were. I have never gotten used to how fat and resource hungry software is today—even though it doesn't do much more than the 256K Wordstar I used in 1984. Also, it is startling how many individual transactions happen when you hit a web page today, as mysterious things occur in background with Akamai servers, cookies, graphics and video being served from multiple locations and the like.

            As the information stream becomes more of a torrent, the processing power of my PC has also weakened. Though it has the same basic capacity it always did, there is an arteriosclerotic process which happens as information is stored in an increasingly fragmented way, cookies, programs and data you didn't know you needed take up space and use processing power. And then there is the effect of the malicious stuff you didn't know was there but which uses storage and system resources—viruses, adware, malware and the like.

            I have gone into so much detail because the death of my PC seems an apt metaphor for the death of the independent voter in a democracy. As the pure volume of speech increases—cable, web, blogs, Facebook, the 24 hour news cycle—our ability to process it diminishes. Not only is there too much information to absorb, but I think our commitment to being independent and judgmental, and creating new generations of independent judgmental people, has decreased. 

              Our declining commitment to education, the dropping of standards in math and science, the fact that for really smart people who can write software or run the supercollider we have to look to other countries, are all related to the death of democracy. Most significantly, we lack a culture of inquiry. Think about your own childhood, and particularly the family dinner table, and ask yourself how much time was spent in a Socratic search for truth, as opposed to one or both of your parents delivering tenets from on high, like Moses bringing the tablets. Freedom of speech and democracy must begin at the table, and in school, or they won't start anywhere. Like quality in a manufacturing process, they are not things which can be bolted on when the product is completed.

            It is a substantial and terrible problem of human nature that bad speech easily trumps good. It is like a Gresham's law of ideas. Putting aside the pejorative categories of “good” and “bad”, what I mean is that speech uttered with false or malicious certainty tends to overcome speech communicated in an atmosphere of honest doubt. Communications which assure the individual he is perfect, and blame others for any glitches or bad outcomes, drive out communications involving personal responsibility and the acceptance of blame.

            If you compare Democratic and Republican discourse, you find this principle at work everywhere. The Republicans for decades have specialized in the purest form of American exceptionalism, in which we are perfect by virtue of being Americans. Two corollaries of this doctrine are that we can do no wrong (this is the justification for  torture ) and that anything bad which happens was caused by someone else (the “socialist” Democrats). I have analyzed a particularly interesting example of this thought process in the past, the libertarian tendency to blame market failures on the perceived remaining vestiges of government, rather than on the “invisible hand”. A funny but very frightening example of this was an article I found in which a naïve libertarian, with a straight face, blamed the violence in Somalia on the attempt by misguided forces to form a government, rather than accept the reality of an anarchist utopia.

            I am not saying that Democrats are much better. I am now registered as an independent in recognition of the fact that I detest both parties. However, we happen to have an unusually intelligent and introspective president, who in his State of the Union address took full responsibility for the communications failures which have led to the gutting of his mandate in one short year. I prefer a world in which taking responsibility is a sign of strength, but in Republican-world, it is a terrible sign of weakness. The paradigm of the Republican model of responsibility is the highly intelligent Dick Cheney, who continues to stand for the remarkable proposition of the infallibility of Republicans and the aggressive scapegoating of others for every bad decision.

            A crucial attribute of the ideal independent, judgmental voter is a long memory. But American politics has been successfully based for many decades, and possibly since the beginning, on the proposition that voters have no memory at all. How many times has a destructive vote or a dishonest action been completely forgotten by the time of an election a year or more later? But in my entire life (I first became really politically self aware during the Nixon administration circa 1970) I have never seen such a simple, brainwashable electorate as we have today. Just one year after the election, the people who brought us the real estate bubble and the Iraq misadventure, torture and the bungled response to Katrina—people who did nothing right—are again looking impeccable while the man elected with a large margin and large congressional majority is taking the blame for everything that is still wrong. I was afraid Obama would get into this kind of a mess by the end of his first term, but its stunning that it happened in a year.

            I believe that the fault is not only in the dishonest Republican discourse (accusations of “socialism” and the like), but in the Democratic response. I trust Obama—I think he is the smartest president we have had since Roosevelt—but he completely failed to make the case for the reforms on which he chose to concentrate. I am reasonably intelligent and well-read, but I am unable to tell you what (selfishly speaking) health care reform would have done for me personally. Better coverage? Lower premiums? I honestly don't know. If I were voting my personal pocketbook, as most people do, rather than for what I perceive as the good of the country, I might be persuaded to vote for a Scott Brown.

            Let me anticipate, and dispose of, the objection, which I take very seriously, that the “Tea Party” voters are exactly the kind of independent, judgmental types who are the bastion of democracy—and that I am ignoring this reality because they happen to hold beliefs I do not share. I wish this were true. I distinguish the democratic process from the competing ideologies, and I actually do stand with Justice Holmes: if a robust democratic process resulted in a conservative electorate deciding to repeal the first amendment, establish Protestantism as an official religion, outlaw abortion and gay marriage, I would honor that result as a democratic choice. I might leave the country as inhospitable to me personally, but would respect it as a democracy.

            I think the true test of whether this is happening is the extent to which the so-called “Tea Party” voters are helping or harming themselves as a class. If the result is, in a few years, that by their actions, they have created jobs, saved the economy, protected their own home ownership, and solved the problems with health care delivery, I will be the first to congratulate them. Instead, what I see in this country—I saw it firsthand in conservative and troubled Lee County, Florida, where I lived last year—is people aggressively demonstrating against the solutions to their own problems. People in the streets fighting against jobs, health insurance and mortgage relief. If I am right about this, the Tea Party types are being manipulated by the corrupt pragmatists in the smoke-filled back rooms. We will know in ten or twenty years, when we see the outcome.

            The parallel to 1929 and 1932 is very disturbing. The Republicans then behaved the way Republicans are now—they took no responsibility for the crash, and were deadly opposed to every attempt to save the economy. But the difference seems to be that the electorate then was more considered and patient, and put their trust in Roosevelt and gave him time to work. Obama is as smart as Roosevelt, though not as charismatic. He hasn't communicated as clearly or as carefully, and he certainly has not tried to use the Republicans' own tactics against them. What we are seeing today is analogous to Roosevelt completely losing public confidence by 1933, with the possible result of a conservative  Republican replacing him in 1936. I wonder how soon we would have gotten out of the Depression, or if the country which resulted would have been recognizable to us today. We certainly wouldn't have Social Security or Medicare. We might not have had the civil rights legislation of the 1960's. I have a very dark idea of what America will be in 2030.