Either you trust the people or you don’t. There isn’t any middle ground.
History has some bad news for the well-meaning: regulating Facebook and Twitter isn’t going to restore our so-called democracy to us. Freedom of expression means what it says. Any political system which calls itself a democracy while at the same time trying to ensure that genuine freedom of expression is granted only to those whose opinions manage to avoid offending conventional wisdom is engaging in a very dangerous form of sophistry.
Watching half the country succumb to the mass delusions of the past four years has admittedly been excruciating, but like it or not, the truth is that anyone can be fooled, and with the right technology, virtually the entire public can be fooled at scale. Is that really Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey’s fault? Should we now demand that the senile ratfuckers of the U.S. Senate bully them into pretending to fix with yet more algorithms what their existing algorithms have already been responsible for breaking? Does anyone really think that this is a good idea?
The truth is, these two accidentally evil geniuses, and others among their Silicon Valley peers, are singularly ill-equipped to do the dirty work of policing the world’s speech for us. Threatening to ruin their business model if they don’t seems a far too ham-fisted way to avoid confronting the real reasons why the Internet has become a sewer, armed mobs are assaulting our legislatures, and half the country believes Hillary Clinton is a satanic pedophile.
All of which is not to say the current fear among liberal Americans that a significant minority of their neighbors have fallen under the malign influence of weaponized troll factories or unhinged demagogues is irrational, nor attempts to do something about it entirely without merit. The danger I see is that any attempt to restrict the future of political discourse to the limits of a narrowly conceived civility will inevitably lead to the adoption of public policies just as dangerous to democratic governance as the chaos it seeks to suppress.
Even if the government persuades a majority that it should be the guardian of right thinking, there’s no way to accomplish such a goal without relying on a labor intensive internal security apparatus like the STASI once had, or a universal surveillance-based social credit ranking system like the one already under construction in China.
What liberals need to understand is that no matter how ignorant, how parochial, or how viciously expressed the grievances are which have split the United States in half, and incinerated the soi disant conservatism of the Republican Party, they aren’t imaginary. The people who share them aren’t going to stop probing the gaps in our political hypocrisies until they get answers they feel they can trust.
We leftists—not the commedia dell’arte caricatures of Fox News and the GOP, but the genuine kind—understand this, but so far we’ve lacked the courage to act accordingly. We need to make it clear that we support the efforts of all people to get what is legitimately theirs, even those whose political ideologies we disagree with, but not at the price of colluding with racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, or religious fanaticism. We can never accept the legitimacy of second amendment fetishism, or the idea that what freedom means is refusing to wear a mask or a motorcycle helmet, or to pay your taxes.
If we’re serious about our politics, we should be able to live with getting laughed at or sneered at in the short run, if in the long run we can make it clear to all and sundry that we have a case to make, and that no matter what happens, we aren’t going anywhere. If we want to recover any semblance of political legitimacy, we can’t avoid a face-to-face contest with the right, now matter how unpleasant or personally dangerous we believe it to be. It’s the only honest way to invest in ourselves, and in the future of our country.
None of this is rocket science. The key is a recovery not of bipartisanship, but of a genuine political dialectic. If the MAGA faithful really want to make America great again, they’re going to have to accept the fact that engagement with people like us, and with the rest of the world, is the only realistic way forward. If we want to help make that possible, we can’t farm it out to someone who promises, for a price of course, to protect us from any unpleasantness. We’re going to have to do it ourselves, and risk something of ourselves in the process of doing it. The principle of equal justice for all demands it.
P.S., the tl;dr edition:
The philosophical difference between the Fairness Doctrine and Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is a matter of degree rather than kind, no matter how much the sophistries of liberal convenience would have it otherwise. The only way out of our present political meltdown is to take one another seriously, and to stop indulging in the administrative fantasies of liberal dirigistes.