Being Careful What We Wish For: the Liberal Panic Over Social Media

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 seem reasonable to the average voter 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?

I think not. 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, and 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 simply 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. Precisely because 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 need to argue honestly with these people, acknowledge that their grievances aren’t entirely based on illusions, admit our part in lying to them about their prospects for the future, and commit ourselves to being honest about the limits of our willingness to help them face that future with less fear and more confidence. How hard can it be to demonstrate that we are not the evil Democrat liberals of their paranoid imaginations?

We who can genuinely claim to represent the historical left of the political spectrum most definitely do want to see them get what is legitimately theirs, but the price of our support is a renunciation on their part of racism, misogyny, homophobia, religious fanaticism, xenophobia, the sexualization of firearms, and the idea that what freedom means is refusing to wear a mask or a motorcycle helmet, hunting what’s left of our endangered species, using demeaning epithets whenever they feel like it, and waving Confederate flags in public.

They’d laugh or sneer at the offer of a deal so alien to their instincts now, no doubt, but what we’d be attempting to do by proposing it would be to make an honest investment in them, in ourselves, and in the future of our country. None of this is rocket science. 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.

Cantabile

An Appreciation

Since I first heard them almost sixty years ago, J.S. Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello have never left me. Over the intervening decades, I’ve listened to I don’t know how many recordings of them — by Casals, DuPré, Rostropovich, Ma — and now that the Internet has finally delivered us up to the celestial jukebox as promised, hardly a year goes by without some new rendition to attend to.

This is a profound thing, an almost too good to be true thing. Play these at Rush Limbaugh’s funeral, I find myself thinking, and the world, for a moment at least, would be a better place.

Such things don’t happen, not in the public space we’re compelled to share with the vengeful, but in private we can reflect on what it is that makes us compassionate even when we know the worst about ourselves. For those private moments, I can think of no better soundtrack than these genuinely sublime compositions of Bach’s, and no better argument for their right to be called that than Yo-Yo Ma’s latest recording of them.

His phrasing here is revelatory, the dynamic range astonishing, the pacing as intense and as variable as one imagines Bach must have heard it in his own inner ear. There are bones and sinews in these performances, and no apologies. As the Italians say, they sing — so much so that I find myself wondering if I’ve ever before heard these pieces played this well, this architecturally. Even Ma’s own earlier recordings of them seem somehow less forceful, less transparent. This is very high art indeed, and I for one am grateful for it.