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.

If We Can Somehow Bring Ourselves To Take the Long View, We Probably Should….

Revised from a recent comment of mine on this Crooked Timber thread:

A sort of Marxist point about our present distempers: the conditions of existence have changed, probably irrevocably, for the Scots-Irish coal miners of West Virginia, the libertarian ranchers of the West, and the industrial workers of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and they’re not happy about it. Should Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk feel any more sympathy for them than their own ancestors felt for Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, or Geronimo? A similar observation could be made about our lack of sympathy for the Taliban and the Salafists.

One difference is striking, though, about our current last-ditch defenders of traditions outmaneuvered by modernity. They’re more widely distributed, and they’re also much better armed. The consolations of Whatever happens — we have got — the Maxim gun — and they have not have succumbed in their own fashion to a modernity not even the Moderns themselves seem to understand. Not yet, anyway.

Marx thought that once the conditions of existence had changed sufficiently, the past would be, or could be, swept away by revolutionaries with their eyes on the future. Seen up close, from the vantage point of an individual life, the process is far uglier, no matter what subsequent theoretical revisions from the foundries of Marxist ideology, or cheerleading from neoliberal think tanks promise us. Somewhere between Faulkner’s The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past, and Gibson’s The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed, there’s a place to stand that won’t offend either our conscience or our common sense. Maybe. One hopes. YMMV.

Discomforting the South

From Ta-Nehisi Coates, this eloquent re-statement of fundamental American principles still being trampled on by a legion of racist Dixie apologists. It should be read aloud from every pulpit in the nation. Re-light Frederick Douglass’s torch — here’s someone more than worthy to carry it forward.

History is identity. When we erase the painful portions, we lose texture, color and we are reduced. Patriotism, in my eyes, has always been about the strength of seeing those rough spots, of considering your home at its worse, and remaining enthralled, nonetheless. That is how we love our daughters, our husbands, our mothers. That is how we make family.

I have come to a fairly recent regard for Lincoln. He rose from utter frontier poverty, through self-education and hard work, to the presidency and the upper reaches of American letters. His path was harsh. His wife was mentally ill. His son died in office. He was derided in newspapers as ugly, stupid, a gorilla and white trash. For his patience, endurance, temperance and industry in the face of so many troubles, Lincoln was awarded a shot to the head.

Now in some sectors of the country for which Lincoln died, patriotism means waving the flag of his murderer. The party he founded supports this odious flag-waving and now gives us a candidate who would stand before that same flag and peddle comfortable fictions. What hope is there when those who talk of patriotism brandish the talisman of bloody treason?

The matter falls to you. Don’t [be] conned. Don’t be a mark. Live uncomfortable.

Amen, brother Coates.

The Clockwork Orange

Those of us who could hear the ticking were encouraged to put our fingers in our ears and follow the rest of the crowd. By and large, we did.

Now we can see smoke on the horizon, there are springs and gears and bits we don’t recognize lying all around, and we’ve been locked out of the repair facility. Go away, they say, we’ll call you when we’re done.

I don’t think so. Not this time.