Premised on Freedom, Rife With Inequality
For a long time, America's freedoms were an exclusive luxury of the privileged.
When conservatives harken back to a lost orthodoxy of freedom in America’s past, they seem to conveniently ignore how the country was built on a legacy of commodifying that very freedom. Even after the abolition of slavery and later the passing of the Civil Rights Act, America has yet to fulfill the promise of freedom to all of its citizens–the protests raging across the nation say as much.
Despite historical precedent suggesting otherwise, some insist that the privileged have their freedoms under more peril than the commoner. A recent letter on “Justice and Open Debate” published in Harper’s Magazine rekindled the fire of that discourse, acting as yet another reminder of the powerful’s eagerness to proclaim themselves the truly oppressed, even as those below still have their freedoms repressed on a regular basis.
What the debate over freedom of speech often amounts to, is the ask by society’s soon-to-be-irrelevant to artificially bump up their profile alongside opinions which have gained their ground through painful strife that lasted decades, and sometimes centuries to even be allowed their expression without fear of reprimand. What free speech warriors want, is ostensibly not free speech–it’s deliberately altering the dynamics of speech exchange such that all opinions are to be evaluated the same, regardless of veracity or merit.
This was epitomized in Bari Weiss’ recent resignation from the New York Times opinion section where she cited reticence to embrace her fringe ideas and unrelenting dissent by both colleagues and readers as chief reasons for her departure. What Weiss failed to acknowledge, is her constant engagements in what are outright falsehoods serve only to further her standing within the group of so-called intellectuals she so idolizes, suggesting her opinions are neither sprung free, nor fit for the mainstream as she might’ve otherwise thought.
That’s ultimately what’s at the core of the recent hubbub over free speech–the ideas offered by society’s ideological fringe have an ever-declining buy-in, and it is the simple truth that they’d not be nearly as relevant were it not for monetary incentives flowing the other direction. The free marketplace of ideas is decidedly not free–it’s one where the parameters of an idea’s spread aren’t fully a function of an idea’s appeal to the public, but rather a combination of rhetorical tricks to make it more palpable, or in the case of right-wing conservative commentary, a product of billionaire money keeping it afloat.
Contrast this with the strides made by the left in making ideas once derided for being Russian-sponsored propaganda mainstream, and the difference is night and day–those custoding Marxist ideas litigated their climb in the marketplace of ideas as has been idealized, and in the wake of their success came to reap all the spoils. There’s little question about an ideology’s efficacy if it didn’t take bribing the public to cement its place–it’s why conservatives are too quick to dub any progress made the result of a multi-million dollar George Soros contribution, as their cynicism has come to convince them that no one in their right mind would subscribe to the idea that justice is good without being paid to do so.
Ardent supporters of an absolutist form of free speech would often cite the 1st amendment as being the only safeguard against utter authoritarian chaos, but other countries with no codified commitment to the tenets of free speech have had greater success attaining what America long aspires to achieve–the truth of the matter is, the best way to reinforce the values of free speech — and ideally, as sensible a form of it as possible — is through implicit norms. When the words of a quasi-biblical legal document are invoked to only advance the most malicious forms of speech, you can’t fault those committed to the project of democracy for growing increasingly wary of the 1st amendment’s lacking intent, something the ruling party — often with a rightward bias — has historically weaponized to quash all political opposition and further embed itself in power.
An even more powerful idea than the neoconservative drivel about free speech, is a version of it where people and institutions agree upon the value of what forms of it to advance, and what others to repress in the service of a better society. Seeing how the internet has replenished a once-empty tank of conspiratorial thinking whose logical end has many times been the death of innocent life, it can no longer be argued that endorsing speech regardless of substance, motivation or nature is a sensible thing to do–the American government already censors what it deems “indecent”, so what bars it from deeming open calls to harm the most-vulnerable to be just as indecent?
The answer is quite simple: What America has historically excelled at, is preaching what they’ve not really cared to practice–the irony of them initiating military campaigns abroad to enforce a doctrine that they themselves aren’t conforming to isn’t lost on all but the most naive. When the French gifted Americans the Statue of Liberty as a token of their mutual high-regard for freedom, they couldn’t have foreseen that their country would better embody the values of free speech without a constitution to cope–that’s perhaps what made America far too complacent in its pursuit of true freedom; they thought mere inkings on a page would be enough to seal it.