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E-Pluribus | December 7, 2022
Congressman Ro Khanna on Twitter and speech; liberalism and democracy; and how to keep democracy from dying.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Ro Khanna: Twitter’s Duty to Protect Free Speech
The great Twitter/Hunter Biden debate is sometimes framed as Republicans versus Democrats or liberals versus conservatives, but California Congressman Ro Khanna bucks the trend and, in the Wall Street Journal, writes about his defense of free speech in the matter and what Twitter’s responsibilities should be in such cases.
This tension was on full display when the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story dropped less than a month before the 2020 election. Twitter’s suppression violated the First Amendment principles Brennan articulated in Sullivan. Twitter banned links to the story and suspended accounts that shared it, including President Trump’s press secretary and the New York Post itself—arguing that the story violated company policy because it contained information obtained through illegal means. Under the same logic, they’d have to suspend any account that posted the Pentagon Papers, which is protected by New York Times Co. v. U.S. (1971), or the story of Mr. Trump’s leaked tax returns.
As Silicon Valley’s representative in Congress, I reached out to Twitter at the time to share these concerns. In an email meant to be private, but recently made public by Matt Taibbi’s “Twitter Files” thread, I wrote to Twitter’s general counsel that the company’s actions “seemed to be a violation of First Amendment principles.” Although Twitter is a private actor not legally bound by the First Amendment, Twitter has come to function as a modern public square. As such, Twitter has a responsibility to the public to allow the free exchange of ideas and open debate.
[ . . . ]
I agreed with Twitter’s decision to take down explicit photos of Hunter Biden and to prevent algorithmic amplification of the Post story. But there’s a difference between sharing and artificially amplifying. Social-media companies shouldn’t have bots that amplify speech in the first place—they add chaos to the dialogue. They certainly shouldn’t be abusing people’s data by using it to target them with sensational content. We need to uphold the sovereign right to our data. Even so, the story itself shouldn’t have been censored, and those who shared it shouldn’t have been suspended. That went too far.
Read it all.
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Robert Tracinski: The Marriage of Liberalism and Democracy
Robert Tracinski has written much on liberalism and democracy both at Discourse Magazine as well as his own site, Symposium. Tracinski turns again to the subject at Discourse, writing that while democracy can be used as a shorthand for majority rule, a true desirable democracy is liberal democracy — one that allows for a society to govern itself while protecting the rights of all citizens even those (or, especially those) who dissent.
[W]hat is the point and justification for democracy? Is it simply that the majority should always get its way? In practice, no one actually seems to believe this or to want unlimited democracy. In the recent election, for example, one of the major issues was abortion, which has been threatened by the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Because this ruling allows abortion restrictions on the state level, unmarried women—the group most affected by this issue—turned out and voted for Democrats by a huge margin. These voters also helped pass ballot measures to codify abortion rights in state constitutions.
But notice that these measures are designed to place abortion outside of normal majority-rule politics. Dobbs, after all, was a “pro-democracy” decision in the crudely majoritarian sense. It put abortion in the category of issues that are up for a vote and subject to control by the majority in any given state of the union. Yet that is clearly what many pro-democracy voters do not want.
Or consider the YIMBY movement, which is based on a growing consensus that too much “community input” is strangling new home construction. There’s an old line that democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. In many of our cities, democracy is two upper-middle-class homeowners and one low-income worker voting on how high property values should rise.
Then, of course, the First Amendment and Bill of Rights—cornerstones of the American system of government—limit what laws Congress may pass and therefore what the majority may do. That is their whole point.
Clearly what we want is not unlimited majority rule, but liberal democracy: a majority vote, within the context of protections for fundamental rights. This is still “democracy” in the literal sense—rule by the people—but that rule is limited by liberal principles.
Read the whole thing.
Joel Looper: Democracy Dies of Disordered Desire
America may be the oldest democracy existing today, but it is not the first, and certainly not the first to struggle to maintain its footing (as evidenced by those democracies that no longer exist). Joel Looper writes at Arc Digital of some lessons from the ancient world about how we can extend the life of our own democratic experiment.
Like American democracy today, Athens had been through a turbulent period immediately before Socrates’s trial for impiety and corrupting the minds of the youth. A pro-Spartan oligarchy known as the Thirty Tyrants had been installed only four years before, violating many of the city’s most dearly held traditions. In such a situation, their ouster was predicable enough, and the Athenians carried it out within a matter of months. But among the city’s democrats, longstanding resentments toward and fear of the rising Spartan power across the Greek peninsula became the occasion for recriminations and deepening suspicion. For this reason, some historians have suggested that the brief tenure of the Thirty Tyrants played a role in the fall of Athenian democracy more than 75 years later.
America, the world’s oldest democracy, has not suffered such a tyrannical takeover in recent years, but not a few people blame one or the other party for trying. Democrats sometimes suspect that they have the corner on democracy, whereas Republicans often speak as if their tribe are the only real Americans. Both, like their ancient Greek forebearers, have become terrified of disloyalty. Both, like the ancient Athenians, fear the machinations of foreign powers: Russian hackers unsettle the left, Chinese geopolitical power spook the right. Also, like Socrates’s political enemies, many on both sides of the aisle are clearly willing to sacrifice other people’s reputations, livelihoods, and well-being to ensure that “their” America survives.
[ . . . ]
The only way to avoid this fate, Plato and the American Founders believed, is through moral and civic education, what in the Founders’ generation were called Republican virtues. It would mean devoting ourselves to the belief that we have responsibilities that we must fulfill toward our neighbors and fellow citizens even if we consider them enemies. Agreeing among ourselves what those responsibilities are requires at minimum some common vision, a bare-bones set of commitments about what living well together means. It requires, in other words, ordering our desires toward a common vision of the good.
Read it all here.
Glenn Greenwald on the Big Tech/government virtual partnership in online censorship:
David Mastio (formerly of USA Today) on how the decline in local journalism has also adversely affected the number of conservative voices in journalism:
And finally, the Washington Post with a story on Great White Privilege (to be clear, that phrase does not appear in the article):