E-Pluribus | July 16, 2021
Winning the culture war is a myth, reaching our potential as a liberal society, and free speech is under attack from right and left.
A round up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Matt Taibbi: The Myth of the Winnable Culture War
At his Substack, Matt Taibbi examines the (sad) state of our political and cultural discourse where putting forth the best ideas has taken a back seat to beating the other side — whether it’s “owning the libs” or cancellation campaigns. Taibbi argues that no side will ever actually “win” the culture war or defeat their supposed “enemies” on the other side, so we might as well start talking to each other now.
The perception that conservatives don’t change their minds is as stupid as my belief that liberals would never cozy up to the CIA and NSA turned out to be. Conservative attitudes toward war, gay rights, surveillance and a host of other issues have shifted radically in recent years. Also, people don’t act and think solely as groups, as there’s enormous variance within every demographic. Pretending otherwise is a pernicious media myth. But I’m getting off track.
Here’s what we do now, instead of arguing: we fling terms like “white supremacist,” “transphobe,” “conspiracy theorist,” and “fascist” around, knowing that if the words stick, they lead to outcomes: boycotts, firings, removal from Internet platforms, etc. When Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy compare Carlson to Alex Jones, they do this knowing Jones was booted off the Internet, so it’s a not-so-subtle way of voting for that same outcome.
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This is why people who probably have very different or even opposite politics on the policy level, like [Glenn] Greenwald and [Tucker] Carlson, are suddenly in a broadcast partnership. They’re part of a dwindling club left in major media who are defying these tactics. In a hypothetical universe where this moral panic era subsides, one could envision them going back to violently arguing with one another over immigration, spending, policing, etc. But for now they’re on the same side, not on issues, but against a tactic.
It’s become fashionable especially in Democratic Party politics (but more lately on the Republican side, too) to embrace this maximalist form of debate on the grounds that it works. De-platforming works, boycotts work, shaming works, they say; shaming is how we effect change.
Read it all.
Benjamin Klutsey and Peter Boettke: Reaching Our Potential as a Liberal Society
At Discourse Magazine, Ben Klutsey, director of the new new Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at Mercatus Center at George Mason University, has published a series of interviews with prominent academics and thinkers on the topic of liberalism. Here is an excerpt from Klutsey’s recent interview with GMU Economics Professor Peter Boettke in light of his recent book on the topic, The Struggle for a Better World. In this section, Boettke argues that the liberal project was and should be about finding ways to overcome human differences to peacefully cooperate:
BOETTKE: [ . . . ] To go back to an earlier idea that’s related to these conversations that you’re talking about is, despite the fact that I want to have international, cosmopolitan liberalism and international liberalism, it’s not that I believe that we’re going to wake up one day and we’re all going to be different human beings that all of a sudden get along with everyone else. We have, in many ways, a natural suspicion of the others that may in fact be hardwired. There is a variety of explanations, maybe, for that.
The imagery that I have in the book when I discuss these ideas is the difference between sharp objects. So society is possessing of these sharp objects. Think about, basically, spears sticking up in the ground, and we are quarrelsome, and we’re prone to conflict. As our social interactions inevitably entail conflict as well as cooperation, I’m asking what ideas, what patterns of behavior might transform those situations of conflict into recognizing the opportunities for cooperation. Or the way that Hayek would put it in discussing catallaxy is how do you turn a stranger into a friend? This is the importance of trade and whatnot.
Another way to think about it is how do we end up by dulling the edges of our social conflicts with each other so that we end up by being only bruised and bumped, and not mortally wounded? In the world that we live in today, we have, in many ways, sharpened the objects. Our social discourse has, in fact, been like people taking sandpaper and sharpening the edges, so that our interactions become more and more mortally wounding rather than dulling. I want to somehow dull those edges, even though recognizing those things.
I think that’s what the liberal project, in many ways, was—is to find in ourselves our common humanity, to work with that common humanity, to be able to recognize and respect our differences, but to realize that those differences create opportunities for mutually beneficial exchange. One of the great ironies or puzzles that need to be overcome is that the greater the social distance between people, the greater the gains from trade in interaction, but the greater the costs of being able to interact because of greater social distance. Something has to come in to be able to allow us to both recognize as great gains from potential exchange, while at the same time allow us to, in fact, transact.
This is what I think liberalism did, first, as an idea. The great thing is that you should—in my explanation, ideas have priority over other things. But then, those ideas then come from people. They don’t come from the brow of a genius; they come from their experience with one another and interacting and expanding their realm of interactions. Then they begin to become codified into practices or, what I call in the book, institutions. Then those institutions enable us to expand and increase our social interactions with others, realize greater gains, and so forth and so on.
Read and/or listen to the full interview here.
Harry Bruinius: Why Free Speech Is Under Attack from Right and Left
So many of today’s culture war issues hinge, in part, on First Amendment issues - free speech, free association, freedom of religion, etc. And threats to these principles, as we have argued here again and again, come from both sides of the political spectrum. At the Christian Science Monitor, Harry Bruinius provides a comprehensive chronicling of the various attacks on free speech, bringing in expert analysis. Here’s a snippet:
The deeper free-speech issues on the left and right have centered around the nation’s deep-seated conflicts over race, including various campus speech codes and prohibitions against hate speech.
In the past few months, Republicans in dozens of states have passed regulations aimed at Black Lives Matter protests while also proposing government bans on the teaching of critical race theory in public classrooms or faculty applying it research projects.
On the left, organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which has long made defending free speech its signature issue, has in many ways retreated from its historic mission to defend even the most repugnant speech.
“The old guys who remember the flag of Skokie and other free speech battlegrounds like me, they’re dying off,” says Bruce Rosen, a “proud member” of the ACLU and a former board member of a local chapter in New Jersey.
In one of the organization’s most famous cases, in 1977 a Jewish lawyer named David Goldberger helped defend the right of a Nazi group to peaceably assemble in Skokie, Illinois, a Chicago suburb that was home to a Jewish population including dozens of Holocaust survivors. Even then, the case caused many ACLU members to resign.
The internal tensions between some of the younger attorneys at the organization and the older guard came to a head in 2017, after ACLU attorneys helped defend the right of white supremacists to march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Violence erupted at the event, and a neo-Nazi driver stuck and killed a young woman and injured 19 others.
Read the full piece here.
Wesley Yang on the problems in academia:
Glenn Greenwald and Justin Amash question censorship collusion between the government and Big Tech: