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A few weeks ago, we published a Zeitgeist called Never Forget about the protests and the narratives being promoted about them. It was a little brief that Ben ended with this flourish:
This isn’t a threat to democracy. This IS democracy.
Never forget.Never Forget
We got a lot of comments and emails about this one.
Most were supportive. Still, there were enough that fell into two less-than-supportive camps to make us feel they were worthy of mention. The first, if I can paraphrase, wondered why Ben couldn’t see how important it was that so many of the protests really were devolving into riots. The second posited that Ben simply didn’t want to see that so many of the protests were really being stoked and inflamed by outside elements intent on creating division and unrest. If you didn’t see these responses in the wild, simply recreate them by shouting in your shrillest voice, “Haven’t you read about the pre-arranged bricks?” and then collapse in a heap onto the nearest available chaise lounge.
We have written before about the peculiar Prussianness of certain American institutions, but not so much about our pronounced shared preference for order even at the cost of injustice. But goodness gracious, people. I feel slightly worse about calling Goethe Prussian than about using one of his quotations cynically (especially since I know the idea is more about the rule of law than order per se), but sometimes the shoe fits:
My good friend Gore would not yet understand how I could have risked so much for the sake of an unknown and perhaps criminal person. I pointed always, jestingly, to the clean space before the house, and said at last, rather impatiently: “The fact is, it is part of my nature; I would rather commit an injustice than suffer disorder.”J.W. Goethe, Campagne in Frankreich 1792
It is one of the most inconvenient things about the practice of free speech: if it matters, it is messy.
Of course some of the protests turned into nighttime scenes of wanton, arbitrary destruction of property. Of course there were people and organizations who desired, provided for and stoked those activities, who had designs on steering the protests in anti-social, division-focused directions. Of course there are integrated subcultures of the usual professional anti-capitalism, anti-everything activists in a huge swath of the protest events. None of that should surprise anyone. If it did, that’s on you. What is – at least to me – more surprising is how many people are equally willing to buy into the counternarrative that this kind of roughness, artificiality and attempts at co-option which inevitably follow genuine expressions of the speech of a free people, invalidate or lessen the value of those expressions.
Fortunately for proponents of truly free expression, the world as-it-is doesn’t care about our pearl-clutching. Because the other inconvenient thing about the practice of free speech – at least for those who would stifle it with half-hearted No True Scotsman gatekeeping – is that it is contagious.
First, go read the letter now-former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss posted on her personal website today. It is a resignation letter. And yes, it has the usual exhausting “I’m not a lawyer, but this sure seems like constructive discharge” stuff. But the rest of this thing is marvelous, must-read material about resisting the overwhelming power of narrative on ideas and thought.
Next, go read the letter published by Harper’s – Harper’s! – that was written and co-signed last week by a list of academics, authors and other thinkers entitled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”
A letter co-signed by Nicholas Christakis, Jonathan Haidt, Noam Chomsky, Garry Kasparov and Gloria Steinem is one we should read. Not because they are Important People and we should give two shits what they have to say more than anyone else who has the right of an issue. But because this is probably the most ecumenical expression of commitment to freedom of expression, repudiation of culture-porn and commitment to empowering risk-taking in culture-world that has come out of the left and center-left in most of our lifetimes.
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.A Letter on Justice and Open Debate (Harpers, July 7, 2020)
Y’all, if you had a Chomsky and Steinem parlay in your “Who will argue most vociferously for widening the Overton Window in 2020?” pool, you are now officially the richest person in America.
With all that said, there’s no need to be pollyannaish about where we are at on this – looking at you, social media giants – but if a commitment to free expression is the next contagion to catch from the bottom up, we are here for it.