Is Free Speech Really Free Speech?

The Rancid Honeytrap (ohtarzie) has a great post today regarding free speech extremists who ignore factual reality in subservience to ideology.

In it, he mocks a letter to the editor written by Norman Siegel, "former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union", and Saralee Evans, "a former acting justice of the New York State Supreme Court", who were upset that members of Congress spoke out against the treatment of torture in Zero Dark Thirty.  The letter includes this laughable passage:
We, as a country committed to open and robust freedom of expression, should have learned that the concept of an open marketplace of ideas means that we allow all viewpoints to be expressed in the belief that the good ideas defeat the bad ideas. We have learned that censoring ideas that some find offensive, inappropriate or wrong-minded is antithetical to democratic principles.
The better course would be to encourage all citizens to see “Zero Dark Thirty” and to encourage them to make their own decisions about the validity of the film, including the scenes involving torture.

Never mind that it sounds like they're shilling for the movie, there are a few much more important points to be made here.

Regarding Zero Dark Thirty itself: first, "all citizens" are not able to "make their own decisions about the validity of the film", given that it's based on state secrets that even those of us who are actively looking don't know about.  Second, to the average American - conditioned to believe that the war on terror is a necessary, positive force in the world - a "based on a true story" movie like Zero Dark Thirty only reinforces their current worldview.  There is no clash of "good ideas" and "bad ideas".  There is propaganda, and the reinforcement of that propaganda in the form of a movie told from the perspective of the CIA.  An intentional attempt to mislead, and a self-serving ride on the coattails of power.

Worse, though, is free speech extremists' complete misunderstanding of how our "democratic principles" and "open marketplace of ideas" work in reality.  The so-called democratic forces in our society - the press, politicians, and the monied interests who control them - consistently decide for us which ideas hold currency and which do not.  They make sure the "good ideas" are the ones they approve of, and the "bad ideas" are the ones they do not.  This is the effect of 'money as speech' which was a reality long, long before Citizens United.

The reality is that the vast majority of people simply do not see their ideas afforded the platform they deserve.  If your words appeal to power, they are likely to be given consideration.  If not, you will be marginalized.  Thus, the dissident writer resigns themself to a life of obscurity, hoping only that one day history will absolve their ideas for what they are, and not who they offend.

The approach taken recently by the ACLU and similar groups has been extremely telling.  They've lost the larger battle for an open marketplace of ideas, and now fight only to save humanity from obtuse state repression.  A lot of their work is noble, but some of it is based on purely ideological grounds: fear of a slippery slope into totalitarianism.  Because the nature of the beast is less obvious than what they're looking for, they miss the fact that the repression they're worried about has been around for ages, and continues unabated to this day.  As ohtarzie so rightfully points out, you can see this when protestors who actually challenge power - like the Occupy movement - are treated with contempt and abuse by the state (subject to police brutality, moved into 'free speech zones', etc), while those who do not challenge power are generally unimpeded in whatever their goals may be.  The obvious comparison is to early 20th century America, where any communist/socialist groups or parties were systematically destroyed, while far-right and hate groups like the KKK were allowed to roam free.

What really bothers me in this whole conversation, though, is the mentality which holds private 'speech' as always good - no matter how undemocratic and manipulative it ends up being - and public efforts to restrict that 'speech' as always bad - regardless of how they would actually allow ideas to thrive in a more 'fair' environment.  I'm hardly a fan of the state, but the idea that private entities are not at least as complicit in our current state of undemocracy as the state itself cannot die soon enough.  We ignore the ever-increasing power that corporations and the like have on our lives at our own peril.

A couple asides

First, it's hard not to mention how fittingly this ideology lines up with that of the Austrian school economists, who were just so damned sure that any sort of economic planning was going to lead to a totalitarian society.  And yet, while both free market purism and free speech purism have long held significant weight in American politics, this has only resulted in a society which is wholly stratified - one wherein those above control both the economic well-being and free speech ability of those below.  We have the freedom to be poor, and the freedom to not have our voices heard, and god do we love it.

Second, one of the great ironies here is that, in the end, both the internet itself and activist groups like Anonymous have done far more for free speech than those groups which focus specifically on the issue.

1 comment:

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