Despite Vincent Carroll’s predictable lack of appreciation of the value of creating a civil discourse based on some common premises, such as asking ourselves how best to govern ourselves in service to the public interest (which is the same thing as service to the aggregation of our individual interests) (http://www.denverpost.com/carroll/ci_16661510), the pinnacle of free speech is not a balkanized Tower of Babel, in which each ideologue can be exposed only to echoing reinforcements of his own arbitrary views, but rather something that is both coherent and diverse, something that is based on common values but debates, with reason, the means by which to give those values their highest expression.
Some readers might recognize that the title of this post is virtually identical to the title of two others (Liberty & Interdependence, Liberty & Society). The reason for this is the repetition of the theme of the articulation of centrifugal and centripetal social forces, of binding a society together into a coordinated effort to serve mutual interests, and of freeing up its constituent individuals to serve those individual and mutual interests most robustly. Vincent Carroll is yet another spokesperson for the far-right fantasy of a one-sided coin, in which the only concern is maximizing freedom, and there is no concern for contextualizing that freedom in ways which channel it to human benefit. Carroll’s conceptualization of free speech is another incarnation of the far-right’s Hobbesian paradise of the war of all against all, each hunkered down in his own cognitive trench, lobbing ordinance and cultivating deepening, increasingly feral, rage toward those hunkered down in the trenches across the battle line.
It’s not that Jay Rockefeller’s musings, that Carroll cited, didn’t overshoot the mark a bit, or that the challenges of protecting free speech from overzealous government imposition of “coherence” is not a legitimate concern, but rather that Carroll subscribes to, and amplifies, the caricature of a government motivated solely by some nefarious desire to deprive him of his liberties, rather than a government posed with the real challenges of reining in liberties just enough to coordinate their exercise to mutual benefit rather than mutual detriment.
We all know that such reining in is necessary. We all know that we do not want to live in a society in which each is free to do physical violence to others. Most agree that libel and slander laws are okay. Few have difficulties with limiting speech that is designed to incite violence or cause a panic just for fun. Conservatives have been quickest to want to limit student speech on far weaker pretexts (see the famous Supreme Court holdings of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier and Bethel School District v. Fraser, for instance). Everyone, implicitly or explicitly, recognizes that there is a balance to be struck, that where the line is at which it is optimally struck is not automatically crystal clear, and that a legitimate debate must be had to determine where that line belongs.
But blind ideologues like Carroll, who, ironically, love to use the language of an intellectual superiority that they so glaringly lack (calling Rockefeller an “ignoramus,” for instance), live in a fantasy world of oversimplistic absolutes, in which the subtleties of the challenge of governing ourselves don’t exist, and in which an information-and-analysis-stripped “Political Fundamentalism”, comprised of “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, and Small Government Idolatry, is all that is required to claim to have answered all questions and won all debates.
Despite the legitimate concerns about laws that potentially constrain political speech that we don’t want government to have the power to constrain, there is also a legitimate concern with the speech-nullifying power of corporate money in political discourse, drowning out dissenting voices with the share magnitude of their own. Free speech is arguably threatened more by less financed voices being overwhelmed by the share magnitude of noise that the better financed voices can generate than by the limiting of the volume that any one voice is given. These are subtleties, and difficult questions, that those who wish to govern ourselves responsibly can’t simply pontificate our of existence.
Despite Carroll’s dismissal of Michael Bennet’s allusion to a semi-mythical era when we rallied around a common discourse, and debated within its context, there is indeed a value to creating a common discourse, to gathering around a single table and discussing issues about which we must strive to arrive at some consensus rather than merely strive to smite one another as perpetual foes. It’s emblematic of his ideological camp that he doesn’t comprehend that value, because he speaks for those who are incapable of recognizing it, who think that the highest good is blind ideological entrenchment, refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue, and complete disregard for the purpose of government and society, which is to serve as vehicles through which free people can work together for their mutual benefit.