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(The following post was a comment I made on a Facebook thread that began with the poster seriously suggesting that Obama was moving toward arbitrarily imprisoning people on the Right who disagree with him, as evidenced by his referring to some Republican candidates as “extremists,” combined with the unfortunate provision for indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” in the NDAA. My comment below was a direct response to someone asserting that if I thought Obama might be right in his characterization of those Republican candidates, then I don’t know Obama well enough, implying that Obama is by definition always wrong.)

It’s not enough just to say that those you disagree with are wrong. You have to make the case. And if you’re not making the case, you’re just making noise.

There’s harmless noise, and there’s harmful noise. If you believe, for instance, that Amon-Ra requires you to hop on one foot at sunrise and sing Egyptian incantations to an arthropod, knock yourself out. No harm done. But if you were to believe, conversely, that all human beings who do not belong to your cult are possessed by demons which must be exorcised by those possessed being doused with gasoline and set on fire, and were part of a significant group of people believing this and reinforcing the belief among one another, well, that would be a lot more worrisome, because someone might start to act on that belief, and that would be a serious breach of the rights of those having their demons exorcised.

All human discursive noise falls on a continuum defined by these examples, from the most benign and harmless to the most violent and destructive. The noise your not-so-little cult makes is a lot closer to the end of that continuum defined by the latter example than the one defined by the former. In fact, the biggest act of domestic terrorism in American history was committed by a member of your cult, striking a blow against the federal government and its perceived incursions on liberty by blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing hundreds of innocent people, including dozens of children in the day care center housed in that building.

Granted, such an atrocity could have been committed by any fanatic of any stripe, and, as we say in statistics, an N of one is meaningless. But, in this case, we don’t just have the N of one to inform us, but also a considerable quantity of confirming evidence: A huge rise in armed citizen militias running around with grease painted faces and semi-automatic rifles, training to save this country from the dictatorship in your imaginations. Rhetoric that informs a potentially violent and consistently destructive zealotry, such as the motto “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” The problem, of course, is that extremism has a life of its own, regardless of what it claims to be in defense of, and that motto is precisely the motto that would have been echoing in Timothy McVeigh’s mind, rationalizing for him the irrational and horribly destructive.

That’s not to say that there aren’t kernels of truth in some of your positions. The history of the United States has been characterized by a consistent, punctuated growth in executive power. The concentration and exercise of both governmental and corporate power in America involves several troubling tendencies, such as the indefinite detention of people labelled as enemy combatants, and the influence of corporate money in determining electoral and legislative outcomes. There are real issues to be understood and addressed as wisely and effectively and functionally as possible. But the rule of law is first and foremost a commitment to a process, to a set of procedures that are consistent with our fundamental law, and have developed in service to it. People who don’t get that are the biggest real threat to the Constitution that this country faces, because they want to replace our actual rule of law with their particular ideological presumptions of what the law should be, claiming that there is no ambiguity or possibility of disputing their positions, when very clearly there is, as all people who actually study and implement the Constitution realize.

And that brings us to the freedom of speech. Members of my fictional cult who believed in burning the demons out of those who disagree with them are on the boundary between protected speech and criminal incitement of violence. Were they to merely assert that all who disagree with them are possessed by demons and must be opposed, then they would have clearly fallen on the side of protected speech. Were they to encourage and advise followers to actually douse people with gasoline and set them on fire, inciting them to commit imminent acts of violence, then they would clearly fall on the side of criminal incitement of violence.

Your little cult clearly falls on the side of protected speech. It’s not even a close call, and no one I know of has ever suggested that it is a close call. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t destructive and potentially dangerous, it just means that part of our legal framework, a very fundamental and important part, is that we recognize that we have to allow and protect all speech that isn’t imminently inciting violence or in other limited ways crossing a line that had to be drawn (e.g., libel, maliciously igniting a panic “in a crowded theater,” etc.), because that is a real and necessary bulwark of liberty. We all get that, even us demons who, metaphorically speaking, need to be doused with gasoline and set on fire.

I agree that the speech of the KKK and of American Nazis, as well as of American Communists and Socialists (groups to which exceedingly few on the Left in America belong, despite the crazed rhetoric to the contrary) and Evangelicals, all has to be protected, regardless of whether I or anyone else finds it odious, destructive, and disgusting, as long as it doesn’t cross the line to the incitement of imminent violence. I certainly agree that your speech, which, for the most part (though not always, nor by all adherents), is less odious than that of the KKK and American Nazis, is protected speech. I have no interest or desire to see force used to silence you. I prefer to see reason and goodwill used to debunk you.

We live in a country facing many real challenges, as has been the case throughout our history, and will be the case throughout all time in all places. We have established an excellent though imperfect system for addressing those challenges, which we can continue to refine, which is still firmly based on our Constitution, which has evolved around that Constitution by necessity and by design, and which real patriotism demands a complete commitment to. It is more procedural than substantive, more focused on how we arrive at our conclusions than on what those conclusions must be. That is what the rule of law really is. That is what our Constitution really stands for. And you folks, for all of your claims to be the defenders of the Constitution, are in reality it’s most fervent opponents in America today, because you claim that your particular ideological substantive conclusions should take precedence over our evolved rule of law and the procedures by which we maintain and implement it. Such people are the kind of people most likely to blow up buildings and kill innocent people, because, as you say, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” But extremism in defense of anything other than reason and goodwill most certainly is a vice, because extremism in defense of anything other than reason and goodwill is too open to interpretation, too susceptible to the errors of blind ideological passions.

The value of liberty is that it serves humanity well. Those who become warriors of liberty divorced from a commitment to humanity are not serving either liberty or that which liberty itself serves, but are rather serving their own blind fanaticisms, at everyone else’s expense.

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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) (, 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 & InterdependenceLiberty & 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.