The prestigious Columbia Journalism Review in a headline article today asks a provocative question: does Donald Trump, “a pumpkin-haired, nonsense-spewing, bloviating [demagogue]” deserve not merely the extensive media attention he has both cultivated and been given, but the very right to free speech?
For the article’s author Bill Wyman, former arts editor of NPR and Salon.com (and no relation to the Rolling Stones bass player) who like everyone else in his peculiar niche profession must be considered some kind of liberal and presumably a Democrat, the question is merely rhetorical.
Of course he does, Wyman proclaims, and he is tired of protesters disrupting Trump rallies and insisting that they have a right to deny – as some anti-Trump activists proudly told CNN earlier this week – the New York billionaire his right to hold rallies, because the crowds contain a good number of people who believe hateful and dangerous things. “Is our democracy so weak it can’t handle Donald Trump?, Wyman asks.
The question may seem naïve and dangerous in its own right, not only to those on the left but, ironically, also on the right. Consider the way the Republican “establishment” and its leading voices in conservative media (not only the National Review, but even fire-breathing talk show hosts such as Mark Levin) have gone after Trump with a vehemence and vengeance beyond even what they demonstrated when Barack Obama was running for president.
Trump indeed has repeatedly said things that can easily prompt more thoughtful commentators with an historical memory to mutter the political “f-word”, i.e., fascism. But, as Wyman points out, the inclination to shut down speech cuts both ways. If Trump supporters are denied the right to speak, and by some chance Trump is elected President, his opponents would already have handed him to rationale to be silenced themselves.
The question of whether there are limits to free speech has been around since Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes enunciated his now famous principle about people not having the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. And the argument for denying certain forms of free speech could indeed be deemed the general political equivalent in today’s charged public atmosphere.
But we are perhaps dealing with something that runs much deeper than the current, increasingly dark electoral circus we encounter daily in the 24/7 political news cycle, the crisis of liberal democracy itself for which the argument over “free speech” (which, according to Wyman is the lodestar of democratic politics tout ensemble) is simply a disturbing, diagnostic token.
The Charlie Hebdo massacres in Paris and the spiraling influence of anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and radical nationalist constituencies in both the United States and Europe play up the diverse symptoms of an underlying political pathology with certain economic causes, which I myself in Force of God refer to as a “crisis of liberal democracy.” However, the crisis of liberal democracy, as I and others going all the way back to Nietzsche have also argued, is as much a crisis of value from which both the political and economic dimensions mutually emanate. As Alain Badiou might say, the real crisis is a crisis of truth.
Moreover, the all-too-familiar and widely lamented – as well as virulent – toxicity of today’s electoral politics can be regarded as the failure of liberal democracy to give birth to a genuine politics of truth, which thinkers from Plato to Kant have understood to be the ultimate purpose of political reflection and the imposition of social order. The intellectual architecture of liberal democracy was fitted together in the seventeenth and eighteenth century as the practical output of the new scientific method and cosmology along with its preoccupation with forging workable canons of what Kant himself famously called “pure reason.” The Enlightenment touchstone of a global rationality buttressed the tacit assumption of the those advocates of liberal democracy that if human beings were free to discover the truth for themselves, they would somehow come to a tentative agreement about the nature of the real from an epistemic standpoint.
Furthermore, from a moral or (as Kant put it) “practical” standpoint they would also come to a consensus on the character of common virtue in accordance with which they all might live peacefully and harmoniously together. A politics of truth, therefore, was the inexorable result of the free exercise of ideas and the toleration of even those discourses that might be in error, because eventually the universal tendency for all rational beings to acknowledge and respect each other would win out over our must brutish inclinations.
In many ways the post-World War I, Wilsonian ideal of democracy inscribed at the planetary level was the culmination of the Kantian vision. But instead of what Kant had termed the birth of a “universal history with a cosmopolitan purpose” the twentieth century instead broad fascism, totalitarianism, and both hard and soft versions of Western colonialism and imperialism which shared the common factor of insisting that human beings could not be trusted to develop a politics of truth of their own. Instead such a politics of truth would have to be entrusted to a certain “vanguard”, or political and intellectual elite, who would have the authority to make sure that the general populace was (in Rousseau’s infamous words) “forced to be free.”
The first modern figure to truly articulate this “post-Enlightenment” politics of truth, of course, is the fictional character of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. In Dostoevsky’s haunting parable enfolded within his celebrated novel The Brothers Karamazov, Christ returns to earth some time in the modern era and is arrested by the Grand Inquisitor, a clerical figure, who could just as well represent a leader of any secular authoritarian, or totalitarian regime. The Grand Inquisitor lectures Christ on how he has made a serious mistake in bringing a kingdom that is “not of this world.”
According to the Grand Inquisitor, by resisting the Devil’s three temptations in the wilderness Christ offered humankind the gift of salvation that comes through moral and spiritual freedom. But human beings are weak and invariable require security in preference to freedom. Thus the new regime is “correcting” Christ’s gospel by orchestrating and administering a politics of collective happiness at the expense of truth. All real politics, the Grand Inquisitor suggests, is a politics of the lie, albeit a necessary a one, given human nature. Any politics of truth must be a purely cynical one, one that massages the desires, resentments, and fantasies of average people to advance a collective ideal they know to be impossible.
Today’s spooky Grand Inquisitor personality, of course, is the cunning and absolutely ruthless politician Frank Underwood from the Netflix television series House of Cards. Underwood is a master of both manipulation and deception, inexorably advancing his own ambition along with that of those favored by him while pulling the wool over the public’s eyes and even committing murder. Underwood, who knows not only how effectively to sweet-talk,, and in the same breath quietly to backstab allies, all the while persuading the electorate that he is a champion of all what Nietzsche wryly termed the era’s “highest values”, practices a politics of truth that can only be authentic for those who, like the Grand Inquisitor, bear the awful, inward revelation that it is nothing but a gigantic scam.
In his now largely forgotten, but at the time much-discussed and extremely controversial 1968 essay entitled “Repressive Tolerance”, philosopher Herbert Marcuse – the last of the original Frankfurt School of “critical theorists” who gained the reputation during that era as the “dean” of the New Left – argued that the politics of truth requires deliberate and systematic censorship of the kind of talk we are hearing in the political arena nowadays.
“The telos of tolerance is truth,” Marcuse wrote. (90) In short, “free speech” implies the tolerance of untruth, and
society cannot be indiscriminate where…freedom and happiness themselves are at stake…[Thus] certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed, certain behavior cannot be permitted without making tolerance an instrument for the continuation of servitude” (88)
Only speech that articulates what Marcuse termed “objective truth”, not ideas that constitute a “compromise between a variety of opinions”, can be countenanced, Marcuse argued (90). If at one time objective truth could be negotiated freely in a liberal democracy, that time was long gone, because what the public regards as baseline standards of political judgments has been hopelessly distorted by the corporate propaganda that keeps the economic elites (today we would call them the “1 percent”) in power.
Political theorist Sheldon Wolin, one of Marcuse’s fiercest critics, attacked this view as advocating the “dictatorship of the intellectual,” which of course it is. Indeed, Marcuse’s position, which his biographers report was forged about the time of the election of Richard Nixon and the suppression of anti-Vietnam militants, rings even more strongly today among many in the progressive movement. But Marcuse’s position also never found its way into actual electoral politics, so we have no historical benchmark from which to gauge its potential consequences. Populism, whether it be right-leaning or left-leaning, has always had its authoritarian undertones and a tendency to suppress the voice of the “other.”
We may be on the verge of finding out who exactly on both sides of the argument will, at least for the time being, carry the day when it comes to real, concrete politics for the first time in our history.