Disputed Ground

On Martial Arts, Politics, and Culture.

Liberalism and speech

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Some late thoughts on the firing of left-wing blogger Matt Bruenig:

Bruenig was fired from his blogging job at Demos, a liberal think tank, after he called Neera Tanden a scumbag, referencing the “Scumbag Steve” meme.In the aftermath, some rather nasty liberal partisans have tried to get Bruenig fired from his other job as a lawyer.

Many have rightly skewered the naked hypocrisy of how “civility” is enforced. In the world of DC elites, advocating that we bomb Libya and pillage their oil is “civil”, but calling the author of that comment a scumbag is uncivil. Beyond that, these people can’t even consistently meet their own self-serving standard, and routinely engage those less powerful with rude or aggressive language.

Be that as it may, I don’t think the issue is hypocrisy. I think this sort of behavior is perfectly consistent with espoused liberal belief (here liberal is used to mean the large core of establishment democrats and their supporters).

Liberals like Tanden believe that it would be wrong for an elected committee of federal officials to have fined Bruenig the equivalent of his Demos pay, as a means of deterring him from posting at Demos again. They are right to believe this. Yet, they also believe that it is perfectly OK for unaccountable “private individuals” to deny Bruenig both the pay and the platform, even if they are doing so under economic coercion from other “private” actors.

How do they justify such a self-evidently incoherent belief? For the current generation of liberals, there exists two distinct spheres (A) Politics & (B) Society. Rights only apply to (A), and malfunctions in (B) are only a problem if they can be tied to malfunctions in (A).

Let’s try this out to see if it holds up.

Voting rights: It is a problem if formal political legislatures attempt to make voting more difficult by imposing ID card requirements. Yet, for liberals, it is not a problem if, as in New York, millions are excluded from a primary election. “Parties are private organizations, they can set their own rules!”.  Onerous registration rules, in practice, can be just as effective a means of voter suppression as ID cards. The difference then is not in impact. The difference is that liberals believe in a different set of rules for the “private”.

Expression:  It would be wrong for the federal government to stop you from publishing your political views. Yet, for liberals, it would be fine, even if unfortunate, for a media owner to stop you.

The elites: Liberals are focused on diversifying the elite, rather than abolishing it. The problem is not tremendous inequalities in both material and power, the problem is that, due to the legacy of various discriminatory political paradigms, the elite is a disproportionately white and male one. On a purely strategic level, such a lack of diversity is dangerous for the elites. Beyond that, we get to the core of the beliefs: Inequalities generated by the market are OK. So long as the market is kept sufficiently free of the malfunctions that stem from the rival sphere of politics.

Liberals, however much they may want to temper the lows of the market, ultimately believe in its meritocratic elements. Their very opposition to formal government censorship is based on the supremacy of “the marketplace of ideas”. Countless voices are censored every single day by this so called marketplace, quietly and without attention. Liberals are right to oppose government censorship (A). They are wrong to discount the unjust coercion of private censorship (B).

Such a series of confusions is built on a foundation of lies. Privatized coercion is coercion nonetheless. Most of us will run into the walls and constraints of private power way more often than the political constraints of the state. Just as we oppose public coercion, we ought oppose private coercion. Accordingly political freedom is a necessary but not sufficient component of human freedom.

We can go further still, and denounce the lie that politics and the market exist separately to begin with.  Human beings don’t live in two separate spheres. From “the original sin” of ill-gotten appropriations of wealth, to the mechanisms needed to keep the current economic system functioning, to the petty cronyism and corruption of the networks of government and corporate interest, the two realms are really one. (A) has never been separate from (B).

Thus, we go back to our particular case. In the world of think tanks, with their funding derived from the select interest groups that curry favor with factions of the government, the farce of some separate meritocratic marketplace rendering its judgment becomes even more laughable.

The left then, in our response, should be clear about a few things. I don’t think the focus should be about the plight of the Bruenigs. In this particular case, they seem like resourceful people. They’ll be alright. Nor do I think we should act surprised when these institutions behave this way. On the contrary, we expect them to. They will never act otherwise, and it is exactly because of this behavior that we propose to replace these institutions with something more equitable.

And we should be optimistic. Every day, some very educated scold finds themselves defending the indefensible. These are the people that consider themselves very educated, oh so smart, consider themselves progressive, and without any sense of irony or self-awareness condescend to others that “it’s not censorship, only the government can do that!”. No one buys it. As elites and their followers get drunk on their own indoctrination and discredit themselves with their shamelessness, they’ll face a world in which a growing number of people see the con for what it is.


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