Posts Tagged ‘Free Speech’

This blog has never been obliged to observe every passing holiday or comment on celebrity deaths or public events via press release, public statement, command performance, ritual oversharing, or other characterization more closely associated with institutions and public figures who cannot keep from thrusting themselves wantonly onto the public despite having nothing of value to say. The chattering class maintains noise levels handily, so no need to add my voice to that cacophonous chorus. To wit, the recent Thanksgiving holiday prompts each of us every year to take stock anew and identify some area(s) of contentedness and gratitude, which can be challenging considering many Americans feel abandoned, betrayed, or worse as human history and civilization lurch despotically toward their end states. However, one overheard statement of gratitude this year made a strong impression on me, and as is my wont, I couldn’t help but to connect a variety of disparate ideas. Let me digress, starting with music.

Decades ago, the London Philharmonic under Jorge Mester recorded a collection of fanfares commissioned during WWII. American composers represented include (in no particular order) Henry Cowell, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, Morton Gould, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thomson, and Walter Piston. None of their respective fanfares has entered the standard repertoire. However, the sole composer whose stirring fanfare has become legitimate and instantly recognizable Americana is Aaron Copland. His fanfare celebrates no famous figure or fighting force but rather the common man. Copland’s choice to valorize the common man was a masterstroke and the music possesses appealing directness and simplicity that are unexpectedly difficult to capture in music. Far more, um, common is elaborate, noisy, surface detail that fails to please the ear nearly so well as Copland’s stately fanfare. Indeed, the album is called Twenty Fanfares for the Common Man even though that title only applies to Copland’s entry.

The holiday comment that stuck with me was a son’s gratitude for the enduring example set by his father, a common man. Whether one is disposed to embrace or repudiate the patriarchy, there can be no doubt that a father’s role within a family and community is unique. (So, too, is the mother’s. Relax, it’s not a competition; both are important and necessary.) The father-protector and father-knows-best phase of early childhood is echoed in the humorous observation that a dog sees its master as a god. Sadly, the my-dad-can-beat-up-your-dad taunt lives on, transmuted in … superhero flicks. As most of us enter adulthood, coming to terms with the shortcomings of one or both parents (nobody’s perfect …) is part of the maturation process: establishing one’s own life and identity independent yet somehow continuous from those of one’s parents. So it’s not unusual to find young men in particular striking out on their own, distancing from and disapproving of their fathers (sometimes sharply) but later circling back to reflect and reconcile. How many of us can honestly express unalloyed admiration for our fathers and their character examples? I suspect frustration when feet of clay are revealed is more typical.

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The difference between right and wrong is obvious to almost everyone by the end of kindergarten. Temptations persist and everyone does things great and small known to be wrong when enticements and advantages outweigh punishments. C’mon, you know you do it. I do, too. Only at the conclusion of a law degree or the start of a political career (funny how those two often coincide) do things get particularly fuzzy. One might add military service to those exceptions except that servicemen are trained not to think, simply do (i.e., follow orders without question). Anyone with functioning ethics and morality also recognizes that in legitimate cases of things getting unavoidably fuzzy in a hypercomplex world, the dividing line often can’t be established clearly. Thus, venturing into the wide, gray, middle area is really a signal that one has probably already gone too far. And yet, demonstrating that human society has not really progressed ethically despite considerable gains in technical prowess, egregiously wrong things are getting done anyway.

The whopper of which nearly everyone is guilty (thus, guilty pleasure) is … the Whopper. C’mon, you know you eat it do it. I know I do. Of course, the irresistible and ubiquitous fast food burger is really only one example of a wide array of foodstuffs known to be unhealthy, cause obesity, and pose long-term health problems. Doesn’t help that, just like Big Tobacco, the food industry knowingly refines their products (processed foods, anyway) to be hyperstimuli impossible to ignore or resist unless one is iron willed or develops an eating disorder. Another hyperstimulus most can’t escape is the smartphone (or a host of other electronic gadgets). C’mon, you know you crave the digital pacifier. I don’t, having managed to avoid that particular trap. For me, electronics are always only tools. However, railing against them with respect to how they distort cognition (as I have) convinces exactly no one, so that argument goes on the deferral pile.

Another giant example not in terms of participation but in terms of effect is the capitalist urge to gather to oneself as much filthy lucre as possible only to sit heartlessly on top of that nasty dragon’s hoard while others suffer in plain sight all around. C’mon, you know you would do it if you could. I know I would — at least up to a point. Periods of gross inequality come and go over the course of history. I won’t make direct comparisons between today and any one of several prior Gilded Ages in the U.S., but it’s no secret that the existence today of several hundy billionaires and an increasing number of mere multibillionaires represents a gross misallocation of financial resources: funneling the productivity of the masses (and fiat dollars whiffed into existence with keystrokes) into the hands of a few. Fake philanthropy to launder reputations fail to convince me that such folks are anything other than miserly Scrooges fixated on maintaining and growing their absurd wealth, influence, and bogus social status at the cost of their very souls. Seriously, who besides sycophants and climbers would want to even be in the same room as one of those people (names withheld)? Maybe better not to answer that question.

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The comic below struck a chord and reminded me of Gary Larson’s clumsily drawn but often trenchant The Far Side comics on scientific subjects.

This one masquerades as science but is merely wordplay, i.e., puns, double entendres, and unexpectedly funny malapropisms (made famous by Yogi Berra, among others). Wordplay is also found in various cultural realms, including comic strips and stand-up comedy, advertising and branding, politics, and now Wokedom (a subset of grassroots politics, some might argue). Playing with words has gone from being a clever, sometimes enjoyable diversion (e.g., crossword puzzles) to fully deranging, weaponized language. Some might be inclined to waive away the seriousness of that contention using the childhood retort “sticks and stones ….” Indeed, I’m far less convinced of the psychological power of verbal nastiness than those who insist words are violence. But it’s equally wrong to say that words don’t matter (much) or have no effect whatsoever. Otherwise, why would those acting in bad faith work so tirelessly to control the narrative, often by restricting free speech (as though writing or out-loud speech were necessary for thoughts to form)?

It’s with some exasperation that I observe words no longer retain their meanings. Yeah, yeah … language is dynamic. But semantic shifts usually occur slowly as language evolves. Moreover, for communication to occur effectively, senders and receivers must be aligned in their understandings of words. If you and I have divergent understandings of, say, yellow, we won’t get very far in discussions of egg yolks and sunsets. The same is true of words such as liberal, fascist, freedom, and violence. A lack of shared understanding of terms, perhaps borne out of ignorance, bias, or agenda, leads to communications breakdown. But it’s gotten far worse than that. The meanings of words have been thrown wide open to PoMo reinterpretation that often invert their meanings in precisely the way George Orwell observed in his novel 1984 (published 1949): “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Thus, earnest discussion of limitations on free speech and actual restriction on social media platforms, often via algorithmic identification of keywords that fail to account for irony, sarcasm, or context, fail to register that implementation of restrictive kludges already means free speech is essentially gone. The usual exceptions (obscenity, defamation, incitement, gag orders, secrecy, deceptive advertising, student speech, etc.) are not nearly as problematic because they have been adjudicated for several generations and accepted as established practice. Indeed, many exceptions have been relaxed considerably (e.g., obscenity that has become standard patois now fails to shock or offend), and slimy workarounds are now commonplace (e.g., using “people are saying …” to say something horrible yet shielding oneself while saying it). Another gray area includes fighting words and offensive words, which are being expanded (out of a misguided campaign to sanitize?) to include many words with origins as clinical and scientific terms, and faux offense used to stifle speech.

Restrictions on free speech are working in many respects, as many choose to self-censor to avoid running afoul of various self-appointed watchdogs or roving Internet thought police (another Orwell prophecy come true) ready to pounce on some unapproved utterance. One can argue whether self-censorship is cowardly or judicious, I suppose. However, silence and the pretense of agreement only conceal thoughts harbored privately and left unexpressed, which is why restrictions on public speech are fool’s errands and strategic blunders. Maybe the genie can be bottled for a time, but that only produces resentment (not agreement), which boils over into seething rage (and worse) at some point.

At this particular moment in U.S. culture, however, restrictions are not my greatest concern. Rather, it’s the wholesale control of information gathering and reporting that misrepresent or remove from the public sphere ingredients needed to form coherent thoughts and opinions. It’s not happening only to the hoi polloi; those in positions of power and control are manipulated, too. (How many lobbyists per member of Congress, industry after industry, whispering in their ears like so many Wormtongues?) And in extreme cases of fame and cult of personality, a leader or despot unwittingly surrounds him- or herself by a coterie of yes-men frankly afraid to tell the truth out of careerist self-interest or because of shoot-the-messenger syndrome. It’s lonely at the top, right?

Addendum: Mere minutes after publishing this post, I wandered over to Bracing Views (on my blogroll) and found this post saying some of the same things, namely, that choking information off at the source results in a degraded information landscape. Worth a read.

In the sense that all news is local and all learning is individual, meaning that it’s only when something is individualized and particularized that it takes on context and meaning, I may finally understand (some doubt still) Sheldon Wolin’s term “inverted totalitarianism,” part of the subtitle of his 2006 book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Regrettably, this book is among the (many) dozens that await my attention, so I can’t yet claim to have done the work. (I did catch a long YouTube interview of Wolin conducted by Chris Hedges, but that’s a poor substitute for reading the book.) My process is to percolate on a topic and its ancillary ideas over time until they come together satisfactorily, and my provisional understanding of the issues is closer to “proxy tyranny” than “inverted totalitarianism.”

I daresay most of us conceptualize tyranny and totalitarianism in the bootheel versions that manifested in several 20th-century despotic regimes (and survives in several others in the 21st century, names and locations withheld) where population management is characterized by stomping people down, grinding them into dust, and treating them as an undifferentiated mass. Administrators (e.g., secret police) paid close attention to anyone who might pose a problem for the regimes, and neighbors and family members were incentivized to betray inform on anyone who might be on officialdom’s radar. The 21st-century manifestation is different in that computers do most information gathering — a dragnet thrown over everyone — and we inform on ourselves by oversharing online. Close attention is still paid, but human eyes may never see extensive dossiers (forever records?) kept on each of us until something prompts attention. A further distinction is that in bootheel totalitarianism, intense scrutiny and punishment were ubiquitous, whereas at least in 21st-century America, a sizeable portion of the population can be handily ignored, abandoned, and/or forgotten. They’re powerless, harmless, and inconsequential, not drawing attention. Additionally, there is also no bottom to how low they can sink, as the burgeoning homeless population demonstrates.

If tyranny is normally understood as emanating from the top down, it’s inversion is bottom up. Wolin’s inverted totalitarianism is not a grassroots phenomenon but rather corporate capture of government. While Wolin’s formulation may be true (especially at the time his book was published), government has relinquished none of its power so much as realigned its objectives to fit corporate profit motives, and in doing so, shifted administrative burdens to proxies. Silicon Valley corporations (of the big data type especially) are the principal water carriers, practicing surveillance capitalism and as private entities exercising censorious cancellation of dissenting opinion that no formal government could countenance. Similarly, an entire generation of miseducated social justice warriors scours social media for evidence of noncomforming behavior, usually some offense of the meme of the moment a/k/a “I support the current thing” (though racism is the perennial accusation — an original sin that can never be forgiven or assuaged), waiting to pounce in indignation and destroy lives and livelihoods. Cancel culture is a true bottom-up phenomenon, with self-appointed emissaries doing the work that the government is only too happy to hand off to compliant, brainwashed ideologues.

In the Covid era, nonconforming individuals (e.g., those who refuse the jab(s) or call bullshit on continuously shifting narratives announced by various agencies that lack legal standing to compel anything) are disenfranchised in numerous ways even while the wider culture accepts that the pandemic is indeed endemic and simply gets on with life. Yet every brick-and-mortar establishment has been authorized, deputized, and indeed required to enforce unlawful policies of the moment as proxies for government application of force. Under threat of extended closure, every restaurant, retailer, arts organization, and sports venue demanded the literal or figurative equivalent of “papers please” to enter and assemble. Like the airlines, people are increasingly regarded as dehumanized cargo, treated roughly like the famous luggage ape (and not always without good reason). In most places, restrictions have been lifted; in others they persist. But make no mistake, this instantiation of proxy tyranny — compelling others to do the dirty work so that governments can not so plausibly deny direct responsibility — is the blueprint for future mistreatment. Personally, I’m rather ashamed that fewer Americans stood up for what is right and true (according to me, obviously), echoing this famous admission of moral failure. For my own part, I’ve resisted (and paid the price for that resistance) in several instances.

Continuing from the previous blog post, lengthy credit scrolls at the ends of movies have become a favorite hiding place for bloopers and teasers. The purpose of this practice is unclear, since I can’t pretend (unlike many reckless opinonators) to inhabit the minds of filmmakers, but it has become a fairly reliable afterthought for film-goers willing to wait out the credits. Those who depart the theater, change the channel, or click away to other content may know they are relinquishing some last tidbit to be discovered, but there’s no way to know in advance if one is being punked or pleased, or indeed if there is anything at all there. Clickbait news often employs this same technique, teasing some newsbit in the headline to entice readers to wade (or skim) through a series of (ugh!) one-sentence paragraphs to find the desired content, which sometimes is not even provided. At least one film (Monty Python’s The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (1982) as memory serves) pranked those in a rush to beat foot traffic out of the theater (back when film-going meant visiting the cinema) by having an additional thirty minutes of material after the (first) credit sequence.

This also put me in mind of Paul Harvey radio broadcasts ending with the sign-off tag line, “… the rest of the story.” Harvey supplemented the news with obscure yet interesting facts and analysis that tended to reshape one’s understanding of consensus narrative. Such reshaping is especially important as an ongoing process of clarification and revision. When served up in delectable chunks by winning personalities like Paul Harvey, supplemental material is easily absorbed. When material requires effort to obtain and/or challenges one’s beliefs, something strongly, well, the default response is probably not to bother. However, those possessing intellectual integrity welcome challenging material and indeed seek it out. Indeed, invalidation of a thesis or hypothesis is fundamental to the scientific method, and no body of work can be sequestered from scrutiny and then be held as legitimately authoritative.

Yet that’s what happens routinely in the contemporary infosphere. A government press office or corporate public relations officer issues guidance or policy in direct conflict with earlier guidance or policy and in doing so seeks to place any resulting cognitive dissonance beyond examination and out of scope. Simple matters of adjustment are not what concern me. Rather, it’s wholesale brainwashing that is of concern, when something is clear within one’s memory or plainly documented in print/video yet brazenly denied, circumvented, and deflected in favor of a new directive. The American public has contended with this repeatedly as each new presidential administration demonizes the policies of its predecessors but typically without demonstrating the self-reflection and -examination to admit, wrongdoing, responsibility, or error on anyone’s part. It’s a distinctly American phenomenon, though others have cottoned onto it and adopted the practice for themselves.

Exhaustion from separating the spin-doctored utterances of one malefactor or another from one’s own direct experience and sense-making drives many to simply give up. “Whatever you say, sir. Lemme go back to my entertainments.” The prospect of a never-ending slog through evidence and analysis only to arrive on unsteady ground, due to shift underfoot again and again with each new revelation, is particularly unsatisfactory. And as discussed before, those who nonetheless strain to achieve knowledge and understanding that reach temporary sufficiency yet remain permanently, intransigently provisional find themselves thwarted by those in the employ of organizations willing and eager to game information systems in the service of their not-even-hidden agendas. Alternative dangers for the muddled thinker include retreating into fixed ideology or collapsing into solipsism. Maybe none of it matters in the end. We can choose our beliefs from the buffet of available options without adherence to reality. We can create our own reality. Of course, that’s a description of madness, to which many have already succumbed. Why aren’t they wearing straitjackets?

Here’s a term I daresay most won’t recognize: the purse seine. My introduction was as the title of a poem by Robinson Jeffers. More generally, the term refers to a net drawn between two fishing boats to encircle a school of fish. The poem captures something both beautiful and terrifying, drawing an analogy between a fishing net and government power over human populations gathered into cities (confined by economic necessity?) rather than subsisting more simply on the bounty of nature. Whether Jeffers intends a traditional agrarian setting or a deeper, ancestral, hunter-gatherer orientation is unclear and probably doesn’t matter. The obvious counterpoint he names plainly: Progress (capital P).

My own analogy to the purse seine is more pedestrian: cloth masks strung between two ears and drawn over the face to encircle the breath in futile hope of impeding the respiratory virus that has impacted everyone worldwide for the last two years (needs no name — are you living under a rock?). Like a seine allows water to flow through, cloth masks allow airflow so that one can breathe. Otherwise, we’d all be wearing gas masks and/or hazmat suits 24/7. And therein lies the problem: given the tiny particle size of the pathogen, cloth and paper masks are akin (yes, another analogy) to using a chain-link fence to hold back the wind. That’s not what fences (or face masks) are designed to do. More robust N95 masks do little better for the very same reason. Gotta be able to breathe. Other pandemic mitigation efforts such as social distancing, lock downs, and vaccines suffer from similar lack of efficacy no matter how official pronouncements insist otherwise. The pandemic has come in similar, unstoppable, year-over-year waves in locations/states/nations that took few or no precautions and those that imposed the most egregious authoritarian measures. The comparative numbers (those not purposely distorted beyond recognition, anyway) tell the story clearly, as anyone with a principled understanding of infectious disease could well have anticipated considering humans are a hypersocial species packed into dense population centers (compared to our agrarian past).

Although these are statements of the obvious, at least to me, I’ve broken my previous silence on the pandemic and surmise I’m probably tempting the censors and trolls. I’m not giving advice, and others can of course disagree; I’ve no particular issue with principled disagreement. Decide for yourself what to do. I do have a problem, however, with self-censorship (read: cowardice). So although this blog post is a rather oblique way of saying that the putative consensus narrative is a giant, shifting pile of horse pucky (disintegrating further into nothingness with each passing day), please exercise your synapses and evaluate the evidence best you can despite official channels (and plenty of water carriers) herding and bullying everyone toward conclusions that make utterly no sense in terms of public health.

Although disinclined to take the optimistic perspective inhabited by bright-siders, I’m nonetheless unable to live in a state of perpetual fear that would to façile thinkers be more fitting for a pessimist. Yet unrelenting fear is the dominant approach, with every major media outlet constantly stoking a toxic combination of fear and hatred, as though activation and ongoing conditioning of the lizard brain (i.e., the amygdala — or maybe not) in everyone were worthy of the endeavor rather than it being a limited instinctual response, leaping to the fore only when immediate threat presents. I can’t guess the motivations of purveyors of constant fear to discern an endgame, but a few of the dynamics are clear enough to observe.

First thing that comes to mind is that the U.S. in the 1930s and 40s was pacifist and isolationist. Recent memory of the Great War was still keenly felt, and with the difficulties of the 1929 Crash and ensuing Great Depression still very must present, the prospect of engaging in a new, unlimited war (even over there) was not at all attractive to the citizenry. Of course, political leaders always regard (not) entering into war somewhat differently, maybe in terms of opportunity cost. Hard to say. Whether by hook or by crook (I don’t actually know whether advance knowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was suppressed), the U.S. was handily drawn into the war, and a variety of world-historical developments followed that promoted the U.S. (and its sprawling, unacknowledged empire) into the global hegemon, at least after the Soviet Union collapsed and before China rose from a predominantly peasant culture into world economic power. A not-so-subtle hindsight lesson was learned, namely, that against widespread public sentiment and at great cost, the war effort could (not would) provide substantial benefits (if ill-gotten and of questionable desirability).

None of the intervening wars (never declared) or Wars for Dummies (e.g., the war on poverty, the war on crime, the war on drugs) provided similar benefits except to government agencies and careerist administrators. Nor did the war on terror following the 9/11 attacks or subsequent undeclared wars and bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere provide benefits. All were massive boondoggles with substantial destruction and loss of life. Yet after 9/11, a body of sweeping legislation was enacted without much public debate or scrutiny — “smuggled in under cover of fear” one might say. The Patriot Act and The National Defense Authorization Act are among the most notable. The conditioned response by the citizenry to perceived but not actual existential fear was consistent: desperate pleading to keep everyone safe from threat (even if it originates in the U.S. government) and tacit approval to roll back civil liberties (even though the citizenry is not itself the threat). The wisdom of the old Benjamin Franklin quote, borne out of a very different era and now rendered more nearly as a bromide, has long been lost on many Americans.

The newest omnipresent threat, literally made-to-order (at least according to some — who can really know when it comes to conspiracy), is the Covid pandemic. Nearly every talking, squawking head in government and the mainstream media (the latter now practically useless except for obvious propaganda functions) is telling everyone who still watches (video and broadcast being the dominant modes) to cower in fear of each other, reduce or refuse human contact and social function, and most of all, take the vaccine-not-really-a-vaccine followed by what is developing into a ongoing series of boosters to maintain fear and anxiety if not indeed provide medical efficacy (no good way to measure and substantiate that, anyway). The drumbeat is loud and unabated, and a large, unthinking (or spineless) portion of the citizenry, cowed and cowering, has basically joined the drum circle, spreading a social consensus that is very, well, un-American. Opinion as to other nations on similar tracks are not ventured here. Running slightly ahead of the pandemic is the mind virus of wokery and its sufferers who demand, among other things, control over others’ thoughts and speech through threats and intimidation, censorship, and social cancellation — usually in the name of safety but without any evidence how driving independent thought underground or into hiding accomplishes anything worthwhile.

Again, motivations and endgame in all this are unclear, though concentration of power to compel seems to be exhilarating. In effect, regular folks are being told, “stand on one leg; good boy; now bark like a dog; very good boy; now get used to it because this shit is never going to end but will surely escalate to intolerability.” It truly surprises me to see police forces around the world harassing, beating, and terrorizing citizens for failing to do as told, however arbitrary or questionable the order or the underlying justification. Waiting for the moment to dawn on rank-and-file officers that their monopoly on use of force is serving and protecting the wrong constituency. (Not holding my breath.) This is the stuff of dystopic novels, except that it’s not limited to fiction and frankly never was. The hotspot(s) shift in terms of time and place, but totalitarian mind and behavioral control never seems to fade or invalidate itself as one might expect. Covid passports to grant full participation in society (signalling compliance, not health) is the early step already adopted by some countries. My repeated warnings over the years of creeping fascism (more coercive style than form of government) appears to be materializing before our very eyes. I’m afraid of what portends, but with what remains of my intact mind, I can’t live in perpetual fear, come what may.

For more than a decade, I’ve had in the back of my mind a blog post called “The Power of Naming” to remark that bestowing a name gives something power, substance, and in a sense, reality. That post never really came together, but its inverse did. Anyway, here’s a renewed attempt.

The period of language acquisition in early childhood is suffused with learning the names of things, most of which is passive. Names of animals (associated closely with sounds they make) are often a special focus using picture books. The kitty, doggie, and horsie eventually become the cat, dog, and horse. Similarly, the moo-cow and the tweety-bird shorten to cow and bird (though songbird may be an acceptable holdover). Words in the abstract are signifiers of the actual things, aided by the text symbols learned in literate cultures to reinforce mere categories instead of examples grounded in reality. Multiply the names of things several hundred thousand times into adulthood and indeed throughout life and one can develop a formidable vocabulary supporting expressive and nuanced thought and speech. Do you know the differences between acute, right, obtuse, straight, and reflex angles? Does it matter? Does your knowledge of barware inform when to use a flute, coupe, snifter, shot (or shooter or caballito), nosing glass (or Glencairn), tumbler, tankard, goblet, sling, and Stein? I’d say you’ve missed something by never having drunk dark beer (Ger.: Schwarzbier) from a frosted schooner. All these varieties developed for reasons that remain invisible to someone content to drink everything from the venerable red Solo cup. Funnily enough, the red Solo cup now comes in different versions, fooling precisely no one.

Returning to book blogging, Walter Ong (in Orality and Literacy) has curious comparisons between primarily oral cultures and literate cultures. For example:

Oral people commonly think of names (one kind of words) as conveying power over things. Explanations of Adam’s naming of the animals in Genesis 2:20 usually call condescending attention to this presumably quaint archaic belief. Such a belief is in fact far less quaint than it seems to unreflective chirographic and typographic folk. First of all, names do give humans beings power over what they name: without learning a vast store of names, one is simply powerless to understand, for example, chemistry and to practice chemical engineering. And so with all other intellectual knowledge. Secondly, chirographic and typographic folk tend to think of names as labels, written or printed tags imaginatively affixed to an object named. Oral folk have no sense of a name as a tag, for they have no idea of a name as something that can be seen. Written or printed representations of words can be labels; real, spoken words cannot be. [p. 33]

This gets at something that has been developing over the past few decades, namely, that as otherwise literate (or functionally literate) people gather more and more information through electronic media (screens that serve broadcast and cable TV, YouTube videos, prerecorded news for streaming, and podcasts, and most importantly, audiobooks — all of which speak content to listeners), the spoken word (re)gains primacy and the printed word fades into disuse. Electronic media may produce a hybrid of orality/literacy, but words are no longer silent, internal, and abstract. Indeed, words — all by themselves — are understood as being capable of violence. Gone are the days when “stick and stones ….” Now, fighting words incite and insults sting again.

Not so long ago, it was possible to provoke a duel with an insult or gesture, such as a glove across the face. Among some people, defense of honor never really disappeared (though dueling did). History has taken a strange turn, however. Proposed legislation to criminalize deadnaming (presumably to protect a small but growing number of transgender and nonbinary people who have redefined their gender identity and accordingly adopted different names) recognizes the violence of words but then tries to transmute the offense into an abstract criminal law. It’s deeply mixed up, and I don’t have the patience to sort it out.

More to say in later blog posts, but I’ll raise the Counter-Enlightenment once more to say that the nature of modern consciousness if shifting somewhat radically in response to stimuli and pressures that grew out of an information environment, roughly 70 years old now but transformed even more fundamentally in the last 25 years, that is substantially discontinuous from centuries-old traditions. Those traditions displaced even older traditions inherited from antiquity. Such is the way of the world, I suppose, and with the benefit of Walter Ong’s insights, my appreciation of the outlines is taking better shape.

/rant on

The self-appointed Thought Police continue their rampage through the public sphere, campaigning to disallow certain thoughts and fence off unacceptable, unsanitary, unhygienic, unhealthy utterances lest they spread, infect, and distort their host thinkers. Entire histories are being purged from, well, history, to pretend they either never happened or will never happen again, because (doncha know?) attempting to squeeze disreputable thought out of existence can’t possibly result in those forbidden fruits blossoming elsewhere, in the shadows, in all their overripe color and sweetness. The restrictive impulse — policing free speech and free thought — is as old as it is stupid. For example, it’s found in the use of euphemisms that pretend to mask the true nature of all manner of unpleasantness, such as death, racial and national epithets, unsavory ideologies, etc. However, farting is still farting, and calling it “passing wind” does nothing to reduce its stink. Plus, we all fart, just like we all inevitably traffic in ideas from time to time that are unwholesome. Manners demand some discretion when farting broaching some topics, but the point is that one must learn how to handle such difficulty responsibly rather than attempting to hold it in drive it out of thought entirely, which simply doesn’t work. No one knows automatically how to navigate through these minefields.

Considering that the body and mind possess myriad inhibitory-excitatory mechanisms that push and/or pull (i.e., good/bad, on/off, native/alien), a wizened person might recognize that both directions are needed to achieve balance. For instance, exposure to at least some hardship has the salutary effect of building character, whereas constant indulgence results in spoiled children (later, adults). Similarly, the biceps/triceps operate in tandem and opposition and need each other to function properly. However, most inhibitory-excitatory mechanisms aren’t so nearly binary as our language tends to imply but rather rely on an array of inputs. Sorting them all out is like trying to answer the nature/nurture question. Good luck with that.

Here’s a case in point: student and professional athletes in the U.S. are often prohibited from kneeling in dissent during the playing of the national anthem. The prohibition does nothing to ameliorate the roots of dissent but only suppresses its expression under narrow, temporary circumstances. Muzzling speech (ironically in the form of silent behavior) prior to sports contests may actually boomerang to inflame it. Some athletes knuckle under and accept the deal they’re offered (STFU! or lose your position — note the initialism used to hide the curse word) while others take principled stands (while kneeling, ha!) against others attempting to police thought. Some might argue that the setting demands good manners and restraint, while others argue that, by not stomping around the playing field carrying placards, gesticulating threateningly, or chanting slogans, restraint is being used. Opinions differ, obviously, and so the debate goes on. In a free society, that’s how it works. Societies with too many severe restrictions, often bordering on or going fully into fascism and totalitarianism, are intolerable to many of us fed current-day jingoism regarding democracy, freedom, and self-determination.

Many members of the U.S. Congress, sworn protectors of the U.S. Constitution, fundamentally misunderstand the First Amendment, or at least they conveniently pretend to. (I suspect it’s the former). Here is it for reference:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Defending the First Amendment against infringement requires character and principles. What we have instead, both in Congress and in American society, are ideologues and authorities who want to make some categories flatly unthinkable and subject others to prosecution. Whistleblowing falls into the latter category. They are aided by the gradual erosion of educational achievement and shift away from literacy to orality, which robs language of its richness and polysemy. If words are placed out of bounds, made unutterable (but not unthinkable), the very tools of thought and expression are removed. The thoughts themselves may be driven underground or reduced to incoherence, but that’s not a respectable goal. Only under the harshest conditions (Orwell depicted them) can specific thoughts be made truly unthinkable, which typically impoverishes and/or breaks the mind of the thinker or at least results in pro forma public assent while private dissent gets stuffed down. To balance and combat truly virulent notions, exposure and discussion is needed, not suppression. But because many public figures have swallowed a bizarre combination of incoherent notions and are advocating for them, the mood is shifting away from First Amendment protection. Even absolutists like me are forced to reconsider, as for example with this article. The very openness to consideration of contrary thinking may well be the vulnerability being exploited by crypto-fascists.

Calls to establish a Ministry of Truth have progressed beyond the Silicon Valley tech platforms’ arbitrary and (one presumes) algorithm-driven removal of huge swaths of user-created content to a new bill introduced in the Colorado State Senate to establish a Digital Communications Regulation commission (summary here). Maybe this first step toward hammering out a legislative response to surveillance capitalism will rein in the predatory behaviors of big tech. The cynic in me harbors doubts. Instead, resulting legislation is far more likely to be aimed at users of those platforms.

/rant off

So far, this multipart blog post has trafficked in principles and generalities. Let me try now to be more specific, starting with an excerpt from Barry Lynn’s article in Harper’s Magazine titled “The Big Tech Extortion Racket” (Sept. 2020):

… around the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans began to develop technologies that could not be broken into component pieces. This was especially true of the railroad and the telegraph … Such corporations [railroad and telegraph companies] posed one overarching challenge: they charged some people more than others to get to market. They exploited their control over an essential service in order to extort money, and sometimes political favors … Americans found the answer to this problem in common law. For centuries, the owners of ferries, stagecoaches, and inns had been required to serve all customers for the same price and in the order in which they arrived. In the late nineteenth century, versions of such “common carrier” rules were applied to the new middleman corporations.

Today we rightly celebrate the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which gave Americans the power to break apart private corporations. But in many respects, the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 was the more important document. This act was based on the understanding that monopoly networks like the railroad and the telegraph could be used to influence the actions of people who depend on them, and hence their power must be carefully restricted …

For a century and a half, Americans used common carrier policies to ensure the rule of law in activities that depended on privately held monopolies … regulations freed Americans to take full advantage of every important network technology introduced during these years, including telephones, water and electrical services, energy pipelines, and even large, logistics-powered retailers. Citizens did not have to worry that the men who controlled the technologies involved would exploit their middleman position to steal other people’s business or disrupt balances of power.

I appreciate that Barry Lynn brings up the Interstate Commerce Act. If this legal doctrine appeared in the net neutrality debate a few years ago, it must have escaped my notice. While Internet Service Providers (ISPs) enable network access and connectivity, those utilities have not yet exhibited let’s-be-evil characteristics. Similarly, phone companies (including cell phones) and public libraries may well be eavesdropping and/or monitoring activities of the citizenry, but the real action lies elsewhere, namely, on social media networks and with online retailers. Evil is arguably concentrated in the FANG (or FAANG) corporations but has now grown to be ubiquitous in all social networks (e.g., Twitter) operating as common carriers (Zoom? Slack?) and across academe, nearly all of which have succumbed to moral panic. They are interpreting correctly, sad to observe, demands to censor and sanitize others’ no-longer-free speech appearing on their networks or within their realms. How much deeper it goes toward shaping politics and social engineering is quasi-conspiratorial and impossible for me to assess.

Much as I would prefer to believe that individuals possess the good sense to shift their activities away from social networks or turn their attention from discomfiting information sources, that does not appear to be the case. Demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces commonplace a few years ago on college campuses have instead morphed into censorious removal, deplatforming, and cancellation from the entire public sphere. Those are wrong responses in free societies, but modern institutions and technologies have gotten out of hand and outstripped the limits of normal human cognition. In short, we’re a society gone mad. So rather than accept responsibility to sort out information overflow oneself, many are demanding that others do it for them, and evil private corporations are complying (after a fashion). Moreover, calls for creation of an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, rebranded as a Truth Commission and Reality Czar, could hardly be any more chillingly and fascistically bizarre. People really need someone to brainwash decide for them what is real? Has anyone at the New York Times actually read Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 and taken to heart its lessons?