N+1‘s Benjamin Kunkel takes an opportunity to reflect on John Stuart Mill in the wake of the election:
Politics no longer involves the public use of reason; it is instead a matter of psychopathology, and is already treated as such by politicians and the public alike. Only this can account for the political centrality of the “gaffe” or slip of the tongue, an eminence that verbal inadvertencies have not enjoyed since the early days of psychoanalysis.
He introduces the essay by pointing out the disjuncture in Mill’s utilitarian case for free expression–that it was a deductive process from which truth would eventually arise–and the noisy, apparently psychopathic public square we have today.
The unstated corollary is that, should free expression not be conducive to the propagation of truth, one might be justified in restricting it in a truth-maximizing way. This, of course, would have to be entrusted to some authority, like a Commission for the Balanced Dissemination of Facts, or a Ministry of Truth, or the FCC.
The culprits for this dumbing-down of the public square are the usual suspects. Politicians and hacks who give elliptical answers to things is purported to be evidence of a new era in which every citizen plays the role of “shrink faced with a patient.” Of course, Citizens United is also to blame, about which he says:
This was an argument, then, not so much about the right of corporations, construed as people, to say what they like regardless of effects, but about the usefulness of corporate speech to the citizenry. The Supreme Court, composed of political appointees whose task is rationalization, not reasoning, may have been cynical in its arguments; but it paid homage to a venerable ideal in claiming that untrammeled corporate expression (which involves soundtracks and visual images as much as literal “speech”) would improve the intellectual judgment of citizens and the practical decision-making of their representatives.
That isn’t even close to being accurate. You can bet there would have been a riot if the court actually held that speech had to pass a litmus test of public utility, even if outside corporate campaign money did meet that standard. They didn’t. After this election proved that the endless hype that billionaire malefactors were buying our elections was wildly overstated, it does seem a little tone-deaf to go on about how it was Citizens United that poisoned the discourse. He calls for the “creation of public fora that make freedom of expression an actual capacity of citizens rather than a mere alibi for corporate dominion over speech” and despairs:
Our current difficulty in imagining how this last right—of genuine free expression—could be specified and enforced offers one explanation for why the rest of the program, easier to imagine, still seems like such a pipe dream. To whom could we address our minimalist sketch of utopia? Our small portion of the public can hardly communicate with the preponderant remainder, even to be jeered at.
I suspect this failure of communication has little to do with Democratic neurosis or Republican paranoia or Kunkel’s other obscurantist theories, and more to do with the fact that the world he describes has nothing to do with the one experienced by most people. The public enjoys fewer restrictions on free expression, and with the Internet, more outlets through which to express themselves than at any other time in human history.
As Kunkel admits, apart from a facile critique of neoliberalism, “our utopian project is much less well defined.” And all this talk about the irredeemable morass where our public square used to be seems, psychoanalytically, to suggest the desire for an authority to order and structure it. While I applaud the conservative inclination of such sentiments, the realm of public speech is surely no place to apply them.