Why liberals might kill free speech

We’ve got a huge problem on our hands which the 2016 election, along with Brexit, has not so much created as fully exposed. What we’ve witnessed is a kind of short-circuit between the three pillars that have defined our particular form of democratic liberalism over the last century. Democratic liberalism over the 20th and into the 21st century consisted of a kind of balance between the public at large, mass media, and policy elites with the link between the three being political representatives of one of the major parties. As idealized by public philosophers such as Walter Lippmann, the role of politicians was to choose among the policy options presented by experts and “sell” those policies to the public using the tools of mass communication to ensure their legitimacy.

The fact that such a balance became the ideal in the first place, let alone its inevitable failure, can only be grasped fully when one becomes familiar with its history.

Non-print based mass media only became available during the course of the First World War and it was here that the potential of media such as film, radio, posters and billboards to create a truly emotionally and ideologically unified public became apparent- although the US had come close to this discovery a little over in a decade earlier in the form of mass circulation newspapers which were instrumental in getting the American public behind the Spanish- American War and that itself gave rise to real standards of objectivity in journalism.

During WWI it was the Americans and British who mastered the art of war propaganda transforming their enemies the Germans into savage “huns” and engendering a kind of will to sacrifice for what (at least for the Americans) was a distant and abstract cause. Lippmann himself was on the Creel Committee which launched this then new form of political propaganda. Hitler would write enviously of British and American propaganda in Mein Kampf, and both the Nazis and the Soviet would use the new media and the proof of concept offered by allied powers in the war, to form the basis of the totalitarian state. Those systems ultimately failed but their rise and attraction reveal the extent to which democracy, less than a century from our own time, was seen to be failing. Not just the victory of the Soviets in the war, but the way they were able to rapidly transform the Russian Empire from an agrarian backwater to an industrial and scientific powerhouse seemed to show that the future belonged to the system that most fully empowered its technocrats.

The Great Depression and Second World War would prove to be the golden age of experts in the West as well. In the US in was technocrats who crafted the response to the economic crisis, who managed the American economy during the war, who were responsible for technological breakthroughs such as atomic weapons, rockets capable of reaching space, and the first computers. It was policy experts who crafted novel responses to unprecedented political events such as the Marshall Plan and Containment.

Where the Western and Soviet view of the role of experts differed had less to do with their prominence and more to do with their plurality or lack of it. Whereas in the Soviet Union all experts were united under the umbrella of the Party, Western countries left the plurality of experts intact so that the bureaucrats who ran big business were distinct from the bureaucrats who ran government agencies and neither had any clear relationship to the parties that remained the source of mass political mobilization while the press remained free (if not free of elite assumptions and pressures) to forge the public’s interpretation of events as it liked.

Lippmann had hoped the revolutionary medium of his time- television- would finally provide a way for the technocrats he thought necessary to rule a society that had become too complex for the form of representative democracy that had preceded allowing experts to directly communicate with the public and in so doing forge consensus for elite policies. What dashed his hopes was a rigged game show.

The Quiz show scandal that broke in the 1950’s (it was made into an excellent movie in the 90’s) proved to Lippmann that American style television with its commercial pressures could not be the medium he had hoped for. In his essay, Television: whose creature, whose servant?   Lippmann called for the creation of an American version of the BBC. (PBS would be created in 1970, as would NPR). Indeed, the scandal did drive the three major US television networks- especially CBS- towards the coverage of serious news and critical reporting. Such reporting helped erode political support for the Vietnam war, though not, as it’s often believed, by turning public opinion against the war, but as pointed out back in the 1980’s by Michael Mandelbaum in his essay Vietnam: The Television War  by helping to mobilize such as vast number of opponents as to polarize the American public in a way that made sustaining the post-war consensus unsustainable. Vietnam was the first large scale failure of the technocrats- it would not be their last.

From the 1970’s until today this polarization was mined by a new entry on the media landscape- cable news- starting with Ted Turner and CNN. As Tim Wu lays out in his book The Master Switch, the rise of cable was in part enabled by Nixon’s mistrust of what was then “mainstream news” (Nixon helped deregulate cable). This rise (more accurately return) of partisan media occurred at the same time Noam Chomsky (owl of Minerva like) in his book Manufacturing Consent was arguing that the press was much less free and independent than it pretended to be. Instead it was wholly subservient to commercial influence and the groupthink of those posing to be experts. And hadn’t, after all, George Kennan, the brilliant mind behind containment and an unapologetic elitists compared American democracy to a monster with a brain the size of a pin?

Chomsky’s point held even in the era of cable news for there was a great deal of political diversity that fell outside the range between Fox News and CNN. Manufactured consent would fail, however, with the rise of the internet which would allow the cheap production and distribution of political speech in a way that had never been seen before, though there had been glimpses. Political speech was democratized at almost the exact same time trust in policy elites had collapsed. The reasons for such a collapse in trust aren’t hard to find.

American policy elites have embraced an economic agenda that has left working class income stagnant for over a generation. The globalization and de-unionization they promoted has played a large (though not the only) role in the decline of the middle class on which stable democracy depends. The Clinton machine bears a large responsibility for the left’s foolish embrace of this neoliberal agenda, which abandoned blue collar workers to transform the Democratic party into a vehicle for white collar professionals and identity groups.

Foreign policy elites along with an uncritical mainstream media led us into at least one disastrous and wholly unnecessary war in Iraq, a war whose consequences continue to be felt and which was exacerbated by yet more failure by these same elites. Our economic high-priests brought us the 2008 financial crisis the response to which has been a coup by the owning classes at the cost of trillions of dollars. As Trump’s “populist” revolt of Goldman Sachs alums demonstrates, the oligarchs now thoroughly control American government.

And it’s not only social science experts, politicians and journalist who have earned the public’s lack of trust. Science itself is in a crisis of gaming where it seems “results” matter much more than the truth. Corporations engage in deliberate disinformation, what Robert Proctor calls agnotology.

The three legs of Lippmann’s stool- policy experts, the media, and the public have collapsed as expertise has become corporatized and politicians have become beholden to those corporate interest, while at the same time political speech has escaped from anyone’s overt control. Trump seems to be the first political figure to have capitalized on this breakdown- a fact that does not bode well for democracy’s future.

Perhaps we should just call a spade a spade and abandon political representation and policy experts for government via electronic referendum. Yet, however much I love the idea of direct democracy, it seems highly unlikely that the sort of highly complex society we currently possess could survive absent the heavy input of experts– even in light of their very obvious flaws.

It’s just as possible that China where technocrats rule and political speech and activity is tightly controlled by leveraging the centralized nature of internet could be the real shape of the future. The current structure of internet which is controlled by only a handful of companies certainly makes the path to such a plutocratic censorship regime possible.

Returning to the work of Tim Wu, we can see the way in which communications empires have risen and fell over the course of the last century: we’ve had the telephone, film, radio, television and now the computer. In all cases with the noted exception of television new media have arisen in a decentralized fashion, merged into gigantic corporations such as Bell telephone, and then are later broken up or lose dominance to upstarts who have adopted new means of transmission or whole new types of media itself.

What perhaps makes our era different in a way Wu doesn’t explore is that for the first time diversity of content is occurring under conditions of concentrated ownership. Were only a handful of companies such as FaceBook and Google to pursue the task in earnest they could exercise nearly complete control over political speech and thus end the current era. Such rule need not be rapacious but instead represent a kind of despotic-liberalism that mobilizes public opinion behind policies many of us care about such as stemming global warming. It’s the kind of highly rational nightmare Malka Older imagined in her sci-fi thriller Infomacracy and Dave Eggers gave a darker hue in his book The Circle.

Hopefully liberalism itself in the form of constitutional protections of free speech will prevent us from going so far down this route. (Although the Courts appear to think that Google et. al’s  right to police their platforms’ content is itself protected under the First Amendment.) How our long standing constitutional protections adapt to a world where “speech” can come in the form of bots which outnumber humans and foreign governments insert themselves into our elections is anybody’s guess.

The best alternative to either despotic-liberalism or chaos is to restore trust in policy elites by finding ways to make such elites more accountable and therefore trustworthy. We need to come up with new ways to combine the necessary input of real experts with the revolution in communications that has turned every citizen into a source of media. For failing to find a way to rebalance expertise and democratic governance would mean we either lose our democracy to flawed experts (as Plato would have wanted) or surrender to the chaos of an equally flawed and fickle, and now seemingly permanently Balkanized, public opinion.


A Reformation of Truth and Trust


“Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland. You can have the Pirate Ride or the Lincoln Simulacrum or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – you can have all of them, but none is true.”

Philip K. Dick  

“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Groucho Marx

When Vladislav Surkov invented the post-internet politics of  infowar back in the first decade of the 21st century he was openly drawing on Western postmodernism whose philosophers had been the first to articulate the nature of our “post-truth” age.  Surkov was especially influenced by the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard who in works such as Simulacra and Simulation had tried to put his finger on exactly what the West had lost when its belief in Truth- like God and morality before it-  first fell from the horizon, and then became inarticulable, only to finally become altogether untenable.

Yet Baudrillard’s ideas regarding the merely symbolic nature of the real, and the non-existence of the truth didn’t just appear like a rabbit out of a hat. They were the dividend of a centuries long process by which our notions regarding the true and the real had been lost under the relentless inquisition of both philosophy and science, and emerged as blowback from the catastrophic barbarity of scientism during the 20th century.

To start, some quick and dirty history: We had known since Plato how far our idea of the real likely diverged from the real itself with the tasks of philosophy being to uncover this hidden truth from its occlusion by human biology and historical prejudice. And yet philosophers never quite managed to pin down what this supposedly real world behind the world of appearances actually consisted of, though the pythagorean progenitors of Plato, along with the genius himself,  believed we caught our clearest glimpse of it when exploring truths related to numbers. Or, as it read over the entrance to the Academy: “Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter here”

Yet Plato, it should be remembered, wasn’t just motivated to discover a basis for the truth as a philosophical quest, but also as part of a political project that would form the basis for a non-democratic order. Athenian democracy which had proven fickle and a failure at war, and which, above all, had executed Plato’s teacher and friend Socrates could be proven unsustainable if the majority could be shown to be incapable of discovering, understanding, and living in conformity with the true and the good.

When well over a millennia after Plato a new science, based on mathematics and tested through observation, emerged in the modern era it was widely known how fragile a philosophical foundation such a project rested upon given what was either the loss an earlier prisca sapientia (ancient wisdom) based upon numbers (a loss that would have precluded the establishment of real science in the medieval period) or, and for the inventors of the new science the more troubling prospect, that such a foundation had proved impossible to establish in the first place.

In response to this foundational anxiety Descartes tried to ground mathematical truth within consciousness itself, the one thing whose reality he found impossible to dismiss. The problem here being that the “real” world, the one outside of our models, had now become trapped behind our eyeballs and was thus perhaps even less graspable than before. It took Kant in the 18th century to more or less prove that the ground of truth, mathematical or otherwise, which philosophers had long sought after was ultimately unreachable due to the limitations of the human mind. And yet, Kant still retained the faith that the real was actually there.

Nietzsche amplified Kant’s received recognition that the truth was unknowable into an explosion and concluded that what we called the truth was a mere weapon of power.  Much of 20th century philosophy- the linguistic turn begun by Wittgenstein, the critique of the media articulated by the Frankfurt School – has been footnotes to Nietzsche s conclusion that the will to truth is inseparable from the will to power. This then is the historical perch from which Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulation where he lays out his own lament on the death of truth.

The stages Baudrillard lays out for the image through which we communicate the truth run this way with us believing that the image:

is the reflection of a profound reality;

masks and denatures a profound reality;

masks the absence of a profound reality;

has no relation to any reality whatsoever;

is its own pure simulacrum.

Our loss of faith in the religious truth revealed by the image parallels our the similar loss of the truth by philosophy and although Baudrillard doesn’t really delve deeply into the historical content of his meaning, I don’t think it’s all that difficult to draw such connections.

Images at first are believed to ways to connect with or echoes of a profound, transcendent world beyond our own. What perhaps the caves paintings of Lascaux were to those who made them and what Christian iconography was up until the Reformation, and especially in the Orthodox tradition.

Protestant iconoclasts broke violently with Catholic iconography at the very least because they saw it as a form of idolatry whose very purpose was to occlude the truth as it was given in the Bible. Atheists materialists saw in icons an attempt to plug the gaping holes which any attempt to actually believe the stories presented in the Bible or any other religious text required. They saw in idealist philosophy a childish attempt to escape the atheistic implications of the new science.

Perhaps it was a mistake to not see the entire thing as a fraud meant to keep the majority of human beings oppressed and confused. Or maybe all of our projections are merely a reflection of our own collective madness. Even insanity, however, is predicated on there being a reality one has deviated from. But if there is no reality, if all that exists are our representations of this non- existent thing we call reality, then all we are left with are our own images and models.

There is an economic and technological aspect to this loss as well. Technology, first in the form of industrial production, but now even more so as media and digital representation, has increased our capacities to make copies of things (simulacra) or such copies in motion (simulations). It is as our simulations have become ever more detailed and “lifelike “that they have managed to supplant what we once considered the truly real. Above all there has been the move towards financialization, the process by which all the world is being transformed into capital and code.  

At this point you many feel a little dizzy (I am a little dizzy), so to sum up, at our current historical juncture- the juncture which Baudrillard is addressing- Western culture (or at least a large and the most educated portion of it) has lost its belief both in some capital “T” truth lying behind our representations and models, along with our faith in any transcendent world where such truth might be grounded beyond our own, which might have to be accepted merely on faith. We’re thus left without the comforts of either realism or religion, and it’s into this vacuum that the flood of commodified and infinitely replicable simulations and simulacra will pour.

For Baudrillard this proliferation has resulted in the reign of the hyperreal, where our representations have swamped and often appear more authentic than reality itself. Given he was writing in 1981 we have moved far more deeply into the realm of the hyperreal than Baudrillard could have foreseen. Today a naturalists and author such Diane Ackerman can be seriously concerned that experiencing nature through the lens of the hyperreal- via video and virtual reality- is leading to the atrophy of our capacity to experience nature as the creatures who evolved within it which we undoubtedly are. In a similar vein astronomer and author Pippa Goldschmidt can lament how astronomers need never view the sky with their own eyes.

Far more worrisome is what has been alluded to by the novelists William Gibson; namely, that this kind narrowing of the distinction between the virtual worlds and persons and ones that actually exist can end up turning real flesh-and-blood human beings into mere playthings of our imagination. The fact that so much of this election cycle’s political speech has been the product of bots adds yet another level of hyperreal vertigo.

I am perhaps just as worried about the reign of the hyperreal resulting in a widespread incapacity to engage with the real world.  For Baudrillard as well the reign of the hyperreal results in what he calls the “implosion” of our social and political capacities. Politics becomes a game of symbolic impact rather than the pursuit of actual goals. It’s not a far step from here that every event that occurs dissolves into some sort of conspiracy or as Baudrillard puts it:

Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists, or extreme-right provocation, or a centrist mise-en-scène to dis-credit all extreme terrorists and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario and a form of blackmail to public security? All of this is simultaneously true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts does not put an end to this vertigo of interpretation.


The facts no longer have a specific trajectory, they are born at the intersection of models, a single fact can be engendered by all the models at once.

If one of the primary reasons for speaking is so that we can come to consensus regarding the true and the good, the basis upon which Aristotle defined humanity as zoon politikon, then the reason for such communication disappears once the true and the good are no longer believed to exist. Language is then all about the issuing of commands, or, because in losing our belief in the truth and transcendence we’ve also lost any notion of authority that might be based upon them. If we want someone to do something our only options are coercion through violence- real and threatened- or seduction, which in a societal context means advertising. Writing in the late 1970’s Baudrillard could witness whole cities- Las Vegas- disappear under billboards of neon, a potent symbol of what was happening to society itself:

Today what we are experiencing is the absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising. All original cultural forms, all determined languages are absorbed in advertising because it has no depth, it is instantaneous and instantaneously forgotten.

Since Baudrillard wrote Simulacra and Simulation the situation has become incredibly worse. A pessimistic read of the current reproducibility problem in science, where seemingly evermore experiments are reported as breakthroughs only to never be replicated again, is that it arises in part from a lack of belief that the task of a scientist (or scholar) is to discover the truth, rather than pursue publication itself or attempt to bolster the bottom line of one’s client.

Science and scholarship has become sucked up in the optimization game where the goal is no longer to patiently build out structures of knowledge generations, but to make the biggest splash in the immediate present-science as advertising. None of that is nearly as bad as the deliberate manufacturing of ignorance, which can be done in the name of “gathering more evidence” as much as deliberate lying. Such agnotology was mastered by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries and seems to be a deeply ingrained political tactic of Donald Trump.

One might be forgiven for thinking Baudrillard would have gotten along with Silicon Valley types. After all, it’s among coders that the belief seems to be rife that we are already living in a simulation. The very same kind of world made out of 1’s and 0’s Stephen Wolfram think we’re on the verge of creating, which he calls “a box of a trillion souls”.  Yet Baudrillard supposedly hated when people compared his ideas to the movie The Matrix, the problem for him being those who thought we are living in a simulation, weren’t being radical enough. For Baudrillard there is no base level- just a snake made of code eating its own tail .

Baudrillard published Simulacra and Simulation in 1981 and we’ve fall much, much further down the rabbit hole since. On the political level- Ronald Reagan may have been an actor but he had also been the governor of the country’s richest and most populous state- California. Trump, by contrast, is a mere media construction, either that or something eerily similar to the tyrannical character Plato claimed democracies always create. Partly it was the sheer lack of trust that the media was telling the truth about his inadequacies that helped get Trump elected, but almost all institutions appear to be crumbling under this loss of public trust. ISIS. the most successful terrorist organization of our generation has been as much a media production company as anything else.

Every year advertising becomes more and more intimate with our bodies and our senses are quietly subsumed by those whose interests advertising serves, just as the fakes we create- our images and automatons- become ever more confusable with the real.

Where Baudrillard goes wrong, I think, is in believing that there wouldn’t be constant rebellions against this state of floating in thin air. What this means is that although elites and the educated may have lost their belief that truth and goodness could ever be satisfactorily defined most human beings were going to continue to sort themselves along these lines, and the new forms of media were going to vastly increase their capacity to do so free from any guidance or input by elites.

Yet a society composed of such warring collectives lacking some notion of the common good or means of permanently settling disputes isn’t sustainable either, which is why we’ll need to somehow recreate the kinds of buffers and editorial features of the older communications landscape without replicating its elite capture and control. The kinds of answers to the problem of post-truth whereby the internet giants are asked to police what is true or false or contract this role to some other organization is not a democratic solution to our problem.

The metaphysical claim that the truth outside of our social constructions does not exist has been adopted without understanding that we can not live absent these social constructions in the first place. We need a wholesale reformation of the institutions of truth in order to restore the trust without which any society will not long survive. It’s a tall order, happy New Year.