“Where is Nancy?” In Nancy Pelosi’s absence her husband Paul is hammered—skull fractured. Deranged actions are attaching to our culture—alien but present. Sort of, “my neighbor is my enemy”. But not exactly.
I would guess that few neighbors are attacked by neighbors because when neighbors are neighborly then they know that political opinions are simply one dimension of a complicated life. When we get to know our neighbors, we understand that they too face each day a swirl of pressures and emotions. Family disappointments. Illness. Financial pressures. The wealthy are not left alone; tabloids have a field day with their insecurities, divorces and overdoses.
Too frequently the various communication networks we use separate us; the “other” becomes just an abstraction. Or, the caricature of somebody to be avoided, maybe even hated. Too often we seek out confirmation bias as we narrow our friends (neighbors) to the agreeable. We should keep in mind what is going on in the background. There are business models that rely on provocation and Russia and others that rely on manipulation.
Speech, freedom of, is not a 21st Century legislative act; it became a part of our Constitution in the 18th Century. Time and distance and smaller populations were probably helpful. Speech was often pamphlets and political speech was often delivered before a heterogenous audience. One of the greatest, Abraham Lincoln, debated Stephen Douglas in seven different debates lasting over two hours apiece reaching an estimated 20,000 people.
Today speech is often clipped, provocative sound bites, and instantly networked and to get above the noise it is not infrequently framed by incendiary rhetoric. At times it recalls the seminal judicial commentary about “yelling fire in a crowded theater”—a paraphrase of words written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in a Supreme Court decision. Holmes used prohibited speech (yelling fire in a packed room) to broadly state his support protecting almost all speech from censorship. The former conservative Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, recognized burning the American flag as free speech.
So where is the “fire line”? Which side of the line is the Former President on? Or, what about Elon Musk?
Musk, the brilliant and disputatious entrepreneur, has added volatility to the subject. He just bought Twitter which is said by some to be an electronic “town hall”. What should Twitter’s content censorship look like? Who should be responsible? Musk has become a focal point of controversy because he has criticized Twitter’s content moderation. Now it is his problem—he is the sole shareholder.
Musk has undoubtedly benefited in his electric vehicle and space businesses from the work of brilliant engineers. He now needs the aid of wise persons who understand public affairs but are not conflicted. Of course, the question is where you go to find them and can contrarian Musk find anybody to whom he is prepared to delegate responsibility? In the meantime, attacking Musk and now Twitter are largely talking points on the Left of the political spectrum.
Please take another look at the visual which accompanies this commentary. It recalls the world as it was. The visual, sent to me by a friend, Richard Marks, is important because it takes us deeper into a subject often discussed at the visceral level. As Marshall Mcluhan noted, “the message is the medium”. The medium, newspapers, were thought to be weighty and while all were afflicted by human flaws the best strived to follow a code of journalistic ethics.
Most of us can easily relate to a time when almost everybody read the day’s paper and therefore shared, at least in part, a similar context as the day began. Now, too often, incendiary words are yelled in a fractious culture. And, if you get most of your news in a Left or Right echo chamber you will begin to see the “other” as somehow not fully human.
I wish it was possible to go back to the time when the context of America was more widely shared. But, the absence of disagreement has a central source: tyranny. Take a look at China and its Covid lockdown and be happy that in our Republic the government didn’t always get Covid policy right and we were allowed to disagree, even defy.
As to violent actions (and sometimes rhetoric) they are both over the “fire line”. The post-January 6th prosecutions and convictions clearly draw that line and cavalier dismissals of such crime are invitational and certainly not to a Party I want to have anything to do with.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.