Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter

August 9, 2020

My Fellow Citizens,

Our elected representatives called “Big Tech” to account last week. Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple all held down their corner of a Zoom meeting. Approaches varied, but most questions suggested that the primary concern was fair competition.

Is our marketplace of ideas missing more apps, more products, and more search results? That’s a fair question for an antitrust hearing.

We miss important details when we allow a debate over business practices to substitute for our concerns over democratic purposes.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has styled himself as a stalwart defender of free speech. He has described the company’s mission as one of “voice and inclusion,” providing for “more people being able to share their perspectives.” This unwavering commitment to inclusion also absolves the platform from making the editorial decisions we expect from media outlets. 

Zuckerberg wants us to think of Facebook as our 21st Century marketplace of ideas. He does not want us to think of it as a media outlet.

Thinking through Facebook’s pitch, they serve a democratic people by stocking the shelves of the marketplace of ideas. They’re making sure all the ideas are there while sidestepping what David Roberts has called a core dilemma for political media. Writing for Vox, Roberts reflected on the “Tom Cotton op-ed affair” at The New York Times and emphasized questions of what we want from a marketplace of ideas: 

“Does every idea that’s popular in power, no matter how poorly considered, deserve some kind of respectful airing in mainstream publications?… Or are there boundaries, both of quality of argument and moral decency, where editors need to draw the line — especially in the Trump era?”

A healthy marketplace of ideas requires drawing lines. Facebook has told us that this doesn’t fit their business model.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes provided this marketplace metaphor for free speech. In a dissenting opinion in 1919, he wrote: 

“The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

(Abrams et al. v. United States)

We emphasize the “free trade” part of this formula when we accept an understanding of the First Amendment that starts and stops with including everyone. The second part of this formula, competition, is an essential part of sustaining a shared knowledge base. Democracy is impossible without it.

In Justice Holmes’s formulation, you might recognize the work of John Stuart Mill. He had also written about the necessity of these contests between truth and error. This, however, is no passive process that the mere presence of ideas makes possible. 

In the marketplace of ideas, competition requires our engagement. It’s an ongoing activity of a democratic people that makes it possible to prove the clarity of what we hold to be true and to see the failings of those ideas we believe to be errors.

This competition makes it possible for our ideas to get better and our minds too. In the second chapter of On Liberty, Mill writes; 

“Never when controversy avoided the subjects which are large and important enough to kindle enthusiasm, was the mind of a people stirred up from its foundations, and the impulse given which raised even persons of the most ordinary intellect to something of the dignity of thinking beings.” 

Mill also draws a line, making a distinction between “dead dogma” and “living truth.” When we separate ourselves from this ongoing study of ideas, we fail to engage and promote a living truth. Mill continues

“However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as dead dogma, not a living truth.” 

In today’s digital marketplace of ideas, advertising dollars, marketing strategies, and attention-seeking algorithms blur this line. We don’t get to decide what is “held as dead dogma.”  

All facts become opinions. Everyone claims their own set of facts. 

When someone gets the meme right or the advertising pointed at the right demographics, dead dogma looks like living truth.

Make a point this week of recognizing the outlets where ideas are “fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed.” Like them, share them, promote them, and pay them. Please consider sending me an email too. Tell me about the outlet and why you recommend them.

I’ll compile a list of our recommended publications (or podcasts or YouTube Channels or…). The marketplace of ideas is a space we have to actively manage.

Let’s keep kindling that enthusiasm for thinking,

Shellee

Questions of Civic Proportions

“But the truth is, it’s not the idea, it’s never the idea, it’s always what you do with it.”

—Neil Gaiman, Author

What can the lawsuit to dissolve the NRA show us about extreme behavior and good governance?

The story about a lawsuit to dissolve the NRA could be told through a long list of fraudulent practices and abuse. If you haven’t followed the organization’s many tales of intrigue and financial woe since 2016, you might appreciate the sentiment and the substance of Rolling Stone’s breakdown of the story, “What the f*ck is happening at the NRA, explained.”

Because of the controversy and the political spin that accompanies everything involving the NRA, you might give four minutes to NPR’s Ari Shapiro, who talked to New York Attorney General Letitia James. She counters the suggestion that there’s anything extreme about the lawsuit:

 

“Well, it’s not extreme. This has been going on for years. And they’ve – and the NRA has become so powerful that they were basically unchecked by others. And because of the fact that they looted the assets of the NRA to benefit not only themselves but also their family and also for individuals who served on the board and also for vendors, they basically violated not only state law, but they may have violated the Internal Revenue Code. And we are submitting the complaint to the IRS for their review.”

The activity we should be discussing as extreme will take us right back to the long list of fraudulent practices and abuse. Robert Spitzer, the author of The Politics of Gun Control, reflected on the news in an opinion piece for The Washington Post, “The NRA is doomed. It only has itself to blame.”

Will policymaking by Executive Order permanently corrupt our understanding of legislative power?

The news came late this week of President Trump’s intent to provide pandemic relief by way of Executive Order. I don’t yet have a reading list to recommend on this one, but one journalist’s tweet keeps coming to mind. John Dickerson, one of my recurring recommendations for thinking fully and fearlessly, wrote:

“To evaluate the presidential response to Covid-19 doesn’t require looking back. The one thing a president can do every day on Covid-19 to improve health & the economy is promote best health practices. Every day a voter can ask: Is the president using that power wisely?”

For a quick look at how President Trump is attempting to extend executive power into the sphere of writing legislation, read The Washington Post’s “Trump attempts to wrest tax and spending powers from Congress with new executive actions.

What does it look like when we fail to keep ideas alive?

When ideas get fixed in time or fixed in our minds, we risk losing what we once accomplished. We sometimes recognize this as a loss of momentum, but it can become a loss of understanding.

In 1994, Angela Davis spoke to an international group of black activists convened at Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African American Studies. She described their task as “collectively reflecting on the theoretical and practical implications of political agendas taken up in black communities during this last decade of the twentieth century.”

She spoke on the 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer and reflected on what her colleagues understood to be a crisis:

“We speak today about a crisis in contemporary social movements. This crisis has been produced in part by our failure to develop a meaningful and collective historical consciousness. Such a consciousness would entail a recognition that our victories attained by freedom movements are never etched in stone. What we often perceive under one set of historical conditions as glorious triumphs of mass struggle can later ricochet against us if we do not continually reconfigure the terms and transform the terrain of our struggle. The struggle must go on.”

 

In the printed version of Davis’s speech, this reflection appears under the subheading, “Managing the Transformation of History.” That transformation erodes what we thought we already understood. It starts to take hold when we forget that the work is ongoing.

On a related note, John Oliver’s recent monologue on U.S. History seems to tell this same kind of story. Understanding that is lost is also subject to being wholly rewritten.

Good Work: Stand By Your Mail

This is Sharon. She is the star of a short video, “Sharon Delivers for Vermont.” Watch the video, and you will follow her as she walks her route to deliver the mail.

She greets customers, pets dogs, and asks people about their parents. She tells you how important the community is to her. Even though most people leave, Sharon is looking forward to retiring there and staying connected to the town she has served.

Sharon’s story is one in a series of stories presented by a group of storytellers organized under the banner of “Stand By Your Mail.” Their recent press release asks, “Where would we be without the U.S. Post Office?”

Stand By Your Mail celebrates the Post Office as a “trusted branch of the U.S. government that forms the very infrastructure that connects every household across the country.” When you follow Sharon on her route, you can see this trust and this essential connectivity that has been in operation since 1775.

They have invited all of us to share our postal stories too. Just add the hashtag #StandByYourMail.

Joe Foley shared that he first fell in love with the Post Office when he was seven-years-old. A member of the Stand By Your Mail team explains that he had finally saved up enough money to subscribe to Highlights magazine. Joe and his sister would wait on the porch for the mailman to deliver each new issue.

Stand By Your Mail have coordinated their work to support, A Grand Alliance to Save Our Public Postal Service. Their site includes a long list of facts you can incorporate into a letter to your congressional representative.

A Grand Alliance reminds us that:

“The USPS serves 150 million households and businesses each day, providing affordable, universal mail service to all – including rich and poor, rural and urban, without regard to age, nationality, race or gender.”

That’s an institution dedicated to keeping ideas circulating across the country. If homespun theme songs make you smile, check out Standy by Your Mail’s other video of the week.

Now, share this newsletter with a civic-minded friend and start a conversation.