One of the least noticed curiosities of the Elena Kagan nomination fight were the Republican attacks against her on the basis of free speech. In the past, you would have been safe in assuming that it was the Republican right attacking her for being lenient to pornographers and the political left. But in 2010, it was the spectacle of the far right attacking a political moderate under the pretense that she was a danger to free speech. The far right was attacking Kagan from the platform formerly stood on by the defenders of Lenny Bruce and Larry Flint.
It’s a really remarkable thing, this flowering of free speech absolutism in the far right, the once defenders of public decency, the party of the 'values voters'. But as remarkable is what a bunch of saps liberals are for it. As in any new position taken by the right, the appropriate reaction isn’t merely skepticism. This is the conclusive proof that something dirty is afoot. Here, of course, it’s the defense of the Supreme Court rulings, made by the far right wing of the court*, opening up the propaganda machine to the direct funding of the corporate oligarches so they can install governments elected on the basis of lies and propaganda. Those rulings are so important to the Republican Party that they are jettisoning a position that the religious fundamentalist wing they’ve depended on for most of the century has held to be sacred. In that, they show that they’ve been playing those people for chumps. Using them to gain power in order to steal and plunder, throwing them only as much as they could get away with in order to keep their votes while not stirring a reaction. Having accused them of being corrupt and evil while acknowledging that they are ruthless and smart, this really isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that those taking themselves as liberal intellectuals aren’t learning from it. Apparently habit trumps evidence in that tradition.
Today’s Boston Globe Magazine has a piece recounting the once much more famous confrontation on the Boston Common between the vastly overquoted H. L. Mencken and the largely forgotten Rev. J. Frank Chase, the infamous head of the Watch and Ward Society.
The story, in short, is that Mencken’s magainze, The America Mercury, had published a chapter from a mostly forgotten book, about the hypocrisy of small town morality, dealing with prostitution. The issue had been banned in Boston at the behest of Chase, the head of the Watch and Ward. Mencken staged a publicity event in which he sold a copy to Chase on the Boston Common, was arrested and soon acquitted. Chase pursed the case through the postal officials and was eventually defeated through the courts. Etc, etc. It’s the template for most of the following cases in which the prohibitions of the 19th century gave way to increasing tolerance of first the frank, then the explicit, then the pornographic. The 20th century created a different society than the one that had existed in the 19th century. It was one that was confident and smug in its self-assured assumption that it was better than the hypocritical, bigoted, repressively moralistic culture of the declining generation. While I’d agree that in many ways it was, we are in a new century and it’s time for us to consider the downside of that 20th century legacy.
I wouldn’t quibble with the story as told by Neil Miller. As with most Sunday Magazine journalism, it’s a predictable piece, recounting the confrontation between the side taking itself as the protector of public morals and the side taking itself as the champion of freedom and modernism. You know how the story is supposed to be seen. You are supposed to know how you’re supposed to think about it. That reaction is as habitual and automatic in any good liberal as the reaction of an upstanding citizen of the 19th century who knew how they were supposed to react to a vast range of sexual expression. What I’d say is that there are few to no lessons you can take from that story, which is more than eighty years old, and compare it to the situation of today, the one in which the malignant effects of a totally unrestricted commercial media is a real danger to equality, freedom, representative democracy and, ultimately, the continued viability of the biosphere**.
We are in a different situation today than that of 1926 or even 1976. It is a situation created in large part by the abandonment by the courts and government of any regulation in pornography. But it’s created to an even larger extent by the expansion of media, filling up more and more hours of our lives, taking more of the time we might spend on thinking for ourselves, reflecting on what we’ve learned and observed. Consider how much of the time of most people in the past was not spent listening to, reading or watching media simply because it was unavailable or too expensive. Real life was what was freely available to them, REAL LIFE. Today’s media is ubiquitous to the point where you are a social outcast if you don’t stay hooked to it, carrying your own leash in your pocket. People, more and more, are thinking what the media tells them to, without having the down time to consider real life around them and to make up their own minds about things.
In its most dangerous aspect, that media is thoroughly corporate. Even if it was not concentrated in a few hands, the many hands that do hold it mostly share a single intention and ideology, market capitalism, enhanced profitability, people as comodity and profit generation.
That ideological concentration and power of the media to shape the public discourse has become a danger to freedom, not its guarantor. The increasing power of the big conglomerates of the media and dictatorial foreign governments which the corporations will kow tow to in the pursuit of its prime, profitable directive, only enhances that danger.
We have a media which promotes a nihilistic, steroid soaked profit worshiping dystopia which is mindless and violent, thriving on a system in which people can’t even face their personal finances realistically. And that's not mentioning misogynist, bigoted, caste bound and enthusiastically unequal. The stream of consciousness that an increasing number of people are floating is nightmarish and more polluted as it flows on. I don’t think it can continue indefinitely, I think we are headed for a disaster that the bromides of the 20th century libertarians can’t cover forever. I think we are at the beginning of that crisis and just as the most regressive politicians of the last century looked to the slogans and poses of the 19th century to cover up their cleptocratic un-egalitarian intentions, those of this century are looking to the slogans used by liberals in the 20th century for their cover. People should think about what happened to Mencken’s Magazine as his century wore on. The vehicle of press freedom, devolved into a crypto-Nazi organ.
The life that is a product of the last part of the 20th century is not going to be any more tolerable or viable than the one created during the 19th century. Having despoiled the natural environment to the extent it has been, that life will become unsustainable to a degree that it hadn’t become in 1900.
Freedom without equality and morality doesn’t produce an enlightened and tolerable life, it becomes a tool of raw power in the hands of those who already have too much of that.
* Adding to the ironies and hypocrisies of the Republican opposition to Kagan was their use of Justice Marshall, for whom Kagan clerked. While he was a great figure in civil liberties, Marshall cast a very unfortunate vote with the majority in Buckley v. Velo. The Republican Right can't pass up the chance to try to use a black man to scare it's supporters. They'll never give up that legacy of the 19th century until it stops working for them.
** Look how quickly the media is minimizing the disaster of the Gulf oil gusher, actively participating in the rehabilitation of BP, just as they have for their other sponsors in the past.
NOTE: We've gotten to a point where any explicit assertion of a moral position is sometimes taken as being unacceptable. I'm increasingly seeing comments on blogs complaining, not only about that, but some claiming that there really isn't any such thing as good and bad, even that "science" has proven there isn't. Consider the implications of that. Democracy and its principles are positions of morality, requiring people to accept and do things they'd rather not do, prohibiting things that they want to do very much. Democracy can't survive in moral nihilism. In the present day, with the increased potential of power provided by science and technology to a human population numbering in the billions, human life can't either. Our only chance is to define morality in terms acceptable to the changed environment we are in which will sustain us. Irresponsible, lazy, ignorant, malleable, pseudo- libertarianism isn't where it's going to be found.