Power, Obedience, and the End of American Debate

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, face off with protesters after a rally on the campus of the University of Illinois-Chicago was cancelled due to security concerns Friday, March 11, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogas

Freedom of speech is very inconvenient to the ruling class, which likes to set the acceptable boundaries of discourse. For that reason, the populace is likely to lose free speech as soon as they stop insisting on it, without qualification or reservation — and once free speech is gone, all else is put at risk.

It’s no coincidence that freedom of speech atrophies when government power increases, no matter how benevolent the government claims to be. What’s the point of government power without public obedience? And obedience is undermined by freely spoken dissent, which might even lead to public defiance.

A modest government demands little from citizens that isn’t clearly in the universal common good, so it can subsist on compliance with relatively simple and clear laws, backed up by law enforcement. Even such limited power can be abused, of course, and there will be citizens who chafe under even a light burden of government, but there’s plenty of room for dissent.

Eventually, government’s appetite for power and obedience grows to the point where it cannot tolerate dissent. This has been one of the most obvious lessons of the Obama era.

We were told, over and over again, that dissent from his agenda is illegitimate, motivated only by selfishness, racism, or sheer stupidity. President Obama and his operatives repeatedly assailed Fox News, the only television news outlet to challenge his preferred narratives. The early years of his presidency included numerous quotes in which he explicitly stated his political opponents needed to stop talking, get in the back of the bus, drink their bitter Slurpees of guilt in silence, and so forth.

It is a distinctive, perhaps even defining, attribute of Obamaism that dissenters have no right to participate in the political process.

Obama’s “achievements,” like ObamaCare or the remodeling of the American populace through mass immigration, are supposed to be above discussion for the rest of history, no matter how badly they fail in practice.

Obama’s spin on his historic defeat in the 2014 midterm elections was to blow them off as irrelevant, claiming supreme power in the name of people who don’t bother to vote. We’re constantly told his agenda items are “settled,” and nobody ever gets to vote on them again. This inevitably degenerates into the believe that no one should be able to talk about them again.

Another defining attribute of Obamaism is that free speech is negotiable, and Obama negotiates ugly. Free speech becomes a power calculation, in which the “oppressed” have some intrinsic right to silence their oppressors. Such theories have become dogma on college campuses, where privileged groups have a “right” to avoid offense, which transcends the right of disfavored groups to speak at all.

It’s no coincidence that the “Heckler’s Veto” has grown rapidly through the Obama years. It’s a particularly crude power calculation for shutting down speech: protecting targeted individuals and groups, so they can safely continue speaking, is more trouble than it’s worth — so the path of least resistance is to silence whoever the mob opposes. This is often done by informing the problematic speaker that he (or she) bears at least as much responsibility for unrest as the perpetrators of vandalism or violence.

Enormous political power can be wielded by those who draw the line between acceptable free speech and “incitement.”

Once speech becomes negotiable, power brokers can declare one group laudable for its legitimate “passion” and “energy,” while denouncing another as purveyors of illegitimate “hate.” In this way, large groups of people can be made to believe they have no moral right to organize politically, or speak with passion, at the very moment everyone who doesn’t organize and energize is liable to find themselves on the blunt end of cultural re-education, punitive regulation, and redistribution schemes.

Frustrated dissent can only be bottled up for so long before it bursts out.

“I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” isn’t just a simplistic slogan. It illustrates a very real truth about a representative republic: Once we stop respecting our fellow citizens’ right to speak and organize, we lose all other respect for them in short order. We lose our affection for each other as citizens of a single great nation who strongly disagree on vital issues. Affection and respect allow us to remain fellows after heated disagreements. Very different forces are at play when people are leading organized efforts to silence and shame their opponents.

Without vibrant dissent, and proper limits on the exercise of centralized power, “democracy” is a nasty sport where 51 percent can bend 49 percent to their will. It’s even worse than that, really, because a determined minority can subjugate a majority by isolating, shaming, and silencing its members. The victors in such contests feel little respect or affection for their vanquished opponents. In fact, it’s important for their leaders to actively discourage such feelings of fellowship, because that makes shaming and stigmatization, conquest and plunder, more difficult. People will accept levels of government force against villains and dehumanized Others that they would never tolerate against respected fellow Americans.

Conversely, it’s not surprising when those who pay the bills feel a loss of respect for people they resent as parasites or tyrants, especially when they observe the intemperate speech and vigorous protest tactics of those people being excused, or even celebrated.

Some groups in our culture can be viciously mocked and insulted without consequence, while others have delicate feelings that cannot be transgressed under any circumstances. When anger is the political coin of the realm, those who aren’t allowed to get angry have reason to believe they’re at a profound disadvantage.

There’s no easy way to turn such a state of affairs around, because it didn’t develop overnight. We might look to political leadership for the first steps, asking them to stop both obvious and subtle incitements to violence and oppression. The subtle incitements are, of course, more difficult to stop, since the point of “community organizing,” Alinsky-style, is to conceal the hand of the organizers and make demonstrations appear “organic.”

A better long-term solution is to halt the total politicization of American life and reduce the amount of compulsive force directed at us by the State. Lower the stakes, in other words, and the game will become more polite.

As long as grievance and redress are the engines that drive our political discourse, we can expect the ranks of the aggrieved to swell —  and those who don’t have a grievance are likely to find themselves on the wrong end of the redressing, without even the right to complain about it.


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