I have found myself thinking admiringly about Ancient Greece of late. Perhaps it’s due to the perennial disgust that creeps through my stomach every time I hear this absurd talking head or that sensational sound bite on the news. But not Ancient Greece! they had the public assembly! A designated space in which citizens actually debated political issues in a mature fashion! a place in which the greatest allies of sophisticated thought–patience and deliberation–were given their due weight.
Of course, once I’m finished waxing romantically, I’m reminded of all the less than perfect aspects of this beloved polis–yeah, hmm…not everyone got to participate did they? Shit, that’s right, there were monolithic figures notable for swaying public debate with their impassioned rhetoric. And finally, given the repeated ascendance of tyrants, there’s always the sobering question of how well and for how long the much-elated Athenian democracy worked at all.
Nevertheless, even if such a thing existed only in theory and never in perfect flesh-form, I cannot help but look at the state of our modern political discourse and begin longing for a fictitious past. There exist such great deficiencies in the mechanisms of our political conversation, such a monumental lack of checks and balances to ensure maturity of content and method in our discourse, that every serious-thinking person, sharing in common lament cannot help their befuddlement as to how this sewer got so shitty.
I must admit, I’m no expert when it comes to telecommunications, so I won’t pretend to claim an understanding of how our political discourse got swallowed up in the cavernous mouths of for-profit corporations. I also want to avoid the curmudgeon factor…you know, the guy who rattles off about how inane the 24-hour news cycle is and how the newfangled youth today, with reality TV, ultra-fast internet and hippity-hop, want their news like their entertainment. But in my observations of the way Americans talk to each other politically, I would like illustrate one very clear problem.
In theory of course, the way a healthy public discourse should work is that those who are in a position to form and influence public opinion should be given a generous stage for the expression of their views, afterwards we–the assembly, the citizenry–through our own collective discussion, debate and consciousness affirm or reject that view. No one should be denied an opportunity to express themselves, and all should try to be as generous as possible to myriad forms and content of expression. But how much accommodation can the public discourse afford? Herein lies the problem as I see it.
The sheer number of opinion makers in our political conversation is immense, and a boon to democratic deliberation. However, we Americans have a peculiar habit of continually giving audience to some of our most demonstratedly ignoble and hypocritical political figures. In a working public discourse, we should give different ideologies and political agendas a chance, but what if time and again, these agendas fail to garner a popular mandate? What if a public figure time and again demonstrates bad judgement, or inconsistencies between what he practices and what he preaches? Finally, what if this figure espouses views that are simply unacceptable, based on their prejudiced nature, to wider society? Must we tolerate these views? Must our public discourse be capacious enough to include such voices?
Clearly we should learn from the errors of the Ancient Greeks and avoid putting our social and intellectual gadflies to death, but we as a collective should be better able to firmly reject the speech and the influence of such figures. These considerations are why I simply cannot understand why our media and we as a collective still give audience to opinion-makers spanning from Dick Morris, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan and Dick Cheney, to name a few.
To illustrate my point, Dick Morris now writes a weekly column for the New York Post and frequently appears on Fox News a political commentator, and as such, occupies a respectable place in the opinion making class. But are we to forget history? Do we fail to remember the family values campaign he championed under the Clinton administration in 1996, to be followed several months later by the revelation of his penchant for prostitutes? We shouldn’t crucify Dick Morris, nor should his personal life be judged in the public forum, but why the hell do we still listen to this guy? Dick Morris is a demonstrated hypocrite, yet we still seem to want to hear what he has to say; “they”–the nebulous mass of media, society and the powers that be, still seem to value his opinion. In a healthy public discourse, such an ignominious figure, who already had his time to prove his merit and caliber, should be relegated to the political trash bin–a place he has earned.
It’s not even a challenge to list the reasons why the public should stop giving credence to windbags like Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan. Both men are not merely hypocrites but bigots to boot–from Buchanan’s xenophobia (interestingly, he has a South American house cleaner) and Holocaust revisionism to Limbaugh’s stereotyping of African-Americans as drug and addicts (Limbaugh himself was a prescription drug addict). Even if these men were not outrageously hypocritical, their opinions are so blatantly bigoted and ignorant that it remains one of the great travesties of our age that both men occupy such a lofty position in America’s political conversation. For God sakes, every time a politician or commentator mentions Marx, he’s chased out town like a village drunkard, but such men, with their inflammatory views are repeatedly allowed to infect the public discourse with their salty bile. I say “allowed” because that’s what I mean–we the people, we the collective are responsible for the figures we give credence and audience to. It is our job to discern reasonable views from those which are simply unacceptable given basic ethical standards.
The same, and even more can be said about Dick Cheney. Cheney occupied the one of the highest possible positions in our political system (some say the highest), so it would be absurd to claim that his views and agenda have not been allowed an audience. In fact, the last eight years have been molded almost entirely according to his design. But if abysmal poll numbers are any indication and the recent election of Barack Obama any consideration, then we can safely say that America as a collective has rejected the neoconservative mandate and the merits of its ideology. Therefore, I am more than baffled when I hear Dick Cheney on the news defending torture, fascist security measures, eating babies, boiling jews in oil and other depravities. In some ways, our public discourse has demonstrated its healthy side, with reports about Iraq war fraud, illegal wiretaps now commonly covered–and commonly decried. Thus, I simply cannot understand why Cheney is still granted a prominent place in the opinion making table. Shouldn’t we tell him, when he tries to defend his unconscionable policies of torture and human rights abuses, “listen, Dick, you had your chance, and granted there are still people who support you, by and large, this country is ashamed of itself after you were at the mantle, so step down, shut up and enjoy your twilight years in your sulfurous cavern.” Once again, this is not a denial of the basic freedom of speech, but simply the necessary function of a public discourse which must reject some of its cancerous pathogens to maintain its health and dignity.
Some people may read this and say, “hey, you’re just trying to stifle the opinions of those with whom you disagree.” In some ways this may be true. All the decision makers I have mentoned are of the republican, conservative, neocon or simply batshit persuasion, but I don’t think I’m making an argument on partisan lines. Case in point: I. Fucking. Hate. Glenn. Beck. I think this man is perhaps the most twisted and ideologically rigid person to ever occupy a place of import in our political discourese. I truly think Glenn Beck jerks off to the thought of Barack Obama being hung from a tree by a gang of teabaggers while Sarah Palin sucks him off and Dick Cheney fingers his asshole. Needless to say, I don’t think he deserves to be rejected from the public forum like the above mentioned. While Beck often comes close to racist and bigoted remarks, his opinions are mostly just extreme, inflammatory and provocative. Yes his show is one of the greatest examples of bias, oversimplification, irrationality and general stupidity, but a a healthy public forum must make room for this too–fot the opposite would simply be too dangerous. In other words, until Beck reveals himself as an outright bigot, or his jawdropping hypocrisy is exposed, or time and again his opinions turn out to be false, the public forum must put up with him.
In sum, I think it is helpful to think of one of J.S. Mill’s fundamental ideas–that society has to be as open as possible to all debate and all controversial opinions all of the time, for otherwise, what we take to be socially accepted truts and norms become mere “dead dogma.” However, an enduring problem of Mill’s thought is this: how long do we have to listen to these controversial opinions? How long should the public discourse se forestalled by such opinions? Mill’s political theory is in essence suicidal if it doesn’t put reasonable limits on how capacious and how patient the public forum must be to those pesky gadflies. For after all, governance and democracy are the belong in the realm of praxis as well as of ideas. Societies must make decisions. Polities must choose. Of all the ailments such bigots, hippocrites and demagogues inflict upon the body politic, perhaps the worst is an auto immune disease; their constant presence, and our consistent audience ensures that wel as a collective will never progress beyond such bucolic and inane ideas. Society must choose. I only wish society was better equipped to chose something better.