Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Marketplace of Ideas -- Part I

If Wikipedia is right (as has been known to happen, from time to time), then "The concept of [a] 'marketplace of ideas' is most often attributed to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes'[s] dissenting opinion in Abrams v. U[nited] S[tates] , 250 U.S. 616 (1919). Interestingly, while Justice Holmes (1919) implied the idea in his dissenting opinion, he never used the term."

The "Marketplace of Ideas" page of Wikipedia (at least on August 25, 2007 -- I suspect somebody will do a better job with it, eventually) goes on to talk about the notion of a *classroom* as the "marketplace of ideas." There's a lot to unpack in just these introductory references. The really interesting idea, that prompted this post in the first place, is at the end (or may even wind up in Part II . . . forgive an old man his ramblings!). First, lets touch briefly on Holmes and classrooms.

At some point, I really need to write (and will write) something about Justice Holmes's jurisprudence of the First Amendment, including the Debs case (that's Eugene Debs -- who later was released from prison after the "Red Scare" cooled down a little, Warren Harding took office, and the federal government got a lot busier on subjects like crony capitalism, instead of the ideological obsessions that prevailed during Woodrow Wilson's administration), the Schenck case, and how Holmes's early thinking at least appears to relate to the Italian Hall Massacre. Also of related interest are Learned Hand's apparent influence on Holmes's thinking, and Holmes's eventual change of perspective, which ultimately led at least part of the way toward modern First Amendment jurisprudence. All these subjects are fascinating, and probably aid in a deep understanding of what a real "marketplace of ideas" should be all about. But this does not seem to be quite the time to go beyond spotting the issues. Deeper analysis can wait for later.

As to the issue of a "classroom" as the marketplace of ideas, I cannot seem to resist the impulse to get beneath the surface of this notion. First, I've recently been reading Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen (actually, the link is to the updated version, set to be released in October, 2007 -- I've been reading the 1996 version with great enthusiasm). Not to get too far into the subject (on which, again, I expect to write "really soon, now") of the difference between talking about facts and talking about metaphorical symbols, and how the latter can really get in the way of understanding when it comes to (1) understanding what *really* happened in history, or (2) having a conversation between two people who don't realize that each is talking about different things -- one about reality, the other about symbolic (though inaccurate) metaphors; or (3) actually thinking clearly about reality.

Too many Americans somehow have acquired (or have been indoctrinated since Kindergarten into) the bad habit of thinking about history in terms of symbolic imagery -- "Squanto the helpful Indian;" "The First Thanksgiving;" "The Mayflower Compact." Reality is far more instructive, and ought to be understood. For instance, Tisquantum (rendered a "Squanto" in schoolbooks) was quite a remarkable historical figure, was (before the "Pilgrims" met him) a polyglot who spoke several European languages, who had crossed the Atlantic several times (by 1620, he was far better-traveled than was, say, George W. Bush, in 2000), and who had probably learned that "plant a fish with your corn" trick, not from native Americans, but from Europeans in Cornwall. On the subject of what Europeans learned from the Natives, textbooks tend to focus on the trivial and the quaint, like the fish-and-corn story, while giving Europeans sole credit for things like . . . well, Constitutional Democracy. That had its origins in the Mayflower Compact, no? Well, perhaps to some degree, but it would be a mistake to disregard (to the extent that textbooks are predisposed to do) the much more substantial contribution of the example of the Iroquois Confederacy. And, while "The First Thanksgiving" makes for charming kindergarten pageants, it is probably a good idea to mention how the version we now know grew out of a morale-boosting propaganda effort initiated by the Lincoln Administration during the Civil War, or how the "Pilgrims" resorted to grave-robbing to survive (at least some survived) their first winter. Even more to the point, when we celebrate the so-called generosity shown by the European "hosts" to their native American "Guests," it is worth remembering that the traditional foodstuffs -- maize, turkey, cranberries -- were not European transplants. Somehow, the real direction of the generosity gets turned-around in the Europeans' re-telling of it.

The blog Mahablog does a quite remarkable job of framing the issue of how bizarre it is to engage in discourse by referring to historic events as metaphorical symbols, as our current leaders are inclined to do when they intone solemnly the phrases, "Churchill and Stalin at Yalta;" or "Ronald Reagan before the Berlin Wall;" or (as Bush 43 recently invoked) "Helicopters on the roof of the Vietnamese Embassy." As Mahablog goes on to explain (and the explanation is both cute, and so true):

The key to understanding right-wing rhetoric can be found in an episode of the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In “Darmok” (originally aired 1991) the crew of the Enterprise encounters the Tamarians, a people with an incomprehensible language. “We come in peace,” say the Enterprise crew. “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra,” reply the Tamarians. “Temba, his arms wide.” The Next Generationers are baffled.

But then Captain Picard and Dathon the Tamarian have an adventure together battling an invisible beast, and during this adventure Picard has a “Helen Keller at the water pump” moment and realizes that Tamarians speak in metaphors taken from stories. For example, “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra” refers to two enemies, Darmok and Jalad, who became allies at Tenagra. As a phrase, it means “Let’s put aside our differences and be friends.” So after much suspense and drama and the death of the unfortunate Dathon, by the end of the episode Picard knows enough Tamarian to say, “Bye. It’s been real.”

By the way, when Mahablog refers to "Helen Keller at the water pump," presumably, this is done in an ironic sense, because that, too, is a metaphor that gets in the way of reality. Somehow, the tellers of the Helen Keller story rarely get past the water pump, to talk about the real work of Keller's life. In this regard, Wikipedia actually turns out to be reasonably helpful (no wonder there's a movement afoot among self-identified "conservatives" to manufacture their own version of Wikipedia, where they don't have to be bothered by inconvenient things like facts):
Keller was a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working classes from 1909 to 1921. She supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency.

Newspaper columnists who had praised her courage and intelligence before she expressed her socialist views now called attention to her disabilities. The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote that her "mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development." Keller responded to that editor, referring to having met him before he knew of her political views:

"At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him...Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent."

Keller also joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1912, saying that parliamentary socialism was "sinking in the political bog." Keller wrote for the IWW between 1916 and 1918. In ([1]) Why I Became an IWW, Keller wrote that her motivation for activism came in part due to her concern about blindness and other disabilities:

"I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness."
Conservapedia, conveniently (at least as of September 15, 2007), just disregards Hellen Keller entirely, and apparently consigns recollection of her accomplishments (and her politics) to the memory hole.

So, getting back to Mahablog's point about communicating with metaphor -- "Squanto and the Pilgrims at Plymouth," or "Churchill during the Battle of Britain," or "Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall," or even "Helen Keller at the water pump" -- as used in too much (but not all) recent political discourse, does not necessarily refer to the historical reality of the event, but rather to all the baggage of symbolism and metaphor (and distortion) that people with an agenda have labored hard to manufacture and cultivate around the event (or the person -- too bad Peggy Noonan can't be more like John Dean, but that probably doesn't pay quite so well, or result in quite so many television appearances). The modern-day myth-makers are hardly the first to do it. Compare Hittite and Egyptian accounts of battles fought between them, or just read the Old Testament.

But the key point is this: It is worthwhile to recognize (and to equip students and citizens to recognize) what they're doing, so as to make it possible to step back and start unpacking the metaphorical baggage, so as to keep the buts with real value and to discard the rest in the trash.

So, with that distinction in mind between the habits of thought that *are* cultivated in the classroom, compared with the critical thinking skills that *ought* to be taught (I think George Carlin had a few choice words on this subject, too), it seems a good time to mention (and to respond to the Wikipedia "marketplace of ideas" page) that the *classroom* seems, quite recently, to have become nearly the farthest thing we have from a "marketplace of ideas" -- especially, with the Supreme Court upholding a content-based (indeed, viewpoint-based) restriction on even whimsical speech, without even bothering to apply the customary "strict scrutiny" compelling governmental interest / narrowly tailored and necessary / least restrictive means, test that ought to apply.

It seems rather odd and incongruous that -- at least in the eyes of *some* justices -- the Constitution provides so much protection for free speech, when a minor (apparently, flirting with white supremacist ideology) burns a cross in the yard of the minor's black neighbors, yet the same document (or Holy Writ, depending on your view) offers so little protection when a student of roughly the same age (perhaps a little older, in fact) happens to broach the apparently "taboo" subject of marijuana legalization (at least in the eyes of the disciplining school administrator, that was the viewpoint of the message) by unfurling a "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" banner.

In 1992 (the tail end of the Bush 41 administration), Justice Scalia in R.A.V. v. St. Paul, correctly recognized that: "The First Amendment generally prevents government from proscribing speech, or even expressive conduct, because of disapproval of the ideas expressed. Content based regulations are presumptively invalid." Further, while recognizing that, "our society, like other free but civilized societies, has permitted restrictions upon the content of speech in a few limited areas, which are 'of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality,'" Justice Scalia went on to recognize that cross-burning on a neighbor's yard, while offensive, evidently (in his view) had enough redeeming social value to outweigh any countervailing social interest in order and morality. In Scalia's view (in RAV) the "hate speech" ordinance went beyond mere content discrimination, to viewpoint discrimination -- in part because the legal prohibition tended to turn on the reaction of the intended audience: "In its practical operation, moreover, the ordinance goes even beyond mere content discrimination, to actual viewpoint discrimination. Displays containing some words--odious racial epithets, for example--would be prohibited to proponents of all views. But 'fighting words' that do not themselves invoke race, color, creed, religion, or gender -- aspersions upon a person's mother, for example -- would seemingly be usable ad libitum in the placards of those arguing in favor of racial, color, etc. tolerance and equality, but could not be used by that speaker's opponents. One could hold up a sign saying, for example, that all 'anti Catholic bigots' are misbegotten; but not that all 'papists' are, for that would insult and provoke violence 'on the basis of religion.' St. Paul has no such authority to license one side of a debate to fight freestyle, while requiring the other to follow Marquis of Queensbury Rules."

How things change in fifteen years, when the subject turns to drugs instead of white supremacy. Justice Scalia, of course, did not write the majority opinion in Morse v Fredrick -- that was Justice Roberts. Justice Scalia only signed on whole-heartedly to the Court's pro-censorship decision. According to Roberts, the "BONG HiTS" speech can be punished -- not only based on the speaker's viewpoint -- but even based on a government official's subjective perception about the message that (in the listener's mind) the speaker might mean to convey. Especially if that perceived communicative (and, in the Morse case, core political) expression happens to favor a change in public policy in the form of marijuana decriminalization -- well, then -- such ideas are simply beyond the pale, and we cannot have students competing for mindshare with government-subsidized expression promoting the opposite viewpoint: "But Principal Morse thought the banner would be interpreted by those viewing it as promoting illegal drug use, and that interpretation is plainly a reasonable one. As Morse later explained in a declaration, when she saw the sign, she thought that 'the reference to a "bong hit" would be widely understood by high school students and others as referring to smoking marijuana.' App. 24. . . . We agree with Morse. At least two interpretations of the words on the banner demonstrate that the sign advocated the use of illegal drugs."

To use Scalia's analysis from the R.A.V. case, Justice Roberts's attempt to hang his hat on perceived advocacy of "illegal drug use," as opposed to perceived advocacy of the view that the activity should not even be illegal in the first place, is nothing more than "word play."

The real point I meant to get around to, and will in Part II, is one about the differences and similarities between the commercial marketplace, and the "marketplace of ideas."

The mere commercial success of a particular source of information (say, a news channel, or a shrill author who routinely accuses well-meaning and intelligent people of treason and heresy) ought not to be considered a measure of the accuracy or informative value of the information conveyed by that source -- any more so than the commercial success of flavored tortilla chips or pizza (compared with, say, spinach or asparagus) should be considered the best way to judge the nutritional value of supermarket products.

Let me suggest, just briefly, that Roger Ailes recognized something important about the time that Rush Limbaugh's radio show became a huge, and unexpected, commercial success. Prior to that time, the assumption seemed to be that news outlets should compete (in what was thought of as the "marketplace of ideas" -- especially in Supreme Court cases like Red Lion) largely on the basis of accuracy and journalistic standards and airing "both sides of the issue." The best job of journalism ought to win, in "the market-place of ideas." According to Red Lion: "It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited market-place of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market, whether it be by the Government itself or a private licensee."

If the commercial marketplace and the "marketplace of ideas" work the same way, and the commercial marketplace works the way envisioned by the Supreme Court, then, presumably, broccoli ought to win in the "marketplace of the grocery store," and outsell junk food by wide margins. That's not exactly what we observe -- either in the grocery store, or television, or the bookstore.

What if a large segment of the broader audience wants (and strongly demands) something else entirely -- having little to do with making sure that "truth will ultimately prevail" -- such as validation. What if (like visitors to the Creation Museum) they desperately crave to be misinformed, and to have their pre-existing prejudices validated by the media they consume. That's also a demand that can be (and, today, is) filled quite profitably.

The really disingenuous part of it all is when the shareholders and management of what used to be legitimate news outlets (remember the *old* CNN that was worth watching?), insist on pretending that ratings comparisons between Fox and the *old* CNN somehow constitute(d) apples-to-apples comparisons. If the two are targeting completely different audiences -- Fox news, by targeting those who crave validation, while the *old* CNN targeted people who actually wanted news -- then Wall Street's insistence that CNN (to compete in a phony "ratings war") must somehow start emulating a completely different category of enterprise, seems only calculated to cause CNN not only to fail to capture the "validation" audience, but also to turn off the "news" audience as well. And that's why, today, to get the news on television, one must turn either to an hourly show on cable television (there's no all-news cable channel anymore that has not substituted either entertainment or right-wing-validation for the news), or to Comedy Central's 11-midnight lineup of Colbert and John Stewart.

Some marketplace. More on this later.

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