I have said what I want to say about Monsieur Muskrat’s takeover of Twitter. I don’t want to give him more of my attention than what’s necessary for doing my job. I don’t want to, by giving him my attention, gives you the impression that he’s all that important.
But I do want to attend to, and therefore bring your attention to, the left-liberal reaction to his enfeebling of America’s premiere public forum. There seems to be two camps, possibly a third. I see plenty of overlap among them. Each tells us something about ourselves.
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The first I’d describe as the professional critics. These are the pundits, journalists, scholars and writers who regularly participate in the public square, and who in turn influence lay participants. Call them “influencers” if you like. In any case, they, including me, spend most of their time doing stuff normal people don’t have time for.
This camp doubted Monsieur Muskrat’s claim of bringing free speech back. Never did they believe, as he does, that Twitter was being used as a weapon to silence “unpopular opinions.” But they did believe it was, as the top forum for democratic politics, useful for flattening the orders of power that constitute what most people see as normal.
Some went to extremes, but most practiced ordinary democratic politics. They argued against hate speech. They pressured the right people. They called for pushing the demagogues and anti-democrats to the distant margins of public discourse, where they belong. In time, key decision-makers in key positions at Twitter, Inc., agreed.
I have my share of disagreements with this camp, for instance, making a fetish of Monsieur Muskrat’s ongoing devolution into fascism. The man’s a billionaire. We know he’s dangerous. We don’t need to be told about each time he swallows a “red pill.” Democracy will not live or die according to the rigid fixedness of our focus.
Even so, the professionals have the basics right. Twitter houses democratic counter-speech. Those whose claim to fight for “free speech” and against “cancel culture” and “censorship” mask their real intentions – to silence voices they deem threatening and restore the public square’s social standing as the voice of the status quo.
The second I’d describe as the popular partisans. These are people with huge followings on Twitter who say, basically, one thing – the Republicans are bad. They are genius at finding various and sundry ways of saying one thing. But make no mistake, it’s always one thing.
The popular partisans have more influence than the professional critics, because they don’t bother with things like intellectual integrity, social realities, clear reasoning, clearer writing, etc. They don’t care about the process so much as the outcome. If the outcome of their labors keeps the Democratic faithful in line, job well done.
While the popular partisans are useful – they can bring attention to deserving people and issues that professional critics cannot – I think they often do more harm than good. They frequently hold the GOP to standards only the Democrats commit to, then announce to their Twitter armies that they can’t believe what that Republican said!
Why more harm than good? Because such behavior warps political reality. The Republicans do what Republicans do, mmm? This is not only not unbelievable. It’s expected. If we can’t believe what the Republicans do, there’s not much point to democratic politics.
The same applies to Twitter. The platform no longer enforces rules that were designed to prevent users from making and spreading misinformation and lies. It has allowed back some of those aforementioned demagogues and anti-democrats. The popular partisans will tell us that this is an outrage! But it’s all quite believable, or should be, as tilting public opinion in the direction of elite interest is what elites have done in America since forever.
This wouldn’t be so bad, I suppose, if it weren’t for a big deleterious consequence. I’m talking about an attitude toward democratic politics according to which the only way to advance progressive issues is by stopping the Republicans from doing what they do.
Why is this deleterious?
It’s preemptive surrender.
It puts the fate of democracy, freedom, equality and liberal republican values in the hands of people who will abuse them all – if not smother them in the cradle. When you make abusers responsible for democracy, you can pretty much expect them to do what they do.
The popular partisans send, in effect, an anti-democratic message (perhaps without knowing it). That message is, alas, that democracy depends on bad people choosing to do good things. If anything is unbelievable, it’s that. No, democracy depends on what it’s always depended on – democratic people practicing democratic politics.
What’s the third group? Well, I suppose it’s not a group as much as a tendency, but let’s call them the amused spectators. These people might be political cynics or political realists. They are definitely not political idealists. Not surprisingly, they are often Black. For instance, they believe voting is a defensive maneuver first. Ideals come later.
Their tendency is to hope for the best, but expect bad people to do bad things. It expects good people to do good things, too. It believes democracy’s greatest threat isn’t the bad people who hate it. It’s the good people who can’t or won’t believe believable things can happen.
Meanwhile, the amused spectators take pleasure in watching professional critics pushing their idea-boulders uphill while the popular partisans make those idea-boulders all the heavier.
They are not surprised to see that a billionaire born unaccountable to consequences everyone else is accountable to is busy tilting public opinion in the direction of elite interests. Elites have done it before. They do it now. They’ll do it again. The answer isn’t empty outrage.
It’s democratic people practicing democratic politics.