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Better A Naked Public Square Than An Empty One


Back in December of 2015, I was on the end of year edition of Face the Nation, and was asked: What in 2015 either surprised you the most or did you find the most interesting? I responded by saying that “I was surprised the most by how quickly we saw the arguments about free speech become essentially a monopartisan affair. Civil liberties in America – the conversation about them has largely been a bipartisan one historically. But in the conversation that we saw take place on America’s campuses and in our political fray, I think political correctness is now something that has moved over entirely into a conversation on the Right. That surprised me to a great degree.”

That seems like a long time ago now, given the way our conversations about speech and who is allowed in the public square — as defined by who is allowed to exist inside the walls of our social media systems — has devolved to the point where the members of the left defending politically incorrect speech are nearly all out of power, out of office, and out of view.

It’s the exceptions that stand out. Barack Obama’s closing interview in 2016 was his clearest statement on the issue. Rowan Atkinson, hardly a comic at the center of the conversation, is one of the few defending aggressively politically incorrect jokes.

This clip from Bill Maher is the exception.

Former Democratic politician Jennifer Granholm — now a paid contributor to CNN, the network that led the charge against the social media entities, and an advisor to Media Matters, which was also advocating for the deplatforming — cheered openly when Maher noted that Alex Jones had been kicked out of the online public square by the powers that be in Silicon Valley, yelling “Thank God!” to the audience, an odd choice given the likely dearth of believers in the venue.

And then Bill Maher said this.

“Maher, who noted that Jones had told “crazy lies” about him, responded to Granholm’s smirk — and cheers from the audience — by saying, “well, if you’re a liberal, you’re supposed to be for free speech.”

“That’s free speech for the speech you hate,” Maher passionately stated. “That’s what free speech means. We’re losing the thread of the concepts that are important to this country.”

“If you care about the real American sh*t or you don’t,” Maher continued. “And if you do, it goes for every side. I don’t like Alex Jones, but Alex Jones gets to speak. Everybody gets to speak.”

Maher’s reaction may confuse some people. But it shouldn’t. He is a liberal stuck in amber, unaltered for the past three decades — which means that he still actually believes all the things the ACLU was saying back in the 1990s that they don’t say any more. That means he is free to say he believes Republicans are insane, God isn’t real, and Christians are Armageddon obsessed idiots… and Christopher Hitchens can respond to all that with his own take.

What hurts Maher and the liberals who agree with him in this moment is that the public square has been seized by people who have not historically been in ownership of it in the United States. A group of well-meaning do-gooders who just want to make the world a better place — but without the whole “the laws of nature and nature’s God” part. Instead, they operate within a malleable frame of existence, where judgments about what speech is allowed on their platforms is dependent more on how much PR these choices receive than on a standard that is neutral, blind, and fair.

In 1984, Richard John Neuhaus wrote in The Naked Public Square:

In a democratic society, state and society must draw from the same moral well. In addition, because transcendence abhors a vacuum, the state that styles itself as secular will almost certainly succumb to secularism. Because government cannot help but make moral judgments of an ultimate nature, it must, if it has in principle excluded identifiable religion, make those judgments by “secular” reasoning that is given the force of religion…

More than that, the notion of the secular state can become the prelude to totalitarianism. That is, once religion is reduced to nothing more than privatized conscience, the public square has only two actors in it — the state and the individual. Religion as a mediating structure — a community that generates and transmits moral values – is no longer available as a countervailing force to the ambitions of the state…

No, the chief attack is upon the institutions that bear and promulgate belief in a transcendent reality by which the state can be called to judgment. Such institutions threaten the totalitarian proposition that everything is to be within the state, nothing is to be outside the state.

Replace the state with social media, and here is where we are. I joked on Friday’s Federalist Radio Hour that the people demanding Mark Zuckerberg render a verdict on all the content on his platform were essentially demanding the Harvard dropout who had the smarts and good fortune to invent a global social network now perform the functions of a Pontiff — an infallible speaker who communicates with the divine and whose word is the word of God. The role does not suit him, and he does not want it. But the internet demands it of him.

This is because those who demand it need a sense of absolution — a vindication that they are the goodthinkers, and the others are the wrongthinkers. They need this judgment rendered from on high, because it is all they can turn to when they lack any perspective on the transcendent. They need someone to be a sinner so they can remind themselves they are the virtuous. And instead, all they’ve done is turn a crazy person into a martyr.

Crackpots with platforms are not all that dangerous (after all, the world has survived Jennifer Rubin). They may share their gripes and conspiracies in the public square, only to be laughed at and debunked at every turn. It is the cult leader in the compound who is more dangerous. In a world closed off from the public square, they foment their ideas without criticism, and build conspiracies without threat of debunking. This is one reason why the public square is a good thing — and why banning people from it, particularly for reasons that are ever changeable according to whim, is inherently bad for us all.

On this issue, Maher is a lonely voice. But he is a powerful one. Perhaps he can save the left from its latent illiberalism. Or perhaps it is too late. We will find out.