You Don’t Have To Believe Lies

Thomas Edsall provides a fair survey of academic challenges to the current understanding of the First Amendment. Two points stand out, the first being that the internet has given rise to a structural change in society where crazies and fools were once isolated, but now have the ability to find each other, link arms and create a cohort of like-minded people.

People were always crazy, but they couldn’t find each other, they couldn’t talk and disperse their craziness. Now we are confronting a new phenomenon and we have to think about how we regulate that in a way which is compatible with people’s freedom to form public opinion.

One isolated crazy was relatively harmless. A million crazies, reinforcing each other’s absurd beliefs such that they no longer believe they’re crazy, but believe that whatever nonsensical belief is lurking in their dark, moist heads is real, presents a different problem. And before anyone raises the point, this is not a phenomenon of the right or the left, but of people whose crazy flies out in all directions with pretty much the same level of impassioned belief and irrational refusal to reason.

The other point that stood out was the shift from honestly held, if completely false, beliefs to the deliberate propagation of lies directed toward misleading, enraging, and ultimately pushing to action the newly-formed tribes of believers.

There is a cadre of scholars, especially younger ones, who believe that the First Amendment balance needs to be struck differently in the digital age. The greatest threat is no longer censorship, but deliberate disinformation aimed at destabilizing democratic institutions and civic competence.

The arguments against these concerns is well-established and obvious, that competing beliefs are the essence of free speech, and who is to say that one side is right and the other wrong? Isn’t that exactly what the marketplace of political ideas is all about, the ability to persuade people to believe? And indeed, this is an age-old truth, as expressed by Justice Robert Jackson in Barnette (1943):

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

Notably, this is about the government establishing an orthodoxy, not mobs of crazies. Of course, in 1943, it wasn’t easy to round up a mob to back one’s orthodoxy and seek to ram it down the throats of others. Today, a well-placed twit can do it in milliseconds.

As of the moment of writing, it appears that the Democrats have won one, and likely two, Senate seats in the Georgia runoff. What this means for America isn’t entirely clear, but what it means for Republicans, and for Donald Trump, seems brutally clear: As much as America does not embrace radical progressive change, America rejects Trump, the embodiment of vulgar, amoral, lying, racist, narcissistic ignorance.

Trump was never conservative. He was never Republican. He had no ideology beyond self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement. He was just a little man whose one skill was to market himself to the angry and disaffected people whom he despised, but pretended to like. And the disaffected believed him because they wanted someone with whom they could relate to believe, feeling left behind by the elites who similarly despised them.

Today, Joe Biden will be officially elected President of the United States of America. There will be objections by representatives in the House and senators, some of whom believe just like the crazies and some of whom are cynical enough to know better but believe there is political capital to be had.

Trump will not stop. He cannot stop. He is humiliated by his loss, crushing his ego and willing to say or do anything to win. That’s not a surprise to anyone who was familiar with Trump before his foray into politics or since. He has no sense of shame and the only thing that matters is to win the game. He will do anything necessary to try, not for you but for him. It’s not that he intentionally indulges in shamelessness, but that shamelessness is not a bad thing in his mind, but just another tool to be used to accomplish his end. He believes he is doing the right thing, because he believes that the only right thing to do is for him to win and not be disgraced as the worst failure ever.

The election was not “stolen.” There was never massive fraud, but massive disinformation to create doubt and belief among those who wanted to doubt Biden won and believe Trump won. He and his small but dedicated band of nutjobs and liars lied. People believed for the same reason people always believe. They want to.

But today is the day. There is supposed to be a big rally/protest in D.C. There will be a counting of the electoral college votes. There will be violent provocateurs in the streets. And Trump has issued a lie to inflame the mob.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, the vice president can lawfully do to change the outcome of today’s electoral college vote. While one might excuse Trump for his legal ignorance, as he’s neither a lawyer nor someone inclined to do the hard labor of thinking, he has people around him who can tell him the truth. It must thus be assumed he knows this to be a complete lie and that there is no authority, no options, available that can alter the inevitable outcome. Yet, Trump is telling you this lie in the hope that you are stupid enough, passionate enough, crazy enough, to believe him. And when it doesn’t happen, he will blame Vice President Mike Pence for failing him and you. It will be a lie.

One theme that ran through Thomas Edsall’s survey of academic concern about the First Amendment is that something must be done to protect truth from the aggregation of mobs of crazies and disinformation campaigns fed to them. That they have identified a problem, a very serious and real problem, really can’t be questioned. Trump is its symptom. Not its only symptom by any means, but still.

But that there is a problem does not mean free speech needs to be eviscerated to cure the disease. No one forces us to believe lies. No one forces us to join arms with mobs of crazies. No one compels us to seize upon the worst of our nature. We have free choice to believe as we choose, in freedom, equality, democracy and the American Dream, while rejecting the smallest, worst, most repugnant person to be elected president.

There will be many battles to come, as the Democrats fight among themselves, moderate liberals against radical progressives, for the reimagination of a Nation. There will be principles at stake, solutions that could fix problems or make them far worse, perhaps even unfixable. This is not despite Trump, but because of Trump. He is not worthy of costing us our freedom. He never was. But if this doesn’t stop today, it could well happen. Don’t sacrifice America for the likes of someone as worthless as Trump.

44 thoughts on “You Don’t Have To Believe Lies

  1. Ray

    This is exactly what the Galactic Federation wants you to believe. Trump sealed his fate when he threatened to release the documents proving that the Federation had a military colony on Mars and was influencing the G7. The Federation never forgave him, never forgot. It rigged this election, and is now using The academic establishment to cover its efforts to silence Trump. The Galatic Federation wants Trump out. Well, he crossed them, and payback’s a bitch!

    1. SHG Post author

      I assume what you’re attempting to do is show how he’s backed by believers in crazy conspiracy theories. It’s too cute by half.

      1. Ray

        This morning your assumption would have been correct. But looking at the rioting now taking place in the Capitol, I might have to give the existence of the Galactic Federation some thought. Absolutely disgraceful. Scary. (But that is stating the too obvious–what the hell is happening to this country!) Were the 60’s as bad as this? I don’t remember all that much from that era being a small child, but the times we’re living in now?

    1. SHG Post author

      This is unhelpful. This is the sort of simplistic reaction that feeds the worst outrage of the crazies. I am deeply disappointed in you.

      1. Gregory Prickett

        I’m sorry, but I spent way too much time as a cop, putting people in jail for doing the type of things that Trump has done, from Obstruction of Justice (see the Mueller Report, Vol. II), to Tax Fraud (see NY investigations), to Election Fraud (latest phone call). People have to be held accountable for their actions, and that includes Trump.

        Otherwise the Rule of Law is permanently lessened. I’m willing to consider other options, but there has to be consequences for everything that he has done.

        1. SHG Post author

          Whether crimes were committed, and whether prosecuting for those crimes is a wise exercise of discretion, are all fine questions. Just not about this post and not today.

    2. Sgt. Schultz

      We’re at the “Trump lost, don’t burn the country down for Trump” stage. What happens after he leaves office is an entirely different matter, with a great many complex concerns involved. That wasn’t the point of this post, and goes far beyond the issues at stake today.

      Whether to dive down the nutjob rabbit hole of prosecuting Trump may be clear to you, but if there is anything that can push the Trump crazies to fight, it’s the anti-Trump crazies calling to “lock him up.” Don’t be that crazy.

  2. Rengit

    Many of these same things could, and often were, said about mass printing, about the postal service (hence why inspecting people’s mail was a common practice in old days), about the telephone, and so on. Television and radio, the major means of mass communication in the 20th Century and being of limited bandwidth so that the government had the ability to control who got a license and who didn’t, were anomalies in that *by their very nature, not everyone could have a platform on them*. Humans use technology to exchange ideas, the notion that the internet is somehow unique in the danger it presents in terms of the exchange of ideas is an opportunistic ploy by the opponents of free speech.

    1. SHG Post author

      Technology has caused changes in mass communication over time, but that doesn’t mean the internet isn’t different.

      1. Rengit

        The internet is different in that, at least among my age bracket, it consumes people’s lives and cuts them off from real-life relationships in a way that other media haven’t (although if you read late 18th/early 19th Century opinions on “the novel”, men were very concerned about women becoming emotionally consumed by fictional books and serials), which is its own set of problems and contributes to free speech issues as people become intolerant of others, but I don’t see how “people are easily able to spread false things to others and get them to go crazy” is anything new or presents novel problems for free speech. If there is a difference, it is mostly one of degree, rather than of kind.

        Plenty of 20th Century dictatorships and semi-democracies were able to spread falsehoods and rile up mobs with television and radio, and those things led to real horrors: Radio Rwanda, anyone? Same thing with the mass printing of pamphlets which, surprise, the powers that be often wanted suppressed because of their libel, their slander, their stirring people to violence. Politically and economically motivated violence was extremely common in this country up through WWII, egged on by highly ideological newspapers and magazines, catering to the Klan, anarchists, Know Nothings, or whoever else, spreading half-truths, calls to arms, and outright falsehoods. We had the First Amendment then, even if a more limited understanding, and we came out ok.

        The notion put forward by Paul Krugman that the internet was about as exciting an innovation as the fax machine may have been wrong, but the idea put out by tech alarmists that it’s some alien life form that possesses people and robs them of their sensible faculties so that they lose sight of The Truth ™ is ignorant of history prior to 1940.

  3. James

    It is traditional to compare downstream voting results with and without the President on the ticket. Perdue received 2,462,617 with Trump on the Ticket. He received ~2,192,347 (99% return) without Trump on the ticket. There are several counties that turned out in large numbers when Trump was on the ticket that did not turn out for Perdue. Using the traditional evaluation, something other than Trump / Trump’s election conspiracies are to blame for Perdue’s loss.

    1. SHG Post author

      There are many potential reasons for the vote/turnout differential, from Trump persuading dumb people that elections are rigged to Lin Wood telling even dumber people not to vote, to people simply choosing not to vote for the Republican candidates. Regardless, the idea that the Repbulicans would lose the Senate seats in Georgia would have been absurd a couple months ago. Yet, here we are.

      1. Charles

        In the runoff that no one is talking about, for Public Service Commissioner, the Republican is going to win by a bigger margin than either Democrat candidate for Senate.

        Weirdest election results I have seen.

  4. Drew Conlin

    Just before I responded here I checked the news. Mike Pence has told President Trump that he (Pence) has no power to change election results.
    My view Pence has been dignified, maintained his integrity and when it’s come down to it seems put the country ahead of Trump.
    I’ll probably get throttled for this but I don’t think I’m wrong.

  5. B. McLeod

    The doubling down on lies seems to have become steadily and progressively worse since the Clinton Administration, and has simply spread to the Internet along with all other expression. Maybe Trump is the peak of the phenomenon, or maybe it can still get even worse. It is baffling that people are continuing to bet on this tactic when it obviously isn’t working.

      1. Asl3676

        Fox News is the disease…If Fox News existed in 1974 Nixon would have claimed he did nothing wrong and Hannity, Dobbs, Ingraham and Carlson would have defended him..

  6. Denverite

    Yes the internet has amplified the voices of crazies and fools. It is possible that this is the result of tech change and the internet. It is also possible that the mobocracy/tribalism problem has been caused by something else that is going on (like failure of government/institutions to meet basic needs, elites pigging out, etc. etc.) and would have happened anyway. Remember Mackay wrote on the madness of crowds in the mid 19th century. So — we need to remember as you have often said that the alternative to bad isn’t necessarily better. If we “solve” the wrong cause of the mobocracy/tribalism problem by changing our First Amendment formula the original problem of tribal mobocracy remains and our cure will inevitably create new problems. So best to remember Chesterton’s fence and be careful and go slowly. From my perspective, the history of our First Amendment jurisprudence is compelling because it is clear that without the modern framework (limited and narrow categories of unprotected speech, no new categories and no balancing of harms and benefits to create new ones) minority views would be extinguished and rigidity enhanced. Which would enforce the mobocracy/tribalism problem.

    1. Kathryn M Kase

      Exactly! Ridicule the crazies and the fools for their views all you want, but don’t seek to limit their right to express those views. That way lies the exit from our constitutional values.

      1. SHG Post author

        The weird thing is the people you deem crazies and fools are absolutely certain they’re the sane ones and the other person is the crazy and fool.

  7. Charles

    If I were Dave, I would post Sixpence None the Richer’s cover of “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”

  8. Jay

    Ok. The Germans did decide, with our support, that outlawing fascism and hitler was the only way forward and hey look they’re the most powerful country in Europe today.

    The reality is that America is going to either have a civil war over …whatever Trumpists stand for, or we the people who aren’t trumpists are going to have to start targeted arrests to get rid of the most virulent purveyors of sedition and fascism. But you don’t care Greenfield- you’re too old to fight in a war and too far off in a blue state and blue city to have any idea how scary it is in red states right now. So go on, keep signing hymns for the Republic.

    1. SHG Post author

      Check my rules, as Godwin’s Law remains in full force and effect here. Here’s a thought: have you ever considered why the people around you in flyover country don’t love you any more than you love them? Maybe it wouldn’t be so scary if you didn’t call them deplorable racists and sexists all the time and expect them to love you for it.

    2. Charles

      More people voted for Trump in California than voted for Trump in Texas. More people voted for Biden in Texas than voted for Biden in New York.

      If Texas is a red state, does that make California redder? Or if New York is a blue state, does that make Texas bluer?

  9. Paleo

    Don’t forget Nazi and fascist. He calls them that too.

    Pretty cute that the guy who believes himself to be standing against fascism is advocating preemptively arresting people without their having committed a crime.

    In response to the actual post, I agree with you that the internet has made it worse. Perhaps it’s the wider spread of info, good or bad.

      1. paleo

        Yes. I was replying to the string started by Jay.

        I was on my phone and for whatever reason it doesn’t work well with your comment system as to replies. Every comment just lines down the page. I though I hit reply. I intended to hit reply.

        Sorry for the screw up.

  10. KeyserSoze

    The good thing about the internet: Anyone can publish.

    The bad thing about the internet: Anyone can publish.

    Your next to last paragraph pretty well says it all. We have freedom to choose or believe as we want based on how we decide on what to believe . Liberty means choices. It also presumes responsibility.

  11. Austin Sid

    “Notably, this is about the government establishing an orthodoxy, not mobs of crazies. Of course, in 1943, it wasn’t easy to round up a mob to back one’s orthodoxy and seek to ram it down the throats of others.”
    Wrong. Nazi Germany had radio & newspapers, which led to brownshirts (1921), WWII and genocide.

    “Trump will not stop. He cannot stop. He is humiliated by his loss, crushing his ego and willing to say or do anything to win.”
    Wrong. Trump is acting like he’s on a TV show and won’t give his critics their pound of flesh. Nearly all politicians are acting (e.g. Harris suggested Biden is a segregationist, touched women inappropriately, etc. and he still choose her as VP). In the end, it worked to become President.

  12. Anonymous Coward

    I am constantly dismayed by the formerly liberal left’s lust for censorship. The problem with protecting “truth” is who gets to define it? The current crop of “advocacy journalists” are unworthy of this responsibility since the have devolved into political cheerleaders who slant their reporting based on the political affiliation of their subjects. I would sooner have untrammeled speech and let the crazies reveal themselves by their own words.

  13. Jay

    I hope you’re enjoying the scenes from the capitol Greenfield. This is what you’ve been ignoring for four years while you whined about leftist ridiculousness.

      1. PseudonymousKid

        You have a habit of mocking right-wing nuts while clutching your pearls before “left”-wing nuts. There’s some bias at play, I would think, but don’t feel too bad. We’re all human as far as I can tell. Tiki torches are fun and all, until those kind of assholes are disrupting Congress. I’m sorry for trying to support Jay, but we leftists have to stick together, you know?

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