[This article appeared in the Spring 1987 issue of VOX, the journal of opinion published by University Professors for Academic Order, pp. 5-9.] 

 

An Atmosphere of Illusion: How Healthy is Our “Open Marketplace of Ideas”? 

Dwight D. Murphey

 

            Americans have been prone to take free speech as a given, as though it were a copybook maxim.  There is, however, no ready-made assurance that “the open marketplace of ideas” that we cherish will remain healthy and vigorous.  One would expect that Americans would quickly recognize a challenge to free speech if it were to come in the form of kingly repression.  But there are other forms of challenge, just as formidable, that are not so easily recognized.

            The openness of free discussion is often severely limited by cultural factors.  It can easily be the case that what is outwardly, legally, a system of free speech will not capture its essence; there may be no relish at all for an open, honest give-and-take.

            John Stuart Mill pointed to such an impediment in mid-nineteenth century England when he observed that the middle class was intolerant of ideas and placed a “social stigma” on unconventional opinions.[1]

            In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville pointed to a different but analogous problem within the young democracy of the United States.  In America, he said, majority opinion comes to fill all spaces, allowing no room for anything other than itself.  He saw a very real potential for a tyranny of the majority.[2]

            If today we make a similar inquiry into the health of free speech within the United States, we must come away profoundly disturbed.  Powerful cultural factors are robbing the “open marketplace of ideas” of its essential vitality.

            We find Americans living perhaps more than ever before in an atmospheric envelope of ideology.  The American public receives reality through a veil.  Instead of reality directly perceived, and then argued about from several points of view, public discussion is filtered through the fads and biases of what can best be described as “fashionable liberal ideology.”

            Ironically, it is our faith in our system of free speech that provides the cover, the protective coating, that lends an appearance of legitimacy and normalcy to what verges on ideological psychosis.  For our own national well-being, and for the long-term health of an open marketplace of ideas, it is vitally important that Americans become fully conscious of how greatly it is propaganda, not honestly debated opinion, that forms the ubiquitous frame of reference for our public dialogue.  Despite the Reagan presidency, it is the Left that we hear; in the main society, there is silence and the busy round of self-absorbed practicality.

            The ideological predominance of alienated liberal ideology has, if anything, increased during the 1980s.  Its sway is almost total.  Here are three examples:

·        During the 1989s, the AIDS virus has killed several thousands, and threatens to kill tens of thousands more.  It is arguably the most incredible epidemic ever to have struck mankind: one spread, at least initially, almost entirely through the dirty needles used by drug addicts and through, of all things, anal intercourse.

                  What, however, is the analysis that we are given by our public discourse?  What remedies are suggested?  Certainly not that the epidemic makes clear once again the value of monogamous marriage, sexual morality and the family.  Rather, we are bathed in the ethos of a therapeutic society, in which empathy, not moral judgment, is the norm.  It is not faithfulness to a single sexual partner, with a lifetime commitment, that is recommended; instead, it is “responsible sex.”  If one is to have thirty sexual partners in a day or a year, what must be done to make it “responsible” is—to use condoms!

·        The American public has been bombarded for several years by an agitation against Apartheid in South Africa.  This has culminated in the call for “black majority rule,” which entails the overthrow of the Afrikaner government.

                  The agitation flows in upon a passive public that responds by a gradual voting of divestiture in any firm that does business with South Africa.  With few exceptions, the intellectual and moral validity of the agitation is assumed without critical examination.

                   But there is much that should be said in any reasoned discussion of South Africa.  We have readily before our eyes the experience of the other countries of black Africa since they were granted independence following World War II.  In one country after another, the story has been one of brutal dictatorship, tribal genocide and alignment with anti-Western ideology.  There is no way that we can assure ourselves that this is not what we are demanding the Afrikaners subject themselves to if they succumb to a 5-to-1 Bantu majority.  Even if we were to care nothing about the whites in South Africa, we could have no assurance that the consequences of the world-wide agitation will not be to create the most unspeakable tragedy for precisely the black majority that the agitation purports to champion.

                   What has happened is that the American public has surrendered itself passively not to a well-reasoned movement, but to yet another manifestation of the anti-Western ideology that prevails within the world’s main intellectual culture.

·        Immediately following the election in November 1986, our adversarial press began unmasking, layer by layer, the covert operations of the National Security Council involving Iran and Nicaragua.

                  The whole “crisis” has been presented in a way that ought to be highly dubious to any critical observer.  Nevertheless, the presentation has been accepted on its own terms by most of the public and by the vast majority in Congress.  At first, the daily reports from “unidentified sources” amounted to the unmasking of a massive “blunder”; then they escalated to the exposure of a “scandal”—with criminal conspirators, “implicated parties” and demands to know “what the president knew, and when he chose to forget it.”

                  Lost in the exuberance and hysteria were two simple points that Americans began to lose sight of a few years ago at the time of the Daniel Ellsberg-New York Times disclosure of the Pentagon Papers.

                  The first is that covert operations by the American government in a hostile and complex world are essential to the safety of the free world, even though any given initiative may be subject to disagreement, and are very different things than, say, a Mafia conspiracy to monopolize prostitution and drug dealing in New Jersey.  What is actually being described in the media’s exposes are vitally sensitive undertakings by the United States government.

                   The second point is that such revelations are treasonable in the extreme.  That they are not generally considered so is yet another indication of how far we have come.  We have no moral judgments to make any more in the area of loyalty in an age that accepts Jane Fonda exercise tapes as a hot item.

                    No crisis was ever more completely a crisis of semantics, of ideologized perception.  If we did not accept the characterizations, and if we provided our own independent judgment, we would see the “scandal” as in the media, not the White House.

           

If we seek to understand why it is that the public discourse in the United States today is so ideologized with the perspectives of the Left, we do ourselves a disservice if we simply blame such a thing as “the sensationalizing tendencies of electronic media.”

             A deeper explanation will look to the fact that the main intellectual culture within Western civilization has for a century and a half nurtured the most profound alienation against “bourgeois society.”  Beginning in the early nineteenth century, although with a powerful precursor in Rousseau a century earlier, the predominant intellectual-artistic culture has cultivated every conceivable form of revolt against capitalism, liberalism in the original sense, and the middle class.  That is why the nineteenth century saw the rise of the world socialist movement.  Most of the conflicts of the twentieth century have been formed out of this crucible.

            The “alienation of the intellectual” has had its counterpoint in a corresponding disinclination on the part of the so-called “bourgeoisie” to cultivate an intellectual culture appropriate to itself.  In the context of the last century and a half, this has meant the forfeiture of intellectual, moral leadership to the alienated intellectual subculture.  There could be no more fateful forfeiture for a society to make.

            We will not have “normalcy” in our society, much less in the area of free speech, until we have somehow transcended these long-standing cultural defects.  The discoloration of our public discourse is itself a symptom.  To find a cure, we must start by becoming conscious of the underlying disease—the intellectual weakness of the main culture and the alienation of the literary-artistic subculture.

 

ENDNOTES


[1]  Edwin A. Burtt (ed.), The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill (New York: Modern Library, 1939), p. 972.

[2]  Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1954), pp. 273-276.