Democracy’s Self-Destruct Button?

There’s a Taoist view that all compounded things carry within themselves the seeds of their own self-destruction. This is a fancy way of saying what goes up must come down, with the understanding that the ultimate cause of the coming down is intrinsic to the going up. I can’t say whether that’s always true, but it’s an interesting point to contemplate.

Americans value free speech. It’s one of the things people across the political spectrum agree on, or say they do. We may disagree on what constitutes actual censorship or whether speech should be free from consequences, but we all value the right of individuals to say any damnfool thing they want, by any means, as long as they aren’t disturbing the peace or somehow putting people in danger — shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, for example.

Political campaign advertisements have never been famous for candor or veracity. But it seems to me we’ve hit a perfect storm of circumstances in which our cherished value of free speech could be our undoing. Citizens United; extreme wealth concentrated in the hands of a few people with extreme views and no scruples; Fox News; media technology that quickly spreads unfiltered disinformation to targeted audiences — these things have contributed to an unprecedented corruption of political discourse.

Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” These days lies can circle the globe several times while stealing truth’s shoes and putting a bag over truth’s head.

And it appears we’re helpless to do anything about it. For example, Ohio has a False Statement Law that makes it a crime to knowingly or recklessly make false statements about a political candidate. In 2010 the right-wing anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List tried to run ads saying Democrat Rep. Steven Driehaus, running for re-election, supported “taxpayer-funded abortions” because he voted for Obamacare. And, of course, the ACA doesn’t provide tax funds for abortions, so that’s a lie. The Susan B. Anthony List sued the state for interfering with its members’ rights to free speech, and this spring the SCOTUS ruled that SBA had standing to sue. The ACLU itself filed an amici brief supporting SBA’s position. SBA may eventually lose the suit, but I wouldn’t count on it. Driehaus lost the election, btw.

And I’m saying our system of government is being choked to death by untrammeled “free speech.”

Paul Krugman brought up another example. Respected climate scientist Michael Mann published scientific findings the Right found inconvenient. But since they couldn’t dispute the science fair and square, they initiated a lie campaign aiming to smear and discredit Mann any way they could.

Mann, as some of you may know, is a hard-working scientist who used indirect evidence from tree rings and ice cores in an attempt to create a long-run climate record. His result was the famous “hockey stick” of sharply rising temperatures in the age of industrialization and fossil fuel consumption. His reward for that hard work was not simply assertions that he was wrong — which he wasn’t — but a concerted effort to destroy his life and career with accusations of professional malpractice, involving the usual suspects on the right but also public officials, like the former Attorney General of Virginia.

National Review columnist Mark Steyn was doing a particularly rigorous job smearing Michael Mann. But Mann filed a defamation lawsuit against Steyn, National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. I’m not completely up to speed on all the twists and turns this suit has taken, but D.R. Tucker writes that National Review appears to be getting nervous it might lose. NR originally defended itself by presenting the court with the fraudulent arguments against Mann, which were easily and objectively shown to be lies. Now NR is backpedaling and saying they never claimed Mann’s findings were scientifically fraudulent, although they did, and that Steyn and NR had used the word “fraudulent” to mean something other than, you know, fraud. NR’s legal team appears desperate to avoid going to trial at all.

The Right continue to paint Michael Mann as hysterical and over-sensitive because he was upset that powerful forces colluded to destroy his career and discredit his life’s work. Yesterday Steyn filed an amicus brief in support of neither party — I didn’t know you could do that; doesn’t sound very amicus to me — that I have not read all the way through, but it appears to be arguing that all this legal stuff is crimping Steyn’s style and he wants them to get it over with already. Poor baby.