The United States finds itself as polarized as it’s ever been, culturally, racially, with respect to gender, generationally, economically and philosophically. Patriotism for a great many is not only passé, it is vile (perhaps not a bad thing). Freedom of expression? As New Yorkers might say “fogget about’t!” Trolling has become an art form with purportedly progressive volunteer Internet monitors breaking into others posts to ridicule those who dared express their opinions and hurl personal insults with organized responses insisting that voting one’s conscience is heretical treason (independents and third party advocates are deemed the worst). Freedom of expression? Again, the New Yorkers’ response: “fogget about’t!” Toe the line!!!! All of the foregoing are elements of fascism but spouted by those of all ages (though mainly younger, Caucasian and well off) who seem to believe that all those who do not believe as they do or do not behave in the manner they deem appropriate are “fascist pigs”. Why pigs you might wonder? Why is it always pigs? We really need a porcine liberation front! Riots with looting arson and mayhem organized and led by black clad “progressive” purportedly anti-fascist storm troopers spout slogans last effectively used by Confederate politicians while insisting all non-Union Civil War memorials be destroyed. As Elphaba, the purported Wicked Witch of the West (bad press really), wailed as she melted: “What a world, what a world!”
And soooo, let’s consider democracy in the context of the censorship, identity politics and woke pandemic. Hyperlinks are provided to relevant supplementary information for those interested.
This past week, Ron Sprovero, a well-educated, very experienced and intelligent friend, shared with some of us the fact that he had been suspended from a purportedly neutral Internet platform because he had posted the accurate and uncensored birth certificate of a candidate for national office, something seemingly relevant to decisions as to whom to support in the upcoming United States federal elections.
Stories such as Ron’s are becoming all too common. The Internet platform involved enjoys a virtual monopoly on the sharing of information by its members and rejection of their participation has a direct impact on electoral results not at all different from limiting the right to vote itself. Proponents of such censorship insist that it is not inappropriate because the entity is privately owned and the fact that it has attained monopolistic power any government would envy is irrelevant. The reality, however, is that censorship by any entity with such massive public access and which claims to be politically neutral is not only inappropriate but too dangerous to tolerate, at least in a purported democracy. If we are fine with an elitist oligarchy of the 1%, then of course their point is valid. If not, then, well, perhaps we should consider eating cake as Marie Antoinette is reputed to have suggested several centuries ago.
Experiences such as that suffered by Ron are now all too common and not only on the specific platform involved but on all major Internet platforms. Censorship decisions are purportedly made through use of “politically neutral” algorithms and are supposedly designed to only eliminate inappropriate postings, however, in reality, even assuming only algorithms (and not partisan humans) are involved, their programmers’ political biases assure that they are tailored to generate very specific political results. They do not only impact conservatives like Ron. To many of us who write from perspectives to the left of the Democratic Party, it has long been obvious that a very specific wedge of the political spectrum is favored, indeed, our progressive readership was artificially contracted by more than 80% immediately after algorithms first began their attack approximately four years ago. Surely a coincidence! Like the pandemic which we are currently facing, such censorship has spread globally so that now, major corporations and myriads of self-anointed, holier-than-thou individuals are busily seeking to decide for all of us what information is fit to be shared and even what terminology is fit to be used, all oxymoronically in the name of preserving First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of association. Caitlin Johnstone, a free-lance journalist and civic activist captured the spirit of the times, as she so often does, in an article entitled “How We Could Wind up Banned from Discussing an October Surprise on Social Media this Election”. It, like so much that she publishes (except perhaps her attempts at poetry) is very much worth reading.
So, … what are the most important issues involved in this new “memeticized” pandemic? To me, they involve the issue of whether even a semblance of democracy exists or can exist when relevant information is restricted. For purposes of this article, I will posit that democracy is generally a good thing, at least when it is functional, but can become horrendous when it is distorted (as occurred during the metamorphosis of the Weimar Republic into the Third Reich). That it can be a good thing does not mean that it is the best form of government in every context, it requires an involved and participatory citizenry and today that seems the exception rather than the rule, but for now, it is what we claim to “enjoy”.
Whatever the form of governance, its most important aspect would appear to be that it be perceived by the governed as legitimate. But what makes a government legitimate? I posit that what makes a government legitimate is the consent of the governed, although determining the existence of such consent is difficult outside of a democratic framework. Democracy is not a scientific method for arriving at correct decisions. It may not even be functional. It is more an art form predicated on the premise that the collective wisdom and perceptions of a majority of the members of a society will, more often than not, arrive at functional decisions, especially in the intermediate to long term. It is an imperfect system but one that improves over time if permitted to function through trial and error and is provided with unrestricted access to information. If those fundamental requisites do not exist, then neither does democracy and the verisimilitude of democracy peddled to the citizenry will, at best, be a dysfunctional system subject to manipulation in favor of those who are willing to attain and wield power ruthlessly, especially if done so subtly, especially if done so hypocritically with liberal doses of hyperbole. Especially if done in the way it is being done today.
In a democracy, elections are supposed to be the periodic event where citizens individually exercise their right to evaluate information on their own and come to decisions as to governance which are then tabulated to determine a collective consensus and implemented based on majorities attained. But elections only work when access to information is not limited. It is up to the individual to evaluate the accuracy of available information and thus all information ought to be available. When information is filtered, democracy cannot function regardless of how well meaning the censor.
Censorship of any kind distorts the exercise of democracy and when censors have a political agenda (as, being human, they always do), they impose their perspectives on the electorate rather than facilitate the electorate’s exercise of political rights. Elections are and always should be about “meddling” and opining, but freely and openly. If any group is excluded, the pool of information from which one can select what to believe becomes distorted and useless. The role of journalism is supposed to be to make more, not less information available, and to do so in a neutral, not a partisan manner. Only then can democracy function. “Political correctness” is anathema to free speech, to a free press and to functional democracy.
Democracy is a social collective of individuals. The citizenry serves the role of the cells in a human body. Our elected leadership, hopefully serves as the brain and the information necessary to make informed electoral decisions constitutes the blood. In this metaphor, the entities involved in facilitating circulation of information (which ought to include journalists and the major Internet platforms) would function as the heart, but the reality is heartless. Then again, the problem is not novel. Objective journalism has never been the norm in the United States; indeed, journalism’s highest awards, the Pulitzer Prizes, are named after the founder of “yellow journalism”, Joseph Pulitzer who, with his chief rival, William Randolph Hearst, crystalised the concept. That journalists, as censors rather than neutral intermediaries in the circulation of information, perceive of themselves as well-meaning is a hugely condescending insult to our collective intelligence. A patronizing elitist oligarchy is the biggest threat that any democracy can face. Democracy is not about making decisions that partisans consider correct but about the exercise of free will by the citizenry, thus, inappropriate meddling does not involve the sharing or circulation of information by foreigners (who, due to the dominance of the United States in world affairs, have legitimate interests in the outcome of our elections), but the filtering and withholding of information and restrictions on our ability to share and circulate information we feel is relevant. Unfortunately, that is what the mainstream media and the major Internet platforms are doing to us all.
So, where do we find ourselves?
As seemingly always, we purportedly find ourselves in the midst of an existential election whose results will irreparably impact us and our progeny forever, but with our choices artificially limited to interchangeable greater and lesser evils (there are other options but our censors are pretty successful at keeping them hidden) and with access to information manipulated in order to distort our perceptions and thus our electoral decisions. And we find ourselves more polarized than at any time since our devastating Civil War, one from which we apparently have yet to recover. The right wing of our political spectrum, relying on the Second Amendment to our current Constitution, is well armed but slow to violence and the left wing, now arming as well, seems all too prepared to not only accept but promote violence in the name of progress (although some might wonder how looting, arson and mayhem promote equality, pacifism and equity). To some of us it appears imminent that, as the War to End All Wars had to be renamed World War I a bit more than 20 years after it ended, our own Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, or the War between the States, etc.) will all too soon need to be renamed Civil War I.
Do we still enjoy a functional democracy (assuming that we ever did)? Do a majority of us consider our government legitimate? Do we believe we have access to the information we need to make informed electoral decisions? Do we have faith in our ability to effectively express our perspectives? Do we really trust the purportedly “mainstream” media? Will we be voting for candidates we trust and in whom we believe?
I think that in each case, the answer is a resounding: “No, …. Hell No!” but the reality (if it can somehow be determined) is that as Adolf Hitler noted in his epic, Mein Kampf, (I paraphrase) omnipresent efforts to manipulate us politically through use of behaviorist tactics in the dissemination of information, even when we know it is inaccurate, have an effect. That was certainly the experience in the Republic of Colombia’s 2018 presidential elections, the results of which were all too quickly regretted by the all too gullible electorate. The Deep State and the mainstream media have learned from their defeat by the United States electorate in 2016 and have quadrupled their efforts to more efficiently dampen the populist waves from both the left (Sanders) and the right (Trump) which defeated them that year. Consequently, it is unlikely that their efforts at bending us to their control will not prove more and more successful as their tactics are refined, improved and implemented and our reactive options limited. One clear indicia you yourself can test is whether or not you have heard of electoral options other than those proposed by the two major parties in terms other than their roles as spoilers.
We seem to have become a collective metaphor for Laurel and Hardy the instant before Oliver turns to Stan and comments: “well this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into” and, daring to mix metaphors, in the place of Elphaba, the purported Wicked Witch of the West (bad press really), as she melts, observing, “what a world, what a world!” We find ourselves with our ability to communicate and receive information censored, perhaps without any choices at all except to accept domination by our self-proclaimed betters and hope for the best.
One wonders if that is how the decent citizens of the German Weimar Republic felt at the dawn of their own elections in 1933.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2020; all rights reserved. Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.
Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia (although he has primarily lived in the United States of America of which he is also a citizen). Until 2017 he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales. He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation and linguistic studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and much of his writing is available through his blog at http://www.guillermocalvo.com.
 Indeed, the famous Peter Zenger Case which established the predicates for protection of the press found in the United States Constitution was premised on the right to engage in seditious libel and, two centuries later, virtual impunity was granted to the press by the United States Supreme Court in the “infamous” case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), a case which once again involved the media’s apparent right to be wrong without consequences. The situation has drastically exacerbated by another Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010) which gave the wealthiest among us cart blanch to buy political power through bribery in the guise of political contributions, huge speaking fees and generous book deals. As ominous, as disclosed in an article four years ago, the wealthiest among us have gained total control of the United States media (see, e.g., “These 15 Billionaires Own America’s News Media Companies”), now concentrated in six media conglomerates, interestingly, most now fused with the entertainment industry and those same billionaires now virtually own many of the most important career federal and state bureaucrats, especially in federal intelligence, justice and defense agencies and in state departments of justice (see “George Soros’ quiet overhaul of the U.S. justice system” a prescient article published on Politico four years ago by Scott Bland).