“Behold a republic in which civil and religious liberty stimulate all to earnest endeavor and in which the law restrains every hand uplifted for a neighbor’s injury – a republic in which every citizen is a sovereign, but in which no one cares to wear a crown.” – William Jennings Bryan
Baseball Crank thinks there is a dilemma.
“The cancel-culture wars have revealed a lot of ironies and dilemmas. Here is one question that conservatives need to think harder about: Should we defend free speech and free thought as good things in themselves, regardless of their content, or should we focus our energies on defending our own substantive vision of the good?
Recall the big debate between populist conservatives and classical-liberal conservatives that was generated by Sohrab Ahmari’s argument with David French about a public library hosting “drag queen story hour.” The notion of a content-neutral defense of speech was a big battleground of that debate. Echoes of a similar debate can be found in the arguments leveled at legal originalists by “common-good” theories of constitutional interpretation, although how we read legal texts raises somewhat distinct questions from how we make more-general arguments about the good society. A component of the current debate about Big Tech and Internet free speech is also about the proper place of content-neutral values as well. …
The populist critique is that classical-liberal conservatism is essentially contentless. In the populist telling, classical liberals are so wrapped up in defending the soapbox that they lose the soap. Conservatives who don’t insist on treating moral and factual truth as superior will, we are told, end up conserving nothing. This is something of a caricature, of course. Few people are so absolutist in their defense of free speech that they believe in no limits at all: You can still go to jail for fraud, be sued for knowing libel, or be fired from a communications job for being bad at communications. And a robust marketplace of ideas is only valuable if there are also people willing and able to sell their own ideas in that marketplace. …”
Is there a dilemma?
The populist view of free speech and cancel culture can be summarized as follows:
- Populists like free speech and descend from the Jeffersonian tradition through Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan
- Populists tend to be Southerners and Westerners
- Populists are plain spoken people who like to say exactly what we think which is why we have no time for political correctness or wokeness
- Populists think it is absurd and tragic that people are shouted down and canceled and have their lives destroyed for what they believe. Ideally, people should be free to say whatever is on their mind and agree to disagree without walking on eggshells, looking over their shoulders or living in fear of mobs. The harm that is caused by these mobs to people who have their careers ruined far exceeds the offense or “trauma” caused by mere words
- There should be reasonable boundaries to free speech like obscenity. Free speech does not justify things like pornography
- Populists don’t really care what other people think. We argue with them. We mock them. We don’t go out of our way though to stalk, wreck and destroy their lives for what they believe
- Populists think it is bizarre that progressives are so obsessed with words and policing thoughts and conformity, but recognize that the Church of Woke has become a new pseudo-religion now that they have lost their religion and have forgotten traditional morality
- Populists like the Bill of Rights
- Populists have always been suspicious of large financial institutions and corporate power reaching all the way back to the days of Jefferson and Hamilton and later Jackson and the Second Bank of the United States
- Populists supported public ownership of the railroads and telegraph lines as public goods
- The things that progressives believe like modernism, cosmopolitanism, antiracism and political correctness/wokeness are all foreign imports from 20th century Europe. The genealogy of the latter can be traced back to the Frankfurt School, the New Left of the 1960s and French postmodernism
Baseball Crank sees this as “classical liberalism.”
The term “classical liberalism” though was made up in the early 20th century to give liberalism a more respectable ancestry as “conservatism” consolidated in opposition to New Deal liberalism.
The Founding Fathers thought of themselves as republicans.
I won’t go into the long history of how the new British “classical liberalism” came to be conflated with “republicanism” in the early 19th century. It will suffice to say that Americans have always had these beliefs which extend far back into the colonial era to the Commonwealth men and the lived experience of frontier life which accustomed the American settlers to a looser form of social organization.
Essentially, Baseball Crank wants to cast a rigid ideology around something we see as our own tradition, which we have modified across the centuries in response to new circumstances like in the early 20th century when railroads and telegraph and telephone lines were spreading across the country. We take for granted today that there are no hall monitors in charge of policing and censoring our phone conversations and invading our privacy to read our mail or denying people access to electric, water and sewer service for their political opinions. It is natural to extend our own tradition to the internet.
Note: The National Conservatives that Baseball Crank is arguing with trace their own lineage to Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and the Federalists.