Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter was finalized last Friday, and the world’s richest man confirmed his reason for doing so: “I acquired Twitter because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence.” Musk is reacting to Twitter’s blatantly politicized censorship and bullying of conservatives and others who publicize opinions that challenge or expose progressive Democrats’ orthodoxy.
Here’s hoping that Musk keeps his nerve and reforms Twitter by purging its staff and policies that arrogantly run rough-shod over the First Amendment, based on their delusional belief that they are virtuous “brights” who are so certain of their superior knowledge that only they should be allowed to speak in the town square, and be charged with silencing heretics and blasphemers against their sacred narrative of “our democracy.”
What these censors don’t get is that free speech is not just an accessory to our Constitutional order, but a defining foundation of it. That’s why free speech is the first unalienable right to be codified in the Bill of Rights, for without it political freedom can’t exist.
This link between free speech and political freedom, moreover, arose in ancient Athens, the first government ever to allow non-elites, or the demos, the masses, to become citizens who voted, deliberated, consented to the laws, and served in offices. No matter how low their birth, how lacking in education, or poor, they were politically equal and free.
But giving citizens the right to speak without fear of retaliation in the public and civic spaces of the polis had to acknowledge the larger diversity of the new political community, compared to the oligarchies of wealth or birth, which were much more homogenous in their interests and way of life. Restricting political speech by rules of style or decorum, would necessarily function as a gatekeeper that excluded and diminished some citizens’ diverse ideas and arguments, and their various styles of presenting them.
The solution was to allow great latitude in public political speech, whether in the Assembly, trials, or the comic theater, which was not, like today, the venue for private entertainment, but was part of a politico-religious festival managed by officials of the polis and attended by its citizens. Hence, comedy was a form of political discourse that used humor, especially sexual and scatological, to make political judgements and commentary about politicians and policies.
In fact, these comedies were wildly unrestrained in their obscenity and personal attacks, even by our vulgar standards. Classicist K.J. Dover describes these brutal assaults on known politically prominent Athenians of the period, not one of whom was spared. All were described as “vain, greedy, dishonest, and self-seeking,” and “represented also as ugly, diseased, prostituted perverts, the sons of whores by foreigners who bribed their way into citizenship,” which was restricted to legitimate children of an Athenian mother and father.
Comedy and other genres like satire, then, have been foundational to democracy and republics from the beginning. They are important mechanisms for keeping politicians accountable to the people by humiliating them publicly and mocking their pretensions of importance and superior knowledge. Hence the use of scatological and sexual humor for 2500 years: those universal human functions reinforce the central assumption especially of representative government that all citizens are politically equal. As Lenny Bruce joked, there no man no matter how powerful who won’t get on his knees and beg a woman to “just touch it.” The sordid and humiliating sexual exploits of JFK and Bill Clinton confirm this eternal truth.
Needless to say, elites like Plato despised this freedom of all citizens to speak frankly and crudely to their betters. But Plato was a utopian, antidemocratic technocrat, like today’s progressives who believe that “experts” and cognitive elites should govern the masses. Hoi polloi do not have the knowledge and credentials that protect them from “conspiracy theories,” the wiles of political hucksters, and the “right-wing media” who peddle “fake news” and “disinformation.”
So why should we be surprised that tech moguls like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates champion censoring news that challenges their political narratives and interest, or that Amazon censors books disliked by progressives? Why are any corporations “cancelling” those who dare criticize self-serving “woke” policies? Why the incessant scolding to “follow the science,” or the smug yard-signs proclaiming “science is real,” when most of the policies they promote are the fruit of scientism, not legitimate science? Is it that all these Grand Inquisitors despise the retrograde ignoramuses or superstitious people of faith who they believe are too stupid and venal and repressed to understand the progressives’ brave new world?
Or why do we wonder at the decline of comedy over the last few decades? There’s no question that today’s comics or film comedies, with a few notable exceptions, are not funny to anyone other than the “woke” commissars checking for violations of orthodoxy. But what we’ve lost is not just humor, but the ancient, vital function of comedy in a democracy to “speak truth to power” and hold it accountable to the sovereign people, and puncture the pretensions of wannabe tyrants that only they should rule.
In contrast, today too many performers, again with the exception of dissenters like Dave Chapelle and Ricky Gervais, are eager to grovel and apologize at the first condemnation by “woke” scolds.
Such missish comedians should take a lesson from the comic playwright Aristophanes, whose favorite target was the demagogue Cleon, who after Pericles was the most consequential Athenian politician in the first decade of the Peloponnesian War. Fed up with the playwright’s brutal ridicule, Cleon complained to the Council, who brushed aside this attempt to censor Aristophanes and violate the foundational right of free speech.
Worse for Cleon, in his next play Aristophanes mocked Cleon’s failed efforts, and articulated the political function of comedy: “Let Cleon hatch his plots and build his traps against me to his utmost, for Good and Right will be my allies, and never will I be caught behaving toward the city as he does, a coward and a punk-arse.” The last word in ancient Greek more obviously denotes a passive homosexual, a deadly insult to masculine honor in ancient Athens.
These days not many people who are assaulted by the “woke” have such courage, or the consciousness of the vital political import of humor. This privatizing of comedy makes it easier for the oligarchic progressives to dismantle the foundations of the “democracy” they hypocritically accuse conservative Republicans and Libertarians of threatening.
But what progressives mean by “democracy” is not the diversity of the peoples who settled the thirteen colonies, and which the Constitution protects by dividing and balancing power, but the abstract, homogenized “The People” of collectivist ideologies, who require a concentrated, expansive power to address their unified interests. This view was clear as early as 1913, when Woodrow Wilson wrote of technocratic political “architects” and “engineers” who would construct a political order “where men can live as a single community, co-operative as in a perfectly co-ordinated [sic] beehive.”
So too progressive Mary Parker Follet, who five years later wrote that the state’s “higher function” is a “great forward policy which shall follow the collective will of the people” that is “embodied in the state,” a “great spiritual unity” in which “the individual . . . is the state” and “the state . . . is the individual. Wilson’s “beehive” and Follet’s melding of individual and state prefigure Mussolini’s “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” Who’s the “semi-fascist” Joe?
The “cancel culture” that now dominates universities, government agencies, popular culture, and social media is a weapon for dismantling the Constitution’s Bill of Rights and divided government designed to check such tyrannical concentration of power and its expansion into private life and civil society. It also undermines the authentic diversity that created the idea of free speech 2500 years ago, and was the foundation of our own political order and its guardrails against tyranny.
If Elon Musk follows through and returns First Amendment rights to Twitter, he will be remembered for taking the war against censorship into one of its most consequential bastions. And let’s not forget our delightful schadenfreude over watching the “woke” lose their, er, minds. As the show-tune has it, there’s “no ordeal like the end of Camille.”