(About a 7 minute read)
I think it can be said of Alex Jones that he is the poster-child for the “American disease” of tolerating the intolerable. Perhaps out of all major democracies, America’s democracy is the most susceptible to the disease. That’s because we tend to be extremists when it comes to protecting freedom of speech.
To be sure, America does limit free speech somewhat, but the limits are absolutely minimal. You cannot advocate physical violence against someone and/or their property, nor can you “yell fire in a crowded theater” for the mere sport of it, since that might lead to physical injuries.
But apart from those restrictions, the government has no right under the Constitution to restrict what anyone — citizen or non-citizen — says in this country.
In fact, Americans are such zealous proponents of free speech that many of us — perhaps even a majority of us — firmly believe that even private citizens and other entities are bound to the same rules as the government. It is not uncommon to hear some outraged person claim that a private website, an employer, a church, or something else, had no right to censor them — regardless of what they said.
It’s almost as if a number of us might actually believe in the right of some stranger to enter our home and scream obnoxious political opinions at us in our own living room — such have we Americans made a fetish and cult of free speech.
Now, if you are among the world’s lucky people who have never heard of Alex Jones, then you should be forewarned my aim here is to grossly understate how immoral the man is. That’s because I doubt you — or anyone who was not familiar with the facts — could believe me if I summarized the truth for you.
That’s to say, I could describe the man’s character with surgical precision, and you would almost necessarily be reduced to disbelief.
You would need to study him, read up on the details, to be convinced of my words. Unfortunately I do not have the space here to get into the volumes of things he’s done.
So please allow me to mention one — just one thing alone — that is, however, utterly characteristic of him, that is not even Jones at his worse.
Following the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre of 20 children between six and seven years old, as well as six adult staff members, Jones fabricated the story that the murders had been staged by anti-gun folks in order to convince people to regulate firearms.
He repeated his lies frequently to his radio and internet audiences — audiences that apparently number well over ten million people. Among other consequences, some of the murdered children’s grieving parents received death threats, and at least one man was stalked.
None of which caused Jones to retract his allegations, nor to stop spreading them.
I believe that encapsulates the kind of man we’re dealing with here. Nothing about Jones suggests to me that he is ever anything less than that sort of person.
Call Jones what you must, think of him as you might, his right to free speech is protected not only by the Constitution but — I believe — by the culture as well. The latter fact was recently illustrated by the outrage that took place, and that is still taking place today, against private people and corporations that have recently tried to restrict Jones’ speech and influence.
Last month and this month, a number of internet social media sites have taken down Jones’ own sites, and sites supportive of him. They include FaceBook, YouTube, Spotify, Linkedin, Apple, and Pinterest.
Tellingly, the sites and their owners have come under assault — mostly from far left-wing extremists — for the perceived sin of censorship. The extremists, of course, have simply ignored the right and liberty of the private sites to regulate content, and — in the finest American tradition of going hysterical and ballistic at the merest fart of a housefly — the extremists have indulged themselves in false and misleading rhetoric.
The folks who dare to defend the rights of private owners and businesses to control their own content are no less than, “foam-brained livestock” defending “their beneficent Silicon Valley overlords”, and so forth.
Of course they are. What kind of person defends the likes of Alex Jones without to some extent channeling the man’s ridiculous language of gratuitous outrage?
As an aside, it seems to me the extremists drive more people into the arms of the right these days, than they convert to their hysterics-driven thinking. But that’s just a hunch. I have seen no science on the subject.
Naturally, the extremists proudly indulge themselves — either intentionally or unintentionally — in missing the point. Glenn Greenwald, for instance, tweeted on August 7th his “criticism” of those who defend the social media sites:
“The world’s dumbest and/or most deceitful people have always been those who equate “I defend X’s right to speak” with “I defend X and their ideas.” It’s the scummiest tactic there is.”
Given the impressive intellectual standards of all sides today, Greenwald probably is right that some folks involved in this issue have been accusing the extremists of “defending Jones’ ideas”. If so, he is certainly correct that that is a “scummy tactic”.
Yet, the core issue here is not — so far as I can see — whether anyone is defending Jones. Rather, the core issue is whether the private owners and their corporations have a right to limit Jones’ speech.
I myself believe they do. In the first place, the Constitution does not apply to privately imposed restrictions on speech, but only to government imposed restrictions. Apparently, that comes as news to many people, albeit it is nevertheless true.
In the second place, I am a staunch proponent of Karl Popper’s notion that societies have a right to be intolerant of intolerance — a notion he himself called, “The Paradox of Tolerance”:
Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. — The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol. 1 (in note 4 to Chapter 7), 1945. [Emphasis Mine]
The key take-away here — besides the notion that societies have a right to suppress “if necessary even by force” intolerance — is that the justification or trigger for such suppression is the refusal of the intolerant folks to “meet us on the level of rational argument.”
Now, I have written elsewhere about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s brilliant analysis of willfully stupid people. Bonhoeffer’s willfully stupid people are precisely the people who refuse to be swayed by rational argument. And — as Bonhoeffer tragically notes — those people present an existential threat to any society in which they threaten to get the upper-hand over the more rational people.
In my opinion, Alex Jones is not only a preeminent example of an irrational man, but also a leader of an irrational multitude. Moreover, I believe he and others like him are genuinely existential threats to our nation.
Hence I would feel no regrets at all were the government to shut Jones down by seven in the morning today — let alone feel any regrets that a number of private sites have done just that to the extent that they can.
But you might wonder, “Paul, are you not advocating a risky course? Are you not setting the stage for ever greater and more heinous oppression.”
Yes, that is indeed a risk, and it should not be lightly dismissed by anyone. However, in this case, I believe the risk is outweighed by the threat to democracy posed by Jones and others like him.
To me, the single greatest threat to any democracy — exceeded only by a great disparity between the rich and the poor — is the threat that public debate and discussion will become dominated by irrational discourse. Discourse that soon enough will drive out all reasonable discourse, and thus reduce the democracy to governance by willful stupidity.
In my view, no democracy can long withstand such a thing, and yet, I believe that’s what we are seeing — increasingly seeing — these days. Were I forced to guess, I would not give us much longer than a decade more of it before the practice comes to destroy democracy in America.
Last, I much prefer that Jones be shut down by private initiative than by government suppression. The former seems somewhat less dangerous to me.