The Clare Spark Blog

July 4, 2013

‘Independence’ and the marketplace of ideas

areop_15I try not to repeat myself, so here is something I have not already said in so many words:

Individuality is not something we are born with; rather becoming an independent individual is something to be achieved through the most terrific effort.  We may become “relatively autonomous” or “independent” only  through serious engagement with others in the marketplace of ideas.

Otherwise, we are no more advanced than the “savages” or “barbarians” we claim to have transcended with “civilization.” Yet we find ourselves mired in a globalized world where many other peoples remain  tribal or under the thumb of various forms of dictatorship. Or we may believe that “multiculturalism” is not covertly racist.

Since I have been posting about the [phony liberal] origins of “political correctness” I got into a debate with one Facebook friend who thinks I don’t understand the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School. One of their number, Herbert Marcuse, wrote controversially about “repressive tolerance.” All hell broke loose when this little volume was published, for he banished anticommunist speech. But what was rarely understood at the time seems obvious to me right now. Marcuse rightly complained that the constituted authorities determine the terms of debate (as in identity politics).  He was largely correct: that we lose when the enemy controls language. Perhaps the need for close reading and the study of institutional discourses makes some conservatives, even “constitutionalists” very nervous.  Perhaps Marcuse’s critique is why some rightists have slammed “cultural Marxism” and/or post-structuralism for inventing PC.  In their heart of hearts, free speech and close readings are anathema and lead to frightening differences with beloved family members, parents, and other authority figures.

PC notion of national unity

PC notion of national unity

They are wrong. It was our libertarian forebears, enabled by Bibles written in English, who celebrated the “priesthood of all believers”: i.e., those who could read texts for themselves and then compare their own understandings of texts with the interpretations of their “betters” (the priestly class) who wished to monopolize what those sacred texts actually said (for the benefit of autocrats).

This notion: that ordinary people had the right to challenge “authoritative” readings with their own interpretations led to what we now call “the marketplace of ideas.” Part of those readings entailed the study of “officials” of every type: religious or secular, government bureaucrats and union bosses alike, even parents, spouses, sisters and brothers.  Such studies can lead to alienation and anxiety.

The United States of America, “conceived in liberty” remains unique and frazzled. “E pluribus unum” does not mean that the search for truth is called off for purposes of national or “racial” or other forms of “family” solidarity. The agreement to disagree is the very foundation of national unity in this city on a hill. Long may this keystone element of the social contract prevail. (Prior blogs that address the unfinished revolutions of our time.)

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