The widely hailed speech at Big Tech’s favorite university claimed that autocrats are "subverting democracy" and that democracies have "grown dangerously complacent". In the slow parade of teleprompter clichés he even warned that "too often we've taken freedom for granted."
To Obama, the threat to democracy doesn’t come from government power, but the lack of it.
“You just have to flood a country’s public square with enough raw sewage. You just have to raise enough questions, spread enough dirt, plant enough conspiracy theorizing that citizens no longer know what to believe. Once they lose trust in their leaders, in mainstream media, in political institutions, in each other, in the possibility of truth, the game’s won,” he summed up.
Like every Obama speech, “Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm” didn’t offer anything new, just a distillation of familiar talking points and misplaced assumptions.
The assumption at the heart of Obama’s speech and that of the range of arguments depicting free speech as a cultural and national threat is that the purpose of discourse is state power.
Obama, like many post-liberal lefty critics of free speech, reduces speech to its social impact and its social impact to its political impact. This holistic integration is so fundamental to Marxists and many lefties that they don’t even think twice about the idea that everything we do is reducible to a move on the great abacus of social justice. The food you eat, the car you buy, and the words you say have the potential to either save or damn the planet and humanity.
This quasi-religious conception of mass social mobilization pervades American society. It’s the precondition for wokeness because the only possible moral justification for terrorizing random people on social media is the conviction that governance isn’t political, it’s social, and that the only way to avert climate change and social inequality is by controlling what everyone believes.
Wokeness collapses the distinction between the private and public spheres, and between government and individuals. In a national social crisis, the only conceptual framework through which the Left ever really governs, there’s no time for such liberal niceties as private spheres.
Obama’s speech neatly illustrates the fascism at the heart of this panopticon political project.
Introduce disagreement and you “raise enough questions” that people “no longer know what to believe” and then “lose trust in their leaders”, “mainstream media” and even “truth”. Stripped of all the Brookings Institute globalist prose, what Obama is really saying is that individual disagreement undermines the state. And that truth is dependent on public faith in the state.
This is a value system utterly at odds with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, one which envisions an intimate link between individual speech and state authority that would have horrified King George III, but absolutely delighted Hitler or Stalin.
It assumes that there can be no other legitimate points of view other than the official one and that there should be no leaders except those who share them. Limiting the range of opinions is necessary to protect state power because there is no distinction between them and the state.
Or as a certain Austrian artist once put it, "One people, One state, One leader".
When he was promoting his last book two years ago, Obama made the same arguments. "If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work."
The assumption that the democratic process leads to truth rather than choice, absolute rightness rather than people power, is an undemocratic paradigm. Its inevitable conclusion becomes that of Obama, that democracy must be protected by controlling the people.
Not only elections, but ideas, are too important to be left to the public.
Obama doesn’t want a marketplace of ideas because people might get the wrong idea and vote him and his political allies out of office. The explicit goal of internet censorship is to control election outcomes by filtering what information the public is able to access.
Like the provenance of a certain Delaware artist’s laptop.
Narrowing the range of acceptable information in order to narrow the range of acceptable opinions, candidates and political systems is the first fundamental trick of tyrannies. It takes a certain chutzpah and a stock of Orwellian buzzwords to redefine that as protecting democracy.
Obama complains, "China’s built a great firewall around the Internet, turning it into a vehicle for domestic indoctrination" and proposes a democratic firewall around the internet under a "regulatory structure" to be designed with "communities of color" to slow "the spread of harmful content." The democratic people of color firewall will be so much better than China’s firewall.
Pro-censorship elites have the same assumptions as China about the interaction between speech, society, and the state which is why they, like Obama, arrive at the same conclusions. They can dress up those conclusions in buzzwords about “democracy” and “people of color”, but those are differences of style, not substance. The trains all end up at the same station.
Obama speaks about “bugs” in the Constitution. While he is always happy to critique America, the particular totalitarian bug here is deeply embedded into the leftist worldview which denies that people have individual agency, insists that everyone is a prisoner of their social context, and contends that the purpose of the society and the state is an enlightened intertwining. The bug, which is really more of a feature, directly leads to the same outcome as in China or Stanford.
A free society requires healthy breathing spaces between politics and life.The difference between a politicized society and a tyranny is only time. The question at the heart of this debate is “What is discourse for” which is really the question of, “What are people here for?” To believe, as the Left does, that people primarily exist as vehicles for political change is to enslave them.
That’s why every leftist revolution invariably slides toward tyranny along the same worn tracks.
The Founding Fathers believed that people would self-define their purposes. That was why America’s revolution uniquely led to freedom and why leftist revolutions lead to tyranny.
America defined freedom as individual power while lefties define it by the power of the state.
Obama is simply replaying what happens when liberation is treated as a collective enterprise, a journey toward rather than from, that can only be achieved collectively, through the exercise of state power rather than individually through personal choices. The internet, once individualistic, has become collective, and social media, the ultimate embodiment of that collectivism, has become the battleground between individualist expressers and collectivist censors.
Daniel Greenfield is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. This article previously appeared at the Center's Front Page Magazine.