On Monday night, the author of Slate Star Codex, one of the most original, heterodox, and thoughtful sites on the web, made the decision to close and delete his blog.
The proximate reason for this decision was that the New York Times was going to run a story on Slate Star Codex and insisted on using the author’s real name. For years, he’s written as “Scott Alexander,” his real first and middle names. But as a practicing psychiatrist, he made the sensible decision to maintain anonymity.
Slate Star Codex was a somewhat progressive, somewhat libertarian, always heterodox mishmash. Alexander’s essays frequently took the form of him working through difficult questions in real time: the Baumol effect, psychiatric drugs, health insurance, preschool, policing… the list is endless. Alexander is a master at uncovering, analyzing, and explaining data from different sources. Almost every ideological camp could find something to disagree with. And if they couldn’t find it with Alexander himself, his army of dedicated and strong-headed commenters were up to the task.
Why did the Times decide it was necessary to out Mr. Alexander? After all, the newspaper printed a long profile of the left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House in February and didn’t find it necessary to publish the real name of “Virgil Texas,” its pseudonymous co-host. In over 1,500 mentions of the artist Banksy, the Times has never revealed his real name. In fact, the Times regularly refuses to print the real or full names of whistleblowers, dissident essayists in totalitarian countries (indeed in the United States as well), and crime victims—the right call, because to do so serves no journalistic end.
The answer is obvious: The Times profile of Alexander, and printing his real name, was an exercise of power, done under the cover of journalism. The goal was to make Alexander’s positions both as a practicing mental health physician and heterodox essayist untenable. He had to pick one.
The impetus to shut down speech one dislikes is a profoundly illiberal one—but one that seems to be flourishing at the moment. Make no mistake: this is no longer confined to right-wing thugs or starry-eyed leftists; it’s now endorsed by no less august an organ than the national newspaper of record.
The target is not just Scott Alexander. Anyone who exhibits any other-than bien pensant thinking (a belief set that changes seemingly weekly) and who wishes to maintain any semblance of privacy is now fair game. It’s no longer just the Extremely Online mob that might come after you for saying the wrong thing. It’s also the established media. Alexander was put into the position of choosing between his intellectual life (a service to the world of ideas) and his livelihood (a service to his patients) as a warning to others.
It’s a warning that’s no doubt being heard. In the public square, in the academy, in business, and on social media, self-appointed Jacobins are on the prowl for deviation from orthodoxy. Well-intentioned dissent and inflammatory trolling are treated as one and the same; in such a context, no real conversation can be had. The principle of charity has been denuded from intellectual life.
As with most things in our society today, debates about the spirit of the First Amendment are put into a right-versus-left context. This framework, however, is incorrect; neither the left not the right has a sterling record in recent years when it comes to defending or even tolerating speech they don’t like.
A far better framing is liberalism versus illiberalism.
Liberalism properly understood rises above quotidian politics; it’s a meta-politics that sets the rules of the game for social interaction and politics. It makes many demands on people, ones that often run contrary to our natures. We’ve tried many alternatives to liberal meta-politics. They’re all terrible.
Liberalism is the exception in human history, not the rule. It’s also the only means ever discovered for people of different backgrounds, preferences, beliefs, and desires to coexist peacefully. And it succeeds only when its core principles are generally accepted by society.
The Ground Rules
Liberalism demands tolerance for ideas. It should not matter if you find the people extolling certain ideas to be wrong-headed, misinformed, even morally repugnant. The repression of ideas deemed in error, either by the state or by the mob, is antithetical to liberal meta-politics. As John Stuart Mill wrote:
[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
Justice Brandeis makes a similar point: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Liberalism demands the separation of people from ideas. The legal name of the author of Slate Star Codex has no journalistic or scholarly value. Liberalism is a radical doctrine of equality where ideas are to be evaluated and debated solely on their merits.
In the last few years, the oft-used verb “cancel” is almost inevitably attached to a proper noun, the goal being not simply to prove an idea in error or even to heckle it down, but to revoke a person’s membership in society. This illiberal instinct echoes the worst illiberalism of the 20th century; totalitarianism when applied on a mass scale is no less horrific when applied one person at a time.
Moreover, good people can have bad ideas—and bad people can have good ideas. Morally terrible people have produced great advances in science, art, and literature. Some people I love dearly hold what I consider to be absolutely cockamamie ideas.
Liberalism demands nuance. The Manichean turn that insists everything be strictly good or strictly evil is not a societal equilibrium. None of us come from places of total truth or total ignorance. People are complex.
Moral clarity is to be commended. But things are seldom cut-and-dried when it comes to implementation of a moral vision. Data are messy, and facts are subject to differing interpretations.
Liberalism demands dissent. In his essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Václav Havel tells of his grocer who put a “Workers of the World Unite” sign in his store window. Why does he do it?
He put [it] into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.
In 1978 Czechoslovakia, failing to put state propaganda in your shop window was a form of dissent that brought along with it public denunciation and possibly even dispossession from your home or job. Forcing people to make statements or utter shibboleths with which they disagree under pain of censure is an affront to the very core of liberalism—that the individual is sovereign and has the right (even the obligation) to think for herself and express her own views.
American politics is deeply divided, yes—but our meta-politics is the more consequential division. From the get-go, America has been committed to the ideals of Enlightenment liberalism; we’ve never achieved them, to be sure, but by fits and starts we’ve moved gradually in the right direction.
Unfortunately, too many of our leading institutions seem unwilling or unable to defend liberal meta-politics. It’s a shocking abdication, and one that will not serve them in good stead in the eyes of history.
Until these institutions come to their senses, the people are going to have to step up, put aside the exigencies of immediate political combat, and think long and hard about whether we want to maintain our commitment to liberalism—or follow another path that has been tried and, time and time again, been found to be soul crushing and deadly.