America’s democratic ideal doesn’t work perfectly. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all, and in these cases it feeds our cynicism to the point where we’re tempted to conclude that the very possibility of true freedom is a sham. I know whereof I speak, because there are few people out there more soaked in bile than I am.
Still, this whole “marketplace of ideas” is a marvelous concept. Perhaps the most marvelous concept in history. Drawing on the Miltonian belief that if people are allowed to enter the agora and freely state their cases, then “the truth will out” (that is, an educated and informed citizenry will unerringly perceive the truth and that weaker ideas will be disregarded in favor of stronger ones), our nation’s founders crafted a Constitution that assured people the right to voice their opinions, free from government intrusion. Yes, the formula has its problem spots – Americans have religiously rejected the “educated and informed” part, for instance, and there have been embarrassing questions reagrding who, precisely, got to be a “citizen.” Also, the framers seemed not to foresee that we’d get to a point where governmental threats to the exercise of speech paled next to those posed by private institutions. Still, all that said, it’s hard to argue that Americans have made a lot of hay with our 1st Amendment guarantees since they were enacted, and even an imperfect marketplace of ideas beats none at all.
This week presented us with a sparkling case study of the marketplace of ideas at its best. A few days back it was announced that conservative pundit and noiser-without-peer Rush Limbaugh was part of a group seeking to buy the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. The agora fairly exploded in conversation. A number of players and the head of the NFL Players Association wanted no part of a man who’s established a reputation for … racial insensitivity? The owner of the Indianapolis Colts (a Bush/Cheney spporter, as it turns out) promised to block any bid involving Limbaugh. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell finally got around to offering that “Limbaugh’s divisiveness is not what the league needs.” Columnists, pundits and bloggers (including S&R’s own uber-cynic, Dr. Sid Bonesparkle) weighed in with a broad range of takes (mostly anti-Rush, it seems). Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton had things to say, and we’d have felt cheated if they hadn’t.
Many of these voices were informed and credible. Others were driven by prefabricated ideologies instead of facts and reason. And a boisterous debate was had by all. In the end, the brazillionaire heading the investment group, St. Louis Blues owner Dave Checketts, put two and two together. Realizing that Limbaugh was an 800-lb albatross hanging around the neck of his NFL aspirations, Checketts unceremoniously kicked him to the curb.
The wonderful thing about the whole episode? This is precisely how our nation’s founders envisioned our democracy working. An idea was presented. Interested parties, informed or otherwise, had their say. (Remember, the framers knew there would be irresponsible voices in the public debate – that was part of the equation.) Marvelously, it was all enabled immeasurably by the Internet, which Al Gore, love him or hate him, saw as the ultimate tool of Jeffersonian democracy. From a 1994 address:
“And the distributed intelligence of the [Global Information Infrastructure] will spread participatory democracy… I see a new Athenian Age of democracy forged in the fora the GII will create.
The entire public debate was conducted free of coercion from the government. And in the end, the marketplace decided, governed by its collective conscience, that Limbaugh’s participation was not in the best interest of the league, the ownership group or the free market. An idea was tested and found wanting. Dave Checketts made an informed decision.
In theory, we should now be able to tune in and listen as Rush, disappointed though he may be, extols the virtues of the marketplace. After all, that is his core ideological concern – that free enterprise and the marketplace of ideas be allowed to determine the value of products and propositions, right?