I know things have leaned too much toward the political here recently but my recent comment about the O.J. Simpson book and the marketplace of ideas and events transpiring since then got me in a philosophic mode. It’s something I’ve contemplated before but I am becoming more and more convinced that one of the political concepts to which I have clung most firmly since first learning of it grows weaker and weaker.
For those who don’t know, the marketplace of ideas concept in First Amendment jurisprudence stems from the dissenting opinion of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Abrams v. U.S. There, he wrote that the one of the theories of our Constitution is that “the ultimate good” comes from a “free trade in ideas” and that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” In other words, we should encourage the free exchange and expression of opinions and ideas. They will succeed, be refined or even fail by competing against other ideas, a competition in which what it may take decades for an idea to prove its worth or garner public acceptance.
Holmes certainly was not the first to propound a theory of the value of open debate of ideas. But it seems that as time progresses, the marketplace concept is withering. Setting aside philosophical discussions of “truth,” the question is, What dominates the marketplace today? It seems to be the trials and tribulations of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and their ilk and what can be called, at best, “infotainment.” Even in the political system itself, where ideas are perhaps most relevant, buzz words and spin take precedence over actual ideas.
As the Supreme Court has recognized, it probably makes no sense to speak of a single marketplace. There’s broadcasting, academic environments, and now the internet, to name a few. All have differing levels of access, content, distribution and regulation. But what strikes me is that so many of these marketplaces seem to be subsumed by items I see in the print or broadcast media and wonder, “Who cares?”
I’ll admit it isn’t totally broken. Perhaps the fact the O.J. book already is going into a second printing demonstrates that it still works and my thoughts are just sour grapes over the fact I don’t like what’s prevailing. Additionally, as my recent post on perspective of 9/11 indicates, some views that are actually pertinent to our lives and the things in them do occasionally get public exposure and debate. The same can probably be said for the traction the 9/11 conspiracy movement has gained nationally and internationally. There’s no doubt that ideas can and do get debated in one or two marketplaces. Still, it too often seems that such discussions are drowned out by a cacophony of celebrity gossip and other irrelevancies or a debate that seems to miss the subject.
As The Daily Show noted last week, O.J.’s recent arrest (which probably didn’t hurt book sales) seemed to get more attention than a presidential candidate announcing her so-called universal health care proposal. And rather than showing a willingness to listen to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, we’ve spent as much ink and air time over whether he should be allowed to speak in the first place. We should not be afraid of any wrongheaded ideas he has when we have we have the opportunity to compete with those ideas in the marketplace. Yet by seeking to exclude him we not only perhaps ignore legitimate ideas he may possess, we handicap our ability to present an alternative in the marketplace of world opinion.
I know this is a pessimistic assessment of modern America arising from my longstanding disgust with a continuing and increasing fascination with minutiae and celebrity. Nor do I have a solution. It is simply difficult to realize with each passing week that more and more rot infests one of the principles you hold most dearly. It may be easy to say that, unlike some other countries, we at least have marketplaces. But shouldn’t we all expect more of our society, our country and ourselves?
I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Abrams v. U.S.