Do we need Caesar Elon Musk?

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In 1515, Pope Leo X issued a papal bull stating that all published material translated from Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and Chaldaic into Latin, or from Latin into the vernacular, should be moderated by sensitive readers. Without these precautions, the document states, harmful content and fake news would thrive. Printers would be free to pollute the reading public with books “which not only do not edify, but promote errors in the faith as well as in daily life and morals.”

In early 2020, media scholar Jeff Jarvis cited this moment in a critique of the UK Government’s proposed Online Harms Bill. “I value freedom of expression,” he said. tweeted. “I appreciate too long the voices that have not been heard in the mass media, finally able to speak. I appreciate new perspectives.

This enthusiasm for freedom of expression, new perspectives and the amplification of unheard voices has come some distance in the meantime. When Elon Musk launched his hostile takeover bid on Twitter last week, he explained that he was motivated by a desire to protect the platform as an outlet for “free speech”, that he sees as “a societal imperative for a functioning democracy”. In response, Jarvis compared with the site to a scintillating bubble of freedom, on the eve of the fascist regime: “Twitter looks like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub in the twilight of Weimar Germany”.

No one could be blamed for suffering a slight whiplash here. Because until recently, enthusiasts of digital culture saw the Internet not as a monster liable to become fascist if it was not controlled, but as a new relaxation of the shackles of knowledge and belief, a long relaxation that began with Gutenberg’s Bible.

The story of this era was a growing pluralism of views and the concomitant democratization of politics. When Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand declared in 1987 that “information wants to be free”, he relied on centuries of knowledge overcoming censorship, in the interest of open discussion. Also in the same process, the Church’s inability to control doctrine led to a proliferation of religious dissent, which over time grew into a growing body of resistance to the idea of ​​faith.

But today, with observant Christianity in precipitous decline across the West, the kind of censorship that Leo X sought to impose in the name of that religion is back with a vengeance – fueled by the same liberals who, he not so long ago, applauded its decline. For as Covid has accelerated our transition from a printed to a digital world, it is becoming increasingly clear that online publishing is not a push towards ever greater freedom of information. Instead, as the hyperabundance of opinion on the internet produces increasingly sinister political effects in the real world, progressive public intellectuals rush to fill the moral void left by the death of God. In other words: imposing order on the torrent of ideas.

Information liberalism was already in trouble in 2016, when Brexit and the election of Donald Trump made it clear that the release of information did not always produce progressive results. Perhaps, respectable voices have begun to nervously suggest, all this fake news and misinformation means that more talk isn’t always better.

Since then, more and more of our public life has been forced online. And with it, information management intensified and became more organized. Facebook censored anti-vaccine content; A herd interviews and even British MPs have been removed from YouTube; the “free speech” messaging app Parler launched on Apple and Android platforms after the Capitol riot; Donald Trump was banned from Twitter; what turned out to be a true story about Joe Biden’s son was censored at a delicate time in Biden’s campaign.

In the digital age, the right of history no longer wants to release information, but to keep the right message. To this end, many former supporters of free speech have turned to claiming for themselves the place of these bishops and inquisitors haereticae pravitatis Leo X in charge in 1515, to control what could be published.

Perhaps the first thinker to notice the contemporary re-emergence of co-ordinated moral management is the neo-reactionary and “Jacobite” writer Curtis Yarvin. In a more or less explicit nod to the world of Leo X, Yarvin describes what he calls “the Cathedral” as comprising “all the legitimate and prestigious intellectual institutions of the modern world”: politicians, journalists, academics , the creatives and the institutions that amplify and grant them authority.

From Yarvinesque’s perspective, it’s easy to see why Twitter is so zealously defended against the threat of Musk’s imposed free speech absolutism. This is the territory of this elite, a fact that gives the platform outsized influence, despite its relatively small number of members compared to (say) Facebook. And thanks to its concentration of elite taste makers, it is a key area where consensus is emerging on current political issues.

As one journalist put it, “Twitter is where journalists congregate and do a lot of their work.” And this consensus machine really does not want to be at the mercy of Elon Musk. But that’s not because it could jeopardize free speech. Rather, the problem is that it might allow it, making Twitter less able to expel ideological intruders and propagate a clear moral consensus.

Washington Post columnist Max Boot perhaps gave the clearest expression of this view when he confessed “frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter”. Boot is afraid not because Musk might be too repressive, but because he may not be enough: “For democracy to survive,” Boot believes, “we need more content moderation, Not less”.

MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, meanwhile, said the quiet part out loud. His worry was that Musk could use Twitter “to control what people think” — and that, she said, “is our job.”

But a crucial difference emerges between the information-handling popes and inquisitors of the postmodern era and those of the time of Leo X. Churchmen in the premodern world had a healthy appreciation of the role of earthly kings, as expressed in the injunction of the New Testament for “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”. But if the reaction to Elon Musk’s bid for Twitter tells us anything, it’s that our emerging postmodern priesthood rejects the legitimacy of any individual earthly Caesar out of hand.

‘Cause I’m not the first to notice that what Wesley Yang calls “vertically integrated messaging apparatus” has a political counterpart: something that has been describe as “NGOcracy”. That is, a layer of political agency that operates, increasingly overtly, above or before the democratic process.

Comprising extra-political structures such as tech companies, courts, NGOs, political treaties, foundations, and international bodies, this layer of governance works by pre-shaping the political environment and Overton Window through mechanisms such as as regulation, funding bodies, non-profit organizations and supranational treaties.

This ecosystem is as dedicated as the media and the academy to weeding out ideological intruders, as evidenced by the howls of rage when centre-right political scientist David Goodhart was appointed to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. man last year – or the deafening cry four years ago when Donald Trump was elected to the White House. And it is inseparable from the matrix of digital consensus formation – for which Twitter is a central crucible.

It is common today to consider references to “democracy” as threatened, for example by Putinist propaganda. But we only have to look at the acres of post-Brexit print devoted to questioning the judgment of the British electorate, to see that our moral superiors don’t place much trust in the voting public. Elites’ declining confidence in electoral democracy is reflected in popular cynicism about elected leaders. And the widespread decline in trust in the democratic process is most pronounced among young people, a fact suggestive of the likely direction of our political journey as these young adults grow into mature people with serious power.

In this context, it is increasingly clear that “democracy” threatened by, say, Putin or a protest by Canadian truckers is not the election gimmick. Rather, it is the order of the digital age of decentralized, self-coordinated and swarm governance. And from a “democracy” perspective in that sense, the problem with Musk owning Twitter isn’t even that he might allow too much free speech on the platform. It is because there is only one: his authority is not distributed.

From this perspective, predatory investment firm BlackRock appears less malicious than the world’s richest individual, simply because it is owned by shareholders rather than a named individual. Much better, as a commentator suggestedto have the ownership of Twitter in the hands of hedge funds rather than under the control of “an ultra-rich white guy”.

Thus, the battle on Twitter is not at all a question of freedom of expression. This ship has long sailed. Rather, it is a struggle for control of a key crucible for the formation of political consensus, between those who prefer power to be vested in appointed individuals, and those who prefer to be ruled by a self-serving swarm. -organized.

Lines are drawn between, on the one hand, those who suggest – like US Senate candidate JD Vance – replacing what remains of electoral democracy with some sort of Caesar: perhaps, as Yarvin has suggested, even Elon Musk. And on the other, the artist once known as democracy: now an aggregate of pre- or supra-political institutions so opposed to individual human authority that they would rather see us governed by Twitter consensus, or by a hedge fund. Or, perhaps, the most elegant solution of all: by an algorithm.

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