10 May 2016
'Division is profit....There is no money in unity.'
The speaker is Rance Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, in an interview with Time magazine. He was trying to explain how, in the interviewer's words, "too many people, candidates included, have found ways to promote themselves by magnifying differences." Priebus pointed to cable news and fundraising organizations, some of which helped push Donald Trump to the forefront, while others now threaten to split the GOP out of hatred for Trump. Whatever the context, however, no reputed authoritarian or totalitarian could make a better argument against freedom of the press (or media) than Priebus did, perhaps without realizing it. He may have meant only that there's profit in exploiting division, bad as that sounds already, but it's easy enough to intuit that there's profit to be had in creating division. If the authoritarian/totalitarian nightmare of unity imposed at the expense of conscience is one unacceptable extreme, this anarchic abhorrence of the vacuum of unity -- unity being the absence of demand for dissent -- is the opposite extreme and should be equally unacceptable. We want freedom to air dissent, but we should also insist that dissent be conscientious and not merely self-interested in the brutally mercenary sense implied by Priebus's comment. There should be a middle ground between tyrannical repression and an irresponsible free-for-all, but I'm not sure liberalism can recognize such a ground in its hypersensitivity to slippery slopes. Civil libertarians' great fear is that governments can't deter the profit motive for divisiveness without acquiring the power to silence honest, objective dissent. Yet you can't give absolute immunity to dissent without inviting people to see dissent as an end unto itself, if not a business career. At least you can't in a culture like ours, where the claims of individuality and community are seen in zero-sum competition and appeals to unity are received with skepticism or paranoia. And now we may be starting to see the end result of a culture that seems to value the right to refuse -- something perhaps not equivalent to the right to dissent -- above all. We take it for granted that things were worse when kings or commissars ruled with iron hands, but wherever dissent required courage more than money, when it was a different sort of risk than the kind investors take, you could at least assume that dissidents were honest.