Friday, March 9, 2012

The marketplace of ideas

Nick Cohen passes for a leftist British intellectual. Yet he seems strangely oblivious to all those Gramscian allegations about an oppressive "ideological hegemony" suffocating the downtrodden in bourgeois societies. A couple of weeks ago he wrote a comment for Time Magazine criticizing political censorship in Europe ("The Right to Be Wrong"). His ire was provoked by the aborted French legislation meant to criminalize denial of the alleged Armenian genocide in the Ottoman empire. What is Cohen's main argument? He thinks "European judges and politicians have an aristocratic fear that if they grant the masses unrestricted debate, mobs will embrace revolution, racism or fascism. They do not believe that bad arguments can be defeated by better ones in a free society."
As a good political scientist, my knee-jerk reaction is to try to test any such assertion. So, let me see. Step one: Which country has the strongest protection of free political speech? The United States. Step two: If Cohen is right, we should expect the American public sphere to be dominated by the very best arguments and ideas in global history. Step three: we need to find out if this is the case. But wait, making such a determination would require a value judgment which Max Weber once noted should be left out of any scientific inquiry. So, I guess we'll need to make a leap of faith in order to embrace Cohen's faith in the redeeming power of the marketplace of ideas.