Assange, Zuckerberg and Free Speech

Photograph Source: Anthony Quintano – CC BY 2.0

“That philosophy died yesterday, since Hegel or Marx, Nietzsche, or Heidegger—and philosophy should still wander toward the meaning of its death—or that it has always lived knowing itself to be dying… that philosophy died one day, within history, or that it has always fed on its own agony, on the violent way it opens history by opposing itself to nonphilosophy, which is its past and its concern, its death and wellspring; that beyond the death, or dying nature, of philosophy, perhaps even because of it, thought still has a future, or even, as is said today, is still entirely to come because of what philosophy has held in store; or, more strangely still, that the future itself has a future—all these are unanswerable questions. By right of birth, and for one time at least, these are problems put to philosophy as problems philosophy cannot resolve.”

—Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference 

“Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love. In a modern economy it is impossible to seal oneself off from injustice.

If we have brains or courage, then we are blessed and called on not to frit these qualities away, standing agape at the ideas of others, winning pissing contests, improving the efficiencies of the neo-corporate state, or immersing ourselves in obscuranta, but rather to prove the vigor of our talents against the strongest opponents of love we can find.

If we can only live once, then let it be a daring adventure that draws on all our powers. Let it be with similar types whose hearts and heads we may be proud of. Let our grandchildren delight to find the start of our stories in their ears but the endings all around in their wandering eyes.

The whole universe or the structure that perceives it is a worthy opponent, but try as I may I can not escape the sound of suffering.

Perhaps as an old man I will take great comfort in pottering around in a lab and gently talking to students in the summer evening and will accept suffering with insouciance. But not now; men in their prime, if they have convictions are tasked to act on them.”

—Julian Assange

Congresswoman, I — I’m not sure I’m in a position right now to evaluate any given post against all of the different standards that we have.

—Mark Zuckerberg, speaking to Rashida Talib

This time, more than any other, is a time for free speech absolutism. It is a time where the influence of one’s speech can be bought. Corporations are considered people. Truth is not defined by people, it is defined by corporate interests—namely profit. Sectarianism has at least culturally collapsed, creating the potential, although not a guarantee, of a united global revolution against the prevailing ideology of capital. Now is not the time for censorship. Now is the time to leave the truth behind all together and accept something greater. We must transcend truth and begin to live in material reality that is not conscious of anything except for the mission at hand and the urgency of life itself as the material clock of both ourselves and civilization as we know it nears midnight.

Along the same timeline, we became aware of the torture of Julian Assange, who along with Chelsea Manning, revealed the truth about the United States war against the Middle East. Daring to speak freely meant torture. A simple formula. It was with irony that Mark Zuckerberg, the head of the media platform Facebook, defended free speech without noting Assange. It was not ironic though that the doctrine of liberal aligned corporate authoritarianism came down against both Assange and Zuckerberg. One a hero, one a phony, but both appearing quite plainly to defend free speech, even, if not especially, the so-called dangerous variety.

Julian Assange exposed the ugliness and cruelness of American Empire and hence has become a monster fo American society. He must be extinguished. We are numb to his torture. We do not hear his truth. For Assange to speak truth, we would be false. For Assange to be false, we would be speaking truth. The easier path has been taken, but Assange still brought progress. He muddied the arch of Empire. Such is the political prisoner that Mark Zuckerberg should have defended in the defense of his social media platform, Facebook.

Facebook wants to cut costs by not hiring anyone to review the advertisements on its page. Zuckerberg will never admit his thirst for money so he must defend himself philosophically. He makes the claim that unless speech is threatening or dangerous, there is no way to be able to decide if it is true. Or at least for his company to do so, I guess. Because they are unbiased, or something. They only believe in money. Along the way Zuckerberg gives us a history lesson of those who spoke truth and brought society forward. He points to these people having their speech suppressed. He rightly said these people were considered to be false in their day.

Mark Zuckerberg, while citing free speech warriors throughout history, claimed to be persecuted. Pan to the tortured Mr. Assange for some insight on your condition Mr. Zuckerberg, and you may feel better about your life as a billionaire without the accountability of any kind. Mr. Zuckerberg was asked if he would take down fake advertisements. He stammered and couldn’t admit his own boldness, which collapsed in the face of any questioning. Mr. Zuckerberg, while like all billionaires, is not a genius, stumbled upon something genius. There is no difference between what is true and what is false! That assertion is absolutely correct if that’s possible.

Facebook is not a neutral platform. It is one of the world’s largest corporations and it is not on our side. But Mark Zuckerberg’s arguments for free speech, while both opportunistic and disingenuous, are absolutely correct. If Zuckerberg had anything worthwhile to say, he would have defended Julian Assange as he did with Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass. No hero is a hero of their time—but history, if it exists after climate change, will reward Mr. Assange and Ms. Manning for their efforts. In this life, even in, no especially in, the capital of the free world, free speech is a crime worthy of torture.

What Mr. Zuckerberg fails to bring up in his seemingly apolitical defense of human rights is that advertisements, both true and false, are not free speech. Just as paying for a sexual act is not consent, paying someone to say something is not the truth. Of course, finding neutral ground on such a subject is an impossibility, even if we were to somehow completely separate speech from capital. There will always be a benefit to staying silent. Rather than being paid for lies, one can simply not get punished for abstaining from the truths most crucial to not just our democracy, but the potential utility of life on earth.

This is the passive vacuum that Zuckerberg wants us to enter in to. I have no problem with Zuckerberg claiming no difference between what is true and what is false. In fact, if billionaires were geniuses, such a statement would prove it. In the previous paragraph, I noted the corruption inherent in paid speech of any kind. But let’s take money out of it, for a moment. After all, most of the content one gets on a Facebook or other social media account comes from unpaid actors who pay nothing for the site. Unlike even the most rigorous spaces of free speech application (academia), social media can and has acted as a sort of communes.

Problematizing the communes is important: the convenience of mass surveillance for the ruling class, the alienating nature of screen to screen relations, the algorithm that confirms bias, the addictive design, the culture of image that leads to depression and anxiety, the pollution of creating technology, the slave labor used to make each device, and the interruption by advertisements make this unlike your grandma’s communes. But, yes, it is a form of the social, as by design. Just as it is a form for profit, but also, with varying effects on various people and outright dismissal of not only the platform but the users is a mistake.

Even if Zuckerberg’s lofty claims about the platform were correct, could we prove his detractor’s claims that there are such things as truth and falsehood? President Trump makes this question testy. But people have swung the wrong way during Trump’s Presidency. When Trump zigs, one should always zag. Instead, pundits tend to mirror the attitude of the President but contradict him on policies.

Trump calls his detractors fake news. Trump’s detractors claim that Trump has no regard for what is true and false because he always lies (fair enough). But what backward logic they use to defy him. Trump clearly believes in the false conception of truth. He is always claiming that one thing is true, while the other is false. The media, in response, also embraces truth, often claiming the exact opposite of Mr. Trump, and by all empirical evidence, are far closer to the truth. But by engaging in even such a concept, both sides open up the door for doubt of the other because truth can be defined in the first place. For Mr. Trump, this is a positive dynamic. His job is to create doubt. This works against the liberals. Their job is, in the age of Trump, to create certainty.

What would happen if we simply acknowledged that there was no truth, as Mr. Zuckerberg did.  Mr. Zuckerberg did this not in a philosophical way, but in a capitalist profit-seeking—he wanted no company to be restricted from giving him money, no matter their values. That doesn’t mean we should dismiss the premise. Let’s say that whenever Mr. Trump called “fake news” the media simply said there was no such thing as truth, because every action in the world, and as a result every assumed truth, is not independent of the rest of the material world or its history and therefore is structurally interdependent on power relations (with or without money) that dictate whether or not we believe it as truth.

Furthermore, no actor, not Mr. Trump, nor anyone he calls “fake news” can know anything. All actors are biased and corrupted. Trump succeeds because he tears everyone else down and then claims he is the lone savior. The natural response would be not to attack Mr. Trump’s credibility (thereby reaffirming this dynamic of Trump as underdog vs. powerful establishment). Rather, one should bring Mr. Trump’s reasonable doubt so far that everyone begins questioning everything, including, perhaps, especially, those who claim to know truth. By accurately admitting that they have no knowledge of truth (at least no more than the average working-class viewer), the media would be establishing themselves as one with the people, rather than a source that knows—implicating a lack in the people. Such an arrogant strategy leaves the expectations high, too high even for a democratic outlet, let alone a corporate one. Exposing such an outlet in child’s play for Mr. Trump.

It is high time that we admit, once and for all, that our very perception of reality, if we just go by what is sensory, is false. Take the example of color perception. Color, like everything else simply relies on relativity, not absolute truth. Scientists have found that we see colors differently. Yet almost all of us call the same color red, or the same color blue. But who is to say when we see red, it is what the other person is seeing? Rather we only agree the color is red because of its relation to other colors. As long as the blue and red compare and contrast in the same way, why should it matter what each one does individually when we identify colors? After all, our language for identifying said colors are limited to these descriptive relative terms precisely because we remain, for better or worse, perceivers of only our reality.

That above problem is not the one focused on by scientists though when it comes to colors. They find that the problem goes beyond even relativity. We also see color perceptions vary on memory and emotion. How does trauma change the way we see certain colors? That is before one even gets to the physical differences in photoreceptors which would change perception. There also remains the question of biological translation. Does a short wavelength translate to blue? Not always, and not for everyone. It is entirely possible that most every color we see is false because of this translation of wavelength dealing with physical dimensions of light, rather than color itself. The physical shape of things we have to believe is more accurate because we would be running into walls if it wasn’t. To a certain extend, politics are like a wall—it is necessary to observe it accurately. But politics also occur far away and its devastating effects (such as Trump’s stripping of public health and safety measures) can often be hard to see. This is just to say that similar biological differences in perception of all things occur, even politics.

Language alone is not a perfect translation. Reading a classic Russian novel must be better in Russian, if that’s possible! How could anyone claim that a translation from one language to another maintains truth? How could even a story from the same language contain truth? Immediately all information becomes a memory. At the time of conception, truth is assumed. But soon enough it becomes obscured, and then, when recalled, misremembered.

Storytelling used to be the way information was passed down. It was a quilt weaved with many different threads. This age of certainty and of absolute truth is naturally the age of fascism. When a story is told nowadays it is not through recall or interpretation but through passive acceptance of said truth. The shift from books to the screen is what leads this. I remember my father telling me that reading a book leaves one room for sensory interpretation. The screen, on the contrary, tells us what to think. Directors play with this, the good ones do. But on a mass level, one gets the point here.

This quest for perfection has invaded our personal lives too. I am thinking especially of the precious young people who are continually beaten down. The screen life and the obsession with physical appearance lead many even progressive folks to become fascists about their own image. Endlessly modified to the point of outright dishonesty, the screen image demands perfection, not authenticity or vulnerability.

The age of the selfie is not one of narcissism. That’s a boomer take. Young people are progressive, open-minded and compassionate. What lacks is the self-confidence. The goal of boomers was to create hardness and glory. In response General X had another more sympathetic goal which was broadly speaking, to create a generation of dependent people who did not question the absurd contradictions of the American Empire of Excess. The preposterous militarism, consumerism and fascism of the aesthetic have not been questioned.

We have to draw the links between Trump’s conception of the nation-state and screen culture. Trump rose to power via the screen. First via television, then via twitter. These mass platforms encourage passivism. Trump at worst was a joke on the screen, not to be taken seriously. At best he was a God, not to be held accountable and always to be believed.

Trump has reasserted the image as the prevailing ideology in American culture. He is a serial sexual abuser, with dozens of women coming forward. He claims some women are too ugly to rape. He throws people, even children, in concentration camps because of the color of their skin. He openly mocks the disabled. He relies upon a facade of buildings he does not own, money he does not have, and insight he does not possess.

Trump, like the screen, despises any blemish. Every imperfect person—whether they be dark, poor, weak, what have you, must be brushed over with makeup. He is the filter that alters the mole or blemish. He concludes that America is itself like a body. It must have protection (inane military spending), it must have the agency to act in its own interests without a consideration for the collective world, and it must be represented by only the richest and cleanest. If these people don’t approve, then America is, as Trump, would say, a shithole country.

Trump sees America as himself. Rich, ruthless, tough. He despises the homeless on our streets because it exposes his own contradiction and the contradiction of his country. Trump relies upon racist nostalgia for his mass appeal—which allows others to bask in his glory. What America is to Trump, Trump is to the “forgotten American” (old, white and crabby). Just as Trump sees himself in America, Americans see themselves in Trump. Trump is the ultimate ‘Ok Boomer’.

We must begin to make the links between Trump’s corporate fascism and the everyday erasure of imperfection and authenticity by corporate screen culture. Now is a time where opportunism is commended and perception is skewed. Corporate nihilism degrades human’s capacity for vulnerability and intimate connection. Criticism of the mass surveillance state is necessary but we must also recognize there is a more totalizing goal going on here. The goal to infect all private relationships between people and turn them into relationships that function for profit. This includes self-hatred that must be filled with materialism. On the other side of production, it includes self-lacking that must be filled with meaningless work. It also demands hatred of others—especially at their most vulnerable moments. Association with anyone becomes either a gain or a loss and real human love is thrown out the window. So too is agency. We no longer dictate the terms of happiness. Corporations set goals and standards and we are supposed to follow.

On an aside, thinking about social media makes me want to say something: we must stand with our so-called ugly sisters and brothers the same way we do with other marginalized groups. Just as corporatism sets norms for race and gender, it also sets beauty standards. Too often compassionate liberalism hides behind the cloak of cultural opportunism where people of color, women and LGBT folks are seen as “cool” as a form of fetish largely based in sexuality. This fetish is especially problematic in white distribution of black culture. Failing to arouse the sexual imagination of the “free” liberal subject, so-called ugly people are left to believe that they are treated equally even when they know they aren’t. People engage in dishonesty when they say everyone is beautiful but do not acknowledge that some people are seen as ugly. In the age of political correctness, ugly people never get an ally because everyone is too afraid to admit that they consider some people more beautiful than others. Naturally, such a suppression leaves no outlet for ugly people to organize against said supremacy. This is intentional.

Now all of this is not to say some don’t do truth better than others. I certainly have my biases, I tend to believe Assange and Manning, not so much Trump and Zuckerberg. But who is to decide, what is true, and what is false? Assange’s torture tells us very well who decides. The rich and powerful, at the expense of the people, for the purpose of profit. Therefore any defense of free speech is welcome, just as any act of free speech should be questioned. Such is the courage of speech. Everything we say could be a lie, what courage it takes to try anyways.

The only hint we can get about truth is in a purely scientific way. What are the material benefits to saying X? What are the material downsides of saying Y? The greater the material reward for a statement, the less likely it is true. The greater the cost of a statement, the more likely it is true. For example, in Shakespeare, orgasm is death. This likely proves that either orgasm is life’s greatest pleasure, or that Shakespeare, whether because he is tricky or erudite, is life’s greatest writer, and likely, such an analogy proves both. As Mr. Assange is tortured for his exposure of war crimes, one can calculate that he has a high likelihood of truth. But what to make then of Mr. Trump’s fabrications about immigrants and the media? His power, still remarkably high despite a truly tragic Presidency for 99% of the world, gives us a hint that he, more than anyone, is fake news.

The larger problem for us seems to be the algorithm. Not just of Facebook, but of everything. The design of speech and thought these days is for profit. That means that when one says truth, they are only selling it. Now this is not just for salesmen. It is also for the consumer, which if anything, is more totalizing because it captures you off the clock., so to speak. Let’s pick on Facebook though, for this example.

Facebook aims to make one’s experience the most enjoyable and comfortable so it creepily filters advertisements and people to fit one’s desired interests and biases. This creates an environment where no one is ever challenged on anything they believe. Worse still, no one has any opportunity to confront the material production of truth, let alone their own perception of it. Rather, by constantly being reaffirmed of their own most base beliefs, everyone comes to think that they must be correct. But that isn’t so much the problem in and of itself. If everyone was correct, we would surely rather them believe it! No, the problem is that no one can even come close to the truth unless their own highly biased truth dies many times in the face of the world’s democracy of thought and experience.

Like anything else, truth can only be gained through learning and disruption, not through confirmation and progression. Neoliberalism wants us to convince us that history has progressed through innovation by the individual where said individual becomes themselves. But this is only progress of capital, where workers are seen to become themselves through the separation of their soul from their goals. If the individual shuts up and makes some money, they are seen as a success, and because they have money, they can now speak truth, even though they only came to make money through failing to question what was right in front of them. Oh dear! Bad formula.

Hegelian progress is made through conflict. It is only through conflict that any truth will come about. What Hegel saw broadly and Marx revised specifically was that as conflict is intensified, contradictions are exposed and progress is made. Corporate neoliberalism is bringing us backward, but doing so in a tricky way.

It can actually be best explained through the revisionist misreading of Hegel. Todd McGowan explains that the popular reading of thesis-antithesis-synthesis of Hegel is not only the wrong way to read Hegel, but the worst way. What this misreading assumes is that one side presents an argument, then the other side presents an argument, and then we make progress because we choose the middle ground. Hegel and Marx saw the opposite. They believed as contradictions intensified revolution occurred and then progress was made.

Let’s return to relativity for a moment. We first must problematize any conflict, especially these staged ruling class conflicts coming to head in the age of Mr. Trump. Who decides what the thesis and antithesis is? For the triangulating Bill Clinton, the thesis was corporate liberalism and the antithesis was corporate conservatism. Therefore the synthesis was corporate centralism. But where was this progress? Furthermore, if a synthesis can be made then the conflict was likely manufactured, or at least superficial.

Take another example, one that can’t be triangulated. Class warfare. The interests of the working class and the interests of the ruling class are in conflict. Compromises to this conflict can be made through synthesis, and no one is arguing that this would be of some benefit to both sides in some way. But because the conflict between the classes is material rather than manufactured ideology, neither side is interested in such a compromise. The ruling class will continue to steal, and the working class will continue to be alienated from the political. It is only through intensification of knowledge of this conflict that revolution occurs.

Now this is different from accelerating towards the bottom in a materialist sense. In this way Mr. Trump is a false prophet. Trump, like all neoliberals, does not want to accelerate class conflict, he only wants to accelerate class inequality. This, in theory, creates conditions for the conflict to be exposed but that is only because the conflict is actually deepening, which only guarantees suffering and may even set back the possibility for revolution as sectarianism, namely bigotry, is given new life as a subplot.

It is then that the abuser comes in for the compromise, once the most vulnerable have been compromised. This is merely another form of abuse, not a form of mercy. The Democratic Party only exists to stop the revolution of the working class from happening.

The goal of the global neoliberal project is against the tradition of Hegel and Marx. Rather than further conflict they simply want to consolidate wealth and ideology in one big tent. Through dulling all authentic feelings through compromise and democracy they erase the necessary language of authenticity and rebellion. To defeat neoliberalism we must not only consider all opinions, we must also evaluate all structures.

Consider the neoliberal project in relation to time. The goal of the neoliberal project is create a subject that can never reflect (through Marx or other materialist grounding) and can never dream (through King or other idealist envisioning). This is done through erasing both the past and the future through an omnipresent preoccupation with the present. Consider again the explicit misreading of Hegel. Our thesis is our future—it’s what we want to be and it’s how we imagine life going. Julia Louis-Dryfus defined happiness as having something to look forward to. Without this, we have no reason to go on. The past is the antithesis. It is what plagues our future. We battle it. To change our future we must understand our past and confront it without fear.

But this is not possible because neoliberalism slams the present in your face with an obsessive nature of temporary gains (through profit) and pleasure-seeking defined as happiness for the individual. It is in this way neoliberalism demands we form a synthesis of the present that erases both past and future. The thing about synthesis is that it must erase both the thesis and the antithesis for it to construct a structure that does not fall apart. Rather than seeking a happy medium, it degrades both sides to achieve its dishonest goal.

Now we must also consider neoliberalism more broadly. What it aims to do is destroy all authenticity because it is inconvenient for the agreeable business of usual. Any sectarianism of any kind is seen as a threat to the unity of the corporate top-down power structure. Yes, this creates the possibility of a unified underclass. But it is only when we stop making compromises with said structure which only pretends to compromise as a front for its real goal of strengthening contradiction for the purpose of more power. Compromise would be a wiser goal, and indeed that’s why they say it. They know contradiction will be fatal for the much weaker side (the ruling class) who are not only tiny in number, but far less capable of unity and community. But despite neoliberalism’s doctrine of free choices, we must admit the ruling class, like the working class, has no choice but to pursue its own interests. They simply can’t help themselves.

Choice is as false as truth is. Sectarianism, rather than fulfillment of authenticity, is now seen as bigotry (it often is, more on that another day). Yet as long as the ruling class runs the show we merely have a displacement of blame. Rather than honest hatred of a group, the ruling class blames the group they hate. Honest hatred reveals self-loathing and at the very least, takes away any form of superiority. Those who choose to hate have to no surprise never been honest about it. Although neoliberalism’s free choice doesn’t change much. The homeless are now hated because of their  “addictive” or “unstable” or “lazy” tendencies rather than openly hated as a stain on the morality of the rich. Women, under neoliberal relation, are said to enjoy violence, and that any woman who experiences violence gains pleasure from it. People of color, under neoliberal relation, are not slaves locked in cages, but criminals who “made their choices”.

But why blame the ruling class? There’s no point in that either. Blame implies at the very least an alternative reality where something could have gone differently. Forget about it. The ruling class would have done this no matter what and they will keep doing this no matter what. Their thesis (past) is criminal, their antithesis (future) is more criminal, and their synthesis, based on this furthering of contradiction, is demise. The working class then as a thesis of dignity (past), and antithesis of further dignity (future) and, as a result will have a synthesis of self-actualization which will only come through realization of material theft, the fulfillment of reparations and snacking upon the metaphorical bones of the rich.

There is a reason the free speech argument remains apolitical. When free speech is defended and upheld, it is for the right-wing. When free speech is censored, it is for the left-wing. This is because the left, not by ideology, but by material function, challenges power, and therefore has speech that is problematic, even criminal. Meanwhile, the right upholds power, so its speech is seen as free, and even positive. But speech is anything but free. It is, like everything else, bought and sold. The question of free speech seems less important still than the question of free people. It is in this regard that just as property shouldn’t be more important than people, speech should not be more important than people. Therefore dangerous speech, unless said by a robot, must be defended! But most free speech today is not of importance, it is merely robotic and analytical.  It is the speech that is not free, the language of necessity and human dignity that demands defense because it exposes the contradiction of compromise itself. If both sides are free and independent,  if both actors are conflicting in material interests, compromise will not be wanted. Therefore, collaboration itself is false because it can only join two similar sides. And conflict is true because it can only war two conflicting sides. This of course is the grand narrative, there are exceptions within the structure. But the fate of the ruling class, in the material sense, is doom because it is fighting the most powerful group in the world: the poor people of the world. Foolish, but inevitable, is their downfall.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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