Case Closed: A Short History of the Short History of Open Debate

Not all of the food in my grocery store is healthy, but our government makes considerable effort to ensure that none of it is lethal in the short term.  Many dishes on offer by the restaurateurs of this town are unwholesome, but if rats roam in one of their kitchens, our health department will shut it down.  We do not, in other words, trust the market to punish peddlers of ptomaine poisoning, but instead ask the state to police the vendors of our food.

You might say that our food is censored, and most of us like it this way.

There was a time when we censored published notions just as we censor food, and for analogous reasons. Just as we fear that tainted food will upset a man’s stomach, so men in the past feared that tainted notions would upset a man’s mind.  Their fears were not imaginary, since every living human knows what it is like to be upset by a notion that some notion-peddler has put into public circulation.  Some of us have been so badly upset that we have never recovered.

What is an upsetting notion?  It is a notion that contradicts a notion cherished by the man who is upset.  It makes him angry, either that the new notion was proposed or that the old notion was cherished.  If angry that the new notion was proposed, he is conservative.  If angry that the old notion was cherished, he is radicalized.

When conservatives and radicals begin to quarrel, society is upset.  Bakers begin to quarrel while bread burns in the ovens; chambermaids begin to quarrel while dust gathers on the floods; farmers begin to quarrel while crops rot in the fields.

Published notions were censored to prevent this endemic quarrelling, and to thereby ensure that bread was baked, dust was cleared, and the crops were gathered in.  And, of course, to prevent the massacres that inevitably boil over when the hoi polloi discover that some quarrels never end.

Nearly four hundred years ago, some men began to peddle the notion that censorship of notions was wrong and endemic quarrelling was good.  These men were called “liberals” because they advocated liberty for notion-peddlers.  Their arguments resembled those a slovenly restaurateur might level against health inspectors.  These liberals were quickly allied with “radicals” who peddled notions contradicting the cherished political and religious notions of that day.  Radicals wished to upset the existing social order. Liberals said the social order would be invigorated by their trying.

Needless to say, the hoi polloi began to quarrel, and a century later the massacres began.  It was by this blood, the complacent liberals said, that “the tree of liberty was refreshed.”

Bloody massacres did not dampen liberals’ love of quarrelling, so in the nineteenth century they invented public schools where radicals could upset young children on a daily basis.  They called this “challenging assumptions,” but it was really just contradicting cherished beliefs and inciting quarrels that they call “open debates.”

However, these open debates turned out to be a rigged game in which the defenders of cherished notions always lost, rather like Hamilton Burger, the hapless district attorney and foil of ace lawyer Perry Mason.  In fact, the script of these rigged debates rather closely resembled an episode of that old television program.  In the place of the defendant, we had some new and upsetting notion, such as, say, the notion that pornography is a healthy and life-affirming form of speech.  In the place of district attorney Burger, we had conservative defenders of the cherished notion that pornography is good for nothing but to arouses morbid obsessions.  In the place of defense attorney Mason, we had radicals in defense of the new notion. And in place of the judge and jury, we had, of course, a gaggle of liberals who affected impartiality while their hearts bled for the accused.

Just as every episode of Perry Mason opened with the defendant appearing all but convicted, so the trial of pornography opened with the notion of its benignity appearing all but laughed out of court.  In 1960, it looked like Hamilton Burger was about to win at last.  But, as in every episode of Perry Mason, the tables slowly turned, and by 1970s the defendant walked free and Hamilton Burger played the palooka once again.

When Hamilton Burger plays the palooka and loses a case, liberals tell us the case is closed forever.  No double jeopardy for them.  Their passion for upsetting cherished beliefs dies the moment Perry Mason wins, and from that moment, liberals cherish and defend the new and exonerated notion.  When radicals upset people with the notion that miscegenation is good, for instance, liberals said they should not be censored.  But once Hamilton Burger played the palooka, the case was officially closed, and these same liberals were happy to censor diehards who persisted in publicizing the notion that miscegenation is bad.  When radicals upset people with the notion that homosexuality is good, liberals said they should not be censored.  But once Hamilton Burger played the palooka, the case was officially closed, and these same liberals were happy to censor diehards who persisted in publicizing the notion that homosexuality is bad.

Radicals challenge assumptions, but these diehards just upset people!

7 thoughts on “Case Closed: A Short History of the Short History of Open Debate

  1. Pingback: Case Closed: A Short History of the Short History of Open Debate | Reaction Times

  2. I thought I once read in the US Constitution (or maybe it was in The Declaration – same thing, right?) that the right to not be upset by diehards is an inviolable and unalienable human right. Maybe I just associated it with the self-evident right of the pursuit of happiness. Come to think of it, I might have read that in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Who knows?

    • It’s written on the base of the Statue of Liberty with a Sharpie. People came here “yearning to breathe free” of upsetting notions (once they had succeeded in upsetting the notions already established).

      • Ha! The same sharpie, I presume, with which someone or other struck out key words from the Lost Cause Confederate plaque recently removed from the State House in your (adopted) state.

        This would all be funny if it weren’t so sad! I recently read the SPLC’s case for removing these memorials, and in it they talk about how there have been two major historical pushes toward the Confederate Cause. What they apparently fail to understand is that they themselves are engendering a third push in the same direction. So, in essence, we (or they, I guess) learn nothing from past mistakes.

  3. The word debate formerly meant something, as in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but nowadays it only signifies the salami-slicing demand for concessions à la Marx’s version of Hegel’s dialectic. By the way (a mere technicality), Hamilton Burger won the jury verdict twice against Perry Mason — in “The Case of the Terrified Typist” and in “The Case of the Deadly Verdict.”

    • The exceptions prove the rule. The conservatives have won the jury verdict a couple times against the radicals, as well – at least for a time. But one advantage of real life over TV is that you can change the endings of reruns ‘to keep things fresh and interesting.’

  4. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkaton 1/20/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


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