The Dangerous Crap Sandwiches of Recent Intellectual Manifestos

Regarding the Westminster Declaration.

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy 

Last week the hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World took issue with Marc Andreessen’s latest manifesto. Among other things, I tried to highlight the One Weird Trick that the likes of Andreessen, Richard Hanania et al try to pull when publishing their declaration of principles:

Did you see what Andreessen did? Did you notice he lumped together some concepts that are admittedly a bit bonkers (precautionary principle, de-growth, limits of growth) with some concepts that are somewhat debatable (social responsibility, stakeholder capitalism) with some concepts that are politically polarizing but practically anodyne (ESG, Sustainable Development Goals, trust and safety) with some concepts that I would hope any responsible CEO or policymaker consider to be important (existential risk, sustainability, tech ethics, risk management).

Andreessen is not presenting a homogenous bundle of concepts is what I am saying. Like Hanania and others, he is trying to insert just enough plausibly absurd ideas so you will accept that the other ideas must be absurd even when that is not obvious at all

Since writing that, others have taken their own hatchet to the manifesto, most notably the New York Times’ Ezra Klein, who aptly labels Andreessen’s worldview “reactionary futurism.” The whole thing is worth reading, but Klein latches onto what is so disturbing about these manifestos for some of us in the Ideas Industry: in lumping accepted and valid ideas together with his more dubious nostrums, these writers impugn ideas that merit broader acceptance. 

There is a special pain in seeing ideas you believe in deformed for such purposes. Andreessen and I are not that far apart on some of the basics. For years, I’ve been arguing for politics to take technology more seriously, to see new inventions as no less necessary than social insurance and tax policy in bringing about a worthier world. Too often, we debate only how to divvy up what we already have. We have lost the habit of imagining what we could have; we are too timid in deploying the coordinated genius and muscle of society to pull possibilities from the far future into the near present.

It is telling that Andreessen groups sustainability and degrowth into the same bucket of antagonists….

Andreessen is not entirely wide of the mark here. There are ways in which [martial] virtues have become undervalued, in which the left, in particular, has a dysfunctional relationship with individual achievement and entrepreneurial élan. But what’s needed is a synthesis Andreessen doesn’t even attempt, preferring the aesthetic of the Übermensch to the complexities of the age.

As I noted in my piece, the frustrating thing about Andreessen’s manifesto is that large chunks of it are banal and correct — the “true but not new” portions of it. This serves Andreessen’s purpose of mixing his more tenuous claims with more empirically valid ones to make the whole package appealing. In the process, however, Andreessen taints perfectly valid ideas because he links them to his own brand of reactionary futurism. And Klein’s implicit thesis is that it is often precisely those ideas that need to be heard by segment of the audience most likely to ridicule these manifestos. 

Nor is this unique to this particular manifesto. As Mike Masnick notes in the Daily Beast, it also characterizes some of the free speech declarations that have been populating feeds in recent years:

We saw this a few years ago in the infamously milquetoast Harper’s Letter on Justice and Open Debate, in which a bunch of mostly uncontroversial claims were made regarding the importance of “the free exchange of ideas,” while implying that “cancel culture,” was somehow a grave threat. The letter gave vague descriptions of a few scenarios that seemed unfair, without exploring the details and nuances. But, even worse, it lumped together scenarios where there were likely reasonable arguments for why someone might face the consequences of their own actions, with the relatively rare scenarios in which public ridicule or humiliation was perhaps unwarranted.

The latest entry into this category is something called the Westminster Declaration.1Here’s how it opens:

We write as journalists, artists, authors, activists, technologists, and academics to warn of increasing international censorship that threatens to erode centuries-old democratic norms.

Coming from the left, right, and centre, we are united by our commitment to universal human rights and freedom of speech, and we are all deeply concerned about attempts to label protected speech as ‘misinformation,’ ‘disinformation,’ and other ill-defined terms.

This abuse of these terms has resulted in the censorship of ordinary people, journalists, and dissidents in countries all over the world.

Such interference with the right to free speech suppresses valid discussion about matters of urgent public interest, and undermines the foundational principles of representative democracy.

Across the globe, government actors, social media companies, universities, and NGOs are increasingly working to monitor citizens and rob them of their voices. These large-scale coordinated efforts are sometimes referred to as the ‘Censorship-Industrial Complex.’

Honestly, my favorite part of this is the declared hostility to “ill-defined terms” — and then, three paragraphs later, deploying the term “Censorship-Industrial Complex” to describe the most nebulous concept ever.2

As Masnick notes, it’s the same old game of referencing valid concerns about privacy rights and government censorship with a whole lotta crap:

I think there is much in the Westminster Declaration that is worth supporting. We’re seeing laws pushed, worldwide, that seek to silence voices on the internet. Global attacks on privacy and speech-enhancing encryption technologies are a legitimate concern.

But the Declaration—apparently authored by Michael Shellenberger and Matt Taibbi, along with Andrew Lowenthal, according to their announcement of the document—seeks to take those legitimate concerns and wrap them tightly around a fantasy concoction. It’s a moral panic of their own creation, arguing that separate from the legitimate concern of censorial laws being passed in numerous countries, there is something more nefarious—what they have hilariously dubbed “the censorship-industrial complex.”

To be clear, this is something that does not actually exist. It’s a fever dream from people who are upset that they, or their friends, violated the rules of social media platforms and faced the consequences.

But, unable to admit that private entities determining their own rules is an act of free expression itself (the right not to associate with speech is just as important as the right to speak), the crux of the Westminster Declaration is an attempt to commingle legitimate concerns about government censorship with grievances about private companies’ moderation decisions. 

Substantively, Masnick is correct, and the performance of Twitter since Musk’s takeover buttresses his point.3 Just as Musk’s takeover began, FiveThirtyEight’s Monica Potts and Jean Yi warned that the elimination of content moderation would destroy the site: 

Americans seem to dislike the social media platforms that forgo content moderation entirely, with anything-goes platforms never being quite as popular as the larger platforms that limit some of what users see. A town square that is a free-speech free-for-all risks becoming the kind of place that few people want to visit, which serves as its own limit on the kind of speech it fosters.

Sure enough, this is exactly what has happened after one year of Musk’s ownership. 

In conclusion, a real problem with bullshit manifestos is that it only takes a small amount of intellectual excrement to soil the entire raft of presented ideas — some of which might actually be good.

1 The folks at Slate really need to develop one of those phrase-generating AIs so everyone who wants to create an august-sounding statement can do so. Kinda like foreign policy doctrines

2 A close second is the threats to “erode centuries-old democratic norms.” There were not a lot of democracies centuries ago! Which norms are we talking about? Because the democracies that did exist were also pretty far from being paragons of virtue in the classical liberal values department. 

3 More about this later in the week.

(This post is republished from Drezner’s World.)

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