Free Marketplace of Ideas — or Welfare State?

There’s a certain kind of right-wing culture warrior — a disproportionate number of whom call themselves “libertarians” — who seems to be confused about what an actual “free marketplace of ideas” is. Self-described “free speech absolutists” of this sort never stop avowing their fondness for John Stuart Mill, and proclaiming their belief that “the cure for bad speech is more speech.” But when confronted by actual critiques of bad speech, in exactly the way that J.S. Mill envisioned, they begin bleating about “woke mobs” and “cancel culture.”

A classic example is Richard Menger, a neurosurgeon who wrote in defense of Harrison Butker at Foundation for Economic Education (“A Neurosurgeon’s View on Harrison Butker and Those Trying to Cancel Him,” May 23):

Either Butker or his speech were labeled as “sexist,” “dehumanizing,” “misogynist,” “completely outrageous,” “demeaning,” “antisemitic,” and “homophobic.” I am probably leaving off some intersectionality, but you get the gist.

Accurately characterizing someone’s speech, apparently, is regarded as “cancel culture” these days. Before I finish, I’ll return to the question of who more honestly described Butker’s remarks — the so-called “cancel culture religious cult,” or Menger. 

It would be sad enough if Menger were just honestly dumb. But there’s every indication that he’s arguing in bad faith:

I didn’t think all of that could possibly be true. So, I did something unique for most of us in 2024: I watched the original content so that I could make up my own mind.

My distinct conclusion is that the cancel cult either hasn’t seen the video or they are being completely intellectually dishonest.

It’s a typical play from the cancel culture playbook.

Quote out of context, use labels, assume moral superiority, focus on strawman argumentation, and, after that is achieved, use pure ad hominem to split debate into a black-or-white scenario allowing everyone to jump on the bandwagon.

It’s odd that so little of what Butker actually said in his address — which Menger claims to have watched — is reflected in Menger’s summaries and paraphrases. The sole extended direct quote he provides is the same paragraph that most frequently appeared in mainstream press coverage of the speech:

Some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world, but I would venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world… And, it cannot be overstated that all of my success is made possible because a girl I met in band class back in middle school would convert to the faith, become my wife, and embrace one of the most important titles of all: homemaker.

Ironically, mainstream media coverage probably did Butker a favor in limiting its reporting to that paragraph. The most inflammatory statements — the ones also left out by Menger — are either buried or ignored altogether in most articles. Menger goes on to provide another couple of summary paragraphs:

He describes “homemaker,” in the context of his own wife, as one of the most important titles, but not the only title, for women. He also turns around then immediately to state that his first priorities are as a husband and father, not a football player or entrepreneur. For sure, it’s controversial and highly disagreeable to some or most, but it’s not dehumanizing.

He also spent a large amount of time criticizing the leadership of his own church. He conjured up a Theodore Roosevelt-type mantra to “do hard things.” He attacked the culture of violence only then to be criticized for not properly attacking the culture of violence. He criticized DEI only then to be told that he should be grateful for DEI because Patrick Mahomes is his quarterback.

The trial is over, and he has been declared guilty of a thought crime.

Menger’s paraphrases, to put it mildly, take more than a little of the edge off of what Butker actually said.

Let’s take a look at the actual speech. Here are a few direct quotes from the transcript:

Butker didn’t just remind the women in the audience that marriage and family were as important and fulfilling as careers. He suggested that they were “thinking about all the promotions and titles you are going to get in your career” because they had “had the most diabolical lies told to you.” He also whined about the “cultural emasculation of men,” and “the tyranny of diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Probably most disturbing of all:

Congress just passed a bill where stating something as basic as the biblical teaching of who killed Jesus could land you in jail.

Um, yikes? Is this a star football kicker, or Mel Gibson at a drunk driving stop? Weird that Menger left that one out of his summary. Menger continues:

The critical question is: Why is the mob so angry?

It means he’s poking at something real, something threatening, and something that is making them uncomfortable.

…and something that Menger was apparently afraid to quote directly, lest his readers see beyond his “cancelled by the woke mob” generalities and assess Butker’s remarks for themselves. It’s almost as if Menger’s goal was to obscure and minimize Butker’s actual remarks, in order to turn him into yet another manufactured martyr for consumption by the sort of marks who are usually taken in by the “cancel culture” grift. 

Menger closes with a quote from Milton Friedman: “The great virtue of a free market system is that… it only cares whether [people] can produce something you want to buy,” along with his own statement that “The market will win.” But the unfortunate truth is that people like Menger do not want the market to win. They want speech they agree with to win. That’s why a supposedly “libertarian” magazine like Reason platforms someone like Emma Camp who reports having “self-censored” in college, “afraid to fully speak [her] mind,” for fear her views might be criticized — and then runs, on an almost daily basis, articles by Nick Gillespie and Robby Soave ridiculing left-wing students or faculty for some “woke” thing they said.

In a real “free marketplace of ideas,” what “the market winning” would look like is that, when people decided that products like the Edsel and New Coke were shitty, they would go out of business and nobody would keep them in stock. And when bad ideas reared their ugly heads, people would help that process along by relentlessly criticizing. In other words, the very things that cause Menger and his ilk to melt down about “cancel culture.” “Cancel culture” is nothing but the free marketplace of ideas — the free marketplace of ideas that right-wing culture warriors claim to support — in action.

What the “canceled by the woke mob” grifters want, in reality, is a welfare state of ideas — one in which some ideas are Too Bigoted to Fail.

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