In his book The Unforeseen Tendencies of Democracy, E.L. Godkin, founder of The Nation, noted that the rise of the newspaper press furnished “to every man the materials for an opinion of some sort about public affairs, and the opportunity to say something about them, whether well or ill judged.” Near the end of his life, in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, he lamented the political effect of the yellow journalism popularized by Pulitzer and Hearst: “The worst of it is that the cheap press has become a great aid and support in all these things. It has by no means turned out, as it was expected to, a teacher of better manners and purer laws.”
As it was expected to! Well, I’m not here to be harsh toward Godkin, who had more nuance to his thought than doctrinaire progressivism, and who can hardly be blamed for what his magazine has turned into in our time. No, I’m reminded of this after hearing Damon Linker add his voice to the lamenting howl raised just recently by Evan Williams, founder of Twitter and Blogger. “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Mr. Williams says. “I was wrong about that.” “This simply isn’t how thoughtful citizens of a democracy should be comporting themselves in public,” harrumphs Linker.
Well, they’re right, of course. Social media is mostly garbage because, to be shockingly inegalitarian about it, most people are ignorant boors (and bores) who aren’t worth the time and energy it takes to get to know them. A medium which is expressly designed to incessantly provoke instant, emotional reactions from people who would struggle to be informed and thoughtful on their best day could hardly be expected to produce anything else. The only mystery is why, more than a century after Godkin’s bitter reckoning, anyone should still have to re-learn this lesson. Progressives still want to believe that somehow, especially through technology, we’re going to invent our way to a brand new human animal which will finally behave the way it should. “Liberalism was the child of an honest, if somewhat myopic, ‘reasonableness’, the assumption that society could be induced to follow courses strictly logical and practical; and when the masses insisted on remaining unreasonable, the liberals drowned in the fierce waters they had mistaken for a millpond,” observed Russell Kirk. The worry is that if changing external conditions can’t seem to solve the vexing problem of human behavior, impatience will encourage the attempts of people like Yuval Harari to take things to their logical conclusion.