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‘First They Came For Alex Jones….’ Dewey-Stassen Revisited, 70 Years Later

August 7, 2018

Recent news stories indicate that major social media platforms have shut down conspiracy-monger Alex Jones’ activity on their sites.  As several major players did this in rapid succession, one might assume that there was coordinated effort aimed at suppressing someone whose utterances are viewed by his detractors as ‘hate speech,’ ‘fake news’ and the like.

These actions, although originating from what is archaically termed ‘the private sector,’ the oligarchic nature of the social media/tech cartel is such that their collective action is essentially a form of governance in itself.  Acting in concert, they have the power to decide who is, and who isn’t heard online, and their internationalization means that they aren’t necessarily’ American’ institutions, and therefore less subject to being held in check than were the corporate trusts that Teddy Roosevelt famously set out to ‘bust’ a little over a century ago.

Since the online cartel has the power to regulate speech through collective action, the relevance of a question settled seventy years ago in a Presidential debate is once again relevant.  Governor Thomas Dewey of New York and former Governor Harold Stassen of Minnesota debated, on the eve of the Oregon Primary,  in a live radio broadcast lasting about an hour, the one burning question that most separated them as they sought the Republican nomination for President in 1948:  Should the Communist Party be outlawed, or not?

Communism, as a world movement headquartered in Moscow and given aid, comfort and both material and ideological support by the Stalin regime, then in the act of consolidating its hold on Eastern European nations only recently liberated from the Nazi yoke, was no matter of merely academic speculation.  As the trials of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, as well as the rise of McCarthyism and both real and imagined threats of the gravest kind to our freedom in an age awakening to the realities of atomic warfare made clear, dealing with Communism was the among the foremost questions of the day.

In a performance that shames our present-day ‘debates’ for depth, seriousness and intellectual quality, Dewey and Stassen held their listeners’ attention for the hour alloted them as they argued their sides of the question of outlawing the Communist Party in the United States, making their points in turn, and then rebutting those of their opponent.

Governor Dewey won the debate and the nomination.  He rebutted Governor Stassen’s assertion that a subversive element must not be allowed to abuse freedom of speech to organize an attack on freedom itself, and that the existence of such a mortal threat to the Republic demanded its suppression by pointing out that suppression does not work; it only drives ideas and people underground, where they grow stronger.  Instead of weakening or eradicating an idea, “shooting an idea with a law,” as Dewey put it, only makes it grow stronger while making martyrs out of its adherents.  He closed by stating that this idea that wrong ideas should be outlawed is a failure and ought to be done away with for all time.  Better, Dewey said, to let wrong-headed ideas have their day, the better that they can be exposed and defeated in the open.

What does that have to do with Alex Jones?  History can serve as a guide to action; knowing how a far greater threat than any alleged to originate from Alex Jones (I have never listened to him or read his posts, so I cannot comment on the specifics of his assertions) can help us to better protect the essence of our free society in the face of the threat du jour to its existence.  We can no more suppress what we deem to be ‘fake news’ or ‘hate speech’ by shutting it down than could our forebears do with Communism.

The final caution to be offered here is that it is a slippery slope we traverse when we arbitrarily decide who is beyond the pale.  Today it’s Alex Jones; tomorrow it may be me – or you.  If no one speaks up for Alex Jones now, then, paraphrasing Niemoller, who will be left when they come for us?

Since we are dealing with international tech giants and not with the proposed legislation of a national government, the solution won’t be the same as it was in 1948.  Online social media platforms should be treated as public accommodations, open to all comers not advocating violence or other acts prohibited by law.  If we do not do something like this, we will be ceding the virtual public square to the control of a cartel whose owners may decide who speaks – and who doesn’t.



One Comment
  1. Two year break you took my friend 🙂 ‘Ware the Statist collectivist authoritarians. They want YOUR liberty.

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