Habits of Liberty: Part IV
Glenn Greenwald rightly says that the “monopolistic” and “anticompetitive entities” of Big Tech have “engage[d] in anti-trust illegalities to destroy rising competitors” such as Parler, whose “destruction preserves the unchallengeable power of a tiny handful of tech oligarchs over the political discourse not just of the United States but democracies worldwide.” Parler’s CEO, John Matze, claims that his service is “the world’s last hope for free speech.”
Their concerns are well-founded, and yet I believe that we consistently exaggerate the political utility of mere speech. I have previously argued in this series that unembodied ideas are impotent; they are distorted by incompatible habits, are at present unpersuasive, and (more to the immediate point) are defenseless without mediating institutions. Social media, I have said, are too insecure to take the place of flesh-and-blood associations, an observation now dramatically illustrated by Dorsey, Bezos, & co.
After the social media “purge” many liberals and conservatives have lamented the futility of politics, betraying a misapprehension that voting in federal elections and social media chatter exhaust the possibilities of political participation. It is impossible to measure these things, but the outrage over Parler and Trump’s Twitter account seems greater than that over the continuing advocacy of lockdowns, suggesting that a political tool has been mistaken for the thing itself. In any event, in both cases public “safety” is claimed to justify restrictions of association, and the purge may be viewed as the sequel to the lockdowns.
Had the power of face-to-face associations been remembered, lockdown orders would not have been greeted with complacency. Most culpable for its forgetfulness has been the American Church. In An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Cardinal Newman notes that the early Church would not abide restriction of assembly, however fastidiously it otherwise followed the counsel of Romans 13:
“It is impossible surely to deny that, in assembling for religious purposes, the Christians were breaking a solemn law, a vital principle of the Roman constitution; and this is the light in which their conduct was regarded by the historians and philosophers of the Empire. This was a very strong act on the part of the disciples of the great Apostle, who had enjoined obedience to the powers that be. Time after time they resisted the authority of the magistrate…but if Christianity were in its essence only private and personal, as so many now think, there was no necessity of their meeting together at all. If, on the other hand, in assembling for worship and holy communion, they were fulfilling an indispensable observance, Christianity had imposed a social law on the world, and formally enters the field of politics. Gibbon says that, in consequence of Pliny’s edict, ‘the prudence of the Christians suspended their Agapae; but it was impossible for them to omit the exercise of public worship.’ We can draw no other conclusion.”
Assembly was not only an “indispensable observance,” but the means of the early Church’s rapid growth, if we are to believe Acts chapter 2:
“And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers…And all that believed were together, and had all things common…And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”
The unpretentious prescription for cultural change (and consequently political power) seems to be “ideas celebrated and explored in community.” And so, for another example, Owen Barfield can properly describe as “an historic moment fraught with destiny” gatherings at Marsilio Ficino’s house at Montevecchio where “warm personal affection [and] their common philosophy, united the group of friends.”
Examples could be multiplied, but it is enough for now to note that such modest meetings of friends arguably made the early Church and the Italian Renaissance. Perhaps they are capable of convincing Americans that political liberty is worth reclaiming—and they would be deliciously free of the oversight of preposterous scolds like Jack Dorsey.