Author: James Livingston

Reluctant Heroes

“Now goddess, child of Zeus, tell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.” That’s how the first stanza ends in Emily Wilson’s brilliant new translation of The Odyssey. It reads as if Walt Whitman wrote it, with the rhythms of our modern times, so it sounds contemporary—Odysseus comes alive. That first stanza begins by addressing another figure: “Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost When he had wrecked the holy town of Troy, and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms...

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Free Speech in the Marketplace of Ideas

As far as I can tell, the 19th-century liberal notion of a free marketplace of ideas underwrites the absolutist position on free speech: Brendan O’Neill’s for example. The reasoning is that the more competition for our attention, the better the outcome, because we will all have more information. This is at least a problematic notion because there is no such thing as a free marketplace of ideas, and there never has been – until perhaps now with the Internet. But that raises a different question about the consequences of free speech. Does the choice the market makes render speech valid? Or rather, is majority rule the only measure of democracy? That transposition from markets to politics is warranted, I believe, because the arguments about free speech on campus presuppose the political purposes of the First Amendment. As Thomas I. Emerson explained, in an Aristotelian mood, freedom of expression is: (1) a means of self-realization–you can’t become what you want to be when you grow up unless you can freely express yourself. That project of moral development, the possibility of virtue, serves the purposes of (2) attaining the truth through debate and (3) equipping individuals with what they need to participate in political deliberations. And this civic consequence will (4) balance authority and freedom. All right, let’s test Emerson’s distinction between expression and action according to his own criteria, so...

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Expression and Action, Money and Speech

Last Thursday night I went to an event co-sponsored by Spiked, the kinky British magazine, and the Institute for Humane Studies, an obscure institution domiciled at George Mason University, whose agenda, despite its title, does not include animal rights. It was hosted by the New York Law School in a spacious auditorium at 185 West Broadway, way downtown. 200 people were in the audience, everybody agitated by the issue of free speech. I’m sitting there in the bleacher section, ten rows back, and I’m asking myself, who paid for this? Whose speech was legitimated by this setting? And what voices were excluded? I’m thinking like an economist, asking, what was the “opportunity cost” of this event—in other words, what alternatives were forsaken so that these ideas would be heard? The event was entitled “Is the Left Eating Itself?” Translation: Is the Left destroying itself by relinquishing its aggressive, progressive claims on the First Amendment—by encouraging the “social justice warriors” who have tried to shut down hate speech on campus? The spontaneous, ungainly etymology that followed led, inevitably, to a larger question: what is the Left, after all? The four participants on the panel were Brendan O’Neill, Angus Johnston, Bret Weinstein, and Laura Kipnis. Their answers were intriguing, at the very least. What I heard was of course edifying. But it was nowhere near satisfying—if I could have run shrieking...

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Tin Star: Revenge, Renunciation and Desire

There’s great pleasure in the renunciation of desire. I know this because for thirty years I refused to eat dead mammals, I dressed like an impoverished graduate student, I acted as if the world were a juvenile detention facility—that’s what they call them, really—and I cut my own hair with scissors, mirrors, and electric razors. Meanwhile, I was the Ideal Dad, Mister Mom, the father who did all the cooking, went to every extracurricular event, and helped with the homework, too. I’m not like that anymore. I left my marriage ten years ago, moved to New York, got a...

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Tied to the Mast

I went to Montana last weekend, to address the Montana Education Association courtesy of James Bruggeman, and, outside of my official duties, I spent a lot of time with Jim on the road, in a big old red Toyota truck that seemed one story high, but with just enough horsepower to get us past the tractor trailers that crowded the passes, as he called them, those crevices in the mountains where you might sneak through to the other side. They’re actually named for the people who found them, and used them, God knows how or why. Now Jim is...

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