Too Free to be Intimidated
Thomas Paine's Blog - A Place to Refuse the Intimidation of the Cancel Culture
I lived and studied in the Philippines in the Cory Aquino years and the years that followed. The Philippines is the third largest English-speaking country in the world and has a very mature press which guard their freedoms carefully. They have, after all, lived through the Ferdinand Marcos years and know what an assault on the free press actually looks like. The Aquino years and the years that followed were tarred by several coup attempts. The English language press had to negotiate perilous periods during those years.
One of their better writers - Alex Magno - penned a turn of phrase (the link is to an archive - use your browser’s “find” feature, usually CTRL-F, for the entry titled “Poisoned”) that has never left me. Word was out that there was a “list” (does this sound familiar?) of media personalities who were thought to be part of a “destabilization plot” who were possibly to be “canceled.” (This meant something far more sinister then than now.) Magno inquired with the head of the Philippine National Police (roughly, but not exactly, corresponding to our FBI) why he was apparently on this list.
His final comment:
I pray that through all the imperfections and confusions of our tenuous democracy, those who are too free to be intimidated outnumber those too timid to be free.
I toyed with the idea of calling my newsletter “John Hancock’s Blog.” This appealed to me because when the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed, many of the signatures were inscrutable enough to leave the signer the option of claiming “it wasn’t me” should they have failed to throw off the shackles of the British monarchy. Hancock would have none of that; his is the clearest, largest, and most prominent signature. It was an unapologetic stick in the eye of King George III. It is also why someone’s signature came to be known as their “John Hancock.” Thomas Paine was also an unapologetic anti-monarchist. But his “signature” was how he eschewed the rarified vocabulary of the Enlightenment elite in favor of the language of ordinary people.
How, Exactly, Do We Come to ‘Know’?
Some say we are in the midst of an “epistemic crisis.” I agree. The problem is most people have no idea what “epistemic” means. In past engagements on social media I have observed that there is an “epistemology of those who make things for a living” and and “epistemology of those who talk and write for a living.” But I’ll quickly admit that few know what I mean when I use the word “epistemology.” (There is a third, even more peculiar epistemology of those who talk and write for a living about those who make things for a living - otherwise known as “academic economists.”)
Ask a farmer how he comes to “know” something. Ask the same of a rancher or a fisherman. They will appeal to their own experience growing a crop, raising livestock, or fishing. After all, without them we do not eat. Ask a “journalist” today how she comes to “know” something. She will probably appeal to an “expert.” Ask the expert and they will appeal to the “experts” under whom they studied… Ask those experts? Wash, rinse, repeat.
Consider, all of a sudden, all restaurants are closed and nothing is left on the shelves of the grocery stores. (In the immediate aftermath of COVID-19 this should not be too hard.) Now what you eat is what you grow, catch, or kill. Tell me, now, whose ideas will have more currency? The ideas of the credentialed crowd who have demonstrated the ability to pass tests but otherwise never suffer the consequences of their bad ideas? Or the ideas of people close enough to nature to suffer the consequences of being wrong?
Nassim Taleb calls the credentialed crowd the “intellectual yet idiot” class. They never suffer the consequences of being wrong; they have no “skin in the game.”
Occupy the Language
Thomas Paine and John Hancock were men of equal courage. But Paine was a man of superior writing ability. He knew how to communicate the ideas behind the peculiar vocabulary of the Enlightenment to those whose vocabulary was far more practical.
This is why I seek to build an audience here on Substack… To call to those “too free to be intimidated” not only to push back on the “cancel culture” but to determinedly write as Thomas Paine did - with the language of ordinary people.
Here we will “Occupy the Language,” if you will. Here we will insist on the freedom to address subjects like racism, sexual orientation, gender, etc. without submitting to a credentialed intellectual ruling class who write as if their canon of meanings is accepted by “everyone” because of their “obviously” correct usage. (Hint: When you read an appeal to what is “obvious” and what “everyone” believes, you are being propagandized - which is the implicit delegitimization of opposing points of view.)
Here we will consciously avoid the “specialty language” especially of Wall Street when writing about the economy and the structural injustices of a monopolistic system that is - at best - an amoral corporatist bastardization of free-market capitalism.
Understanding the Times
It feels like we are in the midst of “times that try men’s souls.” When reading Paine’s writing today we can be honest about the exclusion of women in these older conventions of writing. But noticing such a thing is to require of ourselves that we nurture a self-awareness in our own writing; that we be better writers even than Thomas Paine! But this requires that we defend our traditional canon of literature from those who would cancel it. There can be no common sense of “progress” unless the writings of earlier years are left intact that we might reflect on how to think better, how to work to include more voices in a truly free exchange of ideas, and even how to write better.
But perhaps there are those who do not want there to be any common sense of “progress” - leaving them and their selfish power interests to dictate the meaning of yet another word on everyone else.
Thomas Paine’s Blog stands as a protest against this totalitarian domination of language.