Understanding the Public Sphere - #5: Destroying the Public Sphere
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![The earliest ideas of the public sphere were a bit… homogenous compared to today.](https://s3.amazonaws.com/revue/items/images/016/637/064/mail/D8C79BEF-9864-46F8-AABB-2978FA5BBBF8.jpeg?1656344105 “The earliest ideas of the public sphere were a bit… homogenous compared to today.” =650xauto)
The Rise of Bald Assertion
Last month, I was in Paris presenting the arguments and reasoning behind a recent theory essay I co-authored at the Journal of Communication Inquiry called “Facts Do Care About Your Feelings.” The essay explores what we call the “assertive turn” in how people in the US are relating to the public sphere: the diminishment of fact-based, rational arguments between competing groups and the domination of people basically just making shit up to seize political or cultural power.
The precipitating event for that essay was the January 6th Insurrection, where thousands of white conservatives were whipped into a violent mob by a network of elites hellbent on seizing power by any means necessary (those means included a lynch mob hunting down the Vice President — according to the January 6 hearings, the mob got within 40 feet of him). We argue that this rise of assertion as an organizing principle, rather than making a legal or fact-based argument, represents an existential threat to democratic governance, since it replaces persuasion between competing groups with domination.
The recent spate of Supreme Court hearings, where an extremist wing of the court, emplaced by presidents who lost the popular vote, overturned decades of precedents based on invalidating and then reaffirming the right of states to set laws in a brazenly contradictory manner just to verify right wing political preferences, is an evolution of that assertive turn. It portends a future where nothing is real, and all that matters is raw power. It is the end of a law-based democratic order.
What Assertion Looks Like
Just this morning, the court ruled in favor of a high school football coach who held prayer vigils during football games. It is not a big surprise they ruled in his favor, as even a slightly less unbalanced court discovered a highly narrow reading of the establishment clause to rule in favor of a homophobic baker arbitrarily classifying his business as a religion in order to discriminate against people like me. They similarly carved out an exemption to the establishment clause to rule that Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants was not religious discrimination because they chose to ignore his tweets saying it was (after ruling that his tweets are the public record when the White House counsels claimed they were official statements), and gave the administration multiple opportunities to resubmit claims to scrub the direct references to discrimination out of their case.
These rulings are obvious bullshit, and a glance at the reasoning shows why. There is no consistency across them — in one case, a government can revise its clearly stated bias to evade a consideration of that bias on narrow grounds, while on the other an official on a panel speaking off the cuff about her dislike of the bigoted baker constitutes unacceptable “hostility” toward religion. In this newest case, the football coach in question turned his midfield prayers into religious rallies, where parents would literally knock down children trying to play as they rushed to join him.
![Part of the facts in the case, showing how this was not remotely merely a personal exercise of religious faith by a school official.](https://s3.amazonaws.com/revue/items/images/016/636/599/mail/B02D85B1-F2C7-4B07-B3F5-076DBE1B0C49.jpeg?1656342742 “Part of the facts in the case, showing how this was not remotely merely a personal exercise of religious faith by a school official.” =650xauto)
If you were to read the reasoning of the conservative justices, it is clear that they are simply lying about the facts of the case in order to justify how they ruled.
There’s a mile-wide gap between how the court’s conservatives describe what the coach in Bremerton was doing, and what he was actually doing.https://t.co/XCDdsw4Fhs… pic.twitter.com/o2zL3Uejae— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) June 27, 2022
A lot of people focus on the details of reasoning like this to, say, argue that overturning reproductive freedom, the right for women to not be forced into being incubators or livestock for men, as being not that big a deal in any larger sense despite the justices themselves promising, in their rulings, to go after access to birth control, gay marriage, and laws criminalizing how married couples have sex. It requires credulously believing that a group of religious extremists — and they are extremists — who are drunk on power will obey their own reasoning, despite their plainly stated rejection of consistency and continuously bad faith assertions to justify how they want to rule.
But what is happening at the Supreme Court isn’t just a lawless band of would-be tyrants trying to destroy the very act of lawmaking in order to emplace an unassailable white conservative government on a country that has repeatedly voted otherwise. It is part of this larger effort I am trying to work out, this effort to simply destroy the public sphere and replace it with public domination.
Truth Is Losing, and Not Enough People Are Fighting for It
All of which is to say: the challenge facing any ethical researcher, journalist, or even just regular citizen looking at the last several rules of obviously specious reasoning by liars trying to destroy representative government isn’t just to say what is happening. We can do that. But we need to move beyond the frames of “lawless” or “contradictory” to describe these rulings. What they represent is the destruction of society itself — at least, a society based on the principle (but never yet the practice) of people being equal in public.
Right now, mainstream journalists are unwilling to describe this process honestly. See the following tweet about the above case, which again was based on flagrantly lying about a public school official interrupting public school events to coerce his players into public prayer with him:
JUST IN: Supreme Court rules that a Washington state high school football coach had a right to pray on the field immediately after games, a decision that could lead to more acceptance of religious expression in public schools. https://t.co/FLuOLRYfYE— NBC News (@NBCNews) June 27, 2022
What does “more acceptance of religious expression in public schools” mean? There are no restrictions on students expressing their faith in public schools — they can pray, they can self-organize religious clubs, they can hand out flyers and evangelize, they can wear a hijab, they can get an excused access for a non-recognized public holiday like Rosh Hashana. The only restriction on religious expression on public schools is on the public employees who work there — specifically, so it will not be the functional act of the government imposing a religious view on its citizens.
The journalistic coverage of such a case, which again requires the conservative majority to simply lie about the case in order to rule how they want to, is missing in such coverage. By portraying such destructive, anti-democracy behavior in neutral terms, they do the work of fascists in imposing fascism. By treating it normally, instead of an assault on the truth, a violation of the very constitution they say they defend, neutrality-obsessed journalists are failing in their self-described fundamental duty as a check on the powerful.
This is what a future based on assertion looks like. It is a form of mass delusion, organized around the principle of “white religionists can lie and overrule whatever they want and everyone else must accept it.” This is not a society, it is not even a culture. It is domination, tyranny, and the end of speech. It is the destruction of the public sphere, at least as we have known it to exist within our lifetimes.
I am continuing my research into how the public sphere is changing, and frankly as I do the worry and anger at how brazenly this is happening has affected my eagerness to write about it. But it is important that we begin to assign bigger language to these assaults on reality. We have to explain to people who aren’t as engaged what the stakes are. This isn’t just privacy on the line, it isn’t just the freedom of conscience or association. It is, fundamentally, about whether we want to have a society or not. Right now, the right wing clique on the Supreme Court is systematically dismantling that society to give favor to the movement that illicitly put them on the bench. Let us describe it as such.