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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Random Thoughts: Buying or Judging?

Photo by Harris & Ewing, "between 1905 and 1935."

A thought that came to me recently concerns the phrase “marketplace of ideas," not only as it occurs in everyday speech but specifically as I read it in a positive and pithy little book by Dan Rather & Elliot Kirschner entitled What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism

In the chapter on dissent (which also, coincidentally, mentions Eugene V. Debs as “the famous socialist labor leader” who ran for the presidency from prison, where he was incarcerated on a federal charge of sedition), the authors cite the case of Abrams v. the United States (1919), in which two justices dissented from the majority on a question of free speech. The Court had twice previously been unanimous in supporting limits to free speech during World War I, but Justice Holmes was convinced by friends that the court had gone too far in suppressing speech, so in Abrams he dissented from the majority, Justice Brandeis concurring in the dissent. 

Holmes wrote in his dissent, “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market….” Hmmm....

We are so accustomed to hearing and reading and using the phrase that I wonder how many of us ever think much about it. A marketplace, whether physical or virtual, is a scene for buying and selling, and while we commonly say “I don’t buy that” to indicate disagreement or at least lack of interest, do we want to think of our own dearly held beliefs and firmly held convictions as something to “sell” other people? Are ideas and beliefs and convictions and principles nothing more than virtual products to be advertised and promoted for--personal gain? to "win"?

But how else, you may ask, should we speak about ideas competing for our allegiance? I like “court of public opinion” a little better, because it implies judgment. While in a market I may make an impulse purchase and have little to regret (if the price is low enough), serving on a jury I would be asked to deliberate more carefully, weighing all the evidence presented and not voting solely on the basis of which attorney was the better salesperson.

What do you think of when you hear "marketplace of ideas"? 

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