In praise of more noise

With anything you want to do in the world, there’s two things you need – and an awkward tension between them. On the one hand, you need domain knowledge. You need to know who came before you, you need to study the work of those in the field right now. You need heroes. You need influences.

On the other hand, you ought to have opinions about the work you see. Often, critical ones. If your intentions are genuine, if you’re not doing what you’re doing for connections or prestige or status – well, why the fuck would you get in the arena if you took a look around and thought that everything seemed just fine?

The Democratic Party seems to misinterpret criticism from progressives seeking office as a repudiation of membership on the team. You can hear it in the predictably chronic questions about “party unity” every time a Bernie Sanders-style candidate challenges a centrist incumbent. The reasoning behind the call for unity is that public in-fighting will weaken us in the general election against the Republicans. And with the scary state of affairs in our country right now, why would we ever take that risk?

I want to throw down the opposite idea: Public criticism is a virtue. Debate within a group—what some mislabel ‘in-fighting’—is a good sign. It means that our group is awake enough and diverse enough to still be alive.

My new professor at journalism school structured our first big lecture series around this James Carey quote:

“Republics require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places.”

There’s a really legendary book in 20th century American politics that often gets misinterpreted. It’s called The Vital Center and in it, the author—who was writing in 1949, during some fun Cold War/Red Scare times—told us that Democrats and Republicans need each other to balance America out and keep us from caving to global threats of socialism and totalitarianism. Those cold, capitalist Republicans need the Democrats to help them care about marginalized people, and we soft-hearted, spendthrift Dems need the Republicans to instill some discipline and national security. This tug-of-war, this counter-balance—is how we’ll protect democracy.

But—and here’s where the mass misinterpretation comes in—Schlessinger wasn’t arguing that we all become centrists and tone ourselves down. What he was saying was that all of the voices—right, left, further left, weird outspoken libertarian who thinks he has it all figured out, condescending Greenpeace activist— in clanging cacophony, in debate, and indeed, in public—that noise, aka, democracy, would be what saved us. No single way would ever be the way, no one ideology would ever save us. It was about the process itself—not the mythically perfectable ends it might promise to achieve. So to stabilize democracy—unlike any other form of government under the sun—we ironically had to embrace our lack of internal cohesion. We had to embrace bumping up against each other. Because doing so, and figuring how to mutually negotiate our way around it—was the entire point of this thing.

With that in mind, something worries me –

Newcomers to any field that seeks to serve the public are basically told to fall in line. So people with genuine intentions in politics or media tell themselves, okay – I’ll do it their way for the next 2, 4, 8 years until I get to this higher position. Then I’ll get to call all the shots. And by the time they make it there, they often find that they more or less have come to see things the same as those around them. Or, they realize that there’s another job, another election, another rung they need to climb before they can stand apart the way they’d like to stand apart. The cycle never ends, but democracies have been known to.

Democrats tell us that given the precarious state of our democracy, now really isn’t the time to be making more noise.

I say the opposite. Given the precarious state of our democracy, we need noise – more of it. In public. All together now.