Sometimes sunshine just makes the infection grow. (More)

Legendary Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

The argument is especially common among free speech absolutists who insist the media must highlight the toxic sludge that is modern conservatism. To contain the sludge, they say, we must expose it to the ‘sunlight’ of public attention.

It’s not working.

Here’s the thing. Not all “social and industrial diseases” are bacteria that wither in sunlight. Some, like the toxic algae bloom devastating the Florida coast, thrive on sunlight. For political algae, the spotlight of public attention merely accelerates their growth.

And lest you think shaming might be a deterrent, forget it. Here is Lou Dobbs letting Judicial Watch founder Chris Farrell repeat the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that prompted the massacre in Pittsburg:

Fox Business News broadcast that segment after a neo-Nazi murdered 11 people in a synagogue — and after other media had published the gunman’s social media manifesto citing precisely that ‘threat’.

Shaming won’t work because these people have no sense of shame.

These political algae thrive on sunlight and fertilizer. Trump’s Twitter feed provides plenty of fertilizer. So do Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Ann Coulter, Richard Spencer, Robert Spencer, Frank Gaffney, Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, and all too many other people whose names are all too familiar.

Their names are familiar because they’re political celebrities, and not merely on right-wing outlets. In just the past year, so-called ‘progressive’ Bill Maher has featured both Yiannopoulos and Bannon on his HBO show Real Time, and Maher defended Coulter’s ‘right’ to spew hate at a university. And a few years back, Maher defended Limbaugh against a progressive boycott.

Because ‘free speech’ is supposed to ‘cleanse’ society by ‘exposing’ toxins like white supremacy to ‘sunlight’.

It’s not working.

In just the past week:

  • A white supremacist murdered two black people at a Louisville grocery.
  • A white supremacist sent at least 11 mail bombs to people that Trump described as “enemies.”
  • A white supremacist murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, citing one of Trump’s conspiracy theories.

I don’t know what the solution is. But I’ll suggest that continuing to provide the attention these political microbes crave is not the solution. Exposing them is not the necessary first step in some imagined process where societal outrage drives these people back into their closets, neutered by shame.

Whatever the solution is, I’ll suggest it starts with admitting that the solution we’ve tried – our naïve Enlightenment devotion to the cleansing power of public debate – is not working.

Until we admit that, we won’t put in the hard work to find solutions that could work.

And the toxic tide will keep rising.


Image Credits — Algae Bloom: Adobe Stock Photo; Transforms: Crissie Brown (BPI