The cancel culture was all aflutter last week: A man who is popular enough to be un-cancelable and who believes that people should actually be free to express their opinions bought their favorite platform with the express intent of canceling the cancel culture. He is going to let people say what they want to say. Oh the horror.
I have to admit that I am truly enjoying this story because there are so many lessons here and let’s face it, most stories over the last year have been depressing. The first lesson is in hypocrisy. We try our best at Iron Capital to be neutral on political issues and we pride ourselves in having a diverse client base. We will, however, call out hypocrisy.
In fretting over Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, MSNBC host Ari Melber warns that Musk could hack the political debate and “ban one party’s candidate” or “turn down the reach of their stuff and turn up the reach of something else, and the rest of us might not even find out about it until after the election.” For example, Twitter could ban a politician like former President Trump, or they could “turn down” a story like Hunter Biden’s laptop. One can’t make this up.
Before Ronald Reagan became President of the United States, he was president of the Screen Actors Guild. This was during the time of the McCarthy hearings, the last time a “cancel culture” tried to take hold in America. Hollywood has always attracted a more left-leaning crowd and many were caught up in McCarthy’s web. Reagan fought back. In his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, he was asked, “Mr. Reagan, what is your feeling about what steps should be taken to rid the motion picture industry of any Communist influences, if they are there?“
Reagan responded, “… [T]he best thing to do is make democracy work. … I believe, as Thomas Jefferson put it, if all American people know all of the facts, they will never make a mistake. … As a citizen, I would hesitate, or not like, to see any political party outlawed on the basis of its political ideology. We have spent 170 years in this country on the basis that democracy is strong enough to stand up and fight against the inroads of any ideology.”
Reagan believed the best approach to what today we would call “Communist disinformation” was not a McCarthy-style campaign to silence them, but to let them talk so they would ultimately reveal themselves for who they actually were. In other words, if one is on the “right” side, then she has nothing to fear from anything the “wrong” side could say.
We find a lesson in our industry regarding our recent phobia of disinformation. Benjamin Graham, the father of security analysis and mentor to Warren Buffet, once said, “The stock investor is neither right or wrong because others agreed or disagreed with him; he is right because his facts and analysis are right.” Conversely, he is wrong when his facts and analysis are wrong. Similarly, disinformation is so-labeled because it runs against current consensus belief, but almost all true breakthroughs ran against current consensus belief.
So, at one point in human history the idea that the world was round was “disinformation,” as was the idea that the earth revolved around the sun. More recently, the idea that someone who had received the Covid vaccine could still get Covid was “disinformation.” We could go on and on. The consensus is never right or wrong because it is the consensus; it is right or wrong because we have our facts and analysis right or wrong. If we are all seeking the Truth, then we have nothing to fear from allowing others to speak.
Of course, this requires an actual belief that Truth exists. We have a generation of people who were taught that there is no such thing as Truth, only feelings. Peggy Noonan put it well in a recent column. She spoke of two characteristics of radicals on both sides. “The first is that they have extreme respect for their own emotions: If they feel it, it’s true. The other is that they tend to be stupid, in the sense of having little or no historical knowledge or the sense of proportion such knowledge brings.”
They claim that “disinformation” must be stopped, because they were never taught the critical thinking skills to actually debate and reveal a lie as a lie and they lack the historical knowledge of the fact that there has never been a censor of political speech who turned out to be a good guy.
They also fail to see that by banning a conspiracy theory, one actually gives it credibility. “They don’t want you to know about this, so there must be something to it. What are they afraid of?” If they are on the correct side, they have nothing to fear. Perhaps that is the crux of it. Perhaps what they really fear is being proved wrong.
People like Musk are open to free speech because they do not fear being proved wrong. Being wrong and making mistakes is often how we learn, and Musk strikes me as a man who has a thirst for learning. I have never been on Twitter, but I might do it now. I’m not afraid of free speech. The best way to prove your opponent a fool is to let him talk; at least that is my perspective.
Chuck Osborne, CFA