Freedom of Speech and Areopagitica

Unpopular Opinions

The classical liberal principle of freedom of speech, of course enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, is supposed to protect the citizenry against state censorship. As with many Enlightenment principles and ideals, “free speech” is complicated by technology. We now live in a society where there are often more restrictions imposed on people from non-state actors than from the state itself. Consider the following examples:

Example 1: A mob silences a despicable person – someone who deserved it – it brings us all closer together in a mutually-shared opinion that the bad person committed a bad act, worthy of punishment.

Even in this circumstance, a fairly common one, many of us evince an unease of mob justice, even if we agree with the principles on which that rough justice was founded.

Example 2: A suspected child pornographer is caught with 5 terabytes of pornography on his computer (an almost unimaginable amount), but the warrant that allowed the search of his computer is flawed, and the case is thrown out after action by the ACLU – and a pedophile goes free.

In this circumstance, we are almost universally on the side of the authorities, because the guilt is obvious, the crime heinous, and the liberation of the suspect is on the basis of a technicality.

Now, a third example: a man expresses an opinion, which may be at the edge of commonly-accepted propriety or public opinion, but which is not heinous and not illegal. A social community, and not a court of law, attempts to get that man in “trouble” with his employer. He is not saved by a technicality, nor totally condemned by a mob.

The third example is the tricky place where many of our modern disputes over freedom of speech and mob justice inhabit. There is no clear legal principle which overrides the general condemnation of an overtly heinous act and there is no universal mob (that is, there are always dissenters and contrarians) which engages in a digital hanging.

Part of the question becomes: quantitatively and qualitatively, how free is our speech currently? And not just in the narrow constitutional sense, in the sense of having cultural and social constraints? How powerful are those cultural constraints, and is there anything “we” should do about it as a society? I don’t propose to have many answers here, certainly not any easy ones.

We may be easily seduced by the dull, Doric opinions stamped by the imprimatur of the enforcing mob of a habituated mass-culture – just as we may be titillated by the exotic contrarianism of a seemingly rebellious agitator, who may wring truth out of over-saturated public narratives.

Independence of thought is once again the difficult vigil of any discerning and intelligent individual. The problem with the mob is that the mob is often right, and the problem with the contrarian is that they are often wrong.

Most often, the mob is turned against those on their “own side,” as a way to enforce rigid tribal identities. The liberal artist is the one in danger of being canceled for talking inappropriately about race, not the conservative. The conservative is likely to be publicly emasculated for their opposition to the public’s ownership of AR-15’s, not Taylor Swift.

“If you say the wrong thing these day’s you’ll be canceled!” – says the centimillionaire who has made a living off of being “politically incorrect” and has, at no point, been canceled.

So the battle against censorship is fought in different dimensions now: it is fought against the government in some cases, but more often, it is fought against the mass culture of society, conjured into existence, especially, by social media. And it has also become a thing-in-itself, like so much else. It is a tool used for national politics, to enforce tribal boundaries, it is used as boogie man to frighten one side or the other.

Tribal digital mobs are fluid, and many opinions shift on “cancellation” depending on which tribe one is in. A man decrying the fate of a “conservative” losing his job one day may in fact call for the destruction of another man’s livelihood on another. Examples of this abound, and I do not feel the need to post any particular exchange. If you open up Twitter and scroll for a few minutes, I’m confident you will find an example.

The problem we are faced with now is probably unique in modernity: the social restrictions enforced by the unofficial rules and powers of mass society are as effective as the restrictions imposed by governments. Things have changed, but it may be helpful to look at the wellspring for some of the original arguments against censorship and for freedom of speech in an attempt to inform our current response.

Areopagitica

“Areopagitica” is a polemic by the poet John Milton, arguing against government censorship of books and pamphlets. It is cited often as a basis for the First Amendment, and more broadly as a classic defense of the principles of Freedom of Speech. As it has become a “classic” it is broadly defunct and dead – not a living document, but an afterthought and citation. What is forgotten about the polemic is that it is foremost an attempt at persuasion. This is fitting as there are no unassailable truths in this world, there is no scientific principle that was not overturned, and there is no basic argument about human ideals that is not, at its base, an opinion.

For those looking to the sage words of our intellectual forebears on the construction and nature of liberty, there is no succor to be found for a society where social norms are enforced by mobs:

“Nor is it Plato’s licensing of books will do this, which necessarily pulls along with it so many other kinds of licensing, as will make us all both ridiculous and weary, and yet frustrate; but those unwritten, or at least unconstraining, laws of virtuous education, religious and civil nurture, which Plato there mentions as the bonds and ligaments of the commonwealth, the pillars and the sustainers of every written statute; these they be which will bear chief sway in such matters as these, when all licensing will be easily eluded. Impunity and remissness, for certain, are the bane of a commonwealth; but here great art lies, to discern in what the law is to bid restraint and punishment, and in what things persuasion only is to work.” (pg 18, paragraph 1)*

Aside from this (an argument that leads to the thesis that censorship will be ineffective), the central argument of “Areopagitica” is that exposure of controversial ideas, through a free press, allows society to sift and refine ideas until only the specks of pure truth remain.

“For books are as meats and viands are; some of good, some of evil substance; and yet God, in that unapocryphal vision, said without exception, Rise, Peter, kill and eat, leaving the choice to each man’s discretion. Wholesome meats to a vitiated stomach differ little or nothing from unwholesome; and best books to a naughty mind are not unappliable to occasions of evil. Bad meats will scarce breed good nourishment in the healthiest concoction; but herein the difference is of bad books, that they to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.”(pg. 12, paragraph 1)

In this argument, people are forever infantilized by censorship – our liberty of thought and action is restricted by a government paternalism. If we are to be fully-realized people we must have access to the various contrary arguments and temptations of the world.

“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where the immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial by what is contrary.” (pg 13, paragraph 2)

Here is another possible fix to the intractable facts of disagreement, to try our best to channel outrage into productive debate. To use a “bad” opinion to sift our own.

The last thing that we CAN learn from Milton’s piece is the best remedy we have, perhaps the only remedy: to think independently. It is not an easy answer, or a quick social fix. It is not a principle which can be codified in law, and it will not stem the tide of accusations, harassment, unfairness, or rigidity from digital mobs. As in all matters which beset the modern mind, it speaks to personal responsibility, to recognize in one’s self the means whereby we may fix our feet to the ground and not be pulled along by those surging around us. I wish I had a better answer, but it seems the only way to fracture the mob is to not participate. It is doubly-hard because we should be most skeptical where we are most sympathetic and most engaged. Mobs inflame our sense of tribal identity and ignite the most passion where they find dry kindling.


*Areopagitica and Other Prose Works, by John Milton, from the Everyman’s Library, 1941 Edition

Fame, Alexander Pope, and Kim Kardashian

Alexander Pope is considered by many critics and scholars to be the greatest British poet of the classical era (specifically referred to as the era of Augustan literature). His subjects seem to not have lasted the test of time, as he is little known today outside of academia. Besides a few famous lines the vast majority of people have no connection whatsoever to Alexander Pope. But in his era he was famous.

He was concerned with fame, and who was famous, and why they were famous – and he even wrote a poem, The Temple of Fame, criticizing those who had earned fame through less than reputable means. The Temple of Fame is a re-imagining of Chaucer’s House of Fame. An early poem of Chaucer that finds him being guided through a personifications and allegorical representations of rumors and famous chroniclers and poets. In Pope’s poem the author receives a revelation in reverie of the “Temple” of the Goddess Fame and its inhabitants. He condemns tyrants and warriors who earned their fame through violence and enmity and those who engage in court gossip and idle lives but become famous through their positions.

Kim Kardashian (a metonymy for any people receiving unearned fame) is famous because she’s beautiful, rich, and leveraged an incident of public exposure (her sex tape). Being famous now requires that one be on television or the internet enough to be seen by enough people. Mass media has changed the nature of fame. Generally in the past, people had to be truly terrible or truly extraordinary in order to be known by a majority of people who had never seen or met them. Part of our mass and consumerist culture has degraded the honor of fame and made it a common thing. Andy Warhol spoke truly when he said that everyone would receive their “15 minutes.” In turn, the ordinariness of fame has dulled peoples’ aspirations and changed the value of role models indelibly.

Our modern culture would benefit from remembering Pope’s closing plea in The Temple of Fame: “Oh, grant an honest fame, or grant me none!”

The Elders of Zion, Propaganda, and Emmanuel Macron

In the American and French presidential elections in the past year, hackers suspected to be working for the nation of Russia breached sensitive organizational information about the major political parties involved and leaked that information online to influence the electorates. In the case of the French email leaks there were suspected forgeries that attempted to make the leading, pro-EU candidate, Emanuel Macron to look like a criminal or otherwise dishonest person. What people may not know is that this is an old Russian trick with a new twist provided by the internet. Russia has been producing propaganda using forged documents for over 100 years – the first great example of which is an anti-Semitic document known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion released around 1900 in various publications and formats.
Background
Jews in Europe have long faced discrimination and violence. Jewish populations faced expulsion, violence, and oppression in countries throughout Europe as far back as the Middle Ages. Much of that oppression and violence was fomented by libelous and slanderous lies and nefarious motives being ascribed to the population. Russia, which at times encompassed modern-day Poland, had a large Jewish population, especially in what was referred to as the “Pale of Settlement.” The “Pale” was an area Jews were forced to live by the Russian government.
Russia under the Tsars was not a progressive country. Across Russia the serfs (peasants legally bound to the land in a feudal system) were freed over the course of the 1860’s – many years after the rest of Europe under the “liberal” Tsar Alexander II. Many of these policies were reversed by his successor Alexander III who was a deeply conservative and obdurate ruler. One of Alexander III’s favorite tactics for unifying the disparate people of Russia was to organize anti-Jewish riots, known as pogroms, a tactic approved by his successor, the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II.
Secret Police
Tsar Alexander II established a secret police to monitor threats to rule of the regime known as the Okhrana in 1866. It was greatly expanded after Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881. From the beginning the Russians used the Okhrana in a ruthless and innovative manner, especially when compared to the spy-craft and law enforcement instruments of other nations. Operatives created and directed organizations, establishing a “controlled opposition” with which the regime could collect and monitor individuals they considered political threats. Part of the operations of the secret police involved producing and disseminating various types of propaganda.
The Protocols
The Protocols purport to be the minutes of a meeting between a group of elite Jewish Rabbis detailing their plots to overthrow the world order and establish Jews as the rulers of every regime and every financial and social institution on Earth.
As a tool of persuasion, The Protocols have a record of success any corporation or political organization would envy. A corrupt and inept government found scapegoating an effective tactic, and no one was smeared with disloyalty, corruption, and conspiracy as effectively as the much-reviled Jewish communities of Russia.
The completed forgery of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was apparently disseminated as early as 1897 privately among members of the French aristocracy and was occasionally published in Russian newspapers in the years after.
Politically and socially active Orthodox Priests (closely allied with the Tsarist regime) published anti-Jewish screeds occasionally, and in 1905, an Orthodox priest named Sergei Nilus published the text in his book. Every new publication precipitated anti-Jewish violence in Russia, and certainly helped to turn attention from the corrupt and incompetent Russian government to “foreign” groups in the midst of the general populace.
A veil hangs between the authors of the document and the investigations of journalists and historians into its origins. Careful and painstaking scholarship has revealed enough about it to confidently say that much of the work was plagiarized and that it was a creation of the Okhrana. Stylistic critiques and information in the previously closed Russian archives points to members of the Okhrana writing and gathering the materials for the work, and then spreading it throughout Russia.
The wild success of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion would prove instructive to future Russian regimes. Matvei Golovinski (the likely author of The Protocols) a propagandist for the Okhrana working in France, worked for the new Bolshevik government after 1917. Continuity between the different organizations of the secret police in Russia, no matter the ideology or the leader of the regime in power, allowed institutional knowledge in disinformation and propaganda to be passed through to the present age. When the Internet opened up the world to the free flow of information Russia understood their opportunity to push conspiracy theories, misinformation, and propaganda onto populations around the world.
Conspiracy theories echo into our time as fears of the “deep state” and “the new world order” proliferates and finds succor in the lofty quarters of state power. In the United States and elsewhere people filled with hate, and crafty actors, such as the Russian state, are expertly spreading paranoia and distrust to persuade the world to serve their purposes.

Even now, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is taken as fact in some corners of the world and is endorsed as truthful by powerful leaders and communicators. Anti-Jewish conspiracy is alive and well and amplified by the Internet. Forgeries, conspiracies, and propaganda are tools wielded effectively by dedicated actors in the Communications Age. The first successful example may be The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The Death of the Classics

On the volumes written on the subject of education in the past 40 years, one strain has focused on the death of the so-called “classical education.” Through antiquity to perhaps 50 years ago, students studied the Classics. These Classics are the works of Ancient Greek and Roman writers, the foundation of Western literature and philosophy. Rapid changes and progressive knowledge have made much of this learning and writing dated and less relevant than they were to people before the Industrial Revolution. But what have we lost as a society and culture by not reading the “Classics”?

Critics of the death of the classical education point to the dearth of analysis and inference-based thinking in modern education – skills championed by reading the great authors of the past. But there are other aspects of the death of the classical education that strike me as relevant, especially as a lover of history. An unbroken chain of references, counterpoint, rebuttal, synthesis, and genesis have been violently severed in recent years.

Understanding our current moral and political debates without the guide of history and the Classics is almost impossible. Lack of imagination, of an understanding of the history of radical change and great thought, is perhaps responsible for some of our political dysfunction in the present moment in the United States. A reverence for the Constitution, but no understanding of how those ideas were formulated, is deleterious to a progressive and effective politics.

Great works of literature that could point to the Iliad and Odyssey as their spiritual and contextual predecessors are rendered foreign and unintelligible by an uncomprehending populace. General narrative structure for novels, plays, movies, and non-fiction works all owe their form to their predecessors. More than that, most great works up until the recent era have spoken and argued with the great thinkers of the classics. Many of those works survived by luck, but also by a kind of intellectual natural selection. Great works were copied and reproduced and emulated because they were recognized as being great works. Unmoored works produced in the recent era by those uneducated in the Classics run the risk of being intellectually inefficient, they may rehash old arguments and reinvent the wheel without producing original works. Historical references to the great moral dilemmas, matters of state, and war are lost and must be learned again without thoughtful guides.

Another, perhaps trivial matter, is what I would term the loss of Churchillian Moments. Someone well-read in Thucydides or Herodotus might recognize the importance of a historical turning point as its happening. Sensing pivotal moments, some leaders of the past knew they would be playing to history and therefore took altruistic, ruthless, and massive efforts to move public opinion or undertake certain actions. Winston Churchill, during the period leading up to World War 2, and during the War, made repeated references to the great victories and achievements of the past. Great Greek and Roman battles were his guide and he reacted with ferocity to any attempt to surrender to Nazi Germany because he understood how Britain would be viewed by history for its stubborn defense. For instance, if a great political challenge, like reacting to climate change, was undertaken in a historical context – that is, as if it were going to be read about like we read about the Fall of the Roman Republic, politicians might well stake everything on finding a solution.

Dynamic education, education that effects the processes by which people learn, understand, and make decisions, is important. But so is the material itself. STEM’s ascendancy does not eliminate learning about history, philosophy, and politics. We should make sure that if we are replacing the Classics that there is an understanding of what we are discarding.

The Destruction of the Western Canon: The Unnoticed Casualty of Progress

Modernity’s movement of inclusiveness is reversing monstrous injustices. Old, white, male intellectuals and artists are rightly downgraded in importance and their authoritativeness disavowed in the face of modern writers and artists from marginalized communities. Unfortunately, a consequence of this is the destruction of history. A thread of thoughts and a conversation can be stretched from Homer to Cicero to Pope to Orwell but then slowly is thinned into nonexistence. What happens when we no longer value the ideals and conversations that have formed Western Culture? The values of justice, individualism, freedom of thought, and political thought have all sprung from the Western Canon. Numerous individuals and artists were enriched from their participation and examination of those works. It is ironic that a white, Western, male-dominated strain of thought that centered on the superiority of logic and on the equality of mankind has undermined the august position of the progenitors of those ideals.

A sad fact is that minorities in Western society fundamentally lack power. Many gains made by minorities in the realms of social justice and equality are, in fact, granted by the majority. In much the same way, works reacting to the dominance of the white patriarchy are derivative of that same system of thought. If artists truly want to break from current power structures, radical, original art must be produced AND disseminated from sources that are entirely minority. Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” has generally been viewed as a pop-cultural piece rooted in minority experience, but it is promoted and released through corporate structures that are largely owned by white males.

If the Western Canon is to be disavowed, a new, radical minority-driven Canon should replace it with original thought and ideals, instead of being a reaction, there must be creation as well as destruction. If this does not occur then we will have abandoned the good of Western culture while disposing of the evil without actively replacing the missing virtues.