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Who Gets to Speak Freely?

Timothy Garton Ash's new book mounts an impassioned defense of free speech, but fails to reckon with its greatest flaw.

jiris / Shutterstock

What does it mean to be “against free speech” in America? There is not a large political constituency for government censorship in general, and although specific outrageous situations—the Westboro Baptist Church, say, or “Piss Christ”—sometimes galvanize opposition, free speech is generally considered a core national value. Accusing someone of being against free speech is like accusing them of being against democracy or the middle class.

Yale University Press, 504 pp., $30.00

And yet, there are cracks in the First Amendment consensus. The “no platform” policy started by the British National Union of Students—which aims to ban fascists from speaking at universities—has spread to American colleges, with young people organizing to keep hateful speakers off campus. Satirists (and plain unfunny bigots) have turned their attention to the Muslim taboo against depictions of the prophet Mohammed, stirring up conflict in the name of free expression. Probable future president Hillary Clinton co-introduced the “Flag Protection Act of 2005,” which would have criminalized flag burning, and the police response to protesters has militarized across the country. Not to mention the Internet and the new, chilling modes of harassment and surveillance it has enabled. Even if almost everyone says they want it, that doesn’t mean we can agree on what free speech means.

Oxford professor Timothy Garton Ash’s new book Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World is a rare thing: a worthwhile contribution to a debate without two developed sides. Ash does an excellent job laying out the theoretical and practical bases for the western liberal positions on free speech. What he may lack in innovation, he makes up for with breadth and detail. No doubt there are people within the American political mainstream who can find elements to quibble with, but I find it hard to complain when Ash says that he’s offering a holistic, representative, and contemporary argument in favor of free speech.

A foundational problem that the liberal defenders of free speech have to acknowledge is the problem of universality. The liberal claim is not culturally, nationally, or historically specific: free speech is a necessary good in human society. But how can they square that with the self-determination of illiberal cultures and nations? If free speech is just a western value, how can we justify pushing it on anyone else?

To his credit, Ash addresses this difficulty head-on. Citing Nelson Mandela’s recollections of “the almost Athenian practices of his African home village” (the author’s words, not Mandela’s) and an Aung San Suu Kyi line about the best in human civilization coming “from all parts of the world,” Ash writes that “we should think of civilization in the singular, then, rather than civilizations that allegedly must clash, or nervously respect each other’s spheres of influence.” Liberalism supposedly lives everywhere, in the hearts of people who want to be free to talk things over.

“Yet,” Ash writes, “it is a huge and plainly indefensible intellectual leap from this to the suggestion that the liberal commitment to free speech is to be found equally in all cultures and places. There is no ducking this truth; as systematic institutionalized legal, political, educational, journalistic and artistic practice, free speech—as we are interpreting the term here—is a specialty of the modern West.” Free speech is a human universal, but some cultures and nations are more universal than others. Ancient Greek city-states can still be cited individually, but the continent of Africa has had some good ideas too. It’s a theoretically elegant way of phrasing what could charitably be called ethnocentrism, but all the strange claims about Nelson Mandela’s Western influence—and there are a few—can’t disguise what Ash has acknowledged. Yes, liberalism is Western. Yes, he thinks everyone else should aspire to be more like us. The best among them already do.

Ash cites Mandela again as a model minority (along with James Baldwin and Gandhi), who is too dignified to be offended by hate speech. They are the author’s exemplars for how everyone should deal with offensive speech: A stiff upper lip. Ash begs the question: “Should our role model be the thin-skinned identity activist who is constantly crying ‘I am offended?’” With those who think it’s easy for him to say that as a white male Oxford professor, Ash plays a bit of parenthetical gotcha. “But then, by your own criterion, how dare you tell me how easy it is to be me? What can you possibly know of the inner suffering of white, middle-aged Western man?” You can feel him grinning through the page.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, Ash says, and this is a foundation of liberal ideology. Philosophically, liberalism is a kind of idealism, and concepts rule. Some of the central liberal metaphors involve the virtue of blindness. Different identities are supposed to be meaningfully equivalent under the philosophy. In “cosmopolis”—Ash’s forward-thinking name for our current interconnected world—difference is the grist for advantageous hybridity and funny jokes, as long as we’re liberal about it. Once the free market of ideas does its work, the future will be full of educated multiracial atheists who love nothing more than being totally destroyed by John Oliver.

As a form of liberalism, one way to be against “free speech” would be to reject the author’s philosophical idealism in favor of historical materialist analysis. Take for example, Ash’s ideas about humor. “Humor,” he writes, “is a deflater, a safety valve, a way of talking about things that we don’t otherwise discuss—and a priceless antidote to all fanaticisms.” There’s no doubt humor has operated and can operate this way under certain circumstances, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also do the opposite. Ash cites contemporary French Holocaust jokes as offensive comedy worth ignoring, but what about the jokes of actual concentration camp guards? The Klu Klux Klan started as a joke inspired by the minstrel stage. It isn’t good enough for Ash to imagine speech operating the way he hopes it will; he leaves undone the work of evaluating what has actually happened over time, and to what groups.

Liberalism—and free speech as its own ideological fixation—declines on principle to do this kind of work. True fairness, they say, can only be blind, and our ideas should apply to literal humanoid aliens if we were to meet them. The two relevant categories are the individual and (governed) society; everything else is local, variable, epiphenomenal. This is the liberal interpretation of the world, and we can test it against alternatives.

In the course of the book, Ash gives over a couple pages to what he might call illiberal objections. Playing the role of Thrasymachus is Ash’s student Sebastian Huempfer, who complains that “those who do well in society” like liberalism’s civility requirements because they are the ones who “define its very meaning.” Ash in turn acknowledges that no liberal society lives up to its ideals, but he claims that free speech provides enough tolerance for minority groups to assert their interests. And even if violent resistance is justified, it’s inadvisable. Violence begets violence, and slow advancement through civil protest yields better outcomes.

“A society that guarantees free speech on paper but does not give its less powerful members equal and effective voice is only halfway to what free speech should be,” Ash writes, but it’s hard to tell how seriously he takes this idea. It seems to me there are a lot of ways to be only halfway to what free speech should be, most of which Ash finds totally incompatible with liberalism. The People’s Republic of China, for example, puts some issues up for public debate and not others. Why is empowering the less powerful the half that’s allowed to remain undone? Huempfer doesn’t get a rejoinder, but I can imagine what he might have said: “If a society’s less powerful members have equal and effective voice, in what way are they less powerful?”

Embarrassingly for Ash, he only considers the substance of this point once, when it comes to copyright protection. In his defense of enclosing intellectual property, Ash writes, “I am fortunate enough to be at a stage in my professional life when I could afford to publish this book, on which I have labored for many years, without receiving a penny for any copies sold. But suppose I were a young freelance author, with two children and a mortgage?” There are profound implications for this line of thought—if access to time is a vital part to speech, and time is money, then we have much bigger problems for equality than copyright. Applying this critique in the limited way Ash does is careless. Perhaps it hits a little too close to home.

Timothy Garton Ash is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a Stanford-based think tank that supports “freedom”-oriented research. Critics refer to the Institution as conservative, but it skews more toward the classically liberal; Margaret Thatcher occupies a unique posthumous place in the institution’s honorary pantheon. The influential group spent $60 million last year and raised $70 million (the vast majority as gifts from their wealthy supporters and endowment income) to support scholars like Ash, to provide them with the time and money they need to speak effectively. Hoover represents the interests of a tiny upper-class fraction; ensuring everyone gets that same level of voice would be an untenable drain on national GDP. Even if we decided to build up a representative mass of working-class think tanks, it would take time. Until then, if we were committed to fairness, we would have no choice but to shut Hoover down.

In 2011, the left-wing government of Bolivia (which Ash would call a free speech “swing state,” though he doesn’t mention it specifically) made a move in this direction when it passed a law that restricted privately owned companies to one-third of radio and TV spectrum licenses, down from 90 percent previously. One-third went to the government, one-sixth to community groups, and one-sixth to indigenous and peasant organizations. This kind of action is important if the government is serious about equalizing access to effective speech; after all, very few people in any country can afford to own a television or radio station. Even awarding capitalists a third of the spectrum seems like a generous concession; at very least it still constitutes disproportionate representation for the rich on the airwaves.

But instead of looking to Bolivia for free speech inspiration, American watchdog Freedom House and the State Department offered nearly identical indictments, suggesting the law would dampen freedom of expression by closing down private stations. At no point in Free Speech does Ash explain what percentage of a free country’s broadcast spectrum should be controlled by the poor, or how many think tanks they’re entitled to. I suspect the answer is as much as they can afford to buy, just like everyone else.

Ash doesn’t see the world as composed of classes in conflict. If there are no classes—only many individuals each trying their best—then it’s impossible to talk about speech as an instrument of class power. But how else can we think of the Hoover Institution and organizations like it? Free speech ideologues might like the idea of, say, Internet access for everyone, but evenly distributing the means of idea production—including free time—is not on their agenda.

Class conflict cuts across expressive freedom; in a better, freer world most people would have much more of it than they do now, and yes, some people would have a lot less. If that’s against free speech, then so be it.