A history of free expression charts its seesawing progress

From The Economist:

A global firestorm erupted in 2005 after the publication in a Danish newspaper of 12 provocative cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Jacob Mchangama, a Dane and then a young lawyer, was dismayed. In the Muslim world he watched states that rarely allowed protest of any kind encourage violent demonstrations. Those governments also redoubled their diplomatic efforts to define “defamation of religions” as a human-rights violation that should be banned everywhere.

He found the response elsewhere even more alarming. Respectable people across the Western world blamed the cartoonist and his editors, not the repressive forces that drove the newspaper staff into hiding. This was not what Mr Mchangama, the product of a confidently secular Nordic democracy, had expected.

As his new book recalls, free expression was suffering setbacks on other fronts, too. In the late 1990s, when he was a student, the internet presaged a glorious era of liberty for people who otherwise lacked money or power to speak and organise. The victory in 2008 of Barack Obama, an erstwhile outsider, marked a high point of those expectations. Even then, though, digital freedom was already in retreat. Authoritarian regimes proved adept at exploiting and policing social media for their own malign ends. Western governments were often heavy-handed in their regulation of extremist discourse. And the gigantic power wielded by a few tech companies was troubling, regardless of how they used it.

All this led Mr Mchangama (whose paternal forebears came from the Comoro Islands) to apply his legal mind to supporting intellectual liberty: by podcasting and founding a think-tank, and by studying free expression’s fluctuating fortunes over the past 25 centuries. His conclusions, presented in a crisp and confident march through Western history, are sobering.

His view that freedom of speech is under threat from many directions—and, politically, from both right and left—is not original. More distinctive is his determination to show the ebb and flow of liberty as a dynamic process, under way at least since the era of ancient Greece. Accordingly, stringent repression of thought and speech becomes self-defeating and stimulates brave opponents. But great bursts of freedom also prove finite.

For example, the intellectual energy unleashed by the printing press and the Protestant Reformation was dissipated in waves of sectarian wars and mutual persecution. After the shock of the American and French revolutions, and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, Britain’s establishment became severely repressive in the early 19th century. But a countervailing movement of liberal thought and debate, carried along by technological and social change, proved more powerful.

Yet that trend, too, had its limits and its hypocrisies. John Stuart Mill was a brilliant Victorian advocate of intellectual freedom, but he participated in, and defended, the colonial administration of India. And as Britain became more open and tolerant at home, it curbed liberty of expression in its overseas possessions, especially amid the rise of independence movements.

The effects of colonial repression continued to be felt long after colonialism ended, as the book shows. Laws dating from the British Empire have been used to stifle dissent in modern India, and recently in Hong Kong. Measures that strangle freedom can easily outlive the conditions that engendered them—as, luckily, can laws and constitutions that entrench liberty. In America, where the possibility of frank, productive debate seems threatened by cultural warfare, the constitution’s First Amendment sets a limit on any faction’s ability to muzzle its opponents.

Link to the rest at The Economist

1 thought on “A history of free expression charts its seesawing progress”

  1. Sigh. Both Clinton and Carter, with a political base consisting of being the Governors of small States, have a far better claim to “outsider” status than Barack Obama – who was thoroughly connected with the Chicago Machine.

    “Unexpected,” yes. It was “Hillary’s turn” in 2008.

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