Filed under: Democracy, Literature, Uncategorized | Tags: Afghanistan, Anti-war Protest, Areopagitica, Censorship, Free Speech, G.K. Chesterton, Iraq, John Milton, Liberalism, Self-Censorship, The Man Who Was Thursday
In Areopagitica (1644) , John Milton, poet, revolutionary and parliamentarian, wrote what became the ur-text for defenders of free speech in the modern era. Although it had virtually no political impact at the time, it influenced the arguments of free-speech advocates for centuries: its heritage can even be observed in the United States Bill of Rights. In a virtuoso performance, Milton mixes Classical and Christian imagery to forward a profound statement against censorship:
Unlesse warinesse be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but he who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.
Lovely stuff. Milton was condemning the Licensing Order of 1643, which reinstated the authority to ban texts pre-publication, and represented, for Milton at least, a regression toward regimes like that of Spain, who were archaic and worse, Catholic (or, in the creative parlance of British sectarianism, ‘papes’). The only problem with Milton’s eloquent tract is that he’s not really against censorship at all. He’s only against censorship before a book is published. Here’s the almost equally vibrant passage that precedes the above:
I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.
In fact, Milton’s treatise can be read as a plea to demand treasonous and blasphemous individuals publish their thoughts so as to ensure their crimes are adequately punished. We want our papists and royalists outed, after all.
Milton’s trick, a wondrous blend of revolution and conservatism, founds the strategy that would come to define free speech for the remainder of the millennium: he proposes a plan that enables coercion, facilitates the suppression of dissent, and ensures subversive forces are exposed and expatriated—all under the veil of what the ruling classes, never without a sense of humour, have labelled ‘Free Speech’. Milton knows that speech is never free—it’s only a matter of when your debt is called in. But this wrinkle in the modern understanding of free speech has faded from social memory.
Hence, the price of free speech is the principle commonly thought to be its synonym: freedom of thought. By shifting censorship post-production, we are forced to filter our expressions before they are published. That is, by removing pre-publication bans and replacing it with a censorious judiciary after publication, Milton’s brand of free speech effects a much more efficient type of restriction. If the book is ‘reason it selfe’, and the book is fair game for a moralizing lawmaker, then the best defence is altering reason. This so-called freedom breeds self-censorship.
But don’t take my word for it. Firebrand journalist and author G.K. Chesterton festooned the ironic logic of free speech in his wonderful spy thriller, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908):
‘The work of the philosophical policeman’, replied the man in blue, ‘is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime….We say that the most dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher’.
The key difference between Chesterton’s ‘philosophical policemen’ and Milton’s hated papacy is that the ‘philosophical policemen’, a group of undercover officers infiltrating the subversive ‘anarchists’ of Britain, turn out to be more pervasive and prolific than the populace they are supposed to survey. Indeed, by the novel’s end, these policemen comprise the entire society, fighting and observing each other. In Chesterton’s cynical revision, censorship continues apace—the only difference being, in the words of Radiohead, you do it to yourself.
With that in mind, compare Chesterton’s satirical passage, in which Gabriel Syne, the latest recruit of the philosophical policemen, reveals his motivating convictions, to Milton’s treatise against the suppression of heresy:
‘Yes, the modern world has retained all those parts of police work which are really oppressive and ignominious, the harrying of the poor, the spying upon the unfortunate. It has given up its more dignified work, the punishment of powerful traitors in the State and powerful heresiarchs in the Church. The moderns say we must not punish heretics. My only doubt is whether we have a right to punish anybody else’.
What Chesterton’s delicious irony reveals, of course, is that modernity hasn’t given up punishing heresy at all: it’s simply shifted the responsibility.
Consider whence the loudest braying and appeals to free speech come: more often than not it issues from the far right, like when they fought for the privilege of Danish cartoonists to mock and villainize Muslims. When a concept meant to promote democracy and liberty ends up acting as a shield for racists and imperialists, it’s time to consider implementing a curfew. Is defending fascism what Milton had in mind when he wrote his famous apologia?
In fact, in a further twist of irony, our governments have used its shibboleth of ‘free speech’ to invalidate dissent. There is, first of all, the sardonically named ‘Free-Speech Zones’ that have leeched their way into Western ‘democracies’, relegating dissent into safely cordoned-off areas of impotence. Even when free speech is not so explicitly marginalized, it is systematically defanged by cynical smugness. The protests against the war in Iraq saw 36 million people speak out against the United States’ illegal, ill-fated pre-emptive attack. Rather than shortcircuit a now-hopless war that has since cost milions of civilians’ lives and set back hope for stability in the region for a generation, it permitted the administrations of Bush and Blair a wry smile of condescenion: ‘this is what we are fighting for’, they insisted. The right for Iraqis of free speech and political dissent. By upholding the spectacle of free speech rather than its essence, liberalism sold freedom of expression as a brand, draining the substance of its objection and hanging it on an unjustifiable war. Our empty freedoms have now become Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s.
Faced with such paralyzing impotence we might be tempted to dispose with free speech altogether. This would be a grave mistake. While Milton might have been treacherous in his spirited defence of free speech, he was not wholly wrong. Freedom of expression, however insidious and ethereal, must be pursued in a robust democracy. To dissuade discouragement, I can olnly turn to Chesterton again, and the words of his Professor de Worms:
‘Young man, I am amused to observe that you think I am a coward. As to that I shall say only one word, and it will be entirely in the manner of your own philosophical rhetoric. You think it is impossible to pull down the President. I know it is impossible, and I am going to try it’.
Shall we? Let’s.
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