Home > Uncategorized > Weekend read – Free speech for me, not you

Weekend read – Free speech for me, not you

from Blair Fix

They say that Americans love two things: freedom … and guns. The trouble with guns is obvious. The trouble with freedom is more subtle, and boils down to doublespeak.

When a good old boy defends his ‘freedom’, there’s a good chance he has a hidden agenda. He doesn’t want freedom for everyone. He wants ‘freedom for himself, not you’. I call this sentiment freedom tribalism. It’s something that, given humanity’s evolutionary heritage, is predictable. It’s also something that has gotten worse over the last few decades. And that brings me to the topic of this essay: free speech.

When the talking heads on Fox News advocate ‘free speech’, they’re using doublespeak. What they actually want is free speech for their own tribe … and censorship for everyone else. This free-speech tribalism extends far beyond the swill of cable news. It’s clearly visible (and growing worse) in the pantheon of high thought — the US Supreme Court.

To make sense of this free-speech tribalism, we need to reframe how we understand ‘free speech’. And that means reconsidering the idea of ‘freedom’ itself. Behind freedom’s virtuous ring lies a dark underbelly: power. Free-speech tribalism, I’ll argue, amounts to a power-struggle between groups — a struggle to broadcast your tribe’s ideas and censor those of the others. When you look closely at this struggle, it becomes clear that ‘free speech’ is not universally virtuous. In modern America, free speech has become a kind of slavery.

And with those incendiary words, let’s jump into the free-speech fire.

Fire!

FIRE! Fire, fire… fire. Now you’ve heard it. Not shouted in a crowded theatre, admittedly, … but the point is made.

That was the inimitable Christopher Hitchens addressing the elephant in every free-speech room: shouting fire in a crowded theatre. The metaphor has come to symbolize speech that is so ‘dangerous’ it must be censored. It’s a fair example, since people have actually died from false shouts of fire in crowded theatres.1 But more often than not, the shouting-fire metaphor is used to justify censorship of a more dubious kind.

Woodrow Wilson got the ball rolling during World War I. After declaring war on Germany, Wilson embarked on a campaign to silence internal dissent. Among the thousands of Americans who were prosecuted was Charles Schenck, a socialist convicted of printing an anti-draft leaflet. His case went to the Supreme Court. Writing to uphold the conviction, Justice Oliver Holmes claimed that war critics like Schenck were, in effect, falsely shouting fire:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. … The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree.

(Oliver Wendell Holmes, Schenck v. United States)

Holmes’ decision set off a long debate about what types of speech represent a ‘clear and present danger’. I won’t wade into the details. Instead, what I find more interesting is the language that is missing here. Holmes speaks about ‘free speech’, ‘danger’, and ‘evils’. But what is really at stake is the government’s power.

Holmes admits as much in a less-cited part of his ruling. Schenck’s anti-draft leaflet was dangerous, Holmes noted, precisely because it undermined the government’s power to make war:

It denied the [government’s] power to send our citizens away to foreign shores to shoot up the people of other lands …

(Oliver Wendell Holmes, Schenck v. United States)

So there you have it. The idea of ‘falsely shouting fire’ was used to bolster the government’s power to wage war.

Free speech for views you don’t like

The lesson from the Schenck case is that reasonable forms of censorship inevitably get used to justify more dubious types of speech suppression. To combat this creeping censorship, free-speech advocates like Noam Chomsky argue that we must do something that feels reprehensible — defend freedom of speech for views we despise:

[I]f you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favour of freedom of speech for views he liked, right? So was Stalin. If you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise. Otherwise you’re not in favour of freedom of speech.

(Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent)

Chomsky’s position is elegant, principled and more than just words. It’s a maxim he lives by. And that has gotten him into all sorts of trouble. You can imagine the uproar, for instance, when Chomsky defended the free speech of historian Robert Faurisson, a Holocaust denier. More recently (and to the delight of the far right), Chomsky drew leftist ire for signing a Harper’s editorial warning of a “stifling atmosphere” in modern America that was “narrow[ing] the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.”

In the face of this criticism, however, Chomsky remains unphased. He is a tireless advocate for the right to espouse ideas he finds despicable.

Free-speech tribalism

If everyone was as principled as Chomsky, the world would probably be a better place. But the reality is that Chomsky is an outlier. Most people find it difficult to separate the right to free speech from the speech itself. Rather than criticize this tendency, though, we should try to understand it. And that means studying ‘free speech’ in the context of human evolution.

If evolutionary biologists David Sloan Wilson and E.O. Wilson are correct, human evolution has been strongly shaped by ‘group selection’. That means we evolved as a social species that competed in groups. The result is that humans have an instinct for group cohesion in the face of competition — an us-vs-them mentality. In other words, humans are tribal.

When it comes to ‘free speech’, this tribalism plays out predictably. Humans behave exactly the way Chomsky says we should not. We support free speech for ideas we like, and censorship for ideas we dislike.

Take, as an example, Donald Trump. After Trump delivered his incendiary speech that stoked the storming of the Capitol, Twitter decided they’d had enough. They permanently banned Trump from their platform. How did Americans feel about this ban? Support fell predictably along partisan lines (Figure 1). Democrats overwhelmingly supported Twitter’s Trump ban. Republicans overwhelmingly opposed it. This tribal divide isn’t rocket science. When the shit hits the fan, instincts trump abstract principles.

 

Figure 1: Partisan support for Twitter’s Trump ban. Source: PEW Research Center.

Commentary on the Trump ban focused mostly on the content of his speech. Was he stoking ‘imminent lawlessness’? Or was he [cue incredulous cough] ‘defending democracy’? These are important questions. But what I find more interesting is what seemed to go undiscussed.

It’s one thing for a President to silence his critics. That’s state censorship. It’s another thing for critics to silence a President. That’s called accountability. The difference has nothing to do with the content of the speech. Instead, it comes down to power. When the weak censor the powerful, it’s different than when the powerful censor the weak.

Granted, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is hardly ‘the weak’. But the principle remains. Power dynamics should affect how we interpret ‘censorship’. When the government censors an obscure Neo-Nazi, that’s probably bad. But what if Nazis run the government? Should citizens let the Nazi regime broadcast propaganda on the grounds that it is ‘free speech’?

If so, George Orwell was right. Freedom is slavery.

Free-speech tribalism on the US Supreme Court

Back to free-speech tribalism. On the individual level, the game is about free speech for me, not you. But at the group level, it’s about us versus them. Free speech for my tribe, not your tribe.

Since Americans’ right to free speech is written in the constitution, free-speech tribalism has played out most prominently in the US Supreme Court — the institution that determines how the constitution is interpreted. Of course, Supreme Court justices all claim to believe in free speech for everyone. But their behavior tells a different story.

In a landmark study, Lee Epstein, Andrew Martin and Kevin Quinn tracked how US Supreme Court justices ruled on cases concerning free speech. Importantly, Epstein and colleagues distinguished between two factors:

  1. the partisanship of the justices;
  2. the political spectrum of the speech on trial.

Figure 2 shows Epstein’s results — a quantification of 6 decades of free-speech rulings on the Supreme Court.

 

Figure 2: Partisan support for free speech on the US Supreme Court. I’ve plotted here data from Epstein, Martin & Quinn’s study of Supreme Court rulings on free speech. The horizontal axis shows the court’s chief justice and their associated tenure. The vertical axis shows the percentage of rulings supporting free speech. The panels differentiate between the type of speech being tried — coded as either ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’. Colored lines show the percentage of rulings supporting free speech, differentiated by the party of the president who appointed the corresponding justice.

It’s clear, from Figure 2, that there is a tribal game afoot. Let’s spell it out. If Supreme Court justices were following Chomsky’s ideal (free speech for ideas you like and those you despise) then the red and blue lines in Figure 2 would overlap. Democratic and Republican justices would support free speech to the same degree, regardless of the content of the speech. That clearly doesn’t happen.

Instead, Supreme Court justices are following the ‘tribal ideal’ — free speech for ideas they like … censorship for ideas they despise. Hence Democratic justices support liberal speech more than Republican justices (Figure 2, left). And Republican justices support conservative speech more than Democratic justices (Figure 2, right).

Given humanity’s evolutionary background, this tribalism is not surprising. What’s interesting, though, is that Supreme Court tribalism hasn’t been constant. Instead, it’s grown with time.

In the Warren court of the 1950s and 1960s, there was remarkably little free-speech tribalism. Justices of both parties overwhelmingly supported free speech of all kinds, with only a slight preference for the speech of their own tribe. Today, that’s changed. In the Roberts court of the 21st century, not only have justices of both parties become less tolerant of free speech in general, there is now a glaring tribal bias. Democratic justices support liberal speech far more than Republican justices. And Republican justices support conservative speech far more than Democratic justices.

It is tempting to blame both political parties for this tribalistic turn. But the reality is that the blame rests overwhelmingly on Republicans. Figure 3 tells the story. I’ve plotted here the partisan bias in support for free speech. This is the difference in support for speech made by ‘your tribe’ versus support for speech made by the ‘other tribe’. Let’s start with the Democratic tribe. While Democratic justices have become less tolerant of free speech in general (Fig. 2), they have not become more biased. Instead, for the last 6 decades, Democratic justices have had a slight but constant bias for liberal speech.

 

Figure 3: Partisan bias in support for free speech on the US Supreme Court. I’ve plotted here data from Epstein, Martin & Quinn’s study of Supreme Court rulings on free speech. The horizontal axis shows the court’s chief justice and their associated tenure. The vertical axis shows the partisan bias in justices’ rulings. For Democratic justices, this bias is the difference between their support for ‘liberal speech’ vs. ‘conservative speech’. For Republican justices, it is the reverse.

Now to the Republican tribe, where the story is quite different. Once less biased than Democrats (during the Warren court), Republican justices now show overwhelming bias for conservative speech. In the Roberts court, Republican justices support conservative speech over liberal speech by a whopping 44%.

Free speech for us, not them.

Free speech for business

Republican bias for ‘conservative’ speech isn’t the only way that the US Supreme Court has become more tribal. The court has also become more biased towards the business tribe.

The most seismic case in this pro-business shift was Citizens United. In this 2010 decision, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to limit corporate spending on political campaigns. The majority’s reasoning was simple:

  1. people have free speech;
  2. corporations are legal persons;
  3. therefore, corporations have free speech.

Citizens United opened the floodgates of corporate electioneering. The reality, though, was that this case was part of a larger pro-business shift on the Supreme Court — a shift that coincided with a reversal of fortune for US corporations.

Figure 4 tells the story. From the 1950s to the 1990s, US corporations had a problem. Although they had no trouble making profits in absolute terms, the profit share of the pie tended to decrease. (See the red curve in Fig. 4.) Then came a stunning reversal of fortune. From the mid-1990s onward, corporate profits boomed, eating up an ever increasing share of the US income pie.

 

Figure 4: ‘Free speech’ for business is good for profits. The blue curve shows the portion of US Supreme court cases involving business ‘free speech’ that were settled in favor of business. Data is from Epstein, Martin & Quinn, and is averaged over the tenure of chief justices. The red line shows the smoothed trend in US corporate profits as a share of national income.

This reversal of fortune coincided with a change in the Supreme Court’s attitudes towards ‘free speech’. Until the 1990s, the Court was increasingly hostile to ‘free speech’ for business. As a result, the ‘win rate’ for business free speech declined steadily. Then came the Roberts court, which brought relief for the business tribe. Over the last decade and a half, the Roberts court sided with business in a whopping 80% of free-speech cases.

Unsurprisingly, in this pro-business environment, profits boomed. ‘Free speech’ for corporations means wage slavery for workers.2

The trouble with ‘freedom’

The triumph of business propaganda (and the corresponding boom in corporate profits) shouts at us to reconsider some basic moral principles. Ask yourself — is ‘free speech’ universally virtuous? I think the answer has to be no.

The problem with ‘free speech’ boils down to a basic contradiction in the idea of ‘freedom’ itself. In a social world, freedom for everyone is impossible. The reason is simple. Freedom has two dimensions: ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’. These two dimensions are always in opposition. For example:

  • If you are free to shout racist slurs, your neighbour cannot be free from such slurs.
  • If you are free to smoke anywhere, your friends cannot be free from second hand smoke.
  • If you are free to drive through a red light, fellow motorists cannot be free from T-bone collisions.

You get the picture. There are two sides to being ‘free’, and they are always in mutual conflict. When you think about this conflict, you realize that ‘freedom’ always involves power:

  • If I am ‘free to’ shout racist slurs, I have the power to suppress your ‘freedom from’ such slurs.
  • If I am ‘free from’ hearing racist slurs, I have the power to suppress your ‘freedom to’ shout racist speech.

When we look at this power behind ‘freedom’, we realize that ‘freedom’ cannot be universally virtuous. One man’s freedom is always another man’s chains.

Resolving conflict with property rights

If the two sides of freedom are always in opposition, we need a way to resolve the ensuing conflict. In capitalist societies, the main way we do this is by defining property rights. These are legal principles that delineate which type of freedom wins out, and when and where it does so.

A key purpose of property rights is to restrict ‘freedom to’. In other words, property rights restrict ‘free speech’. For example, if someone enters my property and shouts racist slurs, I don’t have to listen. Instead, my property rights give me the power to have the culprit removed by the cops. On my property, my ‘freedom from’ trumps your ‘freedom to’. In other words, my property gives me the power to censor.3

Is this power a bad thing? Probably not, at least in principle. To see why, imagine a world in which ‘freedom to’ always trumped ‘freedom from’. In this world, if someone wanted to insult you in your living room, you’d have to let them. It would be an Orwellian nightmare in which solitude was impossible. So having a space where ‘freedom from’ trumps ‘freedom to’ is undoubtedly a good thing.

That said, when we scale up private property, the power to censor becomes more dubious. Suppose that instead of owning a house, I own a corporation. This is a very different type of property. Rather than own space, I own an institution — a set of human relations. With this more expansive type of property, I suddenly have much more power to censor. If my employees wanted to unionize, for instance, I could ban ‘union propaganda’. I could go further and ban any speech critical of me, the supreme leader. It would be a Stalinist dream … for me. For my employees, would be a totalitarian nightmare.

Let’s flip sides now and look at the other side of property. While private property suppresses ‘freedom to’, public property suppresses ‘freedom from’. On public property, my ‘freedom to’ speak trumps your ‘freedom from’ my speech. So when I stand on a street corner, I am free to shout racist slurs. Passersby must endure my slander. In other words, on the street, I have the power to broadcast.

The street-corner ability to broadcast is, admittedly, a weak form of power. Everyone else has the same power, so they can drown me out if they want. (This is the principle of public protest.)4 But notice what happens if we treat the ‘public domain’ more broadly, not as the street-corner, but as the space between corporations. In a world in which corporations have free speech, there is no respite from corporate propaganda. It’s a world in which freedom-loving Americans now live.

Freedom is just another word for …

The problem with the debate about free speech boils down to the language of ‘freedom’ itself. When ‘freedom’ becomes synonymous with virtue, the debate becomes vacuous. Saying “I stand for freedom” is like saying “I stand for happiness.” Who’s going to argue with you?

Okay, I’ll argue with you. If murdering people makes me happy, my ‘happiness’ is not virtuous. It is sadistic. Likewise, if I am ‘free’ to murder people I dislike, my ‘freedom’ is not virtuous. It is depraved.

The same goes for ‘free speech’. It is virtuous in some contexts, but not others. Unfortunately, there is no simple way to determine when and where ‘free speech’ is good, and when and where it is bad. Like so many things in life, it is a matter of opinion. But a useful tool is to look at the underside of ‘freedom’. When you see the words ‘free speech’, substitute the language of power:

I stand for free speech the power to broadcast.

With this revised language, the virtue of ‘free speech’ becomes more ambiguous. If the substitution gives you a bad feeling, that’s a sign there is doublespeak at work. Sometimes freedom really does mean slavery.

  1. Meta Capitalism
    June 19, 2021 at 5:31 am

    Studying the linguistic development of misethnicity and its relation to socially destructive conduct is critical to realizing, anticipating, and thwarting its potentially catastrophic consequences.” (https://a.co/03WXKcO)

  2. pfeffertag
    June 19, 2021 at 10:15 am

    Well put. Thank you.

  3. June 19, 2021 at 2:03 pm

    You make a number of interesting and valid points, but I thought you wound up not really addressing the issue. I do agree that we should analyze the relationship between speech and power and your discussion of corporate power to speak, as well as to suppress speech, especially in the workplace, is on point. I found the analysis of Supreme Court rulings on speech to be intriguing as I have argued myself that Republican Justices are quite inconsistent in general. I agree that many conservatives, as well as some liberals, who profess support for freedom of speech really only defend it for their own tribe. But that’s not everyone and there are principled people on both sides who favor and support free speech for all. FIRE is one exampe. You mentioned Chomsky but I think the best person on the left was the late Nat Hentoff. I would like to know more about how “conservative” and “liberal” speech is identified in the above analysis. But then you raised some red herrings. For example, current law does not permit people to stand in a public space and shout racial slurs. Allowing a large corporation to ban the speech of a President, no matter how absurd and noxious I may think he is is not “accountability”. It’s a large corporation deciding what is and isn’t acceptable in public discourse by a politician. That’s not a good precedent. Is the answer to unequal speech rights to grant power to some-be it tech companies, Human Resource Departments, Government, twitter mobs, etc.- to ban speech that they deem to be on the wrong side, or is the solution to promote platforms that enable people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to speak to do so? My question is admittedly rhetorical-I favor the latter. Whatever platitudes these various actors may mouth today about being on the “correct” side is always going to be arbitrary and will be used to shut down people who are critical of abuses of power.

  4. John Jensen
    June 19, 2021 at 6:33 pm

    You did a great job explaining freedom. In fact, we are all slaves to each other and as soon as we think we are freer than the other (more entitled) is when we get into all this tribalism. America is likely the most obvious place to get this all sorted out – assuming they don’t first have a shootout.

  5. Ikonoclast
    June 20, 2021 at 12:33 am

    There’s a right-wing libertarian saying, and T-shirt, which says:

    “My rights don’t end where your feelings begin.”

    To me, this encapsulates the central right wing and libertarian misunderstanding about “rights”. In actuality,the impetus for human rights can only come from human needs and feelings. It cannot come, at least in terms of consequentialist ethics, from anywhere else. After all, rocks and other insentient things don’t argue and fight about rights. Arguably, many animals and plants do jockey for position and have conflicts about territorial, nutrient and mating “rights”.

    A human right must be derived in some way from need and/or desire on the one hand and then the feeling that that need or desire engenders on the other. Feelings, broadly speaking, may be of two types; physical feeling and emotional feeling. To sum it up, we have needs and desires generating some wish or impetus to have those needs and desires met and IF these needs or desires are thwarted it can generate a feeling of unfairness. “It’s not fair,” we say, or “It’s not right.” And we may feel these feelings and say these things in relation to ourselves or in relation and on behalf to others. The assessment that one or someone else has rights is based on feelings then processed further emotionally, logically and communicatively (socially).

    Using Blair’s method of word substitution (to properly equate loaded words which already contain a prejudged, or biased position, we really have two statements from the libertarian which mean much the same thing. We have:

    “My feelings don’t end where your feelings begin.”

    “My rights don’t end where your rights end.:

    Logically:

    Feelings (of contrary types) generate argument or conflict generate a determination of rights (via conflict and/or negotiation).

    Feelings are not directly equatable with rights thus a construction “My rights don’t end where your feelings begin.” Is one comparing unlike or incommensurable logical “objects”. Therein lies the fallacy; a fallacy of false comparison.

    Someone who says “My rights don’t end where your feelings begin.” is really saying in most cases, “I have the (self-assumed) right to stomp all over your feelings. At the extreme that leads to fascism and we might note the affinity that fascists and authoritarians of various types have for the goose-step (a display of exaggerated stomping) and for trespass (invading or walking in inappropriate ways in inappropriate places or at inappropriate times) on ground not theirs for their assumed purpose (storming a democratic house of government for example).

    The issue of what ought to be private ground, public ground or privileged or restricted ground at certain times, is quite complex but it is analyzable in terms of human needs, human rights and the reconciliation of rights in conflict or seeming to be in conflict. But that is a longer discussion. I might post on that depending on the activity in this thread. Lack of activity tends to indicate one is talking to oneself.

  6. Ken Zimmerman
    June 20, 2021 at 11:07 am

    ‘Freedom: History of an Idea,’ Rufus Fears, Professor of Classics, in Foreign Policy Institute Footnotes (https://www.fpri.org/article/2007/06/freedom-the-history-of-an-idea/)

    We live in a moment that is as critical for freedom as the American Revolution, the American Civil War, or the days following Pearl Harbor. In each of those moments, America moved the cause of freedom forward. In the Revolution, we declared our independence from the greatest empire of the day, fought for and won that independence, and then went on to establish a constitution that still gives us liberty under law more than two hundred years later. In the Civil War, we removed the great moral wrong of slavery. After Pearl Harbor, we shouldered the burden of World War II and the subsequent Cold War.

    Sept. 11 represents a time just as critical in the history of the freedom. As we judge the generations of the American Revolution, the Civil War, or Pearl Harbor by their heroic response, so we shall be judged. We are engaged in what I believe is a noble crusade to bring freedom to the world. But that crusade is faltering now, in part because we have failed to ask some very fundamental questions.

    This essay is intended to ask the most fundamental of those questions: Is freedom a universal human value, which all people in all times and places desire?

    History of Freedom

    Our foreign policy since the time of Woodrow Wilson has been based in the belief that freedom is a universal value, one that is wanted by all people in all times. But why, if freedom is a universal value, has the history of the world been one of tyranny, misery, and oppression?

    Socrates taught that our first task in any discussion is to define our terms. Thus, the starting point here is identifying what we mean by freedom. We never disagree, Socrates tells us, about empirical questions; it is about values that we disagree. No value is more charged with meaning than that of freedom.

    If we carefully examine the ideal and reality of freedom throughout the ages, we come to the conclusion that what we call “freedom” is, in fact, an ideal that consists of three component ideals: (1) national freedom; (2) political freedom; and (3) individual freedom.

    National freedom is freedom from foreign control. This is the most basic concept of freedom. It is the desire of a nation, ethnic group, or a tribe to rule itself. It is national self-determination.

    Political freedom is the freedom to vote, hold office, and pass laws. It is the ideal of “consent of the governed.”

    Individual freedom is a complex of values. In its most basic form individual freedom is the freedom to live as you choose as long as you harm no one else, Each nation, each epoch in history, perhaps each individual, may define this ideal of individual freedom in different terms. In its noblest of expressions, individual freedom is enshrined in our Bill of Rights. It is freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, economic freedom, and freedom to choose your life style.

    In the United States, we tend to assume that these three ideals of freedom always go together. That is wrong. History proves that these three component ideals of freedom in no way must be mutually inclusive.

    You can have national freedom without political or individual freedom; Iraq under Saddam Hussein and North   Korea are examples. In fact, this national freedom, this desire for independence, is the most basic of all human freedoms. It has frequently been the justification for some of the most terrible tyrannies in history: Nazi Germany had national freedom but denied individual and political freedom in the name of this national freedom.

    It is quite possible to have political and national freedom but not individual freedom. Ancient Sparta had national and political freedom, but none of the individual freedoms we expect today.

    The Roman Empire represents two centuries that brought peace and prosperity to the world by extinguishing national and political freedom, but in which individual freedom flourished as it never had.

    From the Declaration of Independence to the First World War, the history of our own country provides a dramatic example of the separation of these three component ideals of freedom. After 1776, the United States had national freedom. Adult white males also had political and individual freedom. White women had a considerable degree of individual freedom but no political liberty until 1920 and the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Until after the Civil War, African-Americans possessed neither political nor individual freedom. In 1857 the Supreme Court formally ruled that African-Americans did not have the right to individual or political freedom. The soldiers of the Confederacy fought valiantly for their political, individual, and national freedom while defending their right to deny individual and political liberty to a considerable proportion of their population.  

    Thus, clearly, throughout history, these three components ideals of freedom have not been mutually inclusive.

    Had we learned this lesson of history, Americans might have avoided crucial mistakes in our recent foreign policy in the Middle East.

    History demonstrates that one of the most basic human feelings is the desire for national freedom. You may hate your government, but if someone invades you, you may very well fight in defense of your country. Napoleon learned this in Spain. History should have taught us to be skeptical of the claim that we would be welcomed as liberators in Iraq.

    A second lesson of history we should have pondered is that freedom is not a universal value. Great civilizations have risen and fallen without any clear concept of freedom. Egypt—the civilization that built the pyramids, that created astronomy and medicine, did not even have a word for freedom. Everything was under the power of the pharaoh, who was god on earth. Ancient Mesopotamia had a word for freedom, but that word had the connotation of liberties. It was something that the all-powerful king gave to you, like exemption from taxes, and that he could also capriciously take away from you.

    In fact, it can be argued that the Middle East, from the time of the pyramids down until today, has had no real concept of freedom.

    Russia from the time of Rurik, the first Viking chieftain of Russia in the ninth century, down to Vladimir Putin, has never developed clear ideas of political and individual freedom. Thus we should not have been surprised when the Russian Revolution led not to freedom but to Stalin and one of the bloodiest despotisms in history.

    China has no tradition of political or individual freedom. The noble teachings of Confucius are all about order, not freedom.

    In fact, the very beginning of civilizations in the Middle East around 3000 BCE and in China around 1700 BCE represented the choice of security over freedom. Civilization began with the decision to give up any freedom in order to have the security of a well regulated economy under a king. Time and again throughout history people have chosen the perceived benefits of security over the awesome responsibilities of freedom.

    History thus teaches that freedom is not a universal value. Our Founders knew and acted upon the lessons of history. The Founders, unlike us, thought historically. They used the lessons of the past to make decisions in the present and to plan for the future. They understood that tyranny and the lust for power, not freedom, is the great motivating force of human action and of history. But the Founders also believed that the United States could chart a unique course in history

    Our country does have a unique legacy of freedom. That is both a cause for hope and a caution as to whether our unique ideals of freedom can be transplanted to the rest of the world. For in the U.S. we have achieved a unique balance of national, political, and individual freedom.

    We have never been conquered; we simply cannot imagine what it would be to be under the rule of a foreigner. Our experience is very different from that of France, for example, or Germany.

    We take political freedom for granted. We have regular elections no matter what the circumstances. In 1864, in the midst of the greatest war in our history, we held elections. The Europeans wondered after 9/11 what would happen to America; we went ahead with another election. In a way it is a good thing we are so secure in this freedom that we take it for granted. With that comes our deep love of the Constitution. Of course, Americans may not know what is in the Constitution, but they know it is good and resent any effort to tamper with it.

    As to individual freedom, where could one have so much of it, including the basic freedom to create a better life for yourself and your children? People clamor to get into America, because individual freedom opens up a whole new world.

    So how did we come to this unique legacy of freedom? Again, history is our guide. Our American legacy of freedom is the product of a unique confluence of five historical currents.

    First, there is the legacy of the Old Testament, the idea that we are a nation chosen by God to bear the ark of the liberties to the world. Our Founders believed that deeply. Abraham Lincoln believed it deeply. Franklin Roosevelt believed it.

    The second current comes from classical Greece and Rome. The legacy of Greece and Rome is the very basic one of self-government, consent of the governed. The kings of Babylon were chosen by God, Saul was chosen by God. The pharaoh was God on earth. But in Greece and Rome, men said “We are free to govern ourselves under laws that we give ourselves.”

    Thirdly, Christianity took the idea of Natural Law from Greece and Rome and turned it into the belief that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The freedom that for the Greeks and Romans had been limited to the citizens of Athens or Rome now became a universal proclamation under Christianity.

    Fourthly, England gave us the notion that government is under the law, no matter how powerful that government is. In the Watergate hearings, Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) quoted the old saying that “the wind and rain might enter the cottage of a poor Englishman, but the king in all his majesty may not.” The law governs the king himself, and our Congress, senators, and president. As Harry Truman said, any time an American president gets too big for his britches, the people put him back in his place.

    Fifthly, there is the contribution of the frontier. From the very beginning, America has been about the frontier. It is what led men and women to Jamestown and Plymouth. The frontier was the vast, seemingly endless land stretching before us. The frontier meant equality of opportunity. Even the best ideals of Greece or Rome or England could never flourish, because they were always cramped. But here there was land and the ability to start over again. This mattered more than all the ancient hatreds and class frictions that had existed under the old world. We cannot understand why Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats speak the same language but kill each other. Their hatreds have been festering for centuries, but here they pass away. That has been the unique gift of the frontier.

    The existence of these elements in other nations and civilizations only underscores the uniqueness of the American experience of freedom. Russia has the tradition of Greece and Rome, Christianity, the tradition of the Old Testament; and it has a frontier. But it lacks that English sense of government under the law. So the frontier in Russia becomes the home of the gulag. Latin America has the tradition of Christianity and the Old Testament, and of Greece and Rome, and of the frontier. But Spain lacked the powerful English concept that government is under the law. Thus Latin America, despite its industrious and intelligent population and its natural resources, has never developed a stable basis for political and individual freedom.

    Our heritage of freedom has been forged in war and hardship as well as in prosperity. Our national independence was proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Name another nation in history founded on principles. An Italian or German will say you are an Italian or German because you speak Italian or German. Traditionally, you were born an Englishman; you were geographical accident. But in America we have said from the start that everyone can come here from wherever they wish. They can speak whatever language is their mother tongue and practice whatever religion they want. They become an American by adopting our principles.

    The principles proclaimed in 1776 are the noblest of all principles: we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the unalienable right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    The proclamation of these ideals in the Declaration of Independence is based on the belief in absolute right and absolute wrong. You can deny that today. We seem to have a society that believes there is no such thing as truth. Ethics is all a matter of circumstances. But the Founders believed in eternal truths, valid in all places and all times. And they believed that governments are instituted among men to achieve those goals. That is the purpose of government. And if a government does not fulfill those goals, you have not only the right but the duty to overthrow it.

    The absolute truths of the Declaration of Independence are founded on a belief in God. God appears four times in the Declaration of Independence: “Nature’s God,” the “Creator,” “Supreme Judge of the world,” “Divine Providence.”

    Thus our national freedom is founded on absolute truth and upon a belief in God. 

    As the Declaration of Independence is the charter of our national freedom, so the Constitution is our charter of political freedom.

    When that constitution was brought forth in Philadelphia, we were thirteen straggling republics along the eastern seaboard. If Benjamin Franklin or George Washington wanted to go somewhere, they went in the same way Cicero or Caesar did: they walked, rode, or sailed. If they wanted to communicate, they did it the same way Caesar or Cicero did. George Washington received inferior medical care to what a Roman gladiator got in the first century CE. And yet that same constitution gives us liberty under law and prosperity in a world of technology that Benjamin Franklin could not even have imagined and when we are superpower of the world. We should never take this extraordinary achievement for granted.

    The American people in their wisdom would not ratify this constitution without the promise of a bill of rights. It seems to us extraordinary today that the first Congress kept its promise; and in short order set down and produced the Bill of Rights, which still guarantees these fundamental freedoms of individual liberty.

    But there was still slavery, written into the Constitution. God is not mentioned once in the Constitution, but slavery was made the law of the land. To remove that wrong of slavery we fought the bloodiest war in our history, in which 623,026 Americans died. It produced men of great honor and integrity on both sides. It was finally resolved at Gettysburg.

    When Abraham Lincoln went to Gettysburg to redefine our mission, he started with the Declaration of Independence. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It was unique because it was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. In one sentence he told Americans why they were fighting the war, to see whether any nation so conceived and dedicated could long endure. In all the rhetoric we had about Vietnam and all that we have heard about Iraq, we have not been told so simply why we were at war.

    Lincoln then went on to state that this civil war was a challenge laid upon this nation by God. The more Lincoln grappled with why this terrible war had come, the more convinced he had become that it was sent by God to punish us for the fundamental wrong of slavery. He told Americans that we must resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain and that this nation under God should have a new birth of freedom. And that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

    So this war that had cost so many lives was resolved in a way that no other nation would have. The Confederates simply pledged their word not to take up arms and to go home. The reconciliation began. I think that too is unique in history.

    With the Civil War we see the growth of democracy, the move towards extending the franchise to women, 18 year olds. They all become part of this political freedom.

    This nation has continued in a unique course of freedom. In World War II we fought and won the war in the name of democratic freedom. We could have withdrawn the way we did after World War I. But we recognized that isolationism had been a mistake. So we shouldered the burden of the Cold War.

    Now we have been called again, and the question is, will we find the leadership to tell us why this great challenge is there? Will we find the will to resolve this struggle? Will we find the understanding among ourselves to see the great task that, as Lincoln said, is still before us?

    I speak to you not only the legacy of America, but of destiny. I believe that no people in history have ever been more magnanimous, generous, courageous, willing to forgive and forget, and willing to help the world than have the Americans. So after World War II, we raised Germany and Japan up. This remains our greatest foreign policy triumph. We took those two nations that had no long tradition of freedom and made them into viable, prosperous democracies.  

    Today, because of the United States, more people throughout the world live in freedom than any time in history. If we are willing to accept the challenge, it may yet be our destiny to change the course of history and to establish freedom as a universal value.

  7. Ikonoclast
    June 21, 2021 at 1:33 am

    Ken Zimmerman,

    Is that essay offered as a prime example of the specious and mendacious definition of “freedom” which Blair Fix was warning against? For that is the only way quoting it makes sense. In America’s history “freedom” has so often meant freedom for owners of large amounts of property and “unfreedom” for everyone else. I hope you are not offering that essay uncritically as a panegyric of the USA and its definitions of freedom.

    The American Revolution was promoted by American Whigs (owners of property and owners of slaves) against the despotism of the British monarchy. It did represent the only kind of advance that was conceivable and possible in those times. But the advance was only that power transferred from monarchy and hereditary landed aristocracy to a new proto-capitalist, proton-industrialist “aristocracy of wealth”. Most of the founding fathers owned land and slaves and did nothing or acted very late in their lives, on their deathbeds or in their wills, to reduce slavery.

    Universal human rights is a great idea, even when people don’t really mean it or when they only mean if for their class and color and not for other classes and colors. The idea (of universal human rights) has a way of escaping the bounds that the first, imperfect implementers of the idea put on it out of their self-interest. The first American Revolution was very incomplete. It took the Second American Revolution (called the Civil War) to further those ideas somewhat and free slaves to an extent. However, the Jim Crow system continued to the 1960s and it took a civil rights movement to bring further real change. Even today, the black and indigenous revolutions are not complete and many of those peoples are still far from free.

    The American Constitution and system still has some value, albeit it is still really a system for propertied people only. Freedom in America exists mainly in relation to how much property one has. America is not alone in this but is still probably the most egregious and unequal system in the West. The USA needs another revolution (and maybe more than one) to continue its journey to more equal freedoms for all its citizens. Yet, the USA is still in many ways the society with the most revolutionary energy, if not the most reformist energy. The two are rather different. This revolutionary energy could yet take the USA further in a positive direction if it can avoid the ossification of neoliberal capitalism and the neofascist threat. As one of our ex-Prime Ministers said recently: “Don’t underestimate America’s capacity to re-invent itself.” We have to hope it will reinvent itself in a positive way. It was positive
    to see the neofascist Trump’s attempt at an auto coup defeated. If the USA turned completely authoritarian at the top like China and Russia then we would really be in trouble globally.

    The article never defines what it means by “freedom”. It assumes the definition of freedom is absolute and self-evident. The definition is neither. Freedoms are of different types, are relative and are relative in cross-multiple ways. The nature of freedom(s) is/are never self-evident. They must be debated and developed out in social and democratic practice.

    The self-aggrandizing nature of the article is also counter-productive. Even America’s friends and allies don’t like it when America struts around, beats its chest and says it invented everything good and that “no people in history have ever been more magnanimous, generous, courageous, willing to forgive and forget, and willing to help the world than have the Americans”. That, to take Joe Biden’s phrase, “Is a bunch of malarkey”. As we Australians would say, “That’s bullshit mate. Stop kidding yourself. Stop amking out you are better than everybody else. You’ve got too far many tickets on yourself,” and so on. Carrying on like that is the way to alienate friends and allies, not to make them. I guess Americans don’t quite realize yet that such strutting, boasting, brashness, braggadocio and self-praise is not admired in many other cultures, even in other Anglophone cultures. Persons such as that author need to seriously tone it down.

    Maybe the USA needs to educate its people first.

  8. Ken Zimmerman
    June 21, 2021 at 7:33 am

    The essay was written in 2011. It shows, I hope just how contextual freedom is. Today an essay like this would literally be rejected ‘with prejudice’ by the Foreign Policy Institute. Neither freedom nor the Institute are the same as in 2011. In just 10 years both have been reinvented. And most of us didn’t notice. Either from lack of attention or ideology.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.