Free Speech

The Freedom Trap

Give me liberty, or give me death!

As politician Patrick Henry finished his famous speech in Virginia on March 23, 1775, he plunged an ivory letter opener towards his chest in imitation of the Roman patriot Cato the Younger. We’ll get to that later, but the rhetoric is credited with having convinced the convention to pass a resolution delivering Virginian troops for the Revolutionary War against the British Empire. In attendance were future United States presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  Thomas Marshall, father to a future Chief Justice of the United States (John) called it “one of the boldest, vehement, and animated pieces of eloquence that had ever been delivered”, and Colonel Edward Carrington even got his wish to be buried at the site of the speech in 1810.

Freedom is a powerful idea. In the ‘West’, we’ve been weaned on the idea from birth.  But it turns out to be harder to pin down exactly what form of freedom is on offer. The fact that Patrick Henry was a slaveholder whilst simultaneously claiming he’d rather die than pay the “price of chains and slavery” in his landmark speech, perhaps shows that Liberty has a range of interpretations.

“The bird is freed”, tweeted Elon Musk on Oct 28th; his Twitter buy-out and staff-cull in the name of restoring free-speech to the platform has granted the podium back to Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Andrew Tate, and Kanye West amongst others. Given the technical certainty that corporations do not have to offer a platform to anyone, it does raise questions as to whether these businesses are therefore culpable for the spreading of conspiracy, disinformation and hate.  Whilst the right to free speech is clearer in written constitutions such as the 1st Amendment in the U.S., where multi-billion dollar companies choose to draw the line between freedom and oppression is usually guided by their advertising revenue.

Free speech is a right, platforming it isnt.  

Culpability for what is said is often a surprise to those who have said it. Were they looking for freedom without repercussions? Sounds like the latest installment of The Purge. Which is too often not dissimilar to the experience of nations ‘liberated’ by western military intervention.   Interestingly the editors and publishers of The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El Pais have just issued a statement that “it is time for the US government to end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets. Publishing is not a crime”. Quite why it took them 12 years to make this statement, having sold many papers covering the story he leaked, is anybody’s guess. Couldn’t possibly be that if Assange is convicted, then the freedom of the press is threatened. That was taken care of years ago by Billionaire donors gaining control of the news and what it doesn’t report.

But to pin down what is meant by freedom in the wider sense, beyond mere free-speech, we could take a pleasant boat trip down the River Cherwell. Oxford,1958, and a very different speech to Patrick Henry’s was delivered; “Two Concepts of Liberty,” by renowned philosopher and political theorist Isaiah Berlin defined freedom into two camps; positive and negative. He claimed that ‘positive liberty’ was born of the idea of what we are free to do, rather than what we are not.  ‘Negative liberty’ was the absence of coercion or interference of private actions by an external political body.

Positive Liberty

If this seems a little abstract it’s worth noting that the Isaiah Berlin lecture became one of the key ideological underpinnings of the Cold War. Having witnessed the Russian Revolution in 1907 at an early age, he had grown up with the corruption of ‘positive liberty’. An uprising of the oppressed people which ultimately lead to their oppression under a different system. One that believed it is the solution for human liberty, that it will create the ideal human, and only the leaders know how.  So they would coerce the masses into strict adherence to their rules.  Isaiah Berlin believed this was a flaw in all revolutions, no matter how well intended.  No matter how bad the previous regime had been. Horror would prevail. Freedom would be lost.

Negative Liberty

‘Negative liberty’ however, was a society without any ideological position on what the perfect person was. Sure, they had rules to protect us all from harming each other, but allowed self seeking individuals to pursue whatever they wanted. Individuals were given no purpose or meaning by the state, but were free to do whatever they wanted within the society that they lived.  This idea of liberty neatly fitted into the idea that the market will give people democracy. That the capitalist ideology of the West was in fact freedom. Despite inequality and resistance to Union empowerment of workers rights.  Perhaps more importantly, the Game Theorists of the Cold War also saw how this version of freedom was a truth of human nature. These autocrats who had mastered the art of war games to avoid nuclear war, moved on to prominent positions in US and UK governments. They promoted the extended ideas that American mathematician John Nash described in all human behaviour. That we are all selfish.  And that altruism was not possible.  The fact that Nash rescinded this part of his thesis after being treated for schizophrenia, is clearly not a red flag…

Isaiah Berlin knew that ‘negative liberty’ had its flaws as much as ‘positive liberty’ – and he warned throughout his life that if those in charge of governing under that system came to believe it was an absolute ideal then they too would become as corrupted as those who lead revolutions into dictatorships.

Project Democracy in America undermined the very democracy in the US that it was trying to ‘defend’. General Haig promoted Freedom through Democracy by force under Reagan, affecting many nations it saw as a threat. The fall of the USSR in 1991 was seen at first as a triumph of western democracy with the US offering millions in reconstruction aid and the expertise of Jeffrey Sachs amongst others. The Harvard economist oversaw the privatisation of the big companies in Russia. Which was ultimately an economic disaster and led to the rise of Putin.  

They did the same in Iraq.  Over $350 billion was sent to Iraq by 2007, much of it lost to corruption. Conflicting ideas of the perfect liberty lead to both sides using violence to achieve their aims. In the UK our liberties have been affected by the resulting restrictions on freedom cause by anti-terror laws. And whilst UK PM Rishi Sunak calls out China’s recent oppressive restrictions on protest, his own government continues to support bills that restrict our own at home.

What would Cato the Younger make of this?  The Roman patriot that Patrick Henry emulated at the end of his liberty speech? Ironically, his political influence was born of his moralist principles and his embodiment of Roman traditions that appealed to both senators and the innately conservative Roman populace. The distance between the purpose and self sacrifice he believed empowered uncorrupted governance, and our current free market system of lies led by an ex Goldman Sachs analyst said to be the richest politician in history, is profound.

So what is freedom?  Is it simply just the freedom to purchase whatever Christmas Gifts we like from Amazon?  Or does it allow us the right to protest peacefully for change? Are we only allowed a single vote every four years in a gerrymandered district or can we call for the redistribution of wealth by demanding laws that billionaires and energy companies pay tax that supports the NHS and essential infrastructure that allow them to profit from this country? The papers will help the government control perceptions no doubt, but the rise of nationalism has overtaken both political parties in our post-Brexit age. And the freedom from the EU is somehow finally making headlines as people struggle to put food on their table. Regardless of who takes the blame for the recession, protests, strikes and the risk of an uprising are challenging the belief that their idea of ‘negative liberty’ is working. A narrow and limiting version of freedom that is treated as an absolute, a freedom that has also become corrupted.

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