Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Last week Big Tech and social media plutocrats colluded to silence Donald Trump and conservatives by driving them from the virtual town square, and by silencing rival sites like Parler. Even some leaders in Europe, which restricts speech and has nothing like our First Amendment, criticized this assault on freedom of speech.
We are living in a time that as Orwell put it, requires us to restate the obvious about the critical role free speech has played in political freedom for 2500 years.
As miraculous as the creation of consensual, law-based rule by citizens was in ancient Greece during the 7th century B.C., extending citizen rights to the non-elite masses, as Athens did a few centuries later, was truly transformational. Never before had the common people anywhere been given the political freedom and power to participate in deliberations over policy, vote in an assembly, and serve in the offices that managed the state––privileges once the possession of aristocratic or plutocratic elites.
Free speech was the sine qua non of such a political order, for its governing procedures took place orally in the public, open spaces of the city. As the philosopher Democritus said, “Freedom of speech is the sign of freedom.” To participate politically, one had to be assured that there would be no repercussions or punishment for speaking one’s mind. But less well known is the role that diversity played in institutionalizing free speech.
Oligarchic or aristocratic elites in general are fairly homogeneous, particularly compared to the non-elite. In ancient Greece they shared mores and values and interests, and they were on the whole better educated. Once the “poor,” as Aristotle called the Athenian masses, were allowed to participate in government, then you had a much more diverse body of citizens. All did not share the decorum or politesse of a wealthier, educated elite, and often spoke less formally or less politely, or even coarsely or vulgarly.
This is still apparent today in the extant comedies of Aristophanes, which citizens produced, citizen committees awarded prizes, citizens comprised the audience, and politicians often bore the brunt of the abuse. As classicist K.J. Dover writes of comedy in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., every Athenian politician we know of from historical sources was accused of being “ugly, diseased, prostituted perverts, the sons of whores by foreigners who bribed their way into citizenship.” Political debate in the Athenian Assembly, the legislative body of the state, was not much better. Sordid sexual practices, disreputable parentage, and taking foreign bribes were standard charges made in speeches, including in trials.
The Athenians themselves left numerous testimonies to the central importance of free speech, even naming a war-ship Parrhêsia, one of two words in ancient Greek for political free speech. Repeatedly in Greek writings free speech is praised as the most critical, public expression of citizen equality after freedom, the most important purpose of the democracy. (“Freedom” and “equality” were also names given to warships.) In Euripides’ tragedy Suppliant Women, Theseus’ defense of democracy, which had been scorned by a herald from oligarchic Thebes, responds with the formula that opened the Assembly: “This is the call of freedom:/ ‘What man has good advice to give the city/ And wishes to make it known?’” In those lines we see the links among freedom, free speech, and the political order that upholds both.
As Sophocles said, “Free men have free tongues.”
Indeed, the critics of democratic political freedom made this unbridled frankness one of their central complaints. The aristocratic technocrat Plato in the Republic, the earliest blueprint for a totalitarian, technocratic regime, says sarcastically of the Athenians, “Is not the city full of freedom and frankness––a man may say and do what he likes?” But this freedom leads to an indiscriminate “variety” and social “disorder,” along with “a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike”––what the Founders called “license” and the “levelling spirit,” both the evils of an unchecked radical democracy that lead to tyranny.
Our own First Amendment is similarly a response to the remarkable diversity of early America, and the need to keep political speech open to all. Differences in accents, settlement patterns, folkways, customs, cultures, economic interests, geography, and faith meant that any standards of decorum or manners applied to public speech would necessarily favor the more powerful factions, who could use these standards as gate-keepers to exclude rival factions from political participation––precisely what we have witnessed for five years of demonization of Donald Trump for his frank, brash, crude Tweets and comments. Yet contrary to an imagined golden age of “civility” and “decorum” that Trump allegedly besmirched, for more than two centuries American political speech has often been brutally frank and coarse.
Today’s call for the regulation of political speech arises from the same sort of technocratic pretensions as Plato’s, the idea that credentialed “experts” trained in the “human sciences” and belonging to managerial guilds, can better run our country and lives than the supposedly uneducated, superstitious ignorant masses with their coarse manners and vulgar tastes. This managerial, bipartisan elite share similar backgrounds, milieus, and educations, and have adopted the manners, diction, and opinions of the agencies and institutions they inhabit and run––corporations, media, social media, government agencies, schools, universities, NGOs, and multinational institutions.
To them the people are not citizens with unalienable rights, who are capable of self-rule and who know their own interests, but clients who need an expert’s “nudge” or a government regulatory diktat to bring them into line and purge them of their various flaws like “systemic racism” or “white privilege.” There are no greater examples of these attitudes than the hyperbolic comments about last week’s relatively brief occupation of the Capitol lobby. The reviling rhetoric condemned all the tens of thousands of Trump supporters, who peacefully attended the rally, as racist stormtroopers attempting to usurp by violence the authority of Congress and illegally keep Donald Trump office.
In contrast, five months of widespread rioting, looting, burning, vandalizing, and violently assaulting the police were not just rationalized or encouraged, but also celebrated by progressive politicians, who only discovered an allegiance to civil peace and the rule by law when their workplace was invaded.
Using the Capitol “invasion” as a pretext, the Tech oligarchs, egged on by the media, Dem politicians, Hollywood celebrities, “woke” corporate plutocrats, and the likes of Michelle Obama and other progressive fat-cats, have blatantly trampled on the First Amendment right of millions of citizens, not to mention acting like a cartel trying to destroy a rival business under cover of warding off “violence” or “hate”––even as Facebook, Twitter, and Google serially welcome some of the world’s most brutal, violent, anti-Semitic regimes and commentators.
If this unconstitutional abuse of the most critical dimension of our political freedom––free speech––is allowed to stand, the radical Dems will be emboldened and empowered to go after our other unalienable rights, taking us further down the road to tyranny. If there truly are any moderate Democrats left who prize those freedoms, they need to start speaking out now, and push back against their party’s radical, illiberal wing. The coming months are going to be a referendum on whether Democrats believe in ordered liberty and the unalienable rights enshrined in the Constitution, or believe only in their own power and interests, and their right to compromise our freedom in order to achieve their ideological aims.
That’s the real way “democracy dies in darkness.”