The ongoing protests against Israel––from its defense policies and warfighting tactics, to its very existence as a nation and a people––have featured levels of irrational hatred and despicable endorsements of genocidal terrorists. The U.S., of course, is also a target not just for being Israel’s enabler, but for alleged historical crimes like “settler colonialism,” racism, and genocide. These charges are morally idiotic, ethically incoherent, and historically challenged. And they serve and advance political agendas dangerous for our national interests and security.
That such mendacious protests are legal in most Western nations reflects one of the foundational principles of Western civilization: the freedom of ordinary citizens to criticize and challenge their own country’s policies and actions. But these recent protests highlight the dangers of that freedom: the nurturing and spreading of a national self-loathing that undermines the patriotism and loyalty any country needs to survive.
Of all the world’s great civilizations, none has been as critically self-conscious as the West. Starting with the ancient Greeks, the West has been willing to question its own beliefs and institutions, make them objects of thought and criticism, search for their meaning and significance, and use this process to make innovative improvements. The Greeks, as the 19th century historian Jacob Burckhardt said, “seem original, spontaneous and conscious, in circumstances in which all others were ruled by a more or less mindless necessity.”
Slavery, for example, has been a global evil since history began, and still persists in some regions of the world today. The Greeks’ critical examination of this practice––back then, no more questionable than the domestication of animals––on the one hand led to a justification for it, such as Aristotle’s infamous argument that those in bondage are “slaves by nature,” since they lack rational self-control and so can be justly controlled by another.
On the other hand, thinking critically about slavery also generated questions about the justice of it, as the early 4th century BC rhetorician Alcidamas did when he said, “The god gave freedom to all men, and nature created no one a slave.” It took two millennia, but this early argument that slavery is a consequence of force, and thus unnatural and unjust, bore fruit in the late 18th century when Christians started the West on the road to abolition.
However, these boons of critical consciousness led to the dismissal of other sources of wisdom such as tradition, religion, and common sense. The first recorded martyr of free speech was Socrates, whose critical interrogations of fellow citizens challenged the institutions of Athenian democracy, which put him to death for his public speech. Yet Socrates was vocally antidemocratic based on his assumption that governing requires not common sense or tradition, but reason and philosophical training, skills that only a minority of citizens possessed.
For Socrates, choosing leaders from the dêmos, the common people, to manage and guide the state, was like the passengers and crew of a ship voting for who would be captain. The upshot of Socrates’ criticisms was a preference for elite technocrats, or Plato’s “philosopher king,” to rule the many. Political freedom and equality, the foundations of our political order, were thus available only to the few. But such rule invariably turns into tyranny, for as Juvenal asked, “Who will actually guard the guardians?”
In our own times, we have seen where the expansion of free speech since World War II has led us. Rational, empirically supported criticism of our politicians and policies necessary for maintaining our heritage of freedom and equality, has edged ever closer to functionally treasonous speech that proposes not improvements that strengthen our core constitutional principles and values of ordered liberty, citizen sovereignty, unalienable rights, and political equality, but to “fundamental transformations” that are replacing those principles with ideologies and policies that concentrate power in the elite few and governmental bureaus and agencies unaccountable to the citizens.
Yet trying to control and limit any speech carries the moral hazard that would-be tyrants will use those “guardrails” to silence political opponents. We currently are living during one of the most dangerous times for free speech in our history, when self-selected media “fact-checkers” demonize their political opponents’ speech as “disinformation” while ignoring their party’s gross distortions and outright lies; partisan government agencies collude with social media companies to silence political opponents, while the Fed’s 2.1 million employees are rewarded by Biden with paid leave to “volunteer” as poll workers; and universities betray both the First Amendment and the academic freedom of selected students and professors whose free speech rights are violated by “speech codes,” an Orwellian term for censorship.
Moreover, many of the dangerous ideas that new communication technologies instantly and globally publicize, threaten all our freedoms. For over a century Marxism in its various guises has polluted many of our public and private institutions, despite its universal failure to create freedom and prosperity, at the cost of 100 million dead.
At the same time, since the “sexual revolution” our morals and mores concerning sexuality have degenerated to the point that children are exposed to behaviors once the purview of rakes, perverts, and roués––much of it pornography now protected by the First Amendment. Meanwhile, Christian faith, tenets, and doctrines that contributed to the Founders’ creation of the Constitution have been marginalized in schools, culture, and politics.
Remember how during the Covid pandemic and its feckless, destructive lock-downs, churches were shuttered while marijuana dispensaries and liquor stores stayed open, and BLM and Antifa rioted, burned, looted, and assaulted with impunity? Or how prayer and Bible study have been banished from schools, and replaced with racist curricula, transgender recruitment, and vulgar drag-queen performances?
Then there are the suicidal policies that bespeak a culture of self-loathing: an open border that during Biden’s tenure has let in 8.5 million mostly unvetted and illegal aliens; a war on carbon that has weakened our energy independence and raised fuel prices; a foreign policy of timid, appeasing diplomacy and unpunished attacks on our military personnel; and our corrupted federal agencies like the FBI and DOJ that have brazenly canceled the 14th Amendment’s equality under law provision. Nearly four generations of Americans have been exposed to such wages of toxic ideologies all protected by the First Amendment.
Nor are there viable remedies for this degradation of free speech. Censorship creates the Juvenalian moral hazard. We’ve lived through the left’s long assault on free speech, and its principle of “free speech for me, but not for thee” that censors for partisan and ideological ends. Not just conservative principle and policies are silenced and punished, but science itself is subject to the censor’s veto, as we’ve seen with Covid protocols like masks and lock-downs, and even the origins of the disease. Scientists who challenged, with facts and arguments, the CDC’s careless, politicized, unsubstantiated claims about risks, treatments, and mitigation policies, were subjected to vicious attempts to “cancel” them personally and professionally.
Moreover, decades of numerous socio-cultural dysfunctions, especially secularism and failing educational institutions, have burrowed deep into our citizenry, and taken root in government, education, popular culture, corporate boardrooms and, most troubling, many of our military services’ top brass. The illiberal and truly racist doctrines of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, empowered by fashionable self-loathing, have turned the military’s attention away from warfighting and materiel development and procurement, to serving the “woke” program to aggrandize power at the expense of the nation’s security and interests, as well as its freedom.
So it is that freedom of speech, one of our greatest assets in creating and maintaining our political and personal freedom, may turn out to be the agent of our descent into tyranny. Ancient Athens suffered that fate. The great classicist Gilbert S. Murray, in his 1929 defense of the Greeks and their seminal contributions to the West, wrote that the Greeks’ innovations like political freedom, rationalism, and critical consciousness could be agents of our collapse, and ancient Greece become the “great wrecker in human history” that “held up false lights which have lured our ship to dangerous places.”