Book Review | Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media by Jacob Mchangama

Book Review, Information Access
Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media by Jacob Mchangama

Earlier this year, Danish attorney and human rights and free speech activist Jacob Mchangama saw his book Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media published by Basic Books, part of the Hachette publishing group. In the book, Mchangama tries to do exactly what the title suggests, presenting a high-points, timeline history of the free speech debate from antiquity through the modern era, concentrating on that part of the world that might have been called Occidental 100 years ago, with a few brief jaunts into China or the Caliphates of the Middle East. The book is sort of a concentrated version of his excellent, 40-hour plus podcast series Clear and Present Danger, which brought listeners along on the same three millennia historical trip back between 2017 and 2020. The episodes are still online and every one of them is a fascinating and illuminating listen.

The book may be eye-opening for many readers because it not only reveals that “free speech” as an explicit idea has been popular (or notorious) for much longer than one might think AND because the arguments both for and against it haven’t changed all that much throughout the last 3000 years, no matter where the argument has been had. One reads of Demosthenes, who exhorted Athenians to listen to both sides of every argument and “allow freedom of speech to every one of your counsellors.” One reads of “isegoria,” the legal concept whereby men present in the Athenian Assembly were allowed to speak on civic matters regardless of social position, and “parrhesia,” a more general type of free speech out in society. Mchangama moves forward from there, taking deeper-than-textbook looks at the speech controversies that free expression nerds like to talk about: Cato the Younger gutting himself in reaction to a spiteful pardon by Caesar, Al-Mansur preserving Greek texts that the Medieval Church would have been glad to destroy, the Catholic Church’s brutal treatment of heretics, Luther’s self-defense in Rome, Robespierre’s Revolutionary Terror and a brief but meaningful thought exercise on why the First Amendment of the US Constitution by mere dint of its simple wording is more effective at protecting speech than other documents produced around the same time, like the French Declaration of Human and Civic Rights of 1789. (His observation that words like “abuse” can’t go undefined and be legally meaningful echoes with his thoughts on the “hate speech” laws he writes about elsewhere.)

Peppered throughout the book are historical anecdotes and analyses that in some instances are shocking and in others almost iconoclastic. For instance, Mchangama makes a strong case that, as opposed to popular historical platitudes about German complacency in the face of Nazi ascendancy, or even “man-on-the-inside” civil servants helping the Nazis goose-step to power, the Weimar Republic did in fact try quite hard to suppress the Nazi movement and clamp down on its anti-Semitic publications and gatherings. The government went so far as to ban Nazi newspapers and send editors and distributors to jail. Mchangama writes that Weimar censorship efforts arguably had the opposite effect from what was intended:

“[T]he prohibition also provided fodder for fruitful propaganda. Ultimately, Hitler concluded that the ban had been a net benefit, boosting his fame and popularity…Posters depicted a muzzled Hitler as a martyr unfairly singled out for repression by The System, with captions like ‘CROOKS CAN SPEAK ANYWHERE IN GERMANY, BUT HITLER IS BANNED.’ “

Though he is half-African, Mchangama says he identifies as a “liberal European” and writes like a lawyer more so than an historian. As such, he does foray a bit into the tension between Islamic blasphemy laws and the European Union’s hate-speech laws, mostly to point out the irony of the overlap between them. For almost 20 years, Mchangama writes, the irreligious secularists of the European Union have been very willing to let Islamic groups (notably the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) dictate to them what hate speech is, at least in part. According to Mchangama, Islamic groups have been able to argue that while mockery of Christianity or Judaism presents no real threat to the safety of European Christians or Jews, such mockery of Islam is a threat to the Muslim immigrant community in Europe. At one point, he notes with pointed irony that the majority of the nations that vocally insisted it was a human rights violation when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoon images of Muhammad are home to laws that punish blasphemy or irreligious speech with the death penalty. But other than that debate, he doesn’t discuss the modern anti-blasphemy laws of actual officially Muslim countries very much or the history of free speech or speech suppression outside of western nations.

Mchangama’s chapter titled “The Free Speech Recession” is an interesting read on its own, as he highlights the ways that governments and corporations around the world have been steadily stifling freedom of speech and the press since roughly the turn of the 21st century after a 25-year period of liberalization. After 2001, however, a “recession” of freedom began, with the percentage of countries with a free press declining from 41 percent in 2003 to 31 percent by 2016, according to Freedom House, a DC think tank that monitors democratic freedoms in the nations of the world.  Mchangama takes aim at hate speech laws in Europe—to which he takes a special philosophical and legal dislike—arguing as Eleanor Roosevelt did in the 1950s that “hate speech” is so diaphanous in meaning that “any criticism of public or religious authorities might all too easily be described as incitement to hatred and consequently prohibited.”

Finally, Mchangama arrives at the ongoing debates surrounding social media, concluding that the current strong control of Internet speech on major social media platforms is misguided and makes things worse, just as was the case in Weimar Germany. He cites a 2017 study published in The European Journal of Political Research which “concluded that violent far-right extremism in Western Europe was partly fueled by ‘extensive public repression of radical right actors and opinions.’” Mchangama cites other examples of this sociopolitical  “Streisand effect,” maintaining at every turn that forceful and honest “counterspeech” is more effective at defusing hate and disinformation than knee-jerk censorship. Though he never hints at sympathizing with any of the sorts of transgressive speakers or writers that censorship enthusiasts find most problematic, nor does he ever let his guard down with the authoritarianism that those enthusiasts lust for. He sums up the main part of his book thus: “We are bound to be disappointed if we expect humanity to ever resolve the ancient but dynamic conflict between the proper spheres of authority and free expression.”

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