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Free speech: dead as the dodo

The incomparable John Hayward’s latest.

A generation after the supposed triumph of classical liberalism at the “end of history,” free speech exists nowhere on Earth as a matter of principle. Every single tech mogul’s commitment to free speech evaporates when powerful authoritarians demand censorship.

Authoritarian foreign regimes know they only need to threaten blockage of Western social media services to make their management comply with censorship demands. Some push back harder than others, but in the end, they all cave. They can’t afford to lose access to growing markets.

Tech moguls rationalize to themselves that they can still do some good in oppressive countries by complying with some censorship demands – it’s better than being silenced completely. Any way you rationalize it, it’s a power calculation that limits the speech of the powerless.

Domestically, we’ve seen government officials using economic leverage and ideological affinity to limit speech in collusion with their Little Partners in the private sector. The ruling left-wing Party has operatives in tech companies that did much of the dirty work.

The power calculations have shifted a little lately, especially after Musk bought Twitter, but they’re still power calculations, not adamant defenses of free speech as a matter of principle. The variables changed, but the equations remain.

A troubling percentage of the free world’s population evidently believes censorship IS free speech – as though speech were a limited resource that must be allocated by the State with an eye toward “justice” and “equity.” Only by silencing some can others be truly free to speak.

“Hate speech is not free speech!” is a pure power calculation: those with power will decide what constitutes “hate speech.” They invariably rule that disagreement with their ideology and political demands is “hateful” and must be silenced.

How utterly convenient for them.

In America That Was, the very place where such forgetfulness was never supposed to happen, we somehow lost sight of the fact that “offensive” speech is the very embodiment of free speech—that once we’ve allowed TPTB to stifle speech they deem “offensive,” the hourglass has been turned over, the countdown to the inevitable loss of yet another Constitutionally-enumerated right has begun. Thus:

Speech is vital to political organization – in the Internet era, they are nearly synonymous. Twitter mobs have a direct pipeline to real political power via lazy, biased legacy media – provided they agree with the ruling Party. That pipeline is tightly shut against dissidents.

“Disinformation” is also a crude political calculation, not a high-minded and principled commitment to protect the population against fraud. We see examples every single day of disinformation that is tolerated, and boosted, when it comes from members of the ruling Party.

As with hate speech, the powerful decide what constitutes actionable “disinformation,” and they cannot resist the temptation of heavily tilting those scales against dissenters and speakers of forbidden truth. Party apparatchiks are never banned or reprimanded for disinformation.

The “end of history” was actually the triumph of authoritarianism, not classical liberalism – political scientists and commentators were just too giddy over the fall of the Soviet Union to see it. Individual rights, beginning with free speech, have steadily eroded since then.

It’s Doc Zero; reading it all isn’t mandatory, but you’re going to want to nonetheless.


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