Sounding Off

In their exhaustive account of the United States’ World War I era propaganda arm, the Committee on Public Information, historians James R. Mock and Cedric Larson describe it as a “vast and complex organization” forged “in the first week after declaration of war.” Chronicling the emergence of the Committee, they include a letter from the Secretaries of State, War and the Navy to President Woodrow Wilson, setting forth the “need for some authoritative agency to assure the publication of all the vital facts of national defense,” a bureau dedicated exclusively to spinning a compelling yarn about the Great War.

Not content to contort only the emerging facts of the present, the Committee included under its umbrella a Division of Civic and Educational Cooperation, through which the leading lights in academia were put to work rewriting history. In much the same way as Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984, the Division undertook the “rectification” of the historical record, redacting some here and fabricating a bit there until their alterations of truth, in Orwell’s familiar words, “passed into history and became truth.” But even with potent weapons like command of the print media and contamination of the already propagandist formal education system, ideas unfailingly find outlets.

To seal those outlets and supervise the proliferation of ideas requires more than merely monitoring the written word alone, something made more problematic by the attributes of words themselves. The spoken word, too, can destabilize the state’s equipoise of power, perhaps — due to its visceral character — even more quickly and easily than text, silent and dry. For the state, then, controlling what you say, the negative policy, the restraint, is far more important than what it says, than its project of churning out its own version of “the truth.”

Without bottling up speech, whether embodied in a conversation or an open protest, the state’s disinformation would be practically impotent, unable to rein in the ideological traffic. As a consequence, for all of the Party’s comprehensive and finely-tuned propaganda in 1984, its invented language, Newspeak, was still necessary to more completely suffocate the expression of ideas. Instinctively we appreciate the power of speech, looking with suspicion — at least in theory — on the state’s attempts to curtail it, but the free speech question itself has been perverted by the state’s toxic presence.

Forever in the news, the issue of free speech emerged again on Monday when the trial of Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, who likens the Quran to Mein Kampf, began in Amsterdam. Charged with inciting hatred against Muslims, Wilders faces a possible year in prison in a country where the Associated Press reports that “[c]onvictions for discriminatory remarks are frequent.” Around the world, in countries we are supposed to consider “open” and “free,” “human rights commissions” and other bureaus of repressive sameness impose versions of Thoughtcrime, punishing opinions they don’t like.

Because these forbidden opinions are often unpalatable to those of us who promote tolerance and pluralistic society, it’s easy to allow a reflex aversion to hatred to confuse the issue. In a society where the state could not, under the guise of “public ownership,” engross huge swaths of land — leaving only small patches to free individuals (even those being encumbered by the poisonous pressures of the state) — free speech would be a non-issue. Free speech, today faultily understood as the right to either gain an audience or to silence others by force, comes to be the contest that it is only because the state invades and disrupts a natural justice that bars only violence. The right to say whatever you would like — wherever you are and at whatever time — is not to be deemed a right in the most precise sense of that word, in the sense that has real meaning.

“[S]ince rights are, by definition, legitimately enforceable claims,” explains Professor Roderick Long, “it further follows that there can be no rights in addition to self-ownership.” If further rights, like a “right” to free speech, were to be recognized, they could mean only a positive and enforceable right to use force against a peaceful non-aggressor, for example, a right to compel someone to listen to you on her own property. Like any claimed right over and above the right to be left alone within your own sphere of individual sovereignty, the separate right to free speech is, although appealing on its face, philosophically mistaken, rendered superfluous in a system that correctly conceives of rights.

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