YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

December 21, 2014

Origins of free speech and the Cuba question

War Production Board, 1942-43, NARA

War Production Board, 1942-43, NARA

There is an impression, widely disseminated by supporters of the Obama administration, that renewing “diplomatic relations” and/or freer trade with Cuba (i.e., the lifting of the embargo) will lead to an improvement in the human rights situation there. This blog explores the origins of free speech, and it had nothing to do with free trade or capitalism, though one leftist newspaper thinks it does, perhaps because Marx supported free trade in the hopes of accelerating the socialist revolution: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/jul/01/in-praise-of-william-cobbett, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Cobbett.

Here are some other societies thought to be outposts of cultural freedom: ancient Greece (although Plato wanted to banish poets from the Republic, and Aristotle wrote that some men were born to be slaves); England, both in the Magna Carta and in the time of the English Civil War (Milton’s Areopagitica and/or Paradise Lost its most famous examples); the seventeenth century scientific revolution, mostly British, but also the short-lived Dutch Republic, with Spinoza leading the way; and most famously the American Revolution with its Constitution, particularly the First Amendment, soon to be followed by the French Revolution and its Declaration of Human Rights; and finally the invention of social media and the no-holds-barred free-wheeling internet. But free speech was a privilege of elites and did not extend to ordinary persons, who were either slaves, serfs, landless, or under-educated and irrational. (New England Puritans were ever in the vanguard of free public education.)

I prefer to periodize the onset of free speech with the invention of the printing press, enabling the progress of mass literacy over many centuries. In prior blogs, I have suggested that although we technically enjoy freedom of expression, various elites have placed road blocks to the “liberty” we imagine that we possess. Moreover, I have more than hinted that the chief target of anti-Semitism is intellectual combativeness, a habit of mind that led one Melville scholar (Princeton’s Lawrance Thompson) to entitle his study of Herman Melville, “Melville’s Quarrel With God”(1952). In other words, HM was all too ‘Hebraic’, luring readers to perdition. Such consistent double-talking, self-erasing texts, and unequivocal assaults on authority, even his own (Ahab! See https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/). “Such a Jew” (Charles Olson’s notes) could not be tolerated in “free Ameriky” as one character mocked in The Confidence-Man and again in his post-Civil War poem Clarel.

AhabJezebel

I will end this blog with a quote from George Orwell, who has been taken up by conservatives as a fierce critic of “totalitarianism,” ignoring his strong attachment to working class men, to materialism, and to the Left:

[Orwell, Looking Back on the Spanish War, 1942:] “I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, of they struggled after the truth, knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that “the facts” existed and were more or less discoverable. …Nazi theory…specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as “science.” There is only “German science”, “Jewish science” etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future, but the past….”

orwell

We are living in this nightmare world today, and until we all rouse ourselves to address the “postmodern” “multicultural” education that is hegemonic and that supports only “group facts” indecipherable to other “races” or “genders” we will continue to wither, or at best, to sell out inside Nineteen Eighty-Four.

For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2014/10/08/index-to-blogs-on-totalitarianism/. “Totalitarianism” is a term that Orwell used frequently, but is now out of date. Equating Nazis and Soviets was a tool in the Cold War, tarring the “progressive” brush with Soviet communism.

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