On the back cover, the late PJ O’Rourke is quoted as describing this effort by Jacob Mchangama as ‘the best history of free speech and the best defense of free speech ever made’. It is unfortunate that the great O’Rourke is no longer with us to explain this assertion.
It is difficult to refute the first without having read all other histories of free speech out there. Maybe it is the greatest. But maybe the bar is not too high. Is it the best defence of free speech ever made? Not at all. Rather, Mchangama references plenty greater defences of free speech throughout his history of the issue, to mention JS Mill, and Cato’s Letter, amongst others.
Any book that sets out to defend free speech, to do it robustly, to demonstrate through history how the diminution of free speech has led only to tyranny, is to be commended. For that alone, this book is worth read. At just shy of 400 pages, it covers a lot of ground, but that is partly the problem. Maybe it tries to cover too much ground, more breadth than depth, and ends up not being too sure what exactly it is.
Is it a history book? It starts out like one, running not too quickly through ancient Greece and Rome, acknowledging correctly that the Dark Ages were indeed not-so-dark at all, the great disruption caused by the printing press and subsequently Martin Luther, through the Enlightenment before coming toward what are close to modern times.
All good and well so far. Not too controversial but through the history the reader starts to learn of the political or social persuasions of the author, as he asserts certain interpretations of history as fact whereas they are contested. Touching on the various religious inquisitions, he falls into the easy trap of presenting them as more historically significant relative to other secular equivalents.
He acknowledges that ‘the Spanish Inquisition was less bloody than often imagined’ and that it was not, as often presented, a Catholic or Church run inquisition but belonging to the State or, specifically, monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand. Yet it retains a more prominent place in the run through history than its reality deserves.
As the book progresses, and his story nears the present age, a more in-depth look at specific issues is allowed but no event feels sufficiently analysed. Yet, the author drifts between a history of free speech and a subjective commentary of free speech events.
The author struggles to clarify at times whether his concern is with freedom of speech or freedom of the press. For a long stretch of the epistle, it appears the latter, with the reader left to wonder whether Mchangama considers press freedom as most fundamental or the free speech of each and every citizen? Perhaps they are intertwined and the former is indicative of the state of the latter but this is never qualified. The final chapter, focusing on the internet, forces the authors hand just as the internet undermined the structured press.
It never becomes clear what the position of the author is on the margins of free speech. It appears that he may be a supporter of zero restrictions on speech of any sort; that he is a defender of free speech from a point of principle and as an intrinsic right; yet from time to time, he lets slip the veil that maybe he feels there are acceptable limits to speech – somewhere far in the margins for sure.
But this is exactly what he describes as ‘the totalitarian temptation’ that many defenders of free speech fall into. In his closing argument he presents the protection of free speech as an instrumental good – whether this is for the sake of his argument, of convincing and converting the sceptical, or it is his own position, remains unclear.
Mchangama primarily focuses on the legal or state restrictions on free speech through the whole book and only gently touches on the social tendency to impose conformity as means of stifling speech. He tries to sit on the fence in what should be the most interesting argument about free speech in the modern world: liberal intolerance toward dissenting views; cancel culture; the authoritarian wokeness of progressive ideals.
The author tries too hard to present balance in modern threats to free speech – attempting to claim there is equal silencing of dissenting voices on the left and the right. He fails to distinguish between shouting down and shutting down at certain times. That he could cheery pick a number of examples from all sides apparently ‘demonstrates that governments, journalists, organisations and activists can endlessly cheery pick content that “proves” that platforms are biased (for or) against conservatives, liberals, racial minorities, the LGBT community, women, Muslims, etc. The reader senses that he does not fully believe this, but cannot bring himself to admit it.
Unfortunately, his interpretation of Barack Obama as the plucky underdog who triumphed over the elite, and Donal Trump as the authoritarian who harnessed online platforms ‘to viciously attack opponents, to spread falsehoods at a dizzying rate, and to win the US presidency’ gives up where his sympathies lie. To take a history book seriously, the author’s subjectivity ought not be so clearly displayed.
Overall, yes, it is worth a read, but, depending on your political persuasion, be prepared to have your biases confirmed, or to be grated by commentary that does not quite align with your understanding of the facts of history especially when the rubber hits the road in defending free speech in the modern world.
And he never, through the near 400 pages, addresses the tricky question of libel or defamation versus free speech.
Free Speech : A Global History from Socrates to Social Media
- Jacob Mchangama
- Paperback | 528 pages
- 152 x 232 x 42mm | 653g
- 03 Mar 2022
- John Murray Press
- BASIC BOOKS
- London, United Kingdom