Free Speech Ain’t What it Used to Be

NatCon Brussels and Authoritarian Liberalism

As I type these words the NatCon Conference in Belgium is in the midst of being shut down by Belgian police, at the order of the mayor of Brussels. The reasons that have been given are incoherent and absurd: the police cannot guarantee the safety of the conference attendees in light of a planned protest, and the conference attendees themselves are causing a public disturbance (by calmly presenting speeches on conservative political topics). There is no doubt that the real reason is the fact that the mayor of Brussels, as one cog in the machine of the modern global-leftist monoculture, simply does not want those who dissent from his politics to be allowed to voice their own views in public.

Such open, unashamedly illiberal tactics are now the norm throughout Europe, as well as the entire Anglophone world apart from America (and the only thing stopping them here is a lack of power, not a lack of desire). And yet, those participating in this new totalitarianism still feel compelled to publicly voice support for free speech. They do this for two reasons: to obscure their real intentions, which are still unpalatable to many in their own countries, and because they genuinely desire certain forms of “speech” to be absolutely free, just not the kinds of speech that were protected in classical liberalism.

Josh Abbotoy puts this dynamic well: “In our political tradition freedom of speech was almost entirely about the right to have political speech. Modern liberal democracy outlaws political dissent, but is ‘free speech’ maximalist when it comes to things that actually enslave people like porn, obscenity, etc.” In other words: you are free to say whatever you like if it undermines what is genuinely good in the world, but you are not free to oppose your political overlords, the ones working frantically to destabilize everything that is necessary for a stable and healthy society (secure borders, law and order, the family, etc.).

There are two, competing versions of free speech common today, though many people conflate them. The first, which is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, goes back significantly further than America’s founding. It was a right hard-earned by the English over centuries of conflict with the Crown. It is summarized in the 1689 English Bill of Rights, a document drafted after the succession of William of Orange to the English crown, and as a response to the radical attacks on England’s historical liberties under James II: “That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.” Roughly a half-century later (1752) this understanding was put simply by David Hume: “Nothing is more apt to surprise a foreigner than the extreme liberty which we enjoy in this country of communicating whatever we please to the public and of openly censuring every measure entered into by the king or his ministers.”

The historical right of Englishmen to speak freely in opposition to the currently reigning governmental powers is the clear background to the First Amendment. There is nothing in that background, nor in the First Amendment itself, that supports the notion that America’s founders intended to allow obscene or degrading speech. In fact, American courts never even entertained the idea that this kind of speech was warranted by the First Amendment until the 1960s. As Russell Kirk rightly put it: “Not until after World War II did federal courts begin to intervene in such concerns, tending to restrain censors rather than pornographers and to enlarge the protections extended by the First Amendment . . . .” (“Pornography and Free Speech,” in Right and Duties, pp. 195-96). The purpose of the First Amendment was always to protect disfavored political speech, to ensure that citizens not currently in government had the possibility to critique the government.

European democracies once also believed in this older view of free speech, but they do so no longer. What is happening at NatCon is simply one more instance of a long train of abuses and usurpations regarding freedom of speech with a design to reduce the peoples of Europe to an absolute despotism. Ryszard Legutko, the Polish philosopher, politician, and NatCon Brussels speaker, is exactly right: “This development (largely unexpected and unnoticed by many to this day),” in which, among other things, political regimes mouth platitudes about freedom of speech while embodying its complete opposite, is a form of “soft despotism” that has developed “at a speed many found perplexing,” even as others lament “the docility of those who were subject to” this deformed understanding of free speech (The Cunning of Freedom, pp. 52-54).

What will the outcome of this total abandonment of the classical understanding of freedom of speech be? The older view enabled those in a nation who were not currently the holders of political power to seek to gain it peacefully. They could criticize the current regime. They could freely organize peaceful opposition to it. They could seek to gain positions of power within the government themselves.

The abandonment of the freedom to engage in political speech against those currently in power leaves one of two options, neither of them conducive to national stability and flourishing. Those not currently in power will either become politically powerless forever or they will seek that political power non-peacefully. There is no alternative. This dilemma is the very thing that prompted the rise of the older form of political liberalism, the one that animated America’s founders in their thought on freedom of speech (though, as we’ve seen, it goes back significantly further than the rise of “Enlightenment liberalism”).

There is a way to enable competing groups to compete for power peacefully, but it must genuinely allow them to do so. If a nation will not do so, as Russell Kirk once put it, “in desperation the public may turn to force and a master. As a justice of the Supreme Court remarked once, the Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact” (“The Marriage of Rights and Duties,” in Right and Duties, 74). Indeed. “Free speech for me, but not for thee,” the mentality on stark display in Brussels at the moment, cannot last.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

5 thoughts on “Free Speech Ain’t What it Used to Be

  1. My guess is that the free speech laws in Brussels have the same justifications as those in Germany. And the difference between Europe and America is that Europe experienced WW II up close and in person. We experienced it in person but not to the same degree that Europe did. In addition, restrictions on free speech in Europe have existed for quite a while which provides a challenge to the title of the above article.

    Europe understands the abuse of free speech from its history with the Nazis. And so individuals and groups receive legal protection from insults and derogatory speech. It also understands the threats posed by authoritarian ethnocratic movements. Again, their understanding of the abuse of free speech and threats posed by authoritarian ethnocratic movements come from its up close and in person experiences with the Nazis. The end game of those legal protections that limit free speech is to prevent the scapegoating of any group.

    What Dunson seems not to understand is that those limits on free speech protects the nation from threatening emergences of authoritarian ethnocratic movements whose intention is to limit other freedoms of people or even scapegoating them. For example, if Christian Nationalism, as described by some of the articles on this website, had its way we would have blasphemy laws as they do in some of Europe but with different intentions. And groups like the LGBT community and those who follow different religious faiths would not have the same privileges that religiously conservative Christians would have. We should note here that Privilege = (Freedom or liberty or rights) – equality.

    Then again, Europe is also a more tolerant society than America. National Conservatives tend to be intolerant as too many of them oppose pluralism.

      1. Dylan,
        Again, what is obsession with taking power when Christ told us not to lord it over others and that His Kingdom is not of this world? From what I have heard, some of those who are young think that they can solve the world’s problems if their group was in control or, in your words, have taken power. ‘When we take power‘ sounds like something a Bolshevik would say right before the October, 1917 Revolution.

        BTW, my comment did not necessarily voice my objections to free speech. My comment was to provide context for how Europe views and allows for free speech. However, at the end I did draw attention to the emerging authoritarian ethnocratic movements in Europe and here in America. And those who promote Christendom and Christian Nationalism are examples of of authoritarian ethnocratic movements.

        1. Brother, it was a silly quip against a long-winded defense of European speech policing, don’t read too much into it, lol.

          1. Dylan,
            Since your quip was posted on a Christian Nationalist website, context indicates that the quip was not trivial despite your intentions.

            In addition, my 1st comment was simply providing context for the free speech limitations in Europe. Note how 9/11 served as a context for Bush’s Patriot Act and the increased surveillance of the public by the government.

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