By Chet Yarbrough
Dangerous Ideas (A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News
By: Eric Berkowitz
Narrated by: Tim Campbell
Eric Berkowitz (Author, human rights lawyer and journalist
Eric Berkowitz recounts the history of free speech and censorship. His history infers censorship is a misdirected waste of time. Berkowitz argues freedom of speech is unstoppable. Even in the most repressive governments in history, citizens have exercised freedom of speech.
Berkowitz recounts many who chose to exercise free speech that were exiled, tortured, dismembered, maimed, or murdered. However, these free speech martyrs insist on having their say. That seems Trump’s justification for suing Facebook and Twitter.
Pundits suggest Trump has no chance of winning his suit against Facebook and Twitter–Berkowitz’s presumed response would be “who cares?”
The fundamental point made many times in Berkowitz’s history is that censorship does not work because there is always someone who is willing pay any price to say what they think must be said. Berkowitz offers many historical examples of why free speech is a confusing and difficult problem.
Free speech can spread both truth and lie.
One of Berkowitz’s answers to the conundrum of free speech is that more freedom allows each listener to choose what they wish to believe. Problems arise when freedom of speech offers lies as truth and misleads the public.
White supremacism lies and Covid19 falsehoods have historically destroyed lives.
In every country of the world, free speech is unstoppable because it is controlled by the few, not the many.
Listening to Berkowitz’s history vivifies a trip to China in 2019. A guide, presumably at some risk to himself, took our small group into a private room to remind us of China’s response to the idea of free speech in Tiananmen Square .
Our guide reminded us of one protester who moved in front of a Chinese tank whenever it tried to change directions. The guide explained the “tank man” (who was never identified by name) was arrested, and never heard from again.
At the direction of President Deng Xiaoping, 300,000 troops were mobilized to stop a demonstration by Chinese students. China’s soldiers fired on college students and friends who were demonstrating their belief in free speech. An unknown number of Chinese citizens (some say hundreds, others say thousands) were murdered at the direction of government leaders. Our 2o19 Chinese guide was exercising his right of free speech by reminding us of what happened on June 4th, 1989.
Government is the first seat of control for free speech. However, that first seat is diminished by singular economic interests.
The rise of newspapers, radio, and television focused and expanded the principle of free speech. Economic interests influenced these early platforms of free speech but with a more limited threat and benefit to the public.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the blogosphere have widened the principle of free speech and significantly increased potential public threat and benefit.
In the age of newspapers, radio, and television, government controls were explicitly legislated but in the internet age control is hidden in platform algorithms. Government may still have the first seat of control, but media moguls have usurped legislated government censorship.
Berkowitz offers no answers. He only reveals the complexity of freedom of speech. He suggests freedom of speech is an essential ingredient of a just society. However, at the heart of free speech is economic interest. Free speech is secretly used to distort truth and sometimes incite violence.
Whether it is a newspaper reporter told to revise an article that criticizes corporate advertisers or a discloser of government secrets there is societal threat. Even more pernicious is the Amazon, Facebook, or Twitter executive who orders a coder to increase customer clicks for corporations that pay more for advertising. And then there are the media trolls who distort the truth, lie, or incite violence to increase click count with no regard to consequence.
Freedom of speech is “…a riddle wrapped in an enigma” (a Winston Churchill quote about Stalinist Russia). Freedom of speech is a two edged sword, a tool for defense and destruction.