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The Rise of Unfreedom in the West

Andrew A. Michta, The American Interest

With freedom of speech under assault, the West, both as a polity and as a distinct cultural inheritance, is in the throes of a fundamental battle for the survival of its democratic traditions. It is time for all of us to stand up for liberty. And to do so out loud.

It’s time to call it: Democracies across the West are at an inflection point on free speech, and it’s not clear which way things will go on this issue in the next 20 or 30 years. In some cases, ostensibly liberal governments have already made moves to police and suppress what they deem unacceptable speech; in others, rigid political binaries have threatened to crowd out traditions of free inquiry and debate. All too often, it seems not to matter what is said in an argument but rather who says it and how it was said.

Superseding this once-proud tradition of free speech, empiricism, and free inquiry is calculating, cautious, self-censoring phraseology. And when people do express unorthodox views, it is often in hushed tones, out of fear that an overheard comment could kill their career and get them ostracized from polite society. A December 2018 Rasmussen Reports poll found that today only 26 percent of American adults believe they have true freedom of speech, while 68 percent think they have to be careful not to say something politically incorrect to avoid getting in trouble. In 1990 there were approximately 75 “hate speech” codes in place at U.S. colleges and universities; just one year later the number had swelled to more than 300 before spreading like a brushfire thereafter. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in 2018, 90 percent of American universities maintain at least one policy that either restricts protected speech or could easily be interpreted as doing so. Meanwhile in Europe, Germany unveiled in 2017 a new law, known locally as NetzDG, which included massive fines for social media networks that are insufficiently diligent in policing “hate speech” on their platforms. In 2018 Paris followed Berlin’s lead by toughening its laws on “hate speech” on social media. The same year a YouGov poll in the United Kingdom found that significantly more British voters (48 percent vs. 35 percent) believed that there were “many important issues these days where people are not allowed to say what they think.” Last but not least, a 2019 report to the Council of Europe concluded that European press freedom was more fragile today than at any time since the end of the Cold War, given the rise of attacks on and intimidation of journalists. In short, the abridgement of this most fundamental democratic freedom to speak one’s mind appears to have become the norm across the West, as though our elites and governments were rushing headlong down the road to a new dystopia. How did we get here?

For decades now, the freedom to speak and argue—the most fundamental right of a free people—has been under assault by neo-Marxist advocates of a “more just society.” But it is only recently that their efforts have succeeded in shutting down an ever-widening range of venues of public debate: first in academia, then in the media, and of late in politics. Today the fundamental right to free speech is under threat not just from speech codes—that is, from proscriptions on what cannot be said—but also increasingly from prescriptive rules about what one must say, as though perfunctory condemnations of Western history were the price of admission to public debate.

Why are societies in Europe and America seemingly intent on suppressing the fundamentally democratic impulses to speak freely, to err, to debate, and even to offend so that, through it all, we might come to learn what passes the common sense test and possibly arrive at a larger national consensus on policy? When did ideological allegiance (liberal vs. illiberal) become a litmus test for what constitutes appropriate public discourse? And how did we get to the point where political expressions of concern for the economic and social welfare of the nation’s own is “xenophobia,” and where the only praiseworthy use of American power is to unconditionally embrace globalization or save the planet by signing onto high-minded but ultimately unenforceable declarations of virtuous intent? Why is it that in Europe today the traditional generosity of its people is all but taken for granted, while that same citizenry’s desire to ensure its own welfare and security, and to transmit its cultural inheritance to the next generation, is often reviled as intolerance by the intelligentsia, politicians, and the media?

The roots of our growing unfreedom were planted in the late 1960s, but only today can we truly appreciate the extent to which the ideas of that era deconstructed our democratic culture. This latest neo-Marxist lurch toward unfreedom happened in the span of a single generation, the result of a cultural unmooring during which conservatives seem to have lost their sense of caution, and liberals their collective mind. 

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