At Law and Liberty today, I have a review essay on Jacob Mchangama’s new book, Free Speech. Mchangama argues that the United States, and the world generally, needs to recommit to free speech principles before it is too late. I argue that the real problem is not a failure to believe in free speech, but a lack of social trust. Here’s an excerpt:
It is a striking feature of American life in the first quarter of the 21st century that we have somehow created a culture in which everyone feels aggrieved. This is especially true when it comes to free speech. Both conservatives and progressives believe their opponents are out to silence them—not just beat them in debates and prevail against them in elections, but intimidate them, put them on mute permanently, eliminate any possibility of resistance. Many on each side see the other as not simply wrong, but ill-motivated and dangerous, an existential threat to be defeated before it is too late.
This state of affairs is more the norm in American history than we care to admit. Perhaps because we see ourselves in providential terms—“the last best hope of earth,” as Lincoln said—Americans always have been sensitive to threats our democracy faces and often have worried about enemies within spreading “disinformation.” Eras of Good Feeling occur relatively rarely. Even so, the level of recrimination just now seems quite high, and many Americans apparently believe we must silence our opponents before they succeed in silencing us.
In Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media, Jacob Mchangama maintains that a renewed commitment to free expression can help us through these perfervid times. Mchangama, a lawyer and the founder of Justitia, a human-rights organization in Denmark, has written a programmatic history that “connect[s] past speech controversies with the most pressing contemporary ones.” Today’s debates about free expression recapitulate those of long ago, he believes, and just as our ancestors did, we must defend the right to speak against those who would take it away.
To write a comprehensive history like this one is an ambitious undertaking, and Free Speech is a mixed success. Mchangama writes engagingly and has done his research. The chapters on the Internet and social media are especially good. But even at 500 pages, a history that spans thousands of years and many civilizations is bound to be a bit superficial at times. Moreover, as he himself recognizes, tolerance for others’ speech depends as much on culture as it does on law—and in today’s polarized, distrustful America, we are less and less likely to give our opponents the benefit of the doubt and let them have their say even if the law permits it.
You can read the whole essay here.