Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Free Speech and Benevolent Rulers

As I have written before on this blog, I have been editing papers on the historical origins of free speech in the 18th century, which, it is hoped, will appear in a published volume. One of the papers is by Douglas Smith, writing on free speech in Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great. Catherine (1729-1796) is one of the three "enlightened despots," along with Frederick of Russia and Joseph II of Austria. Catherine, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, endorsed a liberal policy of freedom of expression, without going so far, however, as to institute it in law. She also relaxed press censorship after 1783.

Freedoms bestowed by a sovereign, however, can also be also be taken away by a sovereign, as was the case when a book appeared that tested the limits of freedom of expression in Russia. This was Alexander Radishchev's Journey from Saint Petersburg to Moscow, which portrayed the evils of Czarist Russia, particularly serfdom. It could not have appeared at a worse time, at least as far as the author was concerned, 1790. Catherine was not amused, and Radishchev was lucky to escape with his head. Before her death Catherine instituted a system of censorship, citing "the need to put an end to various inconveniences resulting from the free and unrestricted publciation of books." After Catherine, Russia was even more intolerant to freedom of expression.

The second installment of a biography of Austria's Joseph II, by Derek Beales, has just appeared. The review in the TLS (July 31, 2009) confirms what I wrote above about freedoms bestowed by "enlightened" rulers. According to reviewer Steven Beller, Joseph was a great reformer: "Once he became sole ruler in 1780, Joseph unleashed a barrage of directives which amounted to one of the most radical reform packages yet put forward by a major European monarch." Among his achievements: he imposed the most expansive religious toleration in Catholic Europe; he began the emancipation of Habsburg Jewry; he was liberal in regard to press censorship.

Joseph was also, according to Beller, "almost a populist." He liked to travel incognito among his subjects, in order to understand their needs. But he always considered himself a sovereign, not a citizen. Thus, he had no use for constitutional representative government. Instead, he saw government "in stark terms of an unmediated relationship between sovereign and subjects." Traditional elites and the people, too, especially in Hungary, were suspicious of his plans, including the census he instituted as a first step to "rational modern government there."

For James Madison, author of the U.S. Bill of Rights, "the people, not the government, possess absolute sovereignty." Freedom of speech and the press, set down in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, were instruments by which the people would exercise "censorial power" over the government, not the other way around. Europeans, on the other hand, still seem very much under the influence of paternalistic notions of government as exemplified by rulers like Catherine, Joseph, and, later, Napoleon.

In Europe, it is still felt that well-intentioned elites can lead citizens to virtue and to the public good. Thus, although Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees freedom of expression, it is limited by "the protection of the reputation or rights of others." What this limitation had led to throughout Europe is a suppression of a discussion of contentious issues.

In the U.S. we would call this "political correctness," of which there is plenty here. Nevertheless, contentious public issues (gay marriage; affirmative action) are still debated, and in the process we work our way as a nation to some kind of resolution. It takes time, of course, but life exists in real time, not in an abstract, universal dimension. Rights have to be fought for by citizens, not bestowed by wise rulers (especially not by judges who think they know what is right). People in Iran and other countries fighting for liberties are learning for themselves what the West should have learned after several centuries of experience.

The recent protests at Town Hall meetings are impossible to imagine in Europe these days, but they are certainly a vivid illustration of what Madison had in mind when he declared that the citizens were to exercise censorial power over the government. These contentious forums are not "unpatriotic," as some members of Congress have asserted. We have had more contentious disagreements in our history. Frankly, my own opinion is that, when Congress doesn't do things, we are better off as a nation. (For a large image of the chart below, showing the bone of contention at Town Halls, go to Sherry Mowery's blog.

No comments: