My Weekly Reader.

            Couple of bumper-stickers from days of yore on the subject of free speech: “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” and “Does a book displease you?  Refute it.”[1]  Still, these are just one opinion on the subject.  Equally representative is the rant against those who publish “foolish, ignorant, malignant, libellous (sic), mad, impious, and subversive ideas.”[2]  The ideas seem self-evident, as do the contemporary applications to Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. 

            These statements arose in response to the invention of the printing press.[3]  “Bad ideas” and “bad speech” had been around for a very long time.  Governments had dealt with them on an “ad hoc” basis.[4]  The printing press allowed the mass publication of books at a comparatively low price.  The audience expanded.  Soon, the Protestant Reformation emphasized mass literacy.[5]  The audience expanded again.  From the 16th Century on, governments struggled against the flood of books that some people did not want other people to read.  To avoid being drowned,[6] they developed the technique of delegation.[7]  Printers, comparatively few in number, were held responsible for the authors, numerous as flies in an outhouse.  This could work so long as all countries followed the same rules.  However, as has often been the case with agreed production limits in OPEC, somebody always cheated.  The Dutch, in particular, often published books that the neighboring French wanted banned.  The market (smugglers, book-sellers with “something in the back room that might interest you”) did the rest.[8]  The printers of today are Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter.  They face a great deal of political pressure to either weed-out or stop weeding-out contested speech. 

            Recently, the Pew Research Center reported that, in 19 advanced economies, a median of 70 percent of respondents see the “spread of false information on-line” as a “major threat.” Younger people are much more likely to regard this as less of a threat than do older people.  In the United States, 75 percent of people 50 and older regard it as a major threat, while 56 percent of those 18-29 see it that way.  Similarly, younger Americans who follow social media express less concern about made-up news as a factor in politics or as a worsening problem.[9]    

            Perhaps young people are dopey or old people are technophobes.  Or maybe young people know a skunk when they smell one.  As Milton and Voltaire seemed to believe of all. 

[1] John Milton and Voltaire respectively. 

[2] Erasmus. 

[3] Jonathan Marks, “How Dare You Say Such Things,” a review of Jacob Mchangama, Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media (2022), WSJ, 10 February 2022.  Marks is a professor of politics at Ursinus College and a tireless defender of liberal education. 

[4] Witness the unfortunate Socrates and Jesus of Nazareth incidents.  Not that more recent governments haven’t pursued the same solution.  Witness Leon Trotsky and Salman Rushdie. 

[5] Even if mass literacy did not become a reality until much later on. 

[6] One censor, exhausted and half-blind, lamented that “What we need is a halt to printing.”  Couldn’t put that genie back into the bottle. 

[7] What I know about this comes from “A Police Inspector Sorts His Files: The Anatomy of the Republic of Letters,” in Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984). 

[8] Later, in the Soviet Union, with its tightly controlled borders, people resorted to “samizdat.” 

[9] See: Three-in-four across 19 countries view global climate change as a major threat to their country | Pew Research Center  and 6. Younger Americans and those who prefer social media for news feel less concern about the issue of made-up news | Pew Research Center 


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