The argument for free trade was won by Richard Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League in the 1840s. But winning the argument is something different from winning the fight, and the campaign for free trade continues, against the headwinds of bigotry and ignorance, to this day. The argument for free speech has had a similar career. John Milton delivered the knockout punch for freedom of expression in 1644, in a famous speech known as “Areopagitica.” But the war on the private mind and its public expression is never-ending.
Milton did not have the advantage of having heard the arguments of Cobden et al., and so he assumed the permanence (and desirability) of licensure and regulation in trading commodities. But the truth, he insisted, is no mere commodity:
Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopoliz’d and traded in by tickets and statutes, and standards. We must not think to make a staple commodity of all the knowledge in the Land, to mark and licence it like our broad cloath, and our wooll packs. What is it but a servitude like that impos’d by the Philistims, not to be allow’d the sharpning of our own axes and coulters, but we must repair from all quarters to twenty licencing forges.
Milton possessed the greatest literary mind of his time, and his argument was packed with erudition ranging from Biblical principles to a deep knowledge of the ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, and all of that heavy learning was leavened by a deeply humane, generous, and liberal spirit, one finely attuned to the limitations of mere men and their institutions.
Naturally, he was ignored.
And he continues to be ignored, most recently and prominently by Representative Kathleen Rice, a batty New York congressman — and, significantly, a former prosecutor — who has called upon the U.S. government to designate the National Rifle Association and its public faces, including Dana Loesch, “domestic security threats.” This demand comes in response to the NRA’s having shown a recruiting video in which Loesch criticizes sundry progressive bogeymen (the media, Hollywood, etc.) and calls upon like-minded allies to “fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.” It was immediately denounced by the usual opportunistic nincompoops as a call to violence and sedition, even a call to overthrow the government.
It is of course no such thing. It’s a dopey bit of cheap PR hackery from an increasingly partisan NRA that has made the lamentable decision to branch out from what it is good at — its enormously successful and historically bipartisan campaign of agitation for gun rights — and go all-in with Trump (a fickle friend of the Second Amendment) and the kulturkampf associated with his movement. None of that adds up to “domestic security threat” or anything like a domestic security threat. The only thing the NRA or Loesch have done violence to is a decent respect for the limitations of metaphor.
“Domestic security threat” is a term without legal meaning, being a conflation of two terms that Democrats like to employ against their critics: “national-security threat” and “domestic terrorists.” That should give us some idea of what Representative Rice would like to see done in response to the “domestic security threat” she imagines. Recent precedent here is not particularly inspiring: The Obama administration assassinated an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, for the grave offense of being “the Osama bin Laden of Facebook,” a phrase that would be hard to say without laughing in a context other than the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen.
Gun owners and gun enthusiasts have been targeted for some time by Democrats, who have insisted, among other things, that the federal government ought to suspend the constitutional rights of people put on a secret blacklist by the federal government with no due process and no course of appeal. Democrats dream of registries, property seizure, and other invasive measures reminiscent of the totalitarian excesses of the 20th century — so long as those tools of tyranny are used on their political enemies.
What are the possible offenses of the NRA? It is an organization that does nothing more aggressive than political organization and political communication. Its efforts are labor-intensive: Contrary to the ignorant assumptions that inform our political discourse, the NRA is a relatively small spender when it comes to campaign donations and lobbying, being at the moment the 460th-largest campaign donor and the 156th-highest-spending lobbyist. The NRA has long excelled at its core mission because it excels at arguing its case in public and at delivering the votes, particularly in tight House races. And it is for this — for ordinary political activism of precisely the sort that the First Amendment exists to protect — that Representative Rice and others seek to have the NRA punished as a criminal organization, or as a terrorist organization. That these authoritarian measures are cheered by people who still call themselves “liberals” suggests a widespread moral and intellectual failure among a significant portion of the American public.
It is not only the NRA and its political activism that are targeted for suppression. California has laws protecting employees from retaliation for their political views and activism, while both state and federal law protect the right of employees to criticize their companies’ labor practices, but no one in power — no one with the responsibility to enforce the law — is going to lift a finger on behalf of that Google employee fired for the offense of expressing unpopular views critical of his company in a forum designated by his company for that very purpose. Democratic activists such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. have for years been calling for the prosecution of people holding nonconformist ideas about climate change as criminals, and Democratic attorneys general from New York to California have obliged. Every Democrat in the Senate joined Harry Reid in a vote to repeal the First Amendment in order to permit the federal licensure of political speech and the federal prohibition of certain kinds of political speech.
Representative Rice proposes to use the police powers of the state to punish her political opponents for their successful communication of their views — a gross abuse of her high office and the awesome power that goes along with it. The House of Representatives should take such matters seriously, and should move to formally censure her. But while they carry important symbolic weight, such official actions are limited in their usefulness. What is needed is an American public with the moral cultivation and civic self-respect to be able to say: “I do not like that video very much, but the idea that the people who made it should be treated as criminals or terrorists for having done so is horrifyingly stupid, deeply un-American, and far more dangerous to the health of our democratic institutions than anything the NRA could plausibly be accused of.”
Representative Rice believes that her constituents are emotionally incontinent children who can be manipulated with dishonest rhetoric and cheap emotional ploys.
It is worth appreciating that Milton made his famous defense of political dissent while his country was engaged in a civil war, and while he himself was held in some suspicion for his advocacy of certain disreputable liberal ideas. He was not entirely disinterested when he counseled his countrymen to “be wary what persecution we raise against the living labours of publick men.” Having the wrong opinions at that time was dangerous, as Milton knew, a fact that was less fitted to the enlightened civilization of England than it was to the “barbarick pride of a Hunnish and Norwegian statelines,” and he put it. Norway used to be pretty rough.
We are not at war, the best efforts of the black-shirted barbarians at Berkeley and the would-be assassins of congressional Republicans notwithstanding. We have peace — peace enough that people on both sides of the debate on the regulation of guns in these United States ought to be allowed to speak their minds in public in safety, without the threat of state violence being deployed against them by elected officials. And though the question of private toleration is distinct from the question of official persecution, perhaps we even have enough peace that the good people of Silicon Valley can endure to have in their midst an engineer with unpopular opinions.
Representative Rice believes that her constituents are emotionally incontinent children who can be manipulated with dishonest rhetoric and cheap emotional ploys. It is up to them to prove her wrong.
— Kevin D. Williamson is the roving correspondent for National Review.