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Free Speech, America-Style

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Free-Speech Lessons from Abroad

It is not the case that Canada, Western Europe, and Australia are authoritarian hellholes where illiberal rulers trample mercilessly upon the civil rights of their hapless subjects. But it is the case that American-style free-speech protections, as enshrined in the First Amendment, do not exist in these places. And that matters. It matters in those countries, and it matters in the United States, where the legal protection of free speech faces the threat of being suffocated by social pressure on both private and public actors to suppress speech that is deemed — almost always opportunistically and vindictively — dangerous.

It is likely that, as a matter of global consensus, one set of rules is going to prevail: the American model or the European model — or, rather than “European,” the model that more closely resembles the narrower practices in most of the liberal democracies outside the United States.

Consider the case of Australia, where courts have ruled that there is no personal right to free speech, in spite of the country’s notional protections for freedom of political communication. In one important case, a worker in the national government’s immigration agency was fired for criticizing the agency’s performance in the matter of offshore immigration-detention facilities. She used a pseudonym, did not advertise her connection to the agency, made the posts on her own time from a personal device, etc. There was no real employment issue — she was simply fired for saying what she thinks, in private life. In another high-profile case, a high-court judge described free-speech rights as “still not yet settled law.” No doubt the judge is correct — but such rights should be settled law. These are fundamental things.

Australia’s laws are much more like those that apply in Europe than they are like our own. Australian law varies by jurisdiction, but there are sanctions on so-called hate speech (and other kinds of speech) everywhere in the country, and, in some instances, those penalties are criminal rather than merely civil. As we have seen in both the English-speaking countries and in Europe, what counts as hate speech is easily expanded, meaning that the real scope of free speech is easily narrowed. In Germany, Christian pastors have been arrested for preaching against homosexuality. The same is true in Sweden. And England. And in the United States, too — even constitutional protection will not avail against committed institutional opposition.

Of course, there is always some pretext, some argument that free speech does not apply in this case because the speakers are not really speaking but inciting, creating some kind of real and present danger. There may be some merit to some of those arguments in some circumstances, but they are quickly and easily perverted. For example, the fact that trans people have a relatively high rate of suicide has been (cynically and opportunistically) taken to mean that criticism of trans-related political stances and ideologies are literal violence against trans people, who, being traumatized by political disagreement, presumably will jump off the nearest bridge. That isn’t much of an exaggeration.

The countries that have the most compelling argument for exceptions to free political speech are, for obvious reasons, German-speaking. In Austria, for example, the law allows for imprisoning people — for years — for the crime of selling certain books. (You can guess which ones.) Germany, guided by the doctrine of streitbare Demokratie — “militant democracy,” the notion that liberal democracies must sometimes act in illiberal and antidemocratic ways to defend the fundamental elements of liberalism and democracy — gives the state the power to prohibit not only books and films but also to ban political parties that are deemed hostile to the German constitutional order. To American ears, this sounds shocking — or, it once did: Increasingly, Americans, especially younger Americans, sympathize with such limitations on freedom of speech and freedom of political action.

Given the current character of American political life, what should interest us more than how they handle nationalist literature in Vienna is the question of how they use Covid-era anti-disinformation laws in Ankara — and how the Turkish government does it under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is pretty much how you would expect: Critics of the government’s response to the epidemic were rounded up on charges of sowing panic and spreading disinformation, for the crime of suggesting “that officials had taken insufficient measures,” as Reuters put it. In December, Erdoğan announced that social media had “turned into one of the main sources of threats to today’s democracy” and that his government would pursue measures to criminalize “misinformation.” The first bit of information to respond to there is pretending that the biggest threat to democracy in Turkey is someone other than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But that is not how this will go.

The coronavirus epidemic has provided cover for authoritarian regimes around the world looking to crack down on dissidents. As Foreign Policy reported, by April of 2020 at least 17 people had been arrested on “fake news” charge in Cambodia; Thailand labeled most criticism of the regime’s coronavirus program as “misinformation” and arrested critics; the predictably thuggish regimes of Egypt, Russia, Hungary, Iran, the Philippines, Honduras, and Azerbaijan behaved exactly as expected, while the governments of Singapore and South Africa both reverted to their illiberal instincts.

Do not think, for a second, that it couldn’t happen here. These same illiberal instincts are ascendant in the United States, as well. But, for the moment, they are constrained by the Bill of Rights. And that is to be celebrated and cherished. But protecting American rights in American law is not enough. Law can put the brakes on the worst impulse in the culture, but culture always wins.

And there is more than American culture and American law in play here.

As I have argued for some time, Americans should keep an eye on speech regulations abroad, because these are likely to provide the model for the de facto regulation of free speech in the United States by social-media platforms. In much the same way that California’s more stringent statewide environmental rules end up becoming in effect a national standard for many industries, it is likely the case that relatively illiberal European speech rules will become the consensus global standard absent some real leadership on that issue from the United States — which is nowhere to be seen. The reason for this is not mainly political or ideological but managerial: Mark Zuckerberg, among others, has forthrightly called for a “more standardized approach” to regulation. Market incumbents always prefer standardization. Regulatory compliance is a cost center, not a profit center, and it is much less expensive and less cumbrous to comply with a single body of regulation than with hundreds or thousands of them.

I am a believer in a rules-based international order and understand that such systems require consensus and compromise. But in the matter of free speech, we should expend at least some effort to ensure that the rules that emerge are rules that reflect American values, which are, in this case at least, the ones that most deserve to prevail. There is much to admire about governance in Germany or New Zealand, but their milk-and-water approach to free speech is not one of them.

Words About Words

One comes across all sorts of inexplicable usages on the Internet. Last week, in response to my New Year’s column about the virtues of going to bed at 9 p.m., a reader affirmed that he was “gonna have to Rolex to 22:00,” meaning 10 p.m. I do not recall ever having seen “to Rolex” used as a verb, and cannot begin to guess what it hopes to mean.

But the brand name is kind of an interesting story. There is no Mr. Rolex — there was a Mr. Wilsdorf, Hans, a German-born entrepreneur who started the London-based watchmaker Wilsdorf & Davis in 1905. Very likely owing to the unpleasantness transpiring between Great Britain and Germany at the time, Wilsdorf changed the name of his company to “Rolex” in 1914. There is a story, never confirmed by anyone with direct knowledge of the issue, that “Rolex” is a loose portmanteau of the French words “horlogerie exquise,” or “exquisite watchmaking,” but Wilsdorf always said the name just came to him, ex nihilo. It does seem to be the case that, contrary to current tastes, neither obviously French nor obviously German names carried any great cachet in the market at the time, and Rolex, which along with Nestlé must be one of the best-known Swiss brands in the world, was still an English company. Swiss watches did not enjoy the lofty position they occupy today, and both English and American watches were very popular at the time. There was no particular value in a Swiss-sounding name.

“Rolex” is an example of canned cosmopolitanism in branding, a word with no particular national or cultural connotations and meaning — precisely — nothing. Corporate marketing monkeys work hard coming up with that sort of thing, especially in our time. Pharmaceutical companies (and their products) are famous for having hilariously vague, meaningless names, but other examples include brand names such as Lexus, a name that vaguely references “luxury” and takes a perfectly globalist pseudo-Latin form. (The legend that Lexus is Toyota’s in-house acronym for “Luxury Exports to the United States” is amusing, but without basis.) Similarly, there was no Mr. Kodak — the syllables are meaningless, but easy to pronounce and memorable. Xerox has a similar paternity.

The opposite phenomenon is “foreign branding.” The textbook example of this is Häagen-Dazs, a company started in the South Bronx by Reuben and Rose Mattus, Polish Jewish immigrants who chose the nonsense name because they thought it sounded Danish and associated Denmark with high-quality dairy products. Other examples include Pret a Manger (British), Giordano (Hong Kong), Frusen Glädjé (a Kraft brand of American origin), New Yorker (a German clothier), etc. Alcott Los Angeles, an Italian brand, would more accurately be called Alcott Milan. Both Miniso of Guangzhou and Superdry of Cheltenham play at being Japanese companies, a remarkable testament to how quickly “Made in Japan” went from being the mark of cheap imports to a badge of high quality and high style. The electric-guitar maker Ibanez was named in honor of the luthier Salvador Ibáñez at a time when Japanese manufacturers did not always emphasize their Japanese origins. Today, Ibanez’s most expensive instruments are very prominently advertised as “Made in Japan” and given the designation “J Custom,” J for Japan.

Back to the beginning: Rolex may be one of the great symbols of capitalism, and may even be taken in some quarters as a symbol of greed, but the watchmaker in fact is entirely owned by a charitable nonprofit, the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, in much the same way that the charitable Hershey Trust owns a big chunk (but not the whole) of the chocolatier.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A note to our friends in broadcasting: The Covid variant currently in the news is designated “omicron,” after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. And though it may sometimes seem omnipresent and even omnivorous, it is not the “omni-cron” variant, as one hears it often called on television and radio. The omniscious will know this already.

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In Closing

I have a whole graveyard of bones to pick with Dennis Prager these days, and there is one that is (to extend and possibly to mix the metaphor) stuck in my craw. Prager, in the course of defending himself from some uncomfortable criticism, felt the need to flesh out his views on the Bible, a subject he takes seriously. (Seriously enough to have written several books interpreting the books of the Bible in his “Rational Bible” series, as well as a book on the Ten Commandments.) Prager was being lambasted for a 2006 column in which he bitterly criticized Keith Ellison, a Muslim elected to the House of Representatives, for taking his oath of office on a Koran rather than on a Bible. Prager argued that the issue is not that he thinks poorly of Muslims or their holy book, but that the Bible — the Christian Bible, Old and New Testaments — is a national symbol.

The Bible is, of course, no such thing. It is holy scripture, and it is a particularly Christian possession, not the property of politics, politicians, or political pundits. Contrary to Prager’s insistence, there no such thing as an “American Bible.” Christianity is not a matter subordinate to national culture or to political sensibility. It is answerable to no party and to no state. The Bible long precedes the establishment of these United States and it will, if it comes to that, outlast them, too.

To treat the Bible as a mere national symbol is not, whatever Prager’s good intentions, to elevate it — it is to denigrate it, to make it something less than what it is, while improperly elevating the political pageant to the realm of the sacred, to liturgy. From Pharoah’s domain to Adolf Hitler’s, the road that begins at nationalism always ends at idolatry, the paganism of the state, its princes, and their rituals.

Perhaps it would be better to take the advice of the Gospel according to Matthew and to take no oaths at all, to instead speak plainly and let your good word, your “Yes” or “No,” stand for itself. “I say unto you, swear not at all. . . but let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”

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