“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Freedom of speech is a fundamental aspect of American society and an important classical liberal ideal, but it is a right which is not always convenient, convivial, or comity-inducing. In fact, allowing the full flourishing of the freedom of expression and speech often includes permitting speech that much of society will find despicable, evil, offensive, or harmful. Unfortunately, there is a strong cultural – and outside of the United States, legal – movement to restrict speech freedoms and police the public discourse, sometimes with actual police officers. This trend is only accelerating with the mass adoption of social media and Internet communications more broadly, as well as the perpetually searchable online past of nearly everyone in society. So-called ‘cancel culture’ is commonplace in certain circles of political and social activism, and virtually every potentially controversial opinion (and many that are not) is met with the metaphorical gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. There are increasing levels of pushback against this trend, but the idea of ‘de-platforming’, stifling, or censoring speech which the vast majority of society considers beyond the pale – support for terrorism and blatant white supremacy, to give two examples – is quite popular, especially among younger people. According to a poll conducted by the Campaign for Free Speech, “61 percent of Americans agree that free speech should be restricted, and 51 percent believe that the First Amendment, ratified in 1791, should be rewritten to reflect the new cultural norms of today. Millennials feel a greater sense of negativity from free speech, with 57 percent agreeing that the First Amendment should be rewritten, and 54 percent believing that possible jail time would be an appropriate consequence for ‘hate speech.’” Despite the strong American constitutional protections for free speech, as seen in the First Amendment quoted above, without a strong cultural presumption and acceptance of the values around free speech, the right itself can be chipped away.
From the very beginning of recorded history through the modern day, humans have experienced radical fluctuations in our political systems, our personal ideologies, our liberties, and the way we live our lives. We have embraced the idea of change as a species, and writers and thinkers throughout the course of history have reflected this obsession. Heraclitus of Ephesus, one of the earliest ancient philosophers, saw the reality of change as universal in nature and among mankind; his idea that the only constant in life is change has echoed through the millennia that have elapsed since he lived. One of the trademark opaque phrases of Heraclitus that illuminates this idea states that “All things come into being through opposition and all are in flux like a river”; this image of the river is useful in understanding change and our human perception of it. For as much as we can see the change that is occurring through the flow of the river, we also perceive the river as unchanging so long as it remains flowing and within its banks. This perception of change reflects a deeper reality in human affairs, as we often recycle or rediscover older ideas or paradigms and see them as novel inventions of our own time. Our language and idioms have reflected this for quite some time; the phrase ‘everything old is new again’ is common in English-speaking societies, but the feeling it expresses is universal. The French use – in their stereotypically pessimistic and existential manner – the idiom ‘plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose’, which translates roughly as ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. This phrase captures a key sentiment in humanity which has been repeated through history – that of the fact that constant change generally does not truly reverse the basic order of things or change human nature. This is true for historical change in ideologies and political systems as much as it is for anything else; the only constant, which remains the same throughout time, is that things are always in a state of flux and humans tend to repeat older ideas or cycles in newly updated ways. If this is true, we should expect human societies to always be in a state of change and conflict; yet some theorists throughout history have taken an opposite approach, claiming that history itself has an endpoint or goal. Historians and thinkers who fall into this teleological camp – from Augustine and Bossuet to Hegel and Marx – vary wildly in their ideas about history, but all agree that history is progressing towards a specific end. Still, few of these thinkers saw their own time as representing the ‘end of history’, only predicting that it would come at some point in the future. For most of the human past, the idea that history had ‘ended’ would have seemed ridiculous, especially given the inexorable reality of change and the often-drastic upheavals that surrounded it. But apparently unique historical circumstances only a few decades ago led many to embrace this old philosophy anew and claim that their era was indeed the realization of the ‘end of history’.
Two-hundred and forty-four years ago today, fifty-six brave men took their lives in their own hands and signed their names to a document almost unprecedented in human history. The Declaration of Independence is a profound statement of Enlightenment principles and has guided the progress and development of human rights and liberal constitutionalism in this nation and across the world. Our nation, and the men who founded it, did not always live up to the lofty principles espoused in our founding documents; chattel slavery, forcible relocation of Native American tribes, Jim Crow, and Japanese internment all are examples of horrendous episodes in which we fell short of those ideals. But to abrogate them entirely because of past hypocrisy or failure is a fool’s errand. In 2020 America (despite all of its flaws), we can say what we wish without fear of government action, worship (or not worship) however we please, advocate for our favored policies without concern for our liberty, and defend ourselves to the fullest extent possible. No matter who resides in the White House, who controls the Congress, or who sits on the Supreme Court, our natural rights remain protected from the avarice or evil of those who would wish to deny us them. In no other society on earth does the individual have more control over his own choices in life, personally, politically, and professionally. We live in the most prosperous, liberal, diverse society that has ever existed in human history; it would do us well to remember that and to see ourselves as lottery winners in a broader world full of tyranny, slavery, and oppression. The United States of America has been a shining city on a hill not only because we have grand ideals of freedom and liberty, but because we have worked incredibly hard over myriad generations to fully embrace and fulfill the promises of the founding. Let us as Americans continue that worthy mission and move our great nation even closer to the full flowering of liberty. Happy Independence Day.
The conflict over police abolition is essentially a fight over how we view humanity; in the battle between Hobbes and Rousseau, the Englishman wins.
Over the past few weeks of protests and civil unrest following the tragic killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, discussion of police brutality has been widespread and bipartisan. Politicians, journalists, and regular people across the ideological spectrum have come together around the idea that police reform is necessary. This is an excellent development, as any changes to American policing need to be generally popular with all groups to have any chance of being made permanent and accomplishing their goal of improving public safety for us all. Unfortunately, radical (and unpopular) ideas have come to dominate some aspects of this conversation, particularly on the political left. The idee du jour among American progressives is the concept of total police abolition, or in its slightly tamer variant, the defunding of the police. In this article, I am going to group these two somewhat different ideas under the same heading of police abolition for one major reason: those advocates for defunding of the police often see it as a step towards a wholly new model of public safety that does not involve policing at its heart. To me, this seems like a slower version of the more aggressive slogan of ‘abolishing the police’, so it is fair to lump them together when thinking in the abstract.