When Athens Cancelled Socrates

(p. A15) A commitment to open expression has always defined liberalism, which gradually expanded our First Amendment protections. But now we see many liberals abandoning that principle, perhaps because they are no longer liberals in any meaningful sense of the term. How could they be, if they want tech barons to police our online reading? Facebook recently decided to stop blocking posts that suggested a “lab-leak” origin of Covid, but at the same time the company has been boasting of its efforts to downrank or “shadow-ban” accounts that share “misinformation” (in other words, they make it difficult for readers to find those accounts, without telling the account owners).

We sorely need a reminder of the follies and crimes of censorship. In “Dangerous Ideas,” Eric Berkowitz, a journalist and lawyer, offers a global history that identifies some recurring patterns in the suppression of free thinking. For starters, crackdowns almost inevitably happen when societies confront overwhelming crises. Philosophy flourished in ancient Athens, where free males (at least) enjoyed intellectual liberty, but after the Athenians suffered military defeat and a devastating pandemic, they canceled Socrates. Then Plato’s “Republic,” putting words into Socrates’ mouth, laid out a program for absolute control of speech and thought, anticipating in detail modern totalitarianism. Reading Plato, Mr. Berkowitz recognizes Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

. . .

What emerges from “Dangerous Ideas” is that ideological terms like blasphemy, subversion and hate speech are impossible to define. Thus there are never clear guidelines for censorship, which is inevitably inconsistent and often absurd. “We really do not know what is demanded of us,” protested a czarist censor jailed for making a wrong call. Facebook moderators can only be fired, but face a similar quandary.

For the full review, see:

Jonathan Rose. “BOOKSHELF; The Follies Of Censorship.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, June 08, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 7, 2021, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Dangerous Ideas’ Review: The Follies of Censorship.”)

The book under review is:

Berkowitz, Eric. Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2021.

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