When Defenders of Free Speech Gain Power, They Often Succumb to “Milton’s Curse”

(p. A17) A typical account of free-speech history will begin with John Milton’s 1644 attack on censorship, “Areopagitica.” To those who feared the publication of false and dangerous doctrines, Milton said, in essence, buck up: “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” A typical account will then note that Milton went on to write “Paradise Lost”: A great poet and a great defense of free speech make an appealing pair. What probably won’t be mentioned is that Milton, who wrote “Areopagitica” early in the English Civil War, served the victors as, among other things, a censor and propagandist. That’s not so appealing, particularly if we know that other, forgotten, champions of free speech, like the radical democrat John Lilburne, were imprisoned under the regime Milton supported.

In “Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media,” Jacob Mchangama delivers the bad news about Milton. Indeed, a recurring theme in this expansive, atypical history is “Milton’s Curse,” a disease that afflicts defenders of free speech when they are exposed to power.

. . .

“Free Speech” is addressed especially to the well-meaning among would-be censors. They should know how rarely censorship goes as planned. Consider Russia, which early in the 19th century organized more than a dozen censorship units that “placed almost comically strict limits on what could be published and imported.” A cookbook that referred to “free air” in an oven was deemed subversive, but Marx’s “Capital,” later in the century, slipped the czar’s net. Hardly anyone, the censors reasoned, would read such a “colossal mass of abstruse, somewhat obscure politico-economic argumentation.”

. . .

. . ., Mr. Mchangama alerts well-meaning censors who wish to curtail only “hate speech” that illiberal governments have hidden behind that same wish. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, says that “advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” This provision—which can easily be abused to “justify [the] persecution of opinions” that a government doesn’t like, as Mr. Mchangama says—was a win for the longtime Soviet position. In 1989, when Libyan and Iranian delegates condemned Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” at the U.N., they invoked the standard of the 1966 covenant. “The real criminal,” Mr. Mchangama notes, “was Rushdie, not those who sought to kill him.”

For the full review, see:

Jonathan Marks. “BOOKSHELF; How Dare You Say Such Things.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 9, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Free Speech’ Review: How Dare You Say Such Things.”)

The book under review is:

Mchangama, Jacob. Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media. New York: Basic Books, 2022.

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