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Eric Berkowitz’s new book ‘Dangerous Ideas’ is a masterpiece, but I have some quibbles

Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News,” by Eric Berkowitz, is astounding. I have never read a more comprehensive, entertaining historical account of censorship in the West. It covers ancient Greece and Rome through today. And by connecting the history of censorship to the power of imagery, it tackles the mystical, superstitious way we look at words, as demonstrated by the language of the Third Commandment, along with iconoclasts and demagogues alike throughout history.

“Dangerous Ideas” pays particular attention to the class dynamics of censorship, with members of the upper class being hateful at worst and paternalistic at best toward lower classes. Censorship of pornography, for example, was often cast by upper-class advocates as necessary for the protection of the poor and disadvantaged. Berkowitz shows that the Streisand Effect — the tendency to make information more popular by trying to ban it — is an ancient phenomena. He also explains that French censors banned not only offensive words but also work considered boring or otherwise low-quality. Erich Honecker, the Communist leader of East Berlin until the fall of the Berlin Wall, also had a tendency to copy-edit the works of others while forbidding his own from being touched.

With all of its fantastic strengths, I have added “Dangerous Ideas” to my list of recommended books for understanding free-speech culture, but…

Yes, there is a “but.” Note, only one of the books that I’ve awarded my Book of the Month award (submit your vote for my first ever Book of the Year here!) has been directly about freedom of speech — Jonathan Rauch’s classic “Kindly Inquisitors.” This is for three reasons: 

  1. I think readers would get sick of “the free speech guy reviewing free speech books;” 
  2. I like to draw attention to how free speech, academic freedom, and freedom of inquiry connect to different fields; and 
  3. For somewhat obvious reasons, I’m pretty difficult to please when it comes to free speech books. That is the case with “Dangerous Ideas” as well.  

To be crystal clear, Berkowitz is passionate about freedom of speech; he is a serious thinker, impressive scholar, and careful writer. Nevertheless, I want people who read his book on my recommendation to know my reservations, all of which relate to the final chapter of the book which deals with the contemporary world.

1. The “speech” implicated in the Rwandan genocide would not be legally protected as free expression in any society in history. Where I start having issues with the book is the final chapter (seven), which opens with the Rwandan genocide. Berkowitz writes:

Over the course of one hundred days in 1994, Hutu civilians in Rwanda joined soldiers and militias in savagely murdering eight hundred thousand Tutsis. If the slaughter had a soundtrack, it came from Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM), a Hutu radio station that played anti-Tutsi hate music, punctuated with broadcasts calling for a “final war” to “exterminate the cockroaches” and giving out names, addresses, and even automobile license plate numbers of intended Tutsi victims. One announcer called out, “You have missed some of the enemies. You must go back there and finish them off. The graves are not yet full!”

Berkowitz seems to understand that Rwanda was not an example of what happens when people take a libertarian approach to free speech but rather how radio stations were used as an instrument to facilitate the murder of specific people. That kind of speech is not protected in the United States, or anywhere I am aware of, and would not only meet the extremely high Brandenburg v. Ohio standard, but would also be deemed part of a criminal conspiracy to commit mass murder.

Hitler poster Nazi propaganda
In this 1920s cartoon by Philipp Rupprecht, Hitler is depicted as having his mouth sealed with tape that reads ‘forbidden to speak.’ Beneath: ‘He alone of two billion people on Earth may not speak in Germany.’

Richard Delgado, an early champion of speech codes, cites the Rwandan genocide, along with Weimar Germany, as cautionary tales against free-speech purism. The problem is that neither historical precedent supports the idea that speech restraints could have prevented a genocide. 

Weimar Germany had laws banning hateful speech (particularly hateful speech directed at Jews), and top Nazis including Joseph Goebbels, Theodor Fritsch and Julius Streicher actually went to jail for violating them. The efforts of the Weimar Republic to suppress the speech of the Nazis are so well known in academic circles that one professor has described the idea that speech restrictions would have stopped the Nazis as “the Weimar Fallacy.” The Weimar Republic not only shut down hundreds of Nazi newspapers — in a two-year period, they shut down 99 in Prussia alone — but they accelerated that crackdown on speech as the Nazis ascended to power. Hitler himself was banned from speaking in several German states from 1925 until 1927.

Far from being an impediment to the spread of National Socalist ideology, Hitler and the Nazis used the attempts to suppress their speech as public relations coups. The party waved the ban as a bloody shirt to claim they were being targeted for exposing the international conspiracy to suppress “true” Germans. As one poster explained

Why is Adolf Hitler not allowed to speak? Because he is ruthless in uncovering the rulers of the German economy, the international bank Jews and their lackeys, the Democrats, Marxists, Jesuits, and Free Masons! Because he wants to free the workers from the domination of big money!

As for the Rwandan genocide, the problem wasn’t excessive commitment to free speech but rather a conspiracy to commit genocide. Rwandan speech wasn’t free to begin with; radio stations were not permitted to operate if the government disagreed with their viewpoints, and once the genocide started, both the official state radio station and its nominal opponent were directly controlled by pro-government forces. To use the authorized media of a genocidal state as evidence of the danger posed by excessive liberty suggests a failure to understand the core concept of liberty. 

I know Berkowitz understands this, but I want readers to as well.

2. While campus speech codes and disinvitations are down, things have gotten worse for free speech on campus in recent years. Berkowitz cites FIRE’s statistics that “red light” speech codes have gone down over the years. While this is true, and a good development, this fact in isolation should not be used to indicate that things have greatly improved on campus. As we discuss in “The Coddling of the American Mind,” although the initial censors on campus were administrators using speech codes, after 2013, they were joined by a student population that was very hostile to free speech. Thus, students took over administrators’ role of policing campus speech. 

Indeed, far from improving, 2020 was the craziest year in FIRE history in terms of case submissions. In June 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, our caseload quadrupled that of June 2019. This elevation persisted over the summer, and nearly every month since has set a record for cases.

No discussion of campus politics is complete without pointing out the elephant that’s not in the room: that is, how few conservative professors exist.

We’ve made great progress against speech codes, but that has been due, in large part, to a massive publicity campaign, the tireless efforts of FIRE’s Policy Reform Team, and dozens and dozens of lawsuits. When it comes to disinvitations, after coining that term in 2014, I predicted that universities would simply get more restrictive in deciding who to invite in the first place. And that seems to be the case; universities seem much less willing to invite controversial figures to campus.

We knew disinvitations would be a limited data source because they only reflect who universities are willing to invite in the first place. So, we’ve created other ways to quantify the situation on campus, including comprehensive polling of student attitudes toward free speech on specific campuses. The polling reveals disturbing attitudes, including that 60% of students reported feeling that they could not express an opinion and that one-in-five Ivy League students believe it’s acceptable to block other students from attending a campus event. 

And soon (™) we’ll also be releasing a database of attempts to get professors fired or otherwise punished. Below, I’ve copied some preliminary numbers for how many we’ve found by year. (Keep in mind, the data are still subject to change slightly before we publish).

  • 2015: 26
  • 2016: 42
  • 2017: 75
  • 2018: 58
  • 2019: 74
  • 2020: 116

And of course, political diversity among faculty is extremely narrow and getting worse. Data published in early 2020 assessed the ratio of Democrats to Republicans (D:R ratio) on the faculty at 116 elite colleges — the colleges selected consisted of the two highest ranked public and private institutions, according to US News, in each state sampled. At each school, the registration of up to 20 tenured or tenure-track faculty was assessed across nine different departments: Anthropology, Biology, Chemistry, Economics, English, Mathematics, Psychology, Philosophy, and Sociology.

Overall, the D:R ration among the faculty at these 116 schools was 8.5:1. The D:R ratio was most heavily skewed toward the Democrats in Anthropology (42.2:1), Sociology (27:1), and English (26.8:1), while Mathematics (5.5:1), Chemistry (4.5:1), and Economics (3:1) were the “most balanced” fields sampled. The heavy skew toward Democrats among the faculty appears especially pronounced among schools in the Ivy League, with an average ratio of 30.2:1 (or, if you exclude Harvard, 21.9:1):

Ivy League Democrat:Republican Faculty Ratios (2019)

Brown: 21.3:1
Columbia: 24.5:1
Cornell: 17.6:1
Dartmouth: 9.6:1
Harvard: 88:1
Princeton: 40:1
UPenn: 9.1:1
Yale: 31.3:1

For a comparison, here are some of the top schools in our college free speech rankings, for which data are available:

Kansas State: 4.9:1
UCLA: 7.8:1
Arizona State: 12.4:1
Duke: 18.5:1
U of Arizona: 7.4:1
Rutgers: 13.7:1

3. Censorship on campus is pervasive, severe, and affects people of all political stripes. Again, Berkowitz knows this, but I’m responding to what he writes in chapter seven (emphasis added): 

Rarely in the US or UK is speech more rigorously evaluated for offense than on college campuses, and few issues have delighted the libertarian and right-wing press more than the excesses of campus speech restrictions.

That’s a little unfair. I am left-of-center, but a lot of us (conservatives and libertarians included) aren’t delighted by what’s happening on campus. Darkly amused, sometimes? Sure. Finding humor helps us keep sane, but I encourage readers to go a little deeper and see the more complicated picture. Left-leaning students and professors often get “cancelled” for minor political infractions that they neither intended nor predicted.  

  • In August, a lecturer at Auburn was investigated after lawmakers targeted his anti-police tweets; his position would ultimately be converted to a non-teaching research fellowship, which he said made him feel safer after receiving threats of violence;
  • In December, an assistant history professor at Ole Miss was terminated after posting tweets critical of his supervisor’s decision to reject a grant to fund his anti-prison community education initiative; and
  • In March, a UVA student had the anti-racism artwork she made on her door taken down by the residence life office, because it had a quote that said non-violent protest doesn’t always work. 

Free speech skepticism is the elite position, and it has been for some time.

Conservative critics like Charlie Sykes have been warning about this for decades, and no discussion of campus politics is complete without pointing out the elephant that’s not in the room: that is, how few conservative professors exist. When people downplay campus censorship (here I’m thinking of Mary Ann Franks, not Berkowitz), they should always mention base rates. Given how few conservatives there are many departments, it’s amazing that any get in trouble at all, and there has been a big uptick in that in the last year!

I could quibble with other parts, but these are my main critiques. I don’t want to obscure the book’s magnificence. In fact, I only started to disagree in the final chapter. And to be fair, it may have been written as a conciliatory response to critical readers. 

Although many who express their skepticism of free-speech “absolutism” think of themselves as cutting edge, their thinking was commonplace even when I worked at the ACLU in San Francisco in 1999. Attending Stanford Law School as someone from a very different economic background than most of my classmates, I saw in the Bay Area ruling class some predictable aversions to speech. Even in the late 90s early 2000s, being the “free speech guy” in San Francisco was less popular than you might think. 

There was no shortage of local artists who were iffy on the First Amendment (because it prevented hate speech laws), without seeming to realize that the First Amendment protected them (along with half of San Francisco) from being put in jail. Free speech skepticism is the elite position, and it has been for some time. Classism still plays a huge role in censorship both on- and off-campus, and too many graduates of elite universities do not see how much like Victorians they sound when they restrict expression.

In our current environment, it’s understandable to see some ambivalence about the value of free speech. We are in what Martin Gurri calls the “Fifth Wave,” and it’s extremely chaotic. We’re trying to adjust to a new global social media that allows a cacophony of unprecedented proportions to grow exponentially. As I covered in my review of Gurri’s book, “The Revolt of the Public,” social media is incredibly powerful at tearing things down — almost no institution, idea, or individual can stand up to its full scrutiny. Tearing down some institutions, ideas, or governments can be very positive, but we haven’t figured out a way for social media to build much of anything. I fear a clampdown on social media will prevent us from harnessing the awesome power of negation for something more socially productive.

Thus endeth digression; I highly recommend Eric Berkowitz’s book. I’ll be reading it again and again, and I hope he takes my criticism in good stead. I greatly admire his accomplishment here.

Before closing I’d like to do a shout out for two upcoming books on free speech that I think everyone should preorder and read:

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch

Jonathan Rauch’s “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth” is a fantastic book about free speech and so much more! It covers everything from cancellation and how we construct our social reality, to the threat that conformity pressures pose to knowledge-making endeavors in science and academia.

And Jacob Mchamgama’s forthcoming (and not yet pre-orderable) book “Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media,” similar to “Dangerous Ideas,” is one of the most entertaining and thorough histories of free speech. There is little overlap because Mchangama covers much of what Berkowitz does not (and vice versa). When read together, they are a powerful duo, offering reader-friendly insights into the global history of free speech. If you’d like a preview, I cannot recommend highly enough the podcast Mchamgama produced during his time as a fellow at FIRE: Clear and Present Danger — A History of Free Speech.

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