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So to Speak podcast transcript: A history of Western censorship with Eric Berkowitz

Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.

Nico Perrino: Welcome back So to Speak, the free speech podcast where every other week, we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am as always, your host, Nico Perrino, joined by who has become essentially my cohost. He’s appeared on so many episodes, and I think, Greg, you’ve been in maybe the last two or three – I don’t know. You’ve been in a lot recently. You were on the one with Jonathan Rauch, which we published two weeks ago, but welcome back again.

Greg Lukianoff: Yeah.

Nico: And then –

Greg: Thanks. Yeah, thanks for having me. I really wanted to sit in on this one because I’m such a fan of this book.

Nico: Yeah, and the book we’re talking about today is Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, From the Ancients to Fake News by Eric Berkowitz who is our other guest on today’s show. Eric, welcome onto the show.

Eric Berkowitz: Thanks so much for having me.

Nico: So, you’re based in San Francisco. And I have to be candid and admit, I know a lot about the free speech world. I know a lot of the writers, and authors, and thinkers in this space, but until I had been told about your book, I had never heard your name. So, can you give us a little bit of background? Is this your first foray into free speech thinking and writing, or – and what got you interested in it?

Eric: Oh my gosh. I’ve been interested in free speech from the beginning. My legal career has been mostly devoted to intellectual property and that kind of thing, but I left the law in the early 2000s, and enrolled in journalism school, and got a master’s in journalism, and became – I was a curiosity because I was in my late 40s at that point. And I –

Greg: Where did you go for journalism school?

Eric: I went to USC.

Greg: Oh, nice, okay.

Eric: To the Annenberg School and got a master’s. And so, from that point forward, journalism, free speech, writing has been central. My legal career, it’s interesting. My first case when I was 5 years old was a first amendment case. And it had a huge effect on me, which was – I always thought, when I was coming up, free speech being a protection for lefties, for artists, for dissidents, radicals, but this was a case on behalf of a captain of the Alameda sheriff’s department, who from my background, was on the other side. And the Alameda County sheriff’s department, at least at that point was still run by the people who had smashed the free speech movement in the early ’60 – in the mid-‘60s, etc.

But what this captain had done was work in the election against the incumbent sheriff, a guy named Sheriff Dyer, who really was an old school, stomp them first and ask questions later cop. And he worked against that sheriff in the election, and very quickly found himself in the nightshift, in the jail. He was demoted heavily for it. And he brought a case – we brought a case based on freedom of speech, being punished for his political beliefs. And we were a scrappy little law firm. And we were fighting against a law firm that pretty much controlled Alameda County.

And the way they pitched the case is this is an employment matter. Who cares? We can shift these people any way we want. And we tried it as a free speech case and won big. And that told me that the first amendment and free speech protects everybody, everybody. And it was actually – became that much more important to me for that case. And so, how did I start to write the book? Well, I’ve written two books previously, long-term surveys of the intersection of sex, and marriage, and the law. And my publisher, my UK publisher was – contacted me, and we were talking about issues that were going on in Britain.

And there was this suppression of what’s called drill music, which is a very, very hardcore rap music in London from the streets. And those videos were getting suppressed all the time. And it was causing a brouhaha. This is, I guess, back in 2018. And my publisher and I realized the way this was being handled in the press, everyone seems to think that if censorship issues come up for the first time, whenever they arise, it’s as if this has never happened.

Nico: Whoa.

Eric: And it hit us both that there really hasn’t been a book covering censorship and free speech on the long sweep, so to give people perspective. Now, I’m not a professor. I’m a lawyer. I’m a journalist. And we wanted to write a – there’s as you know, as you guys both know, vast literature for academics and for lawyers on the subject of free speech, endless, but nothing for the smart trade audience. And that is our – so that’s what we did. And I put my head down, and I started reading. And I didn’t look up for a couple years.

Nico: You start the book –

Greg: And I have to say, clearly, and I mean I was so impressed by this book. And it was something that [inaudible] [00:05:21]

Eric: Coming from you, that means a lot.

Greg: Oh, no. I appreciate that. I did my little bit of history of the censorship – history of censorship during the Tudor dynasty back when I was in law school. And I did a little bit of academic work on that, but I was always kind of shocked that there wasn’t a really good, comprehensive book. And I was just – you got so much stuff in there. I mean, how many years did this – it just – I was super impressed by just how thorough it was and how many areas you cover.

Eric: Well, this book is kind of like haiku in the sense that my American publisher, Beacon, which is a – they’re just tremendous people.

Greg: Yeah, Beacon’s great.

Eric: Gave me a 100,000-word limit, all in. That includes titles. That includes footnotes. That includes everything.

Greg: Footnotes?

Eric: And so, in the sense that haiku’s 17 syllables, this – there was a lot that had to be left out. So, thank you for the comprehensive comment because I kept on, for two yea – it was about a two-year project.

Greg: Wow, yeah, it –

Eric: And I have a huge amount of energy, so to keep it – and they weren’t like 110,000 words. They were, 100,000 words. It was – and so, work a lot to pack it in.

Greg: It reads like the work of a lifetime because it covers so much ground. And for me, the ability to say something concisely is generally something that comes from knowing a lot more than you’re letting on, essentially. And that’s one of the reasons why I love –

Eric: I fooled them again.

Greg: That’s one of the reasons why I have such a respect for popular non-fiction is that – and I don’t think it’s fluff. I think – when I think of the best popular non-fiction writers, the person who’s gonna be my book next month, and book of the month is John Rauch’s new book, Constitution of Knowledge, which I’m absolutely thrilled about. And it’s – every paragraph, you know that he’s leaving out another book’s worth of stuff. Or the one that I’m trying write about right now, John McWhorter’s absolutely insane book on nine offensive words or nine dirty words. I forget what that – I always get the name –

Eric: Oh, you mean the George Carlin thing? The seven words you can’t say on –

Greg: It’s not about Pacifica. It’s actually literally about the history and etymology of all of these different words. And it’s –

Eric: God, how fascinating is that?

Greg: If you ever meet the guy, he talks in perfect paragraphs. It’s unnerving. And his writing is so tight. And you could have a paragraph that you’re like, to write that paragraph, that probably took you about 20 years of research to be able to get that as precise as you just got it. It’s just so –

Eric: Well, I can honestly say that journalism, the 15, 18 years of my life has been a really good training in that regard is when you have –

Greg: Absolutely.

Eric: – a 500-word limit, you’ve got to put it all in. So, yeah, concision is important. It’s – you have to realize who the audience is. I did not write this for professors, even though I’m thrilled that professors liked it. I did not write this for lawyers necessarily because they’re already steeped. I wrote it for people who are interested in politics, and are seeing these issues popping up, and maybe want some perspective. And also, as I did the research, I found humanity’s an interesting thing, and that stories are interesting things, which goes to one of your questions of why study censorship in the first place?

Nico: Eric, you’re –

Greg: Well, the – I wanted to ask about some of the themes. Sorry, I didn’t actually write down questions. And I know that – and Nico [inaudible] [00:08:58]

Nico: Well, before we get into the themes of the book, Greg, I wanted to ask Eric – because we had talked offline briefly, that the book, there was some stuff you wanted to put in the book that you weren’t able to put in your book because of fear, not necessarily of censorship, but of violent response on behalf of some readers.

Eric: Yeah. This is an interesting story. And it brings it into perspective, I think, a lot. In one of the later chapters of the book, I was talking about Rushdie and Satanic Verses. And I didn’t put that much into it in that particular story because that story’s been told pretty heavily. But there’s a writer in Britain named Kenan Malik who I admire massively. And he wrote about it and about the sweep from the Satanic Verses imbroglio to the Danish cartoons imbroglio, and then on to Charlie Hebdo. And he was talking about the fact – we just lost Greg.

Nico: I’m sorry.

Eric: And he was talking about the fact that Rushdie won the battle. I mean, Satanic Verses was never taken off the shelves, at least in Britain. My God, it caused a lot of carnage, but it was never taken off the shelves. But in – Malik came up with a phrase. I wish I invested it, with the internalizing the fatwa, that in the years since the fatwa, we’ve started to pull punches. We’ve started to see offense of a group as something that is to be taken, if not seriously, to be taken in a – well, yeah, to be taken seriously, and also to sculpt what we say.

So, whereas there was at least from governments, huge support of Rushdie during that period, he was seen as kind of a martyr, when the Danish cartoons issue crept up in 2005, those are the cartoons that satirized the prophet and put him in – depicted him disrespectfully, let’s put it like that. Governments began to speak out against that. Sweden began to censor websites containing that. And then, on, and on, and on, we began to not stage art exhibits, not put on operas, not – so we’re pulling punches. In that sense, Malik said we’ve internalized the fatwa.

Well, in 2018, there was a case. And it blew my mind, in which there was an Austrian woman, a provocateur, no question, gave a seminar in which she called the prophet Muhammed a pedophile. Well, he did have a very, very young wife, but that was 1,400 years ago, and things were different. And so, she slandered him, if you can slander someone who’s been dead for 1,400 years. And –

Nico: Or if you can slander a public figure on the statured of the alleged prophet Muhammed.

Eric: And she was charged criminally in Austria under a hate crimes statute. And she challenged that. And it went up to the European Court of Human Rights, which is the court in Europe that hears these things. And they ruled against her. And they upheld the conviction, saying that she had been gratuitously offensive. I’m trying to find this. Yeah, said that her words were gratuitously offensive, and that she had a duty not to be so – talking about objects of veneration, and what she said went beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate.

That’s what the highest court of Europe said in upholding a conviction. Well, I really criticized that. I thought that was an abominable decision. And what I said was that by caving – by that ruling, what I saw is they were really worried about retaliation, of violence in response to that. And I said that the court, “internalized the fatwa for the entire EU.” Well, my publisher in Britain, they’re lovely people. They’re brave people. It’s a small publisher, and they have a huge Arabic aspect to them. And they publish a lot of books in Arabic.

And the woman who runs the place, who’s a friend of mine, who I admire enormously called me. And she said, “I can’t do it. That line that you put in, it can’t be.” I said, “Why?” And she said, “Well, I have a child. We’ve had bricks thrown through our window. We’ve had threats. This line, caving into the fear, internalize the fatwa, there might be retaliation.”

Nico: Wow.

Eric: And this is a woman who’s been telling me for two years, “Be brave. Take a stand.” And she is. She’s an incredibly brave woman. The risks she’s taken in life are many. So –

Nico: But – so she internalized the fatwa, essentially making your point.

Eric: Precisely. And the idea is to internalize the fatwa in this book. So, my little book that I’m producing in my dungeon in San Francisco, I mean, I’ve never experienced that. I could be a first amendment absolutist from the safety of my townhouse in San Francisco, but in London, it’s a different thing. And I was being asked to self-censor. And I made the call that the people I care about are worth more than my absolutism. So, we wrote around it, and we softened the language. And the British addition has a different formulation of that.

But it’s interesting because even a book about censorship can itself be an inflammatory thing. And even me, I’m not a world-famous person, even this little book itself can become an issue.

Nico: Well –

Greg: And I unsurprisingly have a somewhat controversial view on the Muhammed cartoons, was that I thought that every newspaper in the country should have reprinted them, not as a political statement. I wanna be very clear about that, but that’s what journalists do is that essentially – and when you see some of these. Like, I – definitely, the famous one is the bomb and the turban one. You see a lot of them. They’re literally just attempts to render someone who looks like they might have lived in Arabia in the seventh century. And I feel like people needed to see them to understand the news.

And if that had actually taken advantage of one of the great forces of nature, the Streisand effect, I think that maybe it would have actually dissuaded, at least to some degree, some of the response, when they realize every single time we actually put these in the news, these are going to be back in the news.

Eric: Well, the cartoons were reprinted pretty heavily. A lot of newspapers did do that in Europe.

Greg: Not in the U.S. though.

Nico: Yeah, not in the U.S.

Eric: Not in the U.S.

Nico: So, the Philadelphia Inquirer made news because it published it in its opinion section. And it made news precisely because it was one of the only publications to do so.

Eric: Yale –

Nico: But a lot of the news sites in the United States did not. And Yale University Press –

Eric: There was a book about the cartoons – I’m sorry. There was a book about the cartoons, published by Yale –

Nico: But didn’t.

Greg: Yeah.

Eric: – about the issue. And at the last minute, Yale pulled the cartoons from a book about the cartoons.

Greg: We –

Eric: And to take the absurdity one step further, Index on Censorship, kind of like Fire.

Greg: Yeah. Oh, no, we know and love them. I –

Eric: Yeah, they took the cartoons out of their article criticizing Yale for pulling the cartoons. So –

Greg: Yeah. I had them on the website, by the way, when this came out. And there were times where I was just like listen, it does freak me out, the idea of kind of like am I putting some of my own staff at risk by doing this? And it was – I definitely get it. And how we actually handled that – because it’s just one of these things where the idea that we can have free speech, but you can’t blaspheme, it’s kind of like, but what – that’s not a tiny carve out. Historically, that was kind of the whole kit and kaboodle, to – a lot of free speech thinking came from the idea that you can’t – you should be allowed to be a heterodox thinker, and it was framed in terms of religion.

Nico: It’s the most – I mean, it’s the most important –

Eric: Well, I mean, yeah, that’s the –

Nico: It’s the –

Eric: That’s the opening of the 10 commandments.

Nico: Yeah, well, it’s the most important question. It’s where did we come from? How did we get here? And the extent that you can’t criticize other’s theories of how we got here and why we’re here is as Greg said, to kinda throw away a lot of human history and the reasons that we wanna have those sorts of debates and discussions.

Greg: Oh, and I wanna make a quick pitch because I love pitching books that I like, Tyranny of Silence is a quite impressive book, by Flemming Rose. He was the person at the center of the controversy. He was the publisher of Jyllands-Posten at the time. And you gotta meet the guy because he is a soft spoken, kindly hearted Dane. And he did not – he just – there’s a long tradition in Europe of sort of roasting religion. And the idea that he couldn’t do something, he wanted to prove that he could. And it didn’t really work out. But the book itself is extremely thoughtful, and he talks to actually some people who wanted to kill him, for example, but it’s really an excellent book.

Eric: Well, the urge to censor, Phil Kerby, editor of the LA Times had a great quote. I just found it the other day. He said, “Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature. Sex is a weak second.” Well, I’ve written two books about sex, so I might as well hit this one. I’m not quite sure of that, but there is a –

Greg: The evidence is pretty strong.

Eric: There is an impulse that we all have, both officially, that is when we have authority over others, and personally, which has been creeping up, which Fire is very much involved with is when we hear ideas that jar us, when we hear ideas that if not hurt our feelings, question what we believe and what we hold dear, it’s not something I’m proud of, but there’s an impulse to say, shut up. I’m stopping you. I can’t hear this – even if it doesn’t actually have a tangible effect. It’s the psychological factor. And that’s – one of the themes in the book is fragility.

And I think blasphemy is really a part of that. Obviously, the depictions of the prophet didn’t impinge on the practice of religion of Islam, but merely having them in the world was, I think, enough to make these – to make at least opportunistic clerics make a stink out of it.

Nico: Well, a bit of history.

Greg: It definitely would – I mean, Rauch thinks of it as a turning point as well. He sees Rushdie as when kind of – not just when everything changed, but when it was clear that attitudes outside of publishing had changed as well. And that was – since it was ’89, it was when there was a dramatic change in attitude about free speech, even though the free speech battles had nominally been won about 10 years earlier.

Nico: I had told the –

Eric: Yeah, we’ve internalized a notion that in a diverse society, we need to attenuate, we need to reduce our commitments to free speech in order to prevent offense to others. And that gets into a notion of what harm is and when speech can be restrained, what constitutes harm. And I know where Fire stands on that. And I’m pretty close with you guys. I deeply believe that suppressing speech, particularly when speech jars our ideas is a way to mutate the human thought process and take jarring ideas and just put them elsewhere, where they’re – if they’re destructive, to make them more so.

Nico: There’s a bit of a historical note –

Greg: Keep on getting in the way of Nico because I’m so excited to talk.

Nico: I just wanted to make a historical note, and then, Greg, you can ask –

Greg: Go on, Nico.

Nico: – ask your questions about the themes, but –

Greg: Sure.

Nico: – back when – and I sent you this, Eric, offline, but back when they were getting ready to publish the paperback addition of The Satanic Verses, there –

Eric: Oh yeah.

Nico: – there was a concern, of course, about threats and violence to the publisher. So, the publishers got together as sort of a consortium to publish the paperback addition so that no one publisher could be identified as the publisher of it. And the Washington Post, I had sent you a Washington Post story that I’ll put in the show notes, quotes publishers but not any particular press because – so it’s kind of a heroic and courageous moment.

Eric: I saw it as a practical response. Excuse me, I’m sorry to interrupt you.

Nico: No, it is a practical response, of course, but the idea –

Eric: I saw that as a practical response to get the message out, to get the book out, to take a stand while also protecting oneself. I mean, it would have been better, I think, if they had not done the anonymous consortium, but you adjust to the times as they are.

Nico: Yeah, well, they had people that died in ’89, and then the fallout afterward. So, I can understand why they would wanna do it. The goal obviously of publishing a book is to get the book out there. And they definitely achieved that goal, even if the publisher wasn’t identified. But let’s go a little bit further back in history, Greg. You wanna lead with your question about the themes?

Greg: Well, yeah, absolutely. There were two that I had particular fun with, partially because one’s a hobby horse of mine, of course, which is not surprising, but talk to me about censorship and economic class.

Eric: Sure. Well, let me find this little business here. Class, if we take – it’s not just economic class. It’s also social class, that censorship is as much a question of channeling information as much as it is of suppressing it. One of the other main themes – I mean, all the themes of the book overlap. And one of the main themes of the book is that censorship simply doesn’t work, that it’s extremely rare that – well, yeah, people have been killed. In that sense, it works. People have been put in jail. In that sense, it works. Books have been burned, yes, it works. But the ideas expressed almost invariably live on.

And so, I think that’s implicitly known by authorities. And so, rather than almost giving up implicitly to eliminate something, what authorities have often tried to do is channel information either to sequester it, to protect themselves, and so it goes all the way back. I mean, I could tell a story now, if you want, that the – one of the stories that opens the book that I think sort of contains lots of themes is the first Chinese emperor. Qing Shi Huang – and I’m butchering the pronunciation. He’s the one who unified China’s seven kingdoms, created China as China exists, started to build the wall, unified weights and measures, etc., a warrior, hated, hated, hated, hated.

And we’re now up in the third century, BC, around 210, 215. And he was getting a lot of criticism, particularly from Confucian scholars who were – he was hearing it, and it made him crazy. And he wanted to essentially eliminate history and eliminate learning that was used against him. Confucian scholars were constantly comparing the kingdom as it existed to a golden age of the past. So, what did he do? He took all books that he could find of literature, philosophy, poetry, and kept one copy for himself and his ruling, that is the channeling of information, and eliminated everywhere else.

In fact, if you com – in fact, he also, just for good measure, publicly burned 400 Confucian scholars alive. So, from that point forward, all of China’s literary and philosophic learning was held by him and kept away from the population. In fact, at that point, anyone who criticized him using examples from the past were killed with their families. And so, it goes on also with the starting of the printing press. In that sense, books were – before that, were of course held in manuscripts. They were single copies, or if you had enough money, you can make multiple copies. That didn’t happen.

Immediately, when the printing press galvanized or – that’s the wrong word – supercharged the spread of knowledge to the masses and cre – that’s when our modern era of censorship really began, instantly with the Catholic index of prohibited books, with endless censorship statutes. And they were used against – first and foremost, against Luther, Martin Luther, who used his language in a popular style. He also translated the Bible into German. The channeling of – the suppress – the movement of information to the masses in a popular style was exactly what upset authorities so much.

That’s why Luther was suppressed to the level that he was. It didn’t work. Also, on a sexual level, pornography had always been widespread, at least among people who could get a hold of it. One of the – of course, every new technology is used in a sexual way almost first. And one of the first works to be suppressed was some pretty hardcore stuff coming out of the Vatican itself. There, a guy named Pietro Aretino found some beautiful, beautiful woodcuts by a guy named Marco Raimondi who was a Vatican artist, reprinted them, and reprinted them with language that wasn’t highbrow. There was a lot of pornography in flowery language.

And that instantly, they were called Pietro – Aretino’s postures became sort of like, let’s call it the Deep Throat, the instantly widely available, hardcore pornography available to the masses, addressed to the masses. So, along with Boccaccio, and Copernicus, and Luther, if you look at the first list of forbidden books, there’s Aretino. And it goes on in the sense that in the 17th century, one of the main censors were a guy named Roger L’Estrange, was very interested in censoring the first news books, the first newspapers. Why? Because in his words, “They make the multitude too family with the actions of their superiors.”

Keep the information of government in government. Keep it away from people. And his main target was, “The papers who speak plain and strike home to the capacity of the multitude.” In that sense, we don’t want the multitude informed. We wanna keep the information to ourselves. Blackstone, the great William Blackstone, the one who pretty much codified British law in the 18th century was right on board with that, holding that natural liberties are fine and good, but they’re wild and savage, and that people need to learn due subordination of rank. That’s his language.

So, that they’ll give due respect and obedience to their superiors. He embraced seditious libel, which was the doctrine that said that anything that criticized or impugned authority was to be suppressed, even – let’s say especially if it’s true. And so, to that extent, it goes on, but the real sort of apogee, the apex of class-based censorship was in the 19th century, right after the French revolution, which scared the daylights out of everybody. And so, immediately after the French revolution, after the Napoleonic Wars, particularly in Britain and throughout Europe, popular press is exploding.

It’s getting taxed out of existence. People are getting hounded. There’s a fear of the working class. There’s a fear of the working and laboring class. And the response is not to give the working and laboring class rights or material wealth. It’s to suppress information that might make them agitated. And that – and we can talk about that. I think we’re gonna talk about Age of Reason and the others later.

Nico: How much did Marx have to do with that though –

Eric: But it goes on. It –

Nico: – in the 19th century? I mean, I know you say it comes –

Eric: Karl Marx?

Nico: Yeah, and just class consciousness.

Eric: Well, Karl Marx was very much a part of it. I mean, he was – his writing coming after the 1848 revolutions was very much suppressed. There is something kind of funny about it though. His seminal work, Das Kapital was found by the Russian censors to be too obtuse, too incomprehensible, too dense. It wasn’t worth censoring. So, they allowed Das Kapital to be imported into Ru – in German and to be translated into Russian. One of the key mistakes, but it really goes on. In the 19th century, there was this obsession to not portray the ruling class in any kind of a negative way.

The idea is to – so the same plays, if they show authorities in a bad light, could be allowed when shown in theaters catering to the middle class, but not allowed when shown to the poor class. Tolstoy, some of his stories were allowed in fat expensive books, but not in little pamphlets. The play, King Lear, had to be rewritten in Austria in 1826. For our viewers, who most know what King Lear is, it’s a Shakespearean play. There’s a king. He tries to give his properties to his daughters. Mayhem ensues. He goes crazy. He dies abject and screwed up. Shakespeare’s gonna rise from his grave and kill me now.

But the play had to be rewritten so that the king didn’t die in the end in Austria because no one wanted the king to be – kings to be shown in that regard. And also, I think it shows in sex as well. I mean, sex is a – I’ve written these books, so it’s on my mind, but there was a book in England called The Fruits of Philosophy, kind of a stupid little book. It’s a marriage manual, which is a sex manual, which you go further, a way to have sex without producing babies. It’s a birth control manual. It had been around for decades, and decades, and decades in the 19th century in England, expensive.

These two people, Annie Besant and George Bradlaugh who were radicals put it out cheap. And as soon as they put it out in a cheap addition, they were put on trial for obscenity. And the same book, which was acceptable for the ruling class, all of a sudden became filthy. What’s the word that was used? I’ve got it here. And they were put on trial, and they lost. It was eventually overturned on a technicality, but Annie Besant who said in trial, “Isn’t it wrong to not make information available to the poor, which had been available to the rich for so long?” and the judge said, “no, it’s not.” Well, she ended up winning the case, but she lost her child.

She was found to be an unfit mother. And so, was the book eventually allowed? Well, yeah. Was there a price to be paid? Yes, as well. And so, the class dynamics just keep on coming up.

Nico: Do we see any of those class dynamics in today’s censorship justifications? You think about a lot of the justifications or the topics in which historically leaders have sought to censor good government, blasphemy, morals, obscenity, challenges to wealth and privilege just like you were talking about, war, but maybe technology has just become so cheap and prevalent that it’s almost impossible to keep information from the masses in that sense, in the sense that you would censor for some of the population –

Eric: I’ve thought about that.

Greg: Is it just impossible now basically is part of the question.

Eric: Well, let’s just take a look at one more historical allusion. Madame Bovary, in 1957 was put on trial for obscenity. And the reason given – and people weren’t – they weren’t shy about it. What they said is this is a novel. Women read novels. This is a novel – I mean, that was the market. Women are weak. Women are frail. This is a novel about adultery, and there’s no message in this novel saying that adultery is bad. We have to stop this because it’ll lead women toward adultery. Men can read this, but if the – if it’s women, no.

In the current era, I think if we get into a discussion about cancel culture and about mobs, no, I don’t think there is as much class-based censorship now. I – because speech is so much harder to control. In fact, I think – yeah?

Greg: I actually disagree on this.

Eric: Good.

Greg: It’s partially my perspective on what’s going on in higher education. Coming from a different economic class than a lot of the people that I went to school with, I was bringing this up all the damn time. Stanford Law School, there’s a lot of people who don’t know that they sound like Victorians sometimes. And they really don’t because they’re super – let’s talk about – talking about sex and all this kind of like – almost like show kind of – you know. And just like the Victorians, they have some of these things that they wanna show that they’re actually sophisticated, but when it came to the rules for how you talked – and a lot of times, I was kind of like okay, you don’t like poor people.

It was something that I brought up a lot, and I was really obnoxious about it, but I came from working with inner city high school kids in the southeast in DC in the ‘90s. And when I heard all the rules for the way people talk, I’m like, have you ever talked to a kid from the southeast? Have you ever talked to – and I mean, White and Black alike because it just seemed like the prim and properness was – they would deny it to their dying word that it was classist, but it was basically thought that the way the American upper-class talks, it’s not – it’s just the way people talk.

And it’s – so I see a lot of classism that doesn’t recognize itself as classism.

Eric: As you were speaking, two things came to mind. One is it’s interesting, in the Victorian era, as blasphemy began to be less and less of a crime, there was a book put out attacking Christianity. And the judge said well, at this point, we’re – this is – we’re not in the 1890s. It’s a little bit late. He said, you can just – you – we’re no longer such a Christian nation, after all, a Jew had been – Benjamin Disraeli had been the prime minister, but provided that the decencies of controversy as preserved, so providing you put it in good middle class language, I’ll allow it. But if you’re a little dirty about it, no.

In this case, based on what you’re saying, something just popped into my mind. We’re now in a situation where the real arbiters of speech are the social media platforms. That’s where the action is. And we can talk about this because I think it’s fascinated because they’ve now created sort of a pan-national, pan-legal framework where they will import speech restrictions from Europe, apply them to us heavily through their terms of service. And Europe, they’re much more against hate speech. But what they’ve done is put in a lot of automatic commands, algorithms to filter out speech that they don’t want.

And there’s study, after study, after study showing that that tends to hit the kind of English spoken by African Americans much, much more heavily. That gets to be –

Nico: And working-class Brits.

Eric: Yeah, the working-class Brits. That’s why I was reaching back to the 19th century, and also people who maybe aren’t leaving seminars at Stanford Law School. So, yes, there are implicit and explicit filters of speech and manner, particularly of the lower classes that are now becoming hard baked into our speech system, but at the same time, through the Internet, a lot of from the lower classes have found a voice, particularly a voice together that they’ve never had before, for good or ill.

Nico: Yeah. Well, Greg had to step away, and that’s fine. We can keep rolling without him until he comes back. I think he had to take a call.

Eric: That’s fine.

Nico: I wanted to ask you –

Eric: I’m happy to.

Nico: One of the things I found fascinating about your book, and I must have realized this subconsciously or – but I never actually thought about it explicitly is that free speech philosophy developed very late in human history. I mean, it’s really only a 200-year-old philosophy. Although, you can go back a little bit further to John Milton and Areopagitica. And there was some discussion surrounding it. You talk about it in the Greek context as well, but really, the free speech philosophy and the ideas that we rest upon today to justify free speech are a recent development, are they not?

Eric: This is when we get into what actually is free speech? Free speech for whom? How free? How broad? You mentioned the Greeks. Athens was a remarkable place in a lot – it really was in a lot of ways. And Pericles, in the famous speech that he gave, his funeral oration, which is in the Thucydides, made the point that Athenian democracy was built on free discussion, that you can in Athens raise your voice against – any citizen can raise his, not hers, voice and make their feelings known, and effectively speak truth to power, and not really be penalized at that.

Of course, that was class-based. I forgot to mention that – because 70% of the Athenian population didn’t count. It was only male citizens. But you mentioned Milton. Now, again, I’m not a Milton or Mil scholar, but the – we have to see people in their times. I mean, Milton wrote the Areopagitica in 1644 when he had gotten in trouble with the authorities for publishing his pamphlets on divorce without a license. There were licensing statutes back then. And so, he wrote the Areopagitica basically to acquit himself in parliament, to respond to the authorities who had mentioned him.

And he wrote – it’s beautiful. The phrasing is astounding. And he makes a very, very – he makes some wonderful arguments for open discussion, but he could only go as far as he could go, excluded from hi – when he says, “Give me the liberty to utter, to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” How beautiful is that? Quite, except for it didn’t include most of humanity. The me was him. The me was a puritan. The me wasn’t Catholics who he had no end of hatred for, or heretics, or anyone else, but okay, so we can criticize Milton and say he wasn’t an absolutist.

But I admire him because – even taken the stand that he took. Of course, Areopagitica is much more important in retrospect than it was then.

Nico: Yeah, absolutely.

Eric: It was printed in one addition, and no one read it. It was reprinted until later, but at the same time, the philosophy of free speech as being critical to human development, as being critical to who we are, and as also being critical to a functioning society, it’s not just 200 years. We can go back to Spinoza from the late 17th century who had already been excommunicated by the Jewish community for what he had written. I mean –

Nico: Famous badass.

Eric: He was a famous badass. And he made a very good point. And I think he was the first. I could very well be wrong. Greg would know this more than me – to say that everyone is by absolute right the master of their own thoughts. He said freedom of speech doesn’t only – it’s not that – it doesn’t pull at authority. It doesn’t hurt authority. It’s actually necessary for peace, that the conflict that comes – this is one of Greg’s –

Nico: Favorite –

Eric: – holy writs is that the conflict and the strife, I mean, that is brought to speech is good for society. It creates peace. It prevents violence. And so, I think if we wanna talk about one of the first heroes of free speech on an absolute level in the way that we would now accept it, we’ve gotta go back to Spinoza. And of course, the book was damned by the Catholic church, damned by the Jewish authorities. I mean, Spinoza is always one of these Mario Savio characters, who kept on throwing his body against the machine. And that was –

Greg: Yeah, there are so many great things about Spinoza. And my favorite explanation of him is that he praised God out of existence – is that essentially, he made the world so perfect, the universe so perfect that nothing could be done to it, and nothing would – and it’s like, that’s amazing. But now that you – here’s a good opportunity for me to pitch a forthcoming that I’m really excited about. Jacob Mchangama who did a podcast for us called Clear and Present Danger, which I adore, of course –

Eric: Oh, he is the – he’s the guy. I –

Greg: It’s so good.

Eric: If I meet him, I will bow.

Greg: He would be thrilled to meet you. And so, Jacob, of course, he lives over in Europe, but he likes to come over. He loves New York too. So, he – in his book, he talked about people I’d never heard of that were big names. And my sort of grand unified theory of free speech is it’s not surprising that there wasn’t lots of discussion about freedom of speech when it was essentially impossible to reach a meaningful audience. So, of course, if you have small scale democracies like Athens and that kind of stuff, then free speech makes perfect sense, but it won’t be a major issue again when you have large scale society, until you have something like the printing press.

And I think, at least for the chipping together of it, I think that the thought about free speech, it’d have to become more coherent. But I think it started actually really quite fast, the – and as soon as there was a printing press – I mean, that’s to me, the difference between – I lived in Prague, so this had an influence on me. Jan Hus was the Martin Luther of the 15th century. And he – and the difference between him and Martin Luther, in my opinion is the printing press. There was an attempt to do the Protestant reformation at least 100 years before, and it got stopped by – but it would have been much harder to fight if it hadn’t been for the printing press. So, I think that –

Eric: I mean, absolutely. Luther was the first media star. I mean, he was a pamphleteer the minute he got a critici –

Greg: It was brutal.

Eric: I mean, he – the minute someone criticized him, he was out with a pamphlet five minutes later criticizing it. And so, yeah, you’re right. Jan Hus, if he had, well, the chops that Luther had and the ability to disseminate his ideas, then he would have motivated that. But I mean, the absolutist idea of free speech that we hold dear wasn’t in the founding fathers of the United States, but it was in Cato for example. There were these two pamphleteers in the 18th century who wrote under the name Cato who just said it, free speech is the bulwark of liberty. They live and die together. You can’t have liberty, you can’t have freedom without the freedom to express yourself.

And I think, Nico, you were wondering where it started, on the level that we understand it, on the level that we embrace it. It was written by – let’s – they are called – they have other names, but it’s called Cato. And their pamphlets were really piled up on every tavern table in London, had beer rings. That was the pop – they wrote in a popular style.

Nico: John Stuart Mill, you take him a little bit to task in your book. He’s not so much the free speech absolutist or perfectionist that he’s regarded as today. He had his shortcomings as well, just like John Milton, but you also –

Eric: I’d love to talk about that.

Nico: You also say that he was a man of his time as well. And – but it’s interesting because John Stuart Mill was also a radical for his time, but he couldn’t be so radical as to live up to today’s first amendment standards, which are way radical –

Eric: Oh yeah.

Nico: – by 19th century standards.

Eric: John Stuart Mill, I know that Greg admires him quite a bit, and I do endlessly. He was a synthesizer. He took all the ideas that we were just talking about, particularly Locke. We haven’t talk – we could leave him behind, but the – he synthesized ideas. He looked around. He saw the rising ruling class. He realized that they were – England was never going back to the elitist society that it had been in his childhood. And yeah, I mean, we could be quoting John Mill until 6:00 tonight. I mean, his basic point is that any restriction on speech is an assumption of infallibility by a government. And that’s a falsehood.

And that we should value all ideas, even the crazy ones, even the nutcase ones, the guy screaming like a madman on the corner because what that person might be saying might be true. And the rest of us might have it wrong. And so, by squelching one opinion, you squelch them all. What – all of that, I absorb. All of that, I value. All of that, I think is right on. What was wrong with John Stuart Mill? Again, we have to view him in context. You can’t view people by today’s standards. One – his point that we should only restrict human liberty and speech to the extent that it causes others harm. Okay – or harm to society.

He didn’t really define harm very well. He only had one example, which would be sort of like a Brandenburg example of a person calling up a mob against someone else. That – it was almost like the Brandenburg, the imminent harm, causing a riot thing, but people have used that idea. The notion of harm, I think he could have gone a little bit further to talk about what it was because his ideas have been used now to justify speech that causes emotional harm or offense. So, that was a little bit vague, but his main problem that I have with him is all of these wonderful soaring ideas only applied to Britain, only applied to mature capitalist societies.

And what he said, and it’s kind of astounding, I mean is that – everything that he said can only apply to – at the end says not to – what he – and I’ve got the phrase here, “Not to those backward states of society in which race,” in which the race that is humanity, “itself may be considered in its nonage.” What does that word mean? It’s babyhood, its unformed state. Despotism for them is legitimate, so they can learn, so they can grow, benevolent despotism. So, how on Page 1, he’s talking about all these wonderful – opening of speech, but only – but not – and so that was a justification of the British colonial system. He was not –

Nico: Well, he worked within it, right?

Eric: A member of parliament was not gonna go so far.

Greg: He worked with the East India Company, and so did his dad, right?

Eric: Yeah, so he wasn’t kidding.

Greg: He was part of the system.

Eric: Yeah, and he was also in parliament. And so –

Greg: Oh, right, yeah.

Eric: What you and what the three us would see as critical tenants for free speech in society, we’ve just talked about class, has to apply to everyone, or it simply doesn’t matter. When you have speech – if we wanna go back to Athens and say ⅓ of society has free speech, but the rest could just suck it up, the way that Mill – again, I don’t – if Mill was sitting next me, I would give him a hard time, but I would still pour him a drink. I mean, in his time, he was a remarkable thinker, and he was read. And he –

Greg: My test is was it better than what came before in terms of smaller liberal –

Eric: Incremental, yeah.

Greg: And I think some of these are actually really big leaps, but yeah, you will be disappointed if you judge things by current standards. And this was a – I managed to do a debate with someone I consider a friend now, Stanley Fish. And he’s – we disagree on so much stuff, but he’s a lovely man. And I really enjoy arguing with him, but he pulls out the whole sort of Catholic thing against Milton. And it’s like, listen, I try to at least understand things in their context. It’s like, this had been a bloody, ruthless war that they were sending over spies to actually murder the queen and king for – and this had been their equivalent of a nonstop battle with the Nazis.

So, the idea that he wasn’t ready, maybe he actually wanted to say that Catholics should have free speech too, but there’s no way he – he felt like he wouldn’t be hanged or arrested if he said that. So –

Eric: Well, if I was –

Greg: But again, entirely by the standards today, sometimes I think is – you know, [inaudible] [00:52:58]

Eric: Well, I mean, we have that repeatedly. And this, again is your line of work. When books like Huckleberry Finn, which were censored widely for their anti-slavery messages when it came out, that book came out in 1885, is now coming under fire on campuses repeatedly because of the use of the N word, and it makes people uncomfortable. So, we need to learn to study literature and ideas in terms of their time so we can understand them. That was a radical book. It was a book that questioned slavery, that used satire, and used remarkable imagery to question it. That’s how you view the book.

Greg: Can we – I’ve been talking a little bit about just the idea of – I try to bring up kind of old fashioned – I’m working right now on something where I’m trying to interview liberals circa 1983 and see what they make of the current culture because that’s kind of what I feel like a lot of times. And the thing that is kind of unavoidable, but a previous era would have been comfortable saying is that in order to think scholarly, there has to be some amount of detachment. There has to be an idea that you can step back and look at things. And we’ve – that’s something that barely even gets said on campus.

And I think that part of what we’re doing wrong on campus in particular is we’re just not doing the initial education and framing. We shouldn’t expect students to respect free speech if nobody’s ever told them that it’s actually a deep and profound value, that actually it – and it requires a different way of looking at the world. And to my knowledge, most schools don’t do that. And then, they’re like wow, I can’t believe they don’t know this stuff. I’m like no, these are sophisticated concepts. These actually have to be taught.

Eric: Yeah, I mean, what – somehow, and I don’t think any of us could really explain it, free speech, why have it? What’s the real basis for free speech? Well, I mean, traditionally, to allow self-governance. That’s the Michael John idea, to allow the emergence of truth. And also – and this is a more recent concept, to allow people to develop personally, to allow people to develop their personal selves, and that only by expressing yourself can you express yourself. I mean, excuse me – only by expressing yourself can you develop your faculties.

Well, that is I believe it, but that’s also quite – it’s a problem in a sense because that personalizes speech to the extent that my personal developed me – my personal development, me in the larger sense is critical. So, when I hear speech that scares me, or that jars me, or that hurts me, and I’m not trained, as you said, to understand that jarring speech is part of what’s good for society, I wanna stop it. And so, this gets back to what we were saying at the beginning, that we haven’t been trained enough, maybe because we’re too comfortable.

We’ve been raised in a – pretty much the apex of free speech in human history is the United States since the – let’s say since the Sullivan case, since 1964. It’s never been like this.

Greg: Oh yeah.

Eric: And so, we take that for granted. And we don’t really understand that free speech is not only necessary for our own personal development, but for the good of society. And so, that means that when you study the N word in a law school class as said in cases, or you study Huckleberry Finn, or you’re reading the racist speech, that’s not – to read it to learn it doesn’t mean to approve it. You have to tolerate it. You could hate it and tolerate it at the same time. That is a very hard concept to metabolize.

Greg: Well, that reminds me, there’s another book I’m gonna pitch, Damon Root’s book on Frederick Douglass was such a joy to read.

Eric: So, do you ever not read books? How do you plow through all these books?

Greg: I listen to them while I’m doing other stuff.

Eric: Oh.

Greg: I turn – I either do audiobooks, or I turn them into – and I walk a lot.

Eric: That’s just good [inaudible] [00:57:18]

Greg: If I – there’s – one defining characteristic is I’m – you’ll see me wandering around Washington D.C. kind of all the time. And one thing that made me actually kind of delighted, and I wasn’t expecting to really enjoy this as much is watching John C. Calhoun just reject liberalism. He rejects the founding fathers. He rejects John Locke because he’s being intellectually honest to a degree. Because he wants to defend slavery, and the fact that he actually has to outright say, I reject Locke, I reject the founders, I reject – and I was like – it’s like, the idea that he had –

Eric: But you’re talking about the North Carolina senator – the South Carolina senator who became the –

Greg: John C. Calhoun, yeah, the –

Eric: He’s one of my – I love that guy. I love him because I hate him. He –

Greg: He’s a horror show, but he’s being intellectually honest, that essentially – and I think that people need to know the fact that he – no, no, he thought liberalism, correctly, was the enemy of slavery, so he rejected it all. And it’s a really good book.

Eric: I mention Calhoun in the hate speech section of Dangerous Ideas.

Greg: That’s right.

Eric: Because I was trying – and I don’t know how successful I was, but I was trying to find the roots of the concept of hate speech, at least in the United States. And going back to the 1830s, there was this ocean of abolitionist literature pouring down from the North to the South. And the southern authorities weren’t happy about that. And they made big, big – this is in the book – made big efforts to – well, first, they barred it in the South, so first amendment be damned. They just barred it.

But they also tried to get the northern states to bar it, and the northern states refused, but they did manage to squelch abolitionist literature in congress for seven or eight years. But Calhoun, who was one of the leaders of this movement, he said it hurt his feelings.

Greg: Yes.

Eric: He said that abolitionist literature made him feel bad, and that other slave owners such as himself shouldn’t have to hear this stuff because it –

Greg: These poor [inaudible] [00:59:24]

Eric: They were called evil, and how do you own other human beings? And that’s where I start my American discussion of hate speech, that – or offensive speech, that it – I think Calhoun was – as you said, he didn’t hide what he was saying, but yeah.

Greg: And I think I read about that the first time in Michael Kent Curtis’s, The People’s Darling Privilege.

Eric: That’s where I got it, yeah.

Greg: Which is just such a fantastic book that I pitch all the time. We should get him on this show too.

Eric: Curtis really waded through a lot of congressional records. And I mean, I don’t want his life when he was doing that, but what he came out was –

Greg: Thank you.

Eric: Yeah, what we came out with was an extremely coherent story on how human ideas – excuse me, on how ideas affect us emotionally, and what we do about it, and how we look to the law to protect us. I mean, in the South in 1857, there was this book called The Impending Crisis of the South by a guy named Hinton Helper, which made an economic argument against slavery. And people were killed. They were hanged for owning that book. And so, they weren’t kidding in the South about stopping illit – well, they also barred slaves from learning how to read.

So, you could call that sort of an [inaudible] censorship, sort of a censorship going even before one is capable of reading books.

Greg: And that was such a tell to them. I mean, Frederick Douglass, one of those people that is almost never better to read something about Frederick Douglass. Rather, you just read him directly because he’s such an amazing writer. But my only exception to that so far is actually Damon Root’s book, which I just thought was indispensable.

Nico: I know we’re already at an hour, but I have three more –

Eric: No, we’ve got so much more to do.

Nico: I know. I know. There’s three more topics that maybe we can cram into the next –

Eric: Yeah, we’ll just do it, and then you can edit it, yeah.

Nico: We can maybe cram it into the next 10 minutes or so.

Eric: I’m with you.

Nico: The Rwandan genocide, often viewed as free speech advocate’s biggest challenge. You address it a little bit in the book. I know, Greg, I think you took a little bit of issue with it in your book review of Eric’s book. I wanna discuss it a little bit. Do you view –

Greg: And let me be clear about this. I wrote a book review saying Eric Berkowitz’s new book, Dangerous Ideas is a masterpiece, a word that I have to use pretty rarely. I probably overuse it, but I really thought it was, but I have some quibbles. To be clear, there was stuff I disagreed with in the last chapter that I lay out on Eternally Radical Idea, but I didn’t want that to overshadow just how magnificent I think the book is.

Eric: I really appreciate that. And I – quibbles are fine. Give me just one second here to find – because I have some notes on this. You could edit this part out.

Nico: Oh, no, it’s okay.

Eric: [Inaudible] [01:02:19]

Nico: And while you’re looking at that, Greg, you reference Jacob –

Eric: Oh yeah, here. I’ve got it, I’ve got it. I think, Greg, let’s – going back to the Rwandan genocide, I think maybe I didn’t make myself clear, or maybe I was misunderstood. What – just to summarize for our viewers, in 1994, in about a hundred days, there were 800,000 Tutsis who were murdered in a – that’s a death toll. Stalin said one person’s death is a tragedy, a thousand people’s death is a statistic. So, this – the level of murder is kaleidoscopic. And it was government-sponsored. And one of the agents of the genocide was a radio station that broadcast – that was effectively a communication center for the genocide.

Here’s where the Hutus are. They’re in this town. They would give the license plate numbers of cars where they are, urging, moving, pushing. And we in America – Samantha Power did some phenomenal reporting on this. What’s Clinton doing and his advisors? They’re dithering. They had just been stung in Somalia, the Black Hawk down incident. And what are we doing? And they considered something – we had the ability to jam that radio station. If we put a plane in the air that broadcasted a lot of garbage, we could actually jam that radio station and stop it.

And for lots of reasons, including and I have to say it, free speech, they decided not to do that. And to me, it’s an astounding piece of shame. The State Department legal office actually came out and said radios don’t kill people, people kill people. And it was said in the key meetings, if we jam radio, it violates freedom of speech. Now, I think where Greg and I diverted is you interpreted that as me saying that a free speech environment creates murder. No. That speech, what the radio station was doing was incitement to murder. In fact, the two people who ran the radio station were convicted of war crimes.

Greg: Oh yeah.

Eric: What I had an issue with –

Greg: In any court in the world, it would be legal.

Eric: – is the idiocy and the stupidity of the Cl – and the casual cruelty of the Clinton administration, to not do what was minimally necessary to do that. I also brought up the Rwandan thing to sort of tease out the Internet, that we are now in a situation where the global communications environment is so unified that you could actually, from the United States, affect communications elsewhere. But the – that –

Greg: Yeah, and to be clear, this is one of those things that I said, that I think the author himself understand this. This was almost as much for people reading it, just to be clear because sometimes people will take Rwanda as being like, it’s a refutation of free speech.

Eric: Oh, no, no, no, no.

Greg: And it’s like, Rwanda wasn’t legal, and if someone did that in the U.S. that wouldn’t just be incitement. That would be actual conspiracy to commit murder. So, it – and that was more for the reading audience than for your part.

Eric: Yeah, I’m fine with it. But I mean, that – free speech is one of these concepts that is used so much, it sometimes loses meaning. And in this sense, free speech was used as a pretext for the American government hesitating to intervene in an African country to save lives. My personal opinion is that was a hideous decision that those involved are gonna have to live with for the rest of their lives.

Greg: Yeah, no, it’s – and it’s tough because understanding the context of just royally screwing it up in Somalia, really kinda – and people, arguments – like how do you stop people – can you – from killing people with machetes. In Yugoslavia, which is where my father grew up, by the way, it was so horrifying that we waited to do anything. Well, all you had to – well, it turned out, what you had to do is destroy the heavy equipment. There wasn’t – you can’t do that when it’s – yeah, Rwanda is a great shame and tragedy. I think –

Eric: Well, but Greg, you and I are very much on the same page when it comes to that.

Nico: China and the –

Greg: I thought so. Like I said, I just wanted to make sure that I clarified that for people who read it.

Nico: So, Greg had mentioned Jacob Mchangama in his forthcoming book also on the history of free speech. Yours is focused on the west. I think his is a little bit more expansive or perhaps a lot more expansive, but you do begin your book –

Eric: It’s global [inaudible] [01:07:10]

Nico: Yeah. You do begin your book, Eric, with a discussion of China and the Cultural Revolution, which is always a fascinating discussion and exploration for me because I know so little about it.

Greg: Terrifying.

Nico: And I think the world knows so little about it because I asked this question on a previous podcast. I asked anyone – is there any movie, major movie that’s been made about China and its Cultural Revolution? And I got –

Eric: Good luck with that.

Nico: I got one reader who –

Greg: Maybe Disney could do it.

Nico: I got one reader who sent me a movie. And I might be able to pull it up here on one of my to do lists, but –

Eric: I mean, China is the market. If you have – Tom Cruise was wearing a shoulder patch in a movie that had Taiwan on it, and the studio took it off. I mean, Hollywood will never make a movie about the Cultural Revolution if the one Chinese par –

Nico: Well, there was one in the ‘90s, and it was called To Live, if the listener who sent that to me is – but you can’t find it anywhere. I tried to find it. I spent 15 bucks to buy it, and you can’t – and there’s really – there are really no books written about it for popular consumption. As far – it was just a purging of dissent, of unorthodoxy, of anything. And us free speech advocates, speaking candidly here, I know very little about it. So, reading your book, and your discussion of it in the introduction, even though it’s not part of the west, I mean, it elucidates a lot of the points, or brings out a lot of the points that you seek to make in the book.

So, can you talk a little bit about why you included it?

Eric: Yeah, that was the first act in the book. That was the first – I mean, that’s the first anecdote in the introduction. And I was wondering, since the book – I had to – Jacob took a broader view. I was focused on the world that we live in, the west, but I used China in the Cultural Revolution because like the first Chinese emperor, it’s all rolled into one. I mean, that the Cultural Revolution’s not only censorship on a fully insane level, it’s the eradication of history, and it’s also the eradication of thought.

I mean, just in context, China in the mid ‘60s had just been through the Great Leap Forward, which was kind of like Stalin’s five-year plans. It was this catastrophically screwed up modernization movement, a lot of death, a lot of – there was some dissent coming within the party. And so, kind of like – well, what sometimes happened within ruling classes is when things get a little bit shaky, you just triple down on radicalism and on everything else. And so, what Mao did was go beyond the party to mobilize the masses. Schools were closed to mobilize the masses against the party and against the population.

And the targets were – this is brilliant in its craziness – were what Mao called the four olds, old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Tell me something that’s not included in that. And so, what he wanted was a full cleansing, or let’s say eradicating of any kind of society to be rebuilt on his model. So, that involved – that is when the moves against Tibetan Buddhism went into hyperdrive. Temples were turned in latrines. Monks had to wipe their behinds with their holy books. It just goes on. Confucianism – and also, pigtails were outlawed.

Family photos, the red guards would come into houses and grab family photos because it showed a dual loyalty. You could only have pictures of Mao. It went on, and on, and on. And so, what I wanted to draw from that was one, the parallel to the first Chinese emperor, but also the notion that censorship is broader than just the elimination of one or another piece of writer, but it’s also – could be used to remake society. There’s one thing that I found in preparation for this that I thought was just amazing when it comes to censorship, particularly as in terms to literature.

Mao had – his goal was no less than actually eradicating creative impulses on the part of writers and leave writers and artist solely as raw material to produce work for the state. And here’s a quote that he had from 1967, which is now – where the Cultural Revolution is – let’s say it’s in third gear, heading into fourth. He says, “Will not Marxism destroy any creative impulses?” Marxism being him. “It will.” He said, “I think they should be destroyed. Indeed, they must utterly be destroyed, and while they are being destroyed, new things can be built up.” Anything creative that preceded him was aristocratic, decadent, bourgeois, etc.

So, what we see is censorship brought to its – I guess to its apogee, to a state where the state is really trying to mold thinking at its core.

Nico: Yeah, you write in the book –

Greg: Yeah, I think a lot about this when I –

Nico: Go ah –

Greg: Oh, sorry. I was just saying that my family had to flee the communists. That’s why I’m an American is we were serfs who made good. My great-great grandfather bought his way out of serfdom in 1858. And if he –

Eric: That’s astounding.

Greg: It’s a crazy story. And my dad’s life is a horror show. His dad died when he was 6. It’s all terrible. But the – and he talks about it with laughter because how else are you gonna talk about it? But the thing that I – when I would end up with arguments about sort of communism for example, when I finally got people who had a little bit of a soft spot for it, the thing that I kept on bringing up to them was well one, the environmental damage of the Soviets. It sometimes would persuade them, which I thought was nuts to have to make that argument, but just pointing out it doesn’t –

Eric: [Inaudible] [01:13:38]

Greg: – it doesn’t deal with any sense of diversity, any sense of moral diversity. And your point on creativity goes even farther, that essentially, it’s equally plausible to say if you’re going to receive a paycheck for 40 days – 40 hours of work, that it’s equally moral to say I should spend that time with my family. I’ll take it and do something else with it. It can’t – it has to always be something where it is presumed that your primary morality matches that of the state or is to the state itself, and therefore can’t deal with actual diversity.

Eric: I have – I know we don’t have much time, but I have something to add to that, which I think is really significant, which is my hero, George Orwell –

Greg: Amazing.

Eric: – wrote – if I could plug one thing – you’ve plugged a bunch of books, but if I could plug one thing, it’s his essay called, “The Prevention of Literature,” which he wrote right after the war. And it’s pretty much perfect. And it anticipates 1984, which he wrote a couple years later right before he died. And so, he was kind of working out his ideas. And he was in a post-war environment, right – where he was a leftie, but he was at constant battle with the communists in England who refused and would pretty much excommunicate anybody who criticized Stalin, that – as news was coming in, as just how bad Stalin was. That couldn’t be said amongst communists in England.

And he really took issue that. And so, the idea of censorship not only being a state thing, but also being a doctrinaire thing amongst the same groups is critical.

Greg: And doctrinaire was the original meaning of political correctness. I remember saying this on Twitter, and somebody being like, that’s a ridiculous revised – I’m like actually, it’s kinda more the original one, you know, like the – anyway. Nico –

Eric: Well, Mill anticipated all this. I mean, Mill talked about the tyranny of the majority.

Greg: Absolutely, yeah.

Eric: And what was worse – what’s even worse than censorship by a government is pressure from your – and when he said the majority, he didn’t mean the majority. He meant the loudest minority, whoever can make the most noise. And that is in his mind worse than government censorship because it’s more – it hits you deeper. It changes your thinking. And that, Mill, if he was alive today, would be on college campuses fighting for what Fire is doing because what we’re seeing is –

Greg: Oh, thank you.

Eric: – the tyranny of the l – of loud groups saying this professor should be silenced. This student should be censured. This Stanford law student who just criticized the Federalist Society shouldn’t graduate. I mean, that’s exactly what Mill was talking about. That’s precisely what he was talking about. And – whereas, there is less censorship, I think by the government now because we’ve achieved so much, there’s a lot more censorship coming, let’s call it sideways, from our peers, and also from social media platforms.

Greg: Yeah, and that’s – when we talk about the unique era that we grew up or came up, I always have to point out that we were at this peculiar, wonderful moment in human history, when both free speech law and free speech culture actually – we had both of those things. And I think the law is still very strong, but you lose sight of the cultural aspect because it’s hard to maintain a free speech culture.

Eric: I’ll never – just – I’ve explained this to a lot of people. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, what year was that? That was in the ‘60s?

Nico: ’69, I think, ’69.

Eric: ’69.

Nico: Yeah, yeah.

Eric: Okay, so Brandenburg v. Ohio for our viewers, had to do with a Klan meeting and a guy calling for “revengeance” against Jews –

Greg: Revengeance, that’s a real quote.

Eric: – and Blacks, and it was awful. And he was put on trial. And he won in one of the – maybe let’s say three or four key Supreme Court decisions ever, which basically said that unless what you’re doing is eminently, that is now, gonna cause a riot, it can be legal. And that decision was voted for. Thurgood Marshall, the first African American justice and a giant to free speech –

Nico: Absolutely.

Eric: – came in on the majority of that, voting for the rights of someone calling for his own death. And I’ve explained that to my children who are intelligent, and I’ve explained that to a lot of people. And that little fact, that someone could have that scope, that commitment knowing that when you outlaw speech, when you manage speech, you’re not just managing speech against – that you hate. You’re gonna – eventually the speech is gonna hit the speech that you love. You can’t have rules governing speech because they’re always turned in the wrong direction.

Nico: Well, I think we’re gonna leave it there. We could keep going. I know I’ve got more questions or topics that I wanna address with you, Eric, but I think an hour and 20 minutes is enough for now. I wanna thank you for –

Eric: I love you guys.

Nico: Yeah, I appreciate it. And I wanna –

Greg: Thank you. I’m looking forward to meeting you. I love San Francisco.

Eric: Yeah, you’re coming soon, aren’t you?

Greg: Possibly in the fall. I’m trying to figure out a shoulder surgery, which is kinda lame, but hopefully in the fall.

Eric: Well, I really wanna express my gratitude for coming on this podcast because you guys know what you’re talking about, and this is great.

Greg: Well, thank you for writing a book. I was so delighted. And I near – to be honest, Eric, I nearly didn’t read it because I was swamped. And then, I started reading it. I’m like, this is great. So, I’ll be reading it multiple times. And I really do think, the ability to boil down that much wonderful history that concisely is a unique gift.

Eric: Thank you.

Nico: And then, not only just put it on the page, but also share it contemporaneously as well just in conversation is impressive. Your recall is impressive. Soo, for our listeners, the book is Dangerous Idea: A Brief History of Censorship in the West –

Greg: Two thumbs up.

Nico: – From the Ancients to Fake News. It’s out right now. It can be purchased. I’ll have a link to it in the show’s notes. And I’ll thank you all again for listening. This podcast is hosted, produced, and recorded by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by Aaron Reese. You can learn more about So to Speak by following us on Twitter at or by liking us on Facebook at We take feedback at, so if you happen to know about a major Hollywood movie about the Cultural Revolution, send an e-mail to me there. Also, any good book about –

Eric: Good luck.

Nico: – about the Cultural Revolution, I’ll take that. And if you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcast, Google Play. That’s how we get new listeners to the show. So, thanks again for listening. Catch you next time.