Saturday, February 17, 2007

More Hints on Free Speech

by G.K. Chesterton




I should like to continue the enquiry I recenlty made about the general criticism uttered by English Liberals, or indeed men of many English parties, and directed against the Fascist system in so far as it claims to supress papers or plays or books or similar things. For it seems to me that, unless ideas become clearer on the point, liberty will really be lost, not so much by the ferocity of the Fascists as by the feebleness of the Liberals.

The Liberal, by the nature of his philosophy, claims to be accessible to ideas; and even to be able to entertain all or any ideas. But in practice he cannot entertain evn the idea he defends, let alone the idea he denounces. He has not a notion of the new ideas that are now really changing Europe; or especially of those which have his own parliamentary sham fight he can to some extent denounce shams, though they are the shams which he in his turn will practise. He can attack Lord Birkenhead if that nobleman claims to be a True Democrat; but he really has not a word to say to Maurras, or to anybody who says frankly that he is not a Democrat at all. He may even see the absurdity of Lord Melchett or Lord Beaverbrook claiming that Trade Monopoly is True Liberty; but he cannot see the point of the man who flatly denies that the theory of Liberty is true. I for one do think it is true; and I do not think it is inconsistent with some of the truths advanced by supporters of Fascism, as well as supporters of Freedom. But I know it is no good merely to tell a supporter of Fascism that he is not, and does not pretend to be. He must be met on his own moral ground, which is at least a hard and solid ground; and not in the slushy swamps of sentimental rhetoric, about a liberty which he does not pretend to grant and we have not succeeded in granting.

The difficult matter called Free Speech is really bound up with the still more difficult matter called Distributism. The very fact that it is called Free Speech illustrates this suggestion of equalized or scattered power. For Speech is a general attribute of men even as animals; and speaking is what all the people do all the time. But a monopolist newspaper, with hoardings covering the earth and sky-signs covering the sky, is not speech; nor can it be an organ for the people speaking. Even a play, occupying a lighted stage among a limited number of large theatres, cannot be identified with the conversation of the common people. There is a theatrical limelight in all theatres; but to-day there is a journalistic limelight on particular plays. I am not discussing whether this can be remedied; I am pointing out that a licence for these limited things is not a liberty for all. And it works back, as I have said, to Distributism as the only chance of Free Speech, or of any Freedom. Like all economic reformers, the Distributist has to simplify his parables or examples; but the principle is clear enough. Suppose the ownership of a plot of land carries with it the right to put up a placard with some proclamation or public criticism. It is clear that if there are a thousand plots there will be a thousand placards. The vast majority of them will probably proclaim certain normal and national principles, or prejudices, to many of which Mussolini has successfully appealed; but in so far as there are many placards, there is a chance of there being many kinds of placards. But suppose that all the land is bought up by one land-grabber; and there will only be one huge plot and one huge placard. And that is exactly what there is at present. for all practical purposes, in all modern industrial and capitalist communities. It is this, and nothing else, that men like the Liberal Nonconformist call Liberty of Speech. It is this, and nothing else, that he accusses Mussolini of suppressing.

In other words, what we are looking at, for good or evil, is simply the return of those rude, medieval conditions in which the King did not hesitate to break, and perhaps was obliged to break, the few great barons who really became rivals to the kingship. The people nowadays are no more involved, when a Dictator destroys a big newspaper, than the peasants and serfs were involved when a Plantagenet was jealous of a feudal prince or an enormously rich bishop. It is simply a quarrel among the great; and I rather prefer the ruler who can at least be called great to the rival who can be only called big.

The Press is now simply a privilege, and a privilege for the very few; for there are fewer great newspaper-proprietors than there were great barons and bishops. Until our Liberal friends have faced this fact, and done something themselves to remedy it, they will not begin to be ready for debate with a lucid Latin despotist, who disputes both their facts and the fundamental doctrines. I do not say that Mussolini might not, for all I know, repress real liberty in a real distributive democracy. But in the world which the Liberals have made, there is no liberty for him to repress.

The case is doubtless the same, thought I can hardly judge it, with the drama which I mentioned first. As I have never seen Journey's End, I will not classify it; but I believe it is not to be classed with the very craven pieces of pacificism and pessimism that have pestered us of late. But the general question of dramatic liberty is the same. A play like this, or a play far worse than this, is boomed and financed and forced down people's throats by powers quite other than popular instinct. The powers behind publicity, behind official and commercial propaganda, own the limelight and the stage. What they choose to say is not 'free speech'; for no play can consist of everybody's gags. Curiously enough, the nearest approach to such an impromptu individualistic drama has been found in the popular burlesques and buffooneries of Italy; which have survived many ancient despots - and even survived modern democracy. Fascism may really destroy Freedom of speech; but 'the Drama' like 'the Press' is almost the reverse of Freedom of Speech. It is rather Compulsion of Listening.

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