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Freedom of Speech Ends Where True Power Begins

"I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice," William Lloyd Garrison once said. "On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation."

On January 1, 1831, The Liberator, the country’s first abolitionist newspaper and, later, a defender of women’s suffrage, appeared in Massachusetts. At that time, Georgia slavers offered a reward of $5,000 (more than $160,000 in 2024 value) for the capture of its founder, William Lloyd Garrison. Naturally, this is how power reacts to freedom and the fight for the rights of others, but this attempt at violent censorship was not the legal norm at that time. The freedom of speech established by the First Amendment applied to white men, and no one wanted to break the law in broad daylight. To correct these errors there was always the mafia, paramilitarism and, later, secret agencies that are beyond the law―if not legal harassment under other excuses.

In his first article, Garrison already reveals the tone of a dispute that is announced as something long-standing: “I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen…”

The Liberator, exercising its right to freedom of the press, began sending copies to the southern states. The response of the southern governments and the slave owners was not to prohibit the publication, since it was against the law―a law that was made so that some rich white men could protect themselves from other rich white men who never imagined that this freedom could in some way threaten the existence of the political power of all rich white men. Actually, that is what “the land of the free” meant when the poet and slaveowner Francis Scott Key wrote it in 1814: the land of the white men―the “free race.”

Instead of breaking the law, an old method was resorted to. There’s no need to break the rules when you can change them. This is how a democracy works. Of course, not everyone has, nor does they have, the same possibilities of operating such a democratic miracle. Those who cannot change the laws usually break them and that is why they are criminals. Those who can change them are the first interested in ensuring that they are fulfilled. Except when the urgency of their own interests does not allow for bureaucratic delay or, for some reason, an inconvenient majority has been established, which those in power accuse of being irresponsible, childish or dangerous.

In principle, since the First Amendment could not be directly abolished, losses were limited. North Carolina passed laws prohibiting literacy for slaves. The prohibitions continued and spread throughout the 1830s to other slave states, almost always justified by the disorders, protests and even violent riots that abolitionists had inoculated among blacks with subversive literature.

Slavery propaganda was immediate. Posters and pamphlets were distributed warning of subversive elements among the decent people of the South and the dangers of the few conferences on the taboo subject. Harassment of freedom of expression, without actually prohibiting it, also occurred in the largest cities of the North. One of the pro-slavery pamphlets dated February 27, 1837 (a year after Texas was taken from Mexico to reestablish slavery) invited the population to gather in front of a church on Cannon Street in New York, where an abolitionist was going. to give a talk at seven at night. The advertisement warned about “An abolitionist of the most revolting character is among you… A seditious Lecture is to be delivered this evening” and called to “unite in putting down and silencing by peaceable means this tool of evil and fanaticism. Let the right of the States guaranteed by the constitution be protected.”

Abolitionist publications and conferences did not stop. For a time, the way to counteract them was not the prohibition of freedom of expression but the increase in slavery propaganda and the demonization of anti-slavery people as dangerous subversives. Later, when the resource of propaganda was not enough, all Southern states began to adopt laws that limited the freedom of expression of revisionist ideas. Only when free speech (freedom of dissident whites) got out of control did they turn to more aggressive laws, this time limiting free speech with selective bans or taxes on abolitionists. For example, in 1837, Missouri banned publications that went against the dominant discourse, that is, against slavery. Rarely did they go so far as to imprison dissidents. They were discredited, censored, or lynched for some good reason such as self-defense or the defense of God, civilization, and freedom.

After the Civil War broke out, the slaveholding South wrote its own constitution. As the Anglo-Saxon Texans did, just about separated from Mexico, and for the same reasons, the constitution of the Confederacy established the protection of the “Peculiar Institution” (slavery) while including a clause in favor of freedom of expression. This passage did not prevent laws that limited it to one side or the paramilitarism of the slave (well-regulated) militias, origin of the southern police, from acting as they pleased. As in “We the people” of the Constitution, as originally the First Amendment of 1791, this “freedom of speech” did not include people who were neither “the people” nor were they full and responsible humans. It was referring to the free race. In fact, the constitution of the new slave country established in 1861, in its section 12, almost like a copy of the original amendment of 1791: “(12) Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (13). A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

More equitable and democratic, impossible… The secret was that, again, like almost a century before, that of “the people” did not include the majority of the population. If anyone had observed that then, he would be accused of being crazy, unpatriotic, or a dangerous subversive. That is, something that, at its root, has not changed much in the 21st century.

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By the time the slave system was legally outlawed in 1865, thanks to the circumstances of a nearly lost war, The Liberator had already published 1,820 issues. Aside from supporting the abolitionist cause, it also supported the women’s equal rights movement. The first woman candidate for the presidency (although not recognized by law), Victoria Woodhull, was arrested days before the 1872 elections on charges of having published an article classified as obscene―opinions against good customs, such as the law of the women to decide about their sexuality. As has been the norm for centuries in the Free World, Woodhull was not arrested for exercising her freedom of speech in a free country, but under the guise of breaking other laws.

However, this is not an exclusive characteristic of the slaveholding South or of the United States as a whole. The British Empire always proceeded in the same way, not very different from the “Athenian democracy” twenty-five centuries ago: “we are civilized because we tolerate different opinions and protect diversity and freedom of expression.” Of course, as long as they don’t cross certain limits. As long as they do not become a real danger to our incontestable power.

In this sense, let us remember just one more example. In 1902, economist John Atkinson Hobson published his classic Imperialism: A Study in which he explained Britain’s vampire nature over its colonies. Hobson was marginalized by critics, discredited by academia and the mainstream press of the time. He was not arrested or imprisoned. While the empire that he himself denounced continued to kill dozens of millions of human beings in Asia and Africa, neither the government nor the British crown took the trouble to directly censure the professor. Many, as is the case today, pointed to him as an example of the virtues of British democracy. Something similar to what happens today with those critics of US imperialism, especially if they live in the United States: “look, he criticizes the country in which he lives…” In other words, if someone points out the crimes against humanity in the multiple imperial wars and does so in the country that allows freedom of expression, that is proof of the moral and democratic goodness of the country that massacres millions of people and tolerates that someone dare to mention it.

How do you explain all these apparent contradictions? It’s not that complicated. An imperial power, dominant, unanswerable, without fear of the real loss of its privileges, does not need direct censorship. What’s more, the acceptance of marginal criticism would prove its benefits. It is tolerated, as long as they do not cross the limit of true questioning. As long as the hegemonic domain is not in decline and in danger of being replaced by something else.

Now let’s look at those counterexamples of hegemonic power and its stewards. “Why don’t you go to Cuba where people do not have freedom of expression, where plurality of political parties does not exist?”

To begin, it would be necessary to point out that all political systems are exclusive. In Cuba, liberal parties are not allowed to participate in their elections, which are called a farce by liberal democracies. In countries with liberal democratic systems, such as the United States, elections are basically elections of a single party called Democratic-Republican. There is no possibility that a third party can seriously challenge the Single Party because this is the party of the corporations, which are the elite that have the real power in the country. Communist parties here were prohibited and now, after FBI and CIA persecution of suspected sympathizers, it has been reduced to a virtual inexistence. On the other hand, if, for example, in a country like Chile a Marxist like the current president Gabriel Boric wins the elections, no one would even think of imagining that this president is going to leave the constitutional framework, which prohibits the establishment of a communist system in the country. The same thing happens in Cuba, but it must be said that it is not the same.

Now, let’s return to the logic of freedom of expression in different systems of global power. To summarize it, I think it is necessary to say that freedom of expression is a luxury that, historically, those colonies or republics that struggled to become independent from the freedom of empires (the “free race”) have not been able to afford. It would be enough to remember of dozens of examples like the Guatemalan democracy, destroyed by the Great Democracy of the United States in 1954 because its democratically elected government decided to apply the sovereign laws of its own country, which did not suit the megacorporation United Fruit Company. The Great Democracy did not hesitate to install another brutal military dictatorship, which left hundreds of thousands of dead over decades.

What was the main problem of Guatemalan democracy in the 1950s? It was his freedom of the press, his freedom of expression. Through this, the Northern Empire and the UFCo managed to manipulate public opinion in that country through a propaganda campaign deliberately planned and recognized by its own perpetuators―not by its Creole butlers, it goes without saying.

When this happens, the young Argentine doctor Ernesto Guevara was in Guatemala and had to flee into exile in Mexico, where he met other exiles, the Cubans Fidel and Raúl Castro. When the Cuban Revolution triumphed, Ernesto Guevara, by then El Che, summed it up remarkably: “Cuba will not be another Guatemala.” What did he mean by this? Cuba will not allow itself to be inoculated like Guatemala through the “free press.” History proved him right: When in 1961 Washington invaded Cuba based on the CIA plan that assured that “Cuba will be another Guatemala,” it failed miserably. Because? Because its population did not join the “liberating invasion,” since it could not be inoculated by the massive propaganda that the “free press” allows. Kennedy found out and reproached the CIA, which he threatened to dissolve and ended up dissolving.

Freedom of expression is typical of those systems that cannot be threatened by freedom of expression, but quite the opposite: when popular opinion has been crystallized, by tradition or by mass propaganda, the opinion of the majority is the best form of legitimation. Which is why these systems, always dominant, always imperial, do not allow their colonies the same rights that they grant to their citizens.

When the United States was in its infancy and fighting for its survival, its government did not hesitate to approve a law that prohibited any criticism of the government under the excuse of propagating false ideas and information―seven years after approving the famous First Amendment. Naturally, that law of 1798 was called The Sedition Act, which made it a crime to “print, utter, or publish any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the government.

These resources of the champion of freedom of expression were repeated other times throughout their history, always when the decisions and interests of a government dominated by the big corporations in power felt its interests were seriously threatened. This was the case of another law also called the Sedition Act, that of 1918, when there was popular resistance against the propaganda organized by public opinion manipulators like Edward Bernays and George Creel (“the white hot mass of patriotism”) in favor of intervening in the First World War―and thus ensuring the collection of European debts.

Until a few years before, the harsh anti-imperialist criticisms of writers and activists like Mark Twain were demonized, but there was no need to tarnish the reputation of a free society by putting a renowned intellectual in jail, as they had done in 1846 with David Thoreau for his criticism to the aggression and dispossession of Mexico to expand slavery, under the perfect excuse of not paying taxes. Neither Twain nor the majority of public critics managed to change any policy or reverse any imperialist aggression in the West, as they were read by a minority outside of economic and financial power. In that aspect, modern propaganda had no competition, therefore direct censorship of these critics would have hindered their efforts to sell aggression in the name of freedom and democracy. On the contrary, critics served to support that idea, whereby the largest and most brutal empires of the Modern Era were proud democracies, not discredited dictatorships.

Only when public opinion was too hesitant, as during the Cold War, did McCarthyism emerge with its direct persecutions and later the (indirect) assassination of civil rights leaders, violent repression with arrested and deaths in universities when criticism against the Vietnam War threatened to translate into effective political change―in fact, the Congress of the 1970s was the most progressive in history, making possible the investigation of the Pike and Church Committee against the CIA’s secret regime of propaganda and assassinations. When three decades later the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq occurred, the criticism and public demonstrations had become timid, but the new magnitude of imperial aggression after 2001 made it necessary to take new legal measures, as in 1798.

History rhymed again in 2003. Instead of the Sedition Act it was called the Patriot Act, and it not only established direct censorship but something much worse: the indirect and often invisible censorship of self-censorship. More recently, when criticism of racism, patriotic history and too many rights for sexual minorities began to expand beyond control, the resort to prohibition by law returned. Case in point with Florida’s latest laws, promoted by Governor Ron DeSantis directly banning revisionist books and regulating language in public schools and universities. The creation of a demon called Woke to replace the loss of the previous demon called Muslims―who replaced Communists, who replaced N-people.

Meanwhile, the butlers, especially the sepoys of the colonies, continue to repeat clichés created generations before: “how come you live in the United States and dare to criticize that country, you should move to Cuba, which is where freedom of expression is not respected.” After their clichés they feel so happy and so patriotic that it is a shame to make them uncomfortable with reality.

On May 5, 2023, the coronation ceremony of King Charles III of England took place. The journalist Julián Assange, imprisoned for more than a decade for the crime of having published a minor part of the atrocities committed by Washington in Iraq, wrote a letter to the new king inviting him to visit the depressing Belmarsh prison in London, where hundreds of prisoners are dying, some of whom were recognized dissidents. Assange was allowed the sacred right of freedom of expression generously granted by the Free World. His letter was published by different Western media, which proves the benefits of the West and the childish contradictions of those who criticize the Free World from the Free World. But Assange continues to serve as an example of lynching. Same, during slavery and segregation a few thousand blacks were lynched in public. The idea was to show an example of what can happen to a truly free society, not to destroy the oppressive order itself by eliminating all slaves, poor, workers, critics, and other inferior people.

Jorge Majfud is an Uruguayan-American writer and an associate professor at Jacksonville University.

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