Yesterday, the Chair of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis wrote an ominous letter to the CEO of Google. For the second time, the Chair is leaning on Google to police and remove “dangerous climate misinformation” on YouTube. The letter doesn’t threaten direct legal action against Google, but it nonetheless raises serious concern because it runs so counter to the free speech tradition and the value of a robust internet.
According to the Chair, “YouTube has been driving millions of viewers to climate misinformation videos every day, a shocking revelation that runs contrary to Google’s important missions of fighting misinformation and promoting climate action.” The Chair states her own unequivocal commitment to “promoting ambitious federal policy that will … eliminate barriers to action, including those as pervasive and harmful as climate denial and climate misinformation.” It’s hard not to see the veiled threat here.
Note the letter’s subtle casting of the consumers of information as passive actors that must be protected, rather than rational actors who choose what information to consume, a choice they’re entitled to make. She says “YouTube has been driving millions of viewers to climate misinformation” and that Google should “correct the record for millions of users who have been exposed to climate misinformation.” This language strips accountability and action from the viewers, as if they are a captive audience held down and forced to view climate denial videos with eyelid clamps like a scene from A Clockwork Orange. But if that content is promoted and viewed, that’s because there’s a consumer demand for it. The passive language used in the letter exemplifies the paternalism that often lurks behind censorship: for their own welfare, we must protect the public from information they wish to consume.
Note also the absolutism woven into the letter. Google cannot both be committed to climate action and committed to an open culture of public discourse. In the war for humanity’s survival, one priority must dominate above all others.
The letter also relies on the tired tactic of impugning speakers’ motives. Anyone who expresses “climate misinformation” on YouTube just wants “to protect polluters and their profits at the expense of the American people.” It’s impossible for an absolutist to consider that views opposed to her own might be sincerely held. Plus, research has shown that political views frequently do not line up with individual self-interest. Only a shallow thinker or someone with an agenda assumes a political viewpoint is rooted in a selfish motive.
As for the constitutional implications of the letter, there is no question that the federal government cannot impose on Google the duty to remove “climate misinformation” or “climate denial” content. False speech is not exiled from the sanctuary of First Amendment protection. Of course, some false speech can be penalized, such as libel, slander, or fraud. But these are circumstances where there’s some other legally cognizable harm associated with the false statement for which recovery is warranted. There is no general rule that false speech is unprotected.
Government should never be in the position of arbitrating truth. Particularly in the context of hotly debated political controversies, allowing government to label one side as gospel and penalize dissidents opens the door to legally enshrined orthodoxy. As Justice Robert Jackson said 80 years ago: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” That’s what the power to ban “climate misinformation” entails.
Indeed, government refereeing of truth will almost always shade toward discrimination against disfavored viewpoints. For example, there is “misinformation” out there on both sides of the climate debate. Those who peddle wild doomsday predictions are just as unhinged as those denying the realities of climate change. Yet the Chair does not propose to censor such misinformation.
When I see such zealous effort to shut someone up, I can’t help but ask myself why the censor is so afraid. The targeting of this speech is likely only draw attention to it. Why worry about the hacks? I’ve always believed what John Milton expressed centuries ago in the Areopagitica: “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” Of course, that doesn’t mean that falsehoods lack convincing power, but truth in the end has the edge. Rather than pick the winner in advance, we do much better by letting truth emerge through open debate, bloodied but victorious.
“He was, as every truly great poet has ever been, a good man; but finding it impossible to realize his own aspirations, either in religion or politics, or society, he gave up his heart to the living spirit and light within him, and avenged himself on the world by enriching it with this record of his own transcendental ideal.” (Comment on John Milton by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834)
Milton made important arguments for the kind of political institutions which would serve liberty, as well as discussing to goal of freedom in discussion of opinion. Though there are two basic Milton texts identified here, I will not attempt to distinguish them here, let alone take into consideration every possibly relevant text by Milton. This is a period of rapid change in political institutions in England (also applying but unevenly and differently in Ireland and Scotland; at this time Wales has to be considered part of England), of experimentation including the execution of King Charles I just before the publication of the first essay identified was published and the institution of a Commonwealth and Free State, in that year, and of reaction in the sense of royal Restoration in the year that the last essay identified was published. Context matters and so does change, but I think for the purposes of this post as opposed to a blog about the details of Milton’s life as a man of letters and politics, this will be mostly an overview rather than a tracking of Milton’s evolution.
As with his views on free speech, Milton’s views on political institutions mix religious commitments with knowledge of English history and great scholarship of ancient texts. The knowledge of ancient texts to some degree overlaps with the knowledge of religious texts, which is one reason why intensified study of the Bible in the sixteenth and seventeenth century tended to serve general cultural development and liberty.
Milton’s objections to monarchy are partly established through his reading of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible where he argues that God warned the ancient Jews against adopting the institution of monarchy. Anyone interested in following up which parts of Hebrew scripture Milton is using here should start with the First Book of Samuel, Chapter 8. Disasters that befall the Biblical Jews are in some measure the consequence of ignoring God’s counsel in this matter. Of course, many have seen the Bible as justifying not just monarchy, but absolute monarchy so Milton goes to some effort to argue that monarchy was a second best institution for the Jews from God’s point of view and that the Jews never gave their monarchs absolute power.
The view that Milton has then, of the rights and powers of kings, is that they are established by covenant with the community and not a divine authority which the community must obey. The idea of covenant is important in Christianity, with regard to the view that the ancient Jews had a covenant with God as his chosen people and that Christ offered a new covenant for all humans willing to follow him as the son of God. These covenants were very much emphasised in the Protestant culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which thought it was returning to a relation with God obscured by centuries of Catholic interposition of church hierarchy between believer and divine word.
The idea of covenant moved quite quickly from theology to political and legal thought in Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), a Dutch theologian and legal-political thinker who was one of the major shapers of modern thought in these matters. Milton does not emphasise him in these essays, but he was certainly an influence. For Grotius, the covenant is at the centre of theology, and influences his view of the obligation to obey law and government, though he does not use the language of covenant greatly in that context. The point being in political terms that in some way laws and political institutions rest on some choice of the community to obey them. In Grotius’s thinking, this is more about the reason for obedience than an incitement to rebellion where laws and institutions lack popular backing, but the latter aspect is necessary outcome. This ambiguity carries on into the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes (1551) which takes a foundational social covenant (defined more in legalistic than theological terms) as the basis of absolute obedience to the sovereign, but certainly influences the view of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Civil Government (1690) according to which ‘the people’ (in practice Locke meant the upper classes reğresented in Parliament) the right to overthrow government.
So Milton precedes Locke’s view that rebellion against unjust government is lawful, even admirable, and that laws are uniquely made by ‘the people’ in Parliament and never by a monarch. Milton himself draws on earlier historical precedent for this view of government as based on contract and the right of rebellion against government which ignores that contract. Particularly important is the Dutch Revolt of the late Sixteenth Century, in which merchant towns rebelled for political, commercial, and religious reasons against the absolutist Catholic monarchy of Spain which had acquired them for rather accidental dynastic reasons in recent history. Final agreement with Spain took a long time, but the new Dutch Republic quickly established the possibility of a mercantile republic in modern Protestant Europe and offered support to those who considered republics to be more Protestant than monarchies. Milton draws further on recent Scottish history, pointing out that a Protestant Scottish parliament had deposed Mary, Queen of Scots, in the preceding century. In general, Milton argues that the idea of monarch contradicts the idea of an ordinary human with an ordinary body, with legal accountability like anyone else, and so can never be incorporated properly into a state of free citizens.
Though monarchy which obeys such agreements is allowable from Milton’s point, it is not ideal and is very likely to decay into outright tyranny. Nevertheless he offers examples of how great monarchs of European history, including Roman Emperors, accepted that their power was only justified by serving law and the good of the community. As Milton emphases the last great Roman Emperor Justinian (ruling from Constantinople towards the end of the period during which any Roman Emperor controlled much territory beyond Anatolia and the Balkans) produced the greatest codification of Roman law, making himself the servant of law, not god on Earth. In any case is monarchy might be just about tolerable in many societies for Milton, the proper practice of Protestant Christianity certainly required a freedom from the religious and institutional church authority demanded by kings. Protestant ideas of free discussion of religious ideas and self-governing groups of believers could not thrive under a king (which was a reasonable estimate since Protestant Dissenters were not really equal citizens until the nineteenth century when the monarchy had become largely ceremonial, and indeed the last monarch who really struggled for a more than figurehead role, George III, was en enemy of religious emancipation).
Milton developed a view of how a republic, or commonwealth, might survive over the long term, certainly a longer term than the period it lasted in England, in its purest form only from 1649-52, and then the Lord Protectorship of Oliver Cromwell until 1658 and his heir Richard Cromwell until 1660. He thought that while the country might need a new parliament in 1660, once elected it should serve permanently, replacing dead or absent members through its own method. What Milton seems to advocate here though is not a permanent republican law, but something necessary to institute a permanent republic. Milton thinks of the beginnings of a republic as embattled and as needing to act more like an army than a fully stabilised and secure civil republic should. Both the chance for election and eligibility to vote can be restricted while the republic secures itself against selfish internal a faction and external danger. Here Milton runs into the problem Niccoló Machiavelli, an ardent republican despite frequent misrepresentations, encountered in The Prince, how to get a people that is not very republican and maybe not very ready for a republic to the point where civic virtue and understanding of public good are strong enough for a workable republic.
Milton’s life and public service under the take over of the English republic by the quasi-monarch Oliver Cromwell, followed by his life and exile from public life under the restored monarchy, is the context for the quotation from Coleridge at the head of this post. For Milton, republicanism and associated ideals, became more and more associated with some better and other world. After the Restoration Milton certainly became the author of poetry rather than political essays, producing in particular Paradise Lost, a religious epic which places him just below Shakespeare in general evaluation of English literature. We could look there for a more ‘transcendental’ exploration of republicanism and liberty, and I had hoped to do so. However, this task will be deferred as I think a responsible investigation of republicanism in Milton’s poetry, though a recognised area of discussion, is just too big and different to incorporate into this sequence of posts. Later I hope.
John Milton is one of the major figures in the history of English literature. His poetry, particularly but certainly not only his epic Paradise Lost, has conditioned all of English literature since his own time. He was also a major political writer and advocate of liberty.
In some ways his appeal has become a bit more limited with the decline of religion as a major part of life in Britain and other English speaking countries, but he is still read and has influence on the non-religious no less than the religious. He came from a time when political and literary activity in England (strictly speaking there was no Britain or Great Britain in terms of the legal state until 1707, before which there was a union of three kingdoms or states, England, Scotland and Ireland with no superseding state on top) and across Europe was very tied up with religion. Both of the greatest English political philosophers of the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, were centrally concerned with the relation of the state to religion. The last thinker I discussed, James Harrington, though not very religious in orientation, still discusses the Biblical ancient Jews in his political writing.
Milton was a Puritan in religion and a republican in politics. To say he was a Puritan is to say he was one of the more radical Protestants outside of the mainstream of the state church as it existed under English kings. Puritan was originally a pejorative label associating religious dissenters and radicals with joyless fanaticism. This might have been an accurate description of some Puritans, but not all and certainly not Milton. He travelled in Catholic Europe where he made friends and intellectual interlocutors. He advocated for the right to divorce, which had been no more recognised in Protestant England after the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century than in preceding Catholic England. His learning, including that of ancient pagan classics, was greater than normal for bigoted fanatics. Furthermore, his poetry shows great joy in the pleasure of words and imagination, traits uncharacteristic of the bigot whose greatest pleasure is to think of his enemy burning in hellfire.
Even the more joyless kind of Puritan often showed a spirit of equality in social life, democracy in church government, and the value of all honest work, along with a belief in enough education for children to at least study the Bible carefully and intelligently, which played a large role in the growth of liberty, commercial society and civil institutions in England. This was not an era where complete religious tolerance, or complete independence of the individual from the state, was at all mainstream and even the most tolerant states (the Netherlands being the best candidate) did not have complete equality between faiths or tolerance for open non-believers. For the time, Milton was at the more tolerant end of the spectrum and so were many other Puritans, despite the forbidding associations of that term.
Milton lived through through the Civil War (1642-1651) between Crown and Parliament and was a strong supporter of Parliament as were Puritans in general, though Milton’s political views should also be seen in the light of his classical learning and respect for the republics of ancient Greece and Rome.
Parliament’s victory lead to the creation of an English republic known as the Commonwealth in 1649, and Milton’s advocacy of republicanism led to an appointment as Secretary of Foreign Tongues, an office which required him to compose correspondence with foreign governments in Latin and continue a defence of republicanism for a European audience. Milton continued in this post as the Commonwealth gave way to the Lord Protectorship of Oliver Cromwell, the most outstanding general of the parliamentary army. This was not an explicit repudiation of republicanism, but did reflect the difficulties of organising parliamentary government in a country used to monarchical governments.
Parliaments were very happy to offer Cromwell powers he was not ready to accept, and even the explicit title of king. Cromwell essentially served as an uncrowned king, making various experiments with parliamentary and military administration. Cromwell is sometimes portrayed as a religious fanatic and tyrant, but he restrained the intolerance of the most radical Puritans and was not religiously intolerant by the standards of the era. His tendency towards more militaristic and personal government reflected institutional failures rather than a plan for absolute personal power. He purged and selected parliaments, but all previous parliaments had presumed the subservience of MPs to monarchical domination and conformity to the state church.
Cromwell’s darkest reputation arose in Ireland, but tales of Cromwellian massacres of Irish Catholic civilians are now agreed by Irish historians to be highly exaggerated. What he was guilty of was completion of a long process of subordinating Ireland to England, and of removing power and landed property from the Catholic majority. Deplorable as this was, it was no more than the standard statecraft of the time. Cromwell did not establish an arbitrary violent despotism in England. He largely operated within the law and reformed the administration of the nation in an efficient and enduring way. He did not acquire spectacular wealth or establish a court of ostentatious luxury. Though Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard inherited the Lord Protectorship, Cromwell had not prepared the way for the dynastic rule of his family, and power returned to the previous royal family.
I have discussed Cromwell’s status as a figure in English history to show how a sincere republican like Milton could continue in his state position. There is no reason to think he did so for reasons of acquiring wealth or addiction to power. He remained true to his principles after the return of the monarchy, unlike many, and was in real danger of very serious legal consequences. Fortunately those who respected him in the new regime, after abandoning the old regime, intervened and Milton was able to live out his life peacefully though in rather simple style for one of the greater writers of the time.
Milton’s writings, along with the failed republican experiment and the Cromwellian administrative reforms, established the conditions for a second concealed republican revolution, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which under the pretence of restoring a traditional relation between monarchy and nation, in practice established a successful aristocratic-commercial republic under a monarch who could only act in co-operation with Parliament.
Next I will begin the investigation of Milton’s writings.
(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)
(I took a break from posting this over the holiday period when I presume some people are checking blogs, rss feeds, and the like, less than at other times of the year. Catch up with the three previous posts in the series, if you missed them, via this link.)
The most important advice Machiavelli gives with regard to maintaining the state, is to respect the lives and honour of subjects, refrain from harassing women, avoid bankrupting the state with lavish expenditures, uphold the rule of of law outside the most extreme situations, and concentrate on military leadership, which is to turn monarchy into a hereditary command of the armies, a republican idea, if the monarch withdraws from other areas of state business and certainly from law making. That is certainly how John Locke, at the beginning of classical liberalism saw the role of kings.
It is true that unlike antique thinkers, Machiavelli does not see human nature as essentially ‘good’, at least when guided by reason and law. What those thinkers meant by good was a life of self-restraint difficult to make compatible with commercial society. Machiavelli understood the benefits of commercial society compared with feudalisms, and though there was an element of antique nostalgia in his thinking, he understood like the political economists of the eighteenth century that public goods come from self-interest, softened but not eliminated, by some sense of our connections and obligations to others.
Machiavelli’s longest book on political thought is The Discourses, a commentary on the Roman historian Livy’s account of the earlier periods of Roman history, covering the early kings and the republic. Here Machiavelli makes clear beyond any doubt that his model state was a republic and though it was Rome rather than Athens, he takes the original step of seeing Rome as great not because of Order, but because of the conflicts between plebeians and patricians (the poor or at least non-noble masses and the aristocracy), which resulted in a democratisation process where the plebeians learned to think about the common good and where everyone shared in a constructive competitiveness which developed individual character through civic conflict under law (well a large part of the time anyway). His view of the republic requires both a sphere of common political identity and action and a competitive non-conformist spirit.
Machaivelli’s republican hopes for Florence, and even the whole of Italy, were dashed by the Medici princes and a period of conservative-religious princely absolutism under foreign tutelage in Italy, but his ideas lived on and not just in the one sided stereotypes. He had an English follower in the seventeenth century, James Harrington, author of Oceana. Harrington hoped for republic in England, though a more aristocratic one that Machiavelli tended to advocate, and was too radical for his time, suffering imprisonment during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of a republican revolution who became a new king in all but name. There was a British republic, or commonwealth, after the Civil War between crown and parliament, lasting from 1649 to 1652, which was then not exactly absolved but became a less pure republic when Cromwell became Lord Protector.
Even so the republican poet, John Milton, served Cromwell as a head of translation of papers from foreign governments. Milton is more famous as a poet than as a political thinker, nevertheless he wrote important essays on liberty, drawing on antique liberty in Greece and Rome, as well his republican interpretation of the ancient Jewish state (important to Milton as a deep religious believer whose most famous poems are on Biblical stories). Milton helped change English literary language, almost overshadowing the ways that he furthered republican political ideas and did so on the basis of an Athenian model of law and free speech. His defence of freedom of printing, Areopagotica is named in honour of the central court of Athenian democracy (though with older roots) and draws on the idea of a republic based on freedom of speech and thought. Both Milton and Harrington were major influence on the Whig aristocratic-parliamentary liberalism of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth and so feed directly into classical liberalism in practice and the defence of liberty of speech and thought to be found in Mill’s On Liberty.
The development of classical liberalism and the libertarian thought of the present come out of the republicanism of antiquity and the early modern period. There is a strand of thought within libertarianism which is anti-politics or only minimally willing to engage with politics as a part of communal human life. However, the parts of the world where liberty is most flourishing, if far short of what we would wish for, are where there ‘republics’ in the original sense, that is political power is shared between all citizens, regardless of the issue of whether a royal family provides a symbolic head of state.
On the whole, historically commerce has been linked with the existence of republics, even within monarchist medieval and early modern England the City of London was a partly autonomous city republic focusing resistance to royal power as it protected its commercial gains from state destruction. Despotism, and the state that plunders civil society, wish for a depoliticised atomised society. Republican politics can go wrong, but the answer is republican reform, republics with less of the aspects of absolutist monarchy and traditionalist power structure, not an idealisation of states which exist to preserve and reinforce forms of authority obnoxious to open markets, individuality, equality before the law, and the growth of tolerance for forms of living not so well recognised by tradition.