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Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Did RAW have a point on freedom of speech? [UPDATE]

Image posted on X/Twitter, which still seems to (mostly) support free speech, although I'm unhappy with many of Elon Musk's moves 

Robert Anton Wilson, like me, was a free speech absolutist who argued that the only way to protect freedom of speech was to protect it for everyone.

I know I have friends in the RAW fandom community who disagree, but I wanted to ask if RAW's opinion is looking pretty good lately, or at least seems more reasonable to folks who disagree. Here are some news headlines I've noticed recently. 

Here is a Human Rights Watch report on censorship of Palestinian content on Facebook. 

"Germany’s unprecedented crackdown on pro-Palestinian speech." (from The Hill.)

"In Europe, Free Speech Is Under Threat for Pro-Palestine Protesters." (Time magazine). 

Many other examples could be offered. 

I'm not going to try to solve the problems of the Mideast in a blog post, but it seems to be undisputed that Israeli military action has killed thousands of civilians, many of the deaths have been children. It seems to me that protesting this ought to be a matter of freedom of speech.

Here is RAW on the topic of freedom of speech:

"Civil liberties remain indivisible, and what can be done to Catholics or Mobil Oil today can be done to Protestants or nudists tomorrow. ("If they can take Hancock's wharf they can take your cow or my barn," as John Adams once said.) Since the majority always rejects the Bill of Rights whenever a sociologist tries the experiment by offering it for approval by a cross-section of the population, and since George Bush earned great enthusiasm for his attacks on the ACLU, I don't suppose Wilgus or most people will understand this point, but we libertarians  have to keep saying it over and over, every generation, and hope it will eventually register."


Bonus: Here's a story out of Canada on another free speech issue. "Canada blocks citizenship for Russian activist convicted for blog posts opposing war."

UPDATE: Canada has apparently been embarrassed into granting the Russian lady citizenship after all. 


Rob Pugh said...

“We don’t have the freedom of speech to talk about the weather. We have the first amendment so we can say some very controversial things.”

— Ron Paul

Anonymous said...

I'd suggest that free speech has certainly been under attack here in the UK last year. During the week of the Magic Hat Ceremony, 50+ people were arrested for their Not My King protest. When the placards/posters were removed by the police, several protesters took to displaying blank placards, just like they do in totalitarian countries.
I could be wrong, but I think the term 'Magic Hat Ceremony' (in relation to the Windsor family) was invented (or popularised) by John Higgs.

Brian Dean said...

"Free speech for all" I'd regard, these days, as a commonsense notion. "Free speech absolutism" connotes something different for me - the view there should be no restriction on communication under any circumstances. When you stop people falsely shouting "fire" in crowded theatres, or purposefully causing violence with speech acts (eg instructions to kill), you depart from "free speech absolutism", presumably. I think this distinction stops the demagogues from dumbing down the issue, presenting themselves as pro-freedom in a false dichotomy of their creation.

On the Palestinian issue, "terrorism" used as political reason for censorship goes back a long way, but generally got turbocharged with Bush's "War on Terror". If you can routinely brand words as "terror"... (see Steven Poole's book, Unspeak, for details). The problem there, I think, lies with where the line gets drawn, assuming you don't want a society in which death threats and instructions to enact violence are considered "protected speech". iow, not an either/or thing.

You could never accuse RAW of dumbing down any issue. And most of the quotes from him intelligently address specific issues of the time he wrote, or specific idiocies of people he criticised, etc. But the whole current "free speech"/"censorship" debate in much of social media and "the media" runs the risk of dumbing down (if it hasn't already), presumably to the advantage of people like Trump, who thrives in a dumbed culture.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...


If it wasn't clear, I am only advocating for "free speech for all," which is what I believe RAW was advocating in the quote I used. I am not advocating for getting rid of privacy and libel laws, or being able to order an underling to rub out someone.

Brian Dean said...

Hi Tom - yes, I realised that (from my long-time reading of your posts). I'm interested in the semantics here, of course (I recall Tim Leary once said his main vice was words, meaning deconstruction, and I'm the same). Here, it's "free speech absolutism", which got a lot of coverage owing to Elon Musk's alleged views. Musk seems like no "free speech absolutist" to me. By his own account, he abides by, and generally supports, national laws (in each country he operates) restricting certain speech. RAW seemed no "absolutist", either, to me. I wonder if he ever used the term "free speech absolutist" to describe himself?

Mike said...

Corporations are paper/digital fiction. A made up story. Corporations are not people. I'm sure Bob would've said that. So I don't get the part about free speech applying to Mobil Oil. Which leads to money is speech (it isn't) and the horrors of dark money fascism we see creeping in today. Which leads to corporations having unlimited rights and humans having those rights corps say we can have. What money can buy. Money is a made up story. Capitalism is a silly stupid game that is destroying our habitat. And we all better grok that soon or we're done. It doesn't matter if you agree with me or not, we are part of nature. If we act like cancer cells, nature's immune system will be done with us in short order.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Hey Brian,

If he used the term "free speech absolutist," I don't remember it. I know he described himself as an advocate of "John Stuart Mill libertarianism" and in the letter I cited he said that "civil liberties remain indivisible." Mill's views on freedom of speech seem pretty well known.

Mill citation here:

If someone can provide a citation where RAW described his position on free speech, that might be interesting.

Elon Musk's various decisions mismanaging Twitter are pretty well known, so I'm not trying to align myself with his views. One of his more indefensible actions was to cut off links to Substack.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Latest Elon Musk nonsense, it's hard to keep up!

Spookah said...

As hinted at in the first comment, sombunall in alledged 'free countries' who oppose free speech tend to do so because free speech would in fact be hate speech in disguise. Although this might be true some of the time, to me it mostly seems like a fallacy. But at least, I can see their point.
The banning of pro-palestinian protests in Europe usually gets justified with the dubious idea that those would be antisemitic. This leads to absolutely surrealistic situations such as the far right in France publicly showing up at a rally against antisemitism (which looked at lot to me like public support for Israeli bombing of Gaza). The founder of the main French far right party once famously stated that the Shoah was but a "detail" of History.

Where, to me, this gets even crazier, is when even protests only calling for peace or a cease-fire get banned as well. When 'the Free World' states that peace should be banned, you know your civilization went down the sewer.

The really interesting part of this, to me, is the gigantic divide between this official position, held by most governments in the Western world, and the people living in these countries, by far and large opposing this undivided support to the actions of the Israeli government.
One more sign that officials simply do not represent their people any longer, in most countries.

Regarding free speech, two years ago I already was in the minority who thought than banning Russia Today from European airwaves was a terrible idea.
I usually do not state out loud and publicly this type of opinions anymore, as it seems unsafe to me to even just try to have a conversation about it.

Brian Dean said...

On my first trip to London in the 1970s, I witnessed a tiny, harmless Christian peace group demonstrating. A convoy of police vans suddenly arrived, police poured out in numbers and removed the group in heavy-handed fashion. It appalled me at the time.

The police don't need hate speech to move protests. It's about things like the number of bodies gathering, whether advance permission granted, etc. Speech content (and violence) might also be a factor, but they're separate issues.

That's not to say certain groups aren't disproportionately excluded from public debate, mass media, etc. And I see more authoritarian laws enacted regarding protests/gatherings (the UK's Conservative Party has a terrible record on this).

But lumping all these different issues (including social media moderation, the kinds of problems highlighted by folks like Jaron Lanier on the one hand, and the new AI-related problems on the other hand, emerging types of state propaganda platforms/operations etc) into one big "free speech"/"censorship" banner, often for political reasons, I regard as a colossal mistake. The populist demagogue playbook, so to speak.

Recall also what folks like RAW and Nassim Taleb have said about the opposite trajectory occurring - the overall, all-around greater openness and transparency in the info-realm that we're seeing, compared to pre-internet days.

Jesse said...

Corporations are not people. I'm sure Bob would've said that. So I don't get the part about free speech applying to Mobil Oil.


"Corporations are not people. I'm sure Bob would've said that. So I don't get the part about free speech applying to The New York Times."

And for that matter:

"Unions are not people. I'm sure Bob would've said that. So I don't get the part about free speech applying to the IWW."

"Churches are not people. I'm sure Bob would've said that. So I don't get the part about free speech applying to the Society of Friends."

"Political parties are not people. I'm sure Bob would've said that. So I don't get the part about free speech applying to the Communist Party."

If you are tempted to reply that unions, churches, political parties, and the corporation that publishes The New York Times are all *made up of* people, and that the organizations those people form should have free speech rights, then (a) I agree completely, and (b) I'm afraid that argument works for oil companies too.

Jesse said...

Oh, and Tom: While I do not know how Bob felt about libel laws, he did write this in WILHELM REICH IN HELL: "Nonetheless, the U.S. Supreme Court sits every year and determines, in various cases, if certain laws abridging freedom of speech and of the press are or are not in violation of the Constitution. As the late justice Hugo Black said sardonically on one occasion, the majority opinion of the Court appears to be that 'no laws' means 'some laws.'" And the context of Black's remark was, in fact, his belief that libel laws are unconstitutional.

Mike said...

Jesse, the US Constitution does not have one word to say about corporations being people. This was a "determination" of a gilded age Supreme Court of the 1890s, and may have even been a mistake that found its way into a decision. As big a fiction as Scalia's 2nd Amendment fiction. At the time of the inception of this country, Chartered Corporations were highly regulated. The definition of corps are words. They do not speak, do not have agency except for the individual people operating under than banner. Corps have become multinational with unlimited resources using "money is speech" to influence who can run, get elected, and laws at all levels of government. Most individuals do not have unlimited resources. If corps are people, why isn't there capital punishment for them? The corp is dissolved and give all its assets to its victims? Or the CEO is executed? Doesn't work like that. Churches exist because of the 1st amendment of the Constitution. People representing churches (churches themselves don't speak) are supposed to follow a law that says if they engage in political speech they lose tax exempt status. That's it. Even Bob's Church of the Subgenius. Unions as agencies of collective bargaining by the people in them (the definition of a union is made of up of words and doesn't speak) were legislated into existence and must adhere to the law; in return laws protect them. But corps not based in one location with unlimited resources can do anything in the name of free speech because they are people, but there's no people held accountable? No. We're in end stage capitalism. It's a cancer that exists for no other purpose than for itself. Profit more important than people's lives. If we are to survive, corps much change or cease to exist. Economic systems must be fair or cease to exist. It's now become imperative to our continuing to exist. I don't exist at the pleasure of an oil company. The oil company exists because we say it can and if it won't be regulated, it will cease to exist. We need a Constitutional Amendment that says so, but more likely people will say they must be subservient to corps and we will go extinct in the next few generations. Children being born today, starting school, their generation could be the last. Now tell me if corps should be able to act with unlimited rights all for profit, not as members of society, but operating around and above society.

Jesse said...

No matter what you think of the level of corporate power in America today, the situation would be far worse if the government had the power to trample the First Amendment rights (or the Fourth Amendment rights, or any other relevant constitutional rights) of groups taking a corporate form. For one thing, it would mean the government could impose censorship, warrantless searches, and other abuses on any newspapers, radio stations, or other media run by corporations. And it wouldn't actually mean a diminishment of corporate power—it would just mean those corporations that have political pull could use that power more freely against their rivals and critics. The worst of both worlds.

That, not legal personhood, is the key issue here. Even if you want to ban all oil companies, the people who have formed an oil company should still have First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, etc. rights. You don't lose those rights when you are acting through an association.

By the way: The Supreme Court case you are thinking of, Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad, happened in the 1880s, not the 1890s. The first Supreme Court case to recognize corporations as persons in a First Amendment context was Grosjean v. American Press Co., which was decided not by a Guilded Age court but the New Deal court. And I am pretty sure the Church of the SubGenius is *not* tax-exempt. (It is true that churches are supposed to respect certain restrictions if they wish to retain a tax exemption, but that's because the tax exemption is a legal privilege, not because the speech is a legal privilege. It is roughly comparable to the rules imposed on government-subsidized cultural institutions: The government can make certain demands in exchange for the subsidy, but it can't make those demands on people who aren't receiving the subsidy. And even then there are First Amendment limits of the kinds of demands the authorities can make.)