Word Power - LA Review of Books

By Brian K. Goodman


By Brian Goodman, Postdoctoral Instructor in Human Rights

A SPECTER IS HAUNTING Timothy Garton Ash’s book Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World — it is “the specter of what in the West is called ‘dissent.’” You might catch the ironic echo of the opening line from Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto, but this quote is taken from “The Power of the Powerless,” the most important essay by Václav Havel, the playwright and dissident who was elected president of Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Published last May, Free Speech is a book about all that has changed for global freedom of expression since the seemingly triumphant year of ’89. But what if the post-1989 world that Garton Ash is addressing has already vanished?

Reading Free Speech in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the American presidency was, for me, a deeply schizophrenic experience. On the one hand, Garton Ash’s spirited defense of free speech liberalism should be something that we can all rally around. Now is the perfect time for a broad coalition of liberals, leftists, and (actual) conservatives to reclaim free speech discourse from years of misuse by the far right. It’s striking that many of the pseudo-controversies of recent years, the insipid debates about trigger warnings and safe spaces, seem to have evaporated overnight. Perhaps the public conversation about free speech will sharpen just as our rights begin to disappear.

But I also share a generational suspicion that the unreconstructed liberalism of 1989 is what helped get us into this mess in the first place. Here I refer to a triumphalist articulation of classical liberalism, a political and economic language that was already criticized during the Cold War for its emphasis on possessive individualism and free-market ideology. After the collapse of communist regimes in the Soviet bloc, this tradition was nonetheless resuscitated and universalized, often at the expense of alternative visions of liberalism, human rights, and social democracy. The triumphalism of this post-1989 orientation can be summarized in one phrase: we can no longer imagine any alternative.

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