Thermidor

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Joseph de Villèle Against Freedom of the Press

"Free speech" has now become a quintessential conservative value. That it has always been a classical liberal value is true enough, but its association with conservatism is due to the historical anomaly of American conservatism being the English commonwealthman ideology interspersed with Manchester liberalism, notwithstanding historically trivial exceptions like Orestes Brownson, the Southern Fire-Eaters of DeBow's Review (and their Copperhead allies), and various latter-day tradcons at Brent Bozell's Triumph, or Kirk and Regnery (now ISI)'s Modern Age.

Free expression is the underpinning of the "public sphere," the public sphere being the engulfment of all social relations by the values of literary salons, coffeehouses and book clubs. Once instrumental in leveling the distinctions among magnates and between magnates and commoners, as well as fostering a new consciousness of the "active citizen," they proceeded to outlive their usefulness as the would-be salonnieres of the past made their long march into the institutions of the present.

From this point on, the same people who once claimed they "just want to debate ideas," showed their true colors in working to transform society into a secular monastery where the unbridled ego would be allowed to define its own essence and own being by sheer force of will alone against any constraints of tradition and material reality. This represents a bastardization of henosis, where instead of working to reach union with the transcendent, one instead reaches union with one's own vanity, conceit and pride. The liberation from social bonds reaches its culmination in a totalitarian existentialism where a completely self-imagined identity is lived out, and moreover, is coerced into being unconditionally accepted by all bystanders.

In the face of a post-New Left cultural onslaught imposing this existentialist project, the modern conservative now foolishly champions yesterday's free speech fundamentalism as somehow being the corrective. The alt-right, too. When Richard Spencer spoke at Auburn University in April 2017, he chose the rhetorical weapon of presenting himself as a freethinker fighting against left-wing dogma. And just recently, on June 25, 2017, a "Freedom of Speech Rally" was held at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. with Spencer, Identity Evropa and other figures present. Such is free speech: when one is the underdog, it is sweet like honey. When one is the overdog and has to enforce certain institutional axioms of social conformity to maintain a desired order, it is a nuisance. Hence, free speech is necessarily an appeal sought by the weakling. A free speech fundamentalist is a man who believes in nothing but eternal dissent.

Let us not forget that one of the errors condemned in the encyclical Exsurge Domine (1520) against Luther was "That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit."

But, to take a more modern context, I would like to direct your attention to a parliamentary speech given on December 13, 1817 by one of the most eminent ultra-royalist ministers of the Restoration of 1814-1830 -- Joseph de Villèle. 13 days later, a bill was passed prohibiting "papers and other periodicals which treat of political news" from being published without royal authority, before being relaxed 4 years later, although some nominal form of censorship would last until 1828 by which point ultra-royalist influence was waning. The speech is a concise and topical one, but it is also a succinct illustration of the perils of unfettered expression (particularly the press) in a representative government, as the Restoration one was with its Chamber of Deputies sanctioned by the Charter of 1814. A worthy reminder that free expression is not something a conservative can value as an absolute.

Excerpts below with some comments affixed at the end.


This union [of the French people around the legitimate King] can only operate by confidence; Confidence can be established only by the frank and complete execution of the laws which the restoration has added to those which, for centuries, have united France with the reigning family. Freedom of the press, with a strong and just repression of its abuses, is one of these fundamental laws; It is the indispensable companion of the liberty necessary to this tribune under a representative government.

We shall ask what laws, what code and what means account for these writings intended to corrupt the nation by prophesying anti-religious, anti-monarchical, and anti-social doctrines. We shall be justified in saying that they do not exist or are insufficient. These kinds of doctrines flood our country. Without the legitimate Government the foundations of which these authors undermine, the tribunals will never have enough power to struggle against faction, to resist the torrent of evil doctrines, and to preserve society from the new dangers to which these abuses will expose it. It is important for us to preserve this new liberty [of the press] by regulating its use. Experience has already proved what I say.

A superior institution, an institution beyond all influence, an institution which derives its strength from public opinion, and which consequently reacts with force to it, seems to me necessary to pronounce on the preservation or annihilation of a public right on which Representative government stands; It seems to me necessary to repress the unbridled license of writings, a repression which alone can guard society from new convulsions, which are the inevitable consequences of the errors of opinion.

For example, when printed works are attacked by the ministry of justice, I think that the suppression should only be made by a court of assizes assisted by twelve jurors appointed by lot, and who would take on the list of eligible candidates from the department to the Chamber of Deputies. Listed in accordance with the provisions of Articles 56 and 59 [of the Charter], I believe I am making a proposal in conformity with sound reason and constitutional spirit, by asking that men registered by the Charter to discuss our laws and preserve our freedoms should be called upon to give an overview of their reason for exercising the right to education in relation to our political institutions.

When a power is shared, it is only through explaining, mutually enlightening, by making reciprocal concessions, that one can obtain a result. In my opinion, I believe that I have been authorized by the Charter to propose to the Commission all the amendments which I consider useful to my country. Thus, the request for a law on the press, and a superior institution for dealing with all questions relating to the repression of abuses, seems to me to be indispensable, and in my opinion, provides the most cooperative and monarchical means of resolving the question which concerns us. The means is constitutional, for it sees in the best possible way the guarantee of the free use of a right on which the constitution rests. It is monarchical, for, better than any other, it can repress the abuses of the press, thus preventing the authority of the monarch from continually struggling and often being defeated by the lowliest writer. And nothing is less monarchical than the daily proofs of the powerlessness of the Government to protect society against the abuses which these writers and slanderers commit.

It has been said that the institution of the jury was democratic. Freedom of the press is also a democratic institution; And this may be the reason why the repression of its abuses, to be possible, must be entrusted to a democratic institution, to jurors; It is because we find in our government monarchical elements, aristocratic elements, and democratic elements, that we live under a mixed and constitutional monarchy; Combine these elements wisely, and your result will be monarchical; Exclude one of them, when it is liable to be admitted, you break the balance and fall into arbitrary rule.

I appeal to you, gentlemen, whether [press liberalization] will inspire confidence so necessary to the government, so useful to France in the situation in which the laborers have placed it? To force public opinion to take sides against the question of freedom of the press is to breed mistrust. It is to leave society exposed without means of defense against the license of writings.

What have we done with this powerful weapon whose exclusive use we have entrusted? What are the effects on public opinion by this important influence [the press] to which we have granted privileges? The facts answer these questions so as to leave no doubt as to the decision you have to take.

The anti-religious, anti-monarchical, anti-social doctrines have for the most part made frightful progress. Distrust, uncertainty and fear have entered in.

The frightened agriculturist, the uncertain merchant, the ruined manufacturer, confers to the land, commerce, and industry only the smallest part of their capital, in order to reserve to their family resources available for times of trouble which they fear [fear inspired by sensational newsmongering].

When all the parties have been brought into the field of battle, the custodians of authority have seen, but too late, the bitter fruits of the system which they had hitherto tolerated, and the papers have noticed and exploited their fears.

They stepped forward, imploring relief. But enlightened France could not see through their treachery, or through the proven folly of entrusting management of public opinion to men for whom this excessive power serves as a blinder to the dangers of their preaching.

Let us cease, gentlemen, and for ourselves, and for the ministers, this dictatorship [of the press], the consequences of which expose the Government to ignorance of the situation of France. Let us say frankly to the ministers (it is in times of crisis and suffering that truth is more necessary and less known): the political system they have followed up to this day, is over; They can no longer base their power on purely political [procedural] means.

The immense majority of the French want legitimacy and the Charter. Its complete execution can alone calm all suspicions, bring together all the people and save our country, making one bundle of all the forces. This profession of faith is not new to us, for the three years that we have been in this chamber, we have sealed it with our oaths, defended it in our speeches, and supported it with our votes.

Nor is this a uniquely conservative perspective. Doctrinaire liberals like Francois Guizot had largely similar views. He defined representative government like so: "If society remains in the condition of plurality, if isolated wills do not combine under the guidance of common rules, if they do not all equally recognise justice and reason, if they do not reduce themselves to unity, there is no society, there is only confusion. And the unity which does not arise from plurality, which has been violently imposed upon it by one or many, whatever may be their number, in virtue of a prerogative which they appropriate as their exclusive possession, is a false and arbitrary unity; it is tyranny. The aim of representative government is to oppose a barrier at once to tyranny and to confusion, and to bring plurality to unity by presenting itself for its recognition and acceptance."

Under these principles (Guizot rejected the idea of imputing sovereignty to any person(s), singular or plural, juxtaposing it with a "sovereignty of reason"), censorship is acceptable when the plurality of voices begins to infringe on the common norms that act as the bedrock of representative institutions. You don't want anti-parliamentarists in your parliamentary republic, after all. The liberal-democratic refusal to silence its opponents shall bring about its fall.

Which is what happened to the American republic. After the Constitutional Convention made the confederation a strong federal republic, the newspaper publishers began running amok very quickly and inflaming partisan passions -- ones that weren't even meant to be part of the design. Here is a sample of the views expressed by the National Gazette, a Democratic-Republican mouthpiece published by Philip Freneau from 1791 to 1793 (November 7, 1792), a staple of their Francophilia used to opportunistically counter the more Anglophile tendencies of the Federalists:

It is sickening to hear our prostituted prints call the French nation barbarous and inhuman ; because when justly incensed they have made examples of two or three thousand scoundrels, to rescue the liberties of millions of honed men, while the fame idiots pretend to respect a family, the vain wars of whom have covered the earth with the blood of innocent individuals from one end of Europe to the other ; and after all the noise made about the royal family of France, which of all the persons it contains can urge as a plea for calumniating even the hasty mobs of Paris, that a trigger has been pulled at them, though so often in the power of an enraged people. A moment's reflection on this circumstance shews that if atonement is to be made, it is to the people of France ; so continually insulted with the epithet of assassins in our pensioned prints. It is mortifying that England, who owes what little liberty he enjoys to a similar conduct with that pursuing in France, should now see her enfeebled press abused to the purpose of insulting daily a free people, struggling to maintain their recently recovered liberties.

The John Adams administration tried to clamp down on the scribblers (particularly men like Benjamin Franklin Bache of the Philadelphia Aurora) by passing the Sedition Act 1798. It flunked. Thomas Jefferson went on to win the presidential election of 1800, leading to a Democratic-Republican ascendancy, and in the words of Jeffrey Pasley:

Simply put, 1800 marks the point at which the republican constitutional system envisioned by the framers of the constitution, with the popular will filtered through various layers of government and the various competing interests carefully checked so that no individual faction or party could control the national government, became a basically democratic and partisan system. The new system, far from filtering the popular will or preventing national coalitions or political competition, came to be framed around and even dependent upon those forces. Space will not permit a full canvass of this question here, but at the most basic level it seems certain that numerous features of American politics and government that are now regarded as essential - political parties, competitive elections where more than personal rivalries are at stake, peaceful transfers of power, even (in a broad sense) freedom of speech and the press for partisan opponents of the government - date their establishment to the election of 1800. This was a system that the framers of the Constitution had not wanted or expected, and no nation on earth had ever tried. Given a dry run in 1796 but not put to the ultimate test until 1800, the new system forced the immediate revision of the constitution to partially accommodate democracy and partisanship, and became ever more firmly entrenched despite later efforts (after the War of 1812, especially) to phase it out.

Max Stirner, the amoral (or supramoral?) egoist, always skilled in skewering liberals over their paradoxes, had this to say on freedom of the press:

People do not yet know what they mean by their cry for liberty of the press. What they ostensibly ask is that the state shall set the press free; but what they are really after, without knowing it themselves, is that the press become free from the state, or clear of the state. The former is a petition to the state, the latter an insurrection against the state. As a “petition for right,” even as a serious demanding of the right of liberty of the press, it presupposes the state as the giver, and can hope only for a present, a permission, a chartering. Possible, no doubt, that a state acts so senselessly as to grant the demanded present; but you may bet everything that those who receive the present will not know how to use it so long as they regard the state as a truth: they will not trespass against this “sacred thing,” and will call for a penal press-law against every one who would be willing to dare this.

And since freedom of the press is a conditional grant given on the basis of some standard of welfare within a common weal, it can be revoked in circumstances where it begins to pose a threat to its integrity.

Republished from Carlsbad 1819.

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