Tocqueville on the Freedom of Discussion in America

Thu 03 April 2014

It is a sad day today. … Or let’s start from somewhere else. I have grown up in the Communist Czechoslovakia. I remember that moment, I was probably something around seven years old, and I was sitting on the floor of our living room and thinking where to hide a tape with anti-Communist protest songs so that it wouldn’t be found by the secret police if we were blessed with the house search. Yes, seven years. Yes, it was shortly after the Charter 77 and there was a lot of hysteria in the air, but yes couple of years later my father (who was an university professor) was falsely accused of committing rape on some female students (fortunately, police was then so sloppy, they made a mistake and provided him with the best alibi possible … he was interrogated by them in time when the rape was supposed to happen; or perhaps it was not mistake at all), so just a house search was not that improbable.

I remember reading a couple of years later a poem by a famous nineteenth century Czech poet, Karel Havlíček Borovský, written about the time when he was illegally arrested and deported by the Austrian police because of his anti-government journalism (yes, we have a long history of bad regimes here). This particularly interesting part described the situation when he was drawn out of the bed by the police early in the morning (the translation is mine and very very rough):

Ale Džok, můj černý buldog,
ten je grobián,
na habeas corpus tuze zvyklý —
on je Angličan.

Málem by byl chlap přestoupil
jeden paragraf,
již na slavný ouřad zpod postele
uďál: Vrr! haf! haf!

Hodil jsem mu tam pod postel
říšský zákoník,
dobře že jsem měl ten moudrý nápad,
již ani nekvík. —


However, Jock, my black bulldog,
he is a lout,
he is too much used to the Habeas Corpus —
being an English dog.

He would almost step over
one rule of the law,
because he started from below the bad
doing on the honorable officers: Grrr! Woof! Woof!

I have thrown him under the bad
the imperial code of law,
that was really a smart idea,
he haven’t made a sound anymore. —

I asked my Dad (who was a lawyer) then what the Habeas Corpus means, and when he explained it to me, my conclusion from this poem was that there is something awesome about the rule of law, and particularly there is something great about the English (and by association American) law. Apparently it is not possible for a policemen to draw you out of the bad without a reason, luxury which I was certain we were not blessed with.

Yet later I have learned another standard of the free society (even more relevant to what I would like to talk about anyway). I have been told that this standard is fairly displayed in the famous saying attributed to Voltaire:

Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write

Then the so called Velvet Revolution of 1989 happened, and I have found that the reality is a little bit complicated, but I think these rules of freedom of expression and honor to other peoples’ opinion stayed with me forever. So, I was terribly surprised and frankly confused later on when I was reading very excellent de Tocqueville’s book about the democracy in America which contained a statement

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.

Isn’t he talking about the country which gave us the First Amendment, which gave us whole concept of the freedom of expression? Isn’t he talking about the country founded by the dissenters? I thought that there must be something wrong with this statement, or that I had misunderstood something in what he was saying. Yet later on I have been blessed with an opportunity to live and study for couple of years in Boston so I have learned that the protection against the government attacking somebody for his expression is very much real, but that there is also present very high level of pressure to conform to the prevalent opinion of the community. And although everybody talks all the time about the value of diversity, there is really a little of it allowed.

So, I read in the last two weeks these two stories.

World Vision, one of the largest Christian charity organization in the world, decided that their employee won’t be fired because they were living in the same-sex marriage sanctioned by their state and their denomination. They were arguing for the decision because they are non-denominational organization and they didn’t want to overrule policy of their employees’ denominations, not mentioning they didn’t want to overrule state laws. I don’t know whether I agree with this argument, but it is obvious that the situation of non-denominational organizations is difficult and whichever decision they make it will be attacked by somebody. Of course, I don’t know what happened thereafter but couple of days later after the unbelievable firestorm of criticism from the evangelical circles, the World Vision reversed their decision.

Second story. Shortly after Brendan Eich was named CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, somebody picked up an old case of his financial support for the Proposition 8 (if I understand correctly, the issue at stake about that proposition was declaring a marriage to be an union of one man and one woman; if you don’t know who Brendan Eich is, look at his wikipage ). Even couple of LBGT employees of Mozilla Corp. defended Brendan Eich on their blogs claiming that there is no discrimination against them in Mozilla, just to the contrary conditions for LGBT people are way above the legal level and on the highest level in the industry. Also, nobody was able to explain questions of some senior Mozilla developers what has Brendan’s opinions to do with his position of CEO of the company developing computer programs. And whole story again ended the same, most extreme participants in the Kulturkampf won, and Mozilla lost in my opinion one of the most brilliant leaders in the industry.

What would de Tocqueville and Voltaire say?

Category: computer Tagged: culture faith politics privacy