One of the great political writers of our time offers a manifesto for global free speech in the digital age
Never in human history was there such a chance for freedom of expression. If we have Internet access, any one of us can publish almost anything we like and potentially reach an audience of millions. Never was there a time when the evils of unlimited speech flowed so easily across frontiers: violent intimidation, gross violations of privacy, tidal waves of abuse. A pastor burns a Koran in Florida and UN officials die in Afghanistan.
Drawing on a lifetime of writing about dictatorships and dissidents, Timothy Garton Ash argues that in this connected world that he calls cosmopolis, the way to combine freedom and diversity is to have more but also better free speech. Across all cultural divides we must strive to agree on how we disagree. He draws on a thirteen-language global online project—freespeechdebate.com—conducted out of Oxford University and devoted to doing just that. With vivid examples, from his personal experience of China's Orwellian censorship apparatus to the controversy around Charlie Hebdo to a very English court case involving food writer Nigella Lawson, he proposes a framework for civilized conflict in a world where we are all becoming neighbors.
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You're best known for your writing on political events around the world, especially in places undergoing turmoil. How does your interest in free speech relate to your past work?
Free speech is a pivotal issue for world politics. It will be crucial for the political evolution of China and hence its relations with the West. It will decide whether a Europe transformed by immigration from majority Muslim countries can combine diversity and freedom. Its absence is both symptom and cause of the parlous condition of the Middle East, not to mention Putin's Russia.
How do you view the United States' role in the global struggle over free speech?
The modern First Amendment tradition makes the US the most powerfully pro-free-speech country in the world. But emerging powers such as India and Brazil are not ready simply to copy it. I argue that the US has to rethink the way it talks about free speech to the world. And it has to practice at home what it preaches abroad, from net neutrality to respecting the privacy of people's e-mail.
Are we more free to write and say what we think than in the past, or less?
Obviously, much depends on who you are, and where. Each age has its own challenges. Three of the biggest threats to free speech today are violent intimidation by Islamists sans frontières, the model of “information sovereignty” promoted by China, and the way money howls through American politics.
Timothy Garton Ash is Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford; Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University; and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books. He is the winner of the 2017 Charlemagne Prize and has won the Orwell Prize for Journalism.
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