“I can answer for myself, and I hope I may for others, that the liberty of communicating our sentiments to the public freely and honestly, shall not be tamely given up, nor, I trust, forced out of their hands. “ (The North Briton, No. 44)
So wrote John Wilkes on April 2nd, 1763, and a veritable tsunami of similar sentiments is at last moistening a political and media culture long left dry and barren by years of mawkish and feeble self-censorship and lazy conformity. Sadly, though, we expect no Damascene conversion from western politicians, who have spent the last decade cutting back free speech one slice at a time until we are no longer remotely surprised to read about the police collaring someone for making vaguely unkind remarks about Islam or Scots or fat people on Twitter. Nor are we particularly impressed by the respect for fearless satire which our newspapers have suddenly discovered: in their near-universal refusal to join Stéphane Charbonnier and the gang in maintaining the principle that free societies have no sacred cows, they left Charlie Hébdo almost completely isolated as a target for violent bigots.
We would all do far better to bear in mind how recently it was that anyone came to live in a free society. From the earliest barrow-digging tribal strongmen to the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Emperors of Rome, the mediaeval kings of Europe and Lord Bird Jaguar of the Maya, human history is a dreary litany of squalid little proto-Hitlers right down to the seventeenth century. Then, for the first time, people in a few countries – particularly France, England, Scotland and the Netherlands – began to think seriously about things like legitimacy and first principles, and in particular the claims of all these petty despots that their authority was divinely ordained.
It was explicitly by sweeping away superstition and the more extravagant claims of religion that we finally broke the power of arbitrary government and emerged as free peoples. Contemplating the killing of the king of France in 1790, the Bouche de Fer famously claimed that, “When the last king is hanged with the entrails of the last celibate priest, mankind may hope to be happy.” Following Diderot and the coterie holbachique, the idea was that superstition and tyranny were two sides of the same coin, and that the lies of one exposed the lies of the other.
A hundred and fifty years before – naturally, considerably in advance of France – England had struck the head off its own king in a similar fit of rationalism: the English republican John Milton (who, far from coincidentally, was the first to champion freedom of speech) had written in 1649,
“If men within themselves would be governed by reason, and not generally give up their understanding to a double tyranny, of custom from without, and blind affections within; they would discern better what it is to favour and uphold the tyrant of a nation.”
With the lies of religious charlatans swept aside, we found that the claims of our gilded tyrants rested on nothing at all – and consequently that the heads of our tyrants promptly found themselves in a similar situation. Since then, the power of state has derived from us as countless sovereign individuals who make up our own minds what to think and what to say. Those who would join us in what are still, just about, free countries, are courteously invited to leave their imaginary friends at the door, or to accept that it is Open Season on their more eccentric ideas.
The French, being a civilised people, can take it as well as dish it out.