America’s Public and Private War on Free Speech

Noam Chomsky characterizes the Revolutionary War period as engendering the “vicious repression of dissident opinion.” The repressive measures to which Chomsky alludes have become portents of the myriad repressive policies and suppressions of dissidence that bleed out of Revolutionary times and spill well into the present. The late Howard Zinn corroborated Chomsky’s observation with stressing that, only “seven years after the First Amendment became part of the Constitution, Congress passed a law very clearly abridging the freedom of speech” in America—the Sedition Act of 1798.

This act gave early Congress exceptional reign over speech and expression in America. It had roots in the British common law known as “seditious libel.” By passing the act, Congress legally empowered itself to penalize Americans for the crime of expressing dissent. Out of fear, the act made illegal saying anything “false, scandalous and malicious” against the president, Congress or the government. Zinn further observes that, because “punishment after the fact is an excellent deterrent to the exercise of free expression, the claim of ‘no prior restraint’ itself is destroyed.” For people to dissent or express dissidence automatically implicated their complicity in committing a crime, effectively abridging free speech and even precluding it legally.

In whatever hypothetical case this kind of legislation might seem tolerable or beneficial today, it yet remains imperative to consider that, anytime embedded power entrenches itself legally, it imperils public liberty. Yet, there are Americans today who suspect Congress too apprehensive to truly abridge the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. This applies especially to something has rhetorically hallowed as free speech. Nevertheless, certain rights require continuous defending—not simply angered reactions to the erosion thereof. For that matter, efforts to corrode free speech need not be overt or governmental in order to constitute a threat. It is thus important to consider how embedded power shanghaies free speech both inside and outside of legislative efforts.

Consent, Control, and Profit

Mass media—a would-be milieu for exercising free speech—has changed greatly since the American Revolution, and so has the right to free speech. Regarding alterations to media, Chomsky argues that the “mechanisms today are much more subtle” which repress dissidence. He says Americans believe that the press, for instance, “must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the right of the people to know, and to help the population assert meaningful control over the political process.” Culturally speaking, the presupposed function of the media may not have changed terribly drastically over the centuries. But as Herman and Chomsky elaborate their Propaganda Model in Manufacturing Consent, the species of mass media that Americans actually maintains today is one that presents “a picture of the world which defends and inculcates the economic, social and political agendas of the privileged groups that dominate the domestic economy.”

Basically, media serves a purpose. It imbues public opinion, concocts public perception, and it sways politics in many ways. So if newspapers, social networks, apps, etc., present political and economic elites with lucrative opportunities to sell readership (and to sell it purposefully), then it is only right for the public to doubt whether media serves the American public’s collective interest at all. The American media thus also infringes on the right to free speech, however counterintuitive that may seem, especially when weighed against the nobler notion that reporting and freely flowing information keep Americans free. Nevertheless, many news sources report bona fide what continues to immure the overarching history of public opinion and consent. It continues to hamper dissidence, often by precluding it from existing altogether when there are media blackouts on protests and publicly polemic issues.

Given the media and the press’ general manner of subsistence, to consider the press as “free” is one thing; to freely accept what popular media and the press reports, creates and distorts, however, is another. Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model, for one, suggests wherever popular consent turns a profit and is stable, the press presents what it finds most self-serving. Moreover, a media complex so lucrative and secure does not go against its own interest in, say, reporting. When a paper has financial trouble, it will, as Chomsky says, “try to cut down its circulation, and what they’ll try to do is up-scale their readership, because that increases advertising rates.” Equally malignant is the fact that, the more informed a readership is, and the more powerfully privileged which that readership happens to be, then the more certain or predictable the fate of popular consent will be. 

Sales translate as profit, and readership/viewership pays. As the spectrum of opinion is contrived albeit varied in packaging and delivery, then selling readership/viewership also assures that power stay concentrated and maintained right where “it should be.” Moreover, the American media informs the government to a powerful degree; it empowers those who would control and mangle public conscience to their own benefit. It cements itself as a useful tool for the powerful elite, releasing them from having to forcibly control targets too visibly too often. But to see this connection for what it is makes difficult the task of contriving a public opinion that directly lends itself to the kind of stories that surface, how they are written, and in whose interest they get disseminated.

History, Power and Repression

Abraham Lincoln’s use of the press evinces a concocted American history guided by messianic and righteous figures, a history which preserves and upholds inequality by propelling it into the future. Lincoln’s presidency is also proof that media during the time of the Civil War presented precisely what the Propaganda Model predicts today: an array of opinions that prefabricate public perception.

In 1862, Lincoln wrote Horace Greeley, then editor of the New York Tribune. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery,” said Lincoln to Greeley, adding, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it…” Zinn labels Lincoln’s sentiments a distinction “between his ‘personal wish’ and his ‘official’ duty,” and yet it does not accord with the more palatable, popular memory of Lincoln and his presidency. At least, it does not agree with the junior high text books that get printed and shipped out of Texas to other parts of the US. Indeed, few will recall that those who criticized Lincoln’s policies were jailed without trial. In fact, some thirty thousand became political prisoners. Still, the president’s opinions fit the paradigmatic logic of the day, and they were largely disseminated by press.

Some take issue with confronting this all too easily forgotten portrait of Lincoln and other American leaders, and often with outright aversion. But it is important to remember that America’s history, in its redaction, actually depicts a country largely subservient to powerful elites, a country whose first president was the richest man alive at the time. To remember this nuance when investigating the historical uses of media and press by the powers that be makes understandable the vicious repression of dissident opinion in America since Revolutionary times. It says something about the legal and media abridgement of free speech and expression today, and also about embedded power that must suppress a powerful people for its own survival.

As Zinn indicates, even America’s Founding Fathers “did not want a balance, except one which kept…a balance among the dominant forces…” Nor did they envisage what Zinn calls “an equal balance between slaves and masters, propertyless and property holders, Indians and white.” Most certainly, there was no consideration for the equality of men and women at that time. Embedded power effectively created a nation and a symbol, as well as a “legal unity,” which it dubbed the United States of America. Thus this ruling group secured for itself the tyrannical and anti-democratic capacity to overtake land, profit, and preserve political power via political repression.

Out with the Old

The recognition of a need to control what people think when they can no longer be herded by force has, in the US, culminated in the 21st century. This philosophy and tyrannical modus operandi has been a mainstay in controlling the public in Anglo-American democratic endeavors for over 300 years—since at least the English Civil War in the 1640s. Charles II, for example, was restored as king in 1660, but politics had changed; in 1689, the constitutional monarchy was adopted, along with a Bill of Rights.

Thanks to America’s long, dominant history of paternalism—a history in which a government for the rich and by the rich represses the disenfranchised for the preservation of unevenly distributed wealth—America finds itself guided via media and the public and private war on free speech like a corralled hog to its trough and slop. All this is true despite a bill of rights. And thanks to the ever-present, reoccurring shibboleths of a self-proclaimed democratic discourse inherent to a politically suspect media complex and often delinquent Congress, America guarantees its majority little more than perennial inequality and political repression of centuries ago.

The public conscious may have a propensity for amnesia, which a scandalous media abets. But America’s media complex, and its presses, convey only what is best for the status quo; it reports only what is best for those who stand to lose the most dominion over others. Mass media only ensures that the majority of people in the US would neither be able nor willing to admit that they unknowingly ensconce an ignorance that governs their politics and society. Americans no doubt would wish to deny their condition or find the thought perverse. But once unveiled, it ought to sound the alarm and spur folks on to action! Moreover, establishing a truly democratic press and media means disabusing America of the interests that serve to maintain elite power, and which keep the pluribus unfree. 

If the desire is liberty, and the unabridged capacity for dissidence for the sake of democratic expression, then it may only be feasible once the dominant paradigm gets truly subverted. There are more than two centuries of repressive history to overthrow, and the powers that be have learned in that time. But let it not be said of Americans what Karl Marx said of his fellow Germans in Modern Europe: “Perseus wore a magic cap that the monsters he hunted down might not see him. We draw the magic cap down over our eyes and ears as a make-believe that there are no monsters.” In America, the monsters are well-known, and their tools for destroying free speech and dissidence were discovered long ago. It is high time for something new.

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border, writing for many alternative political newsletters and Web sites. He can be reached at: mateo.pimentel@gmail.com. Read other articles by Mateo.