Word Power

By Brian K. GoodmanMarch 7, 2017

Word Power

Free Speech by Timothy Garton Ash

A SPECTER IS HAUNTING Timothy Garton Ash’s book Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World — it is “the specter of what in the West is called ‘dissent.’” You might catch the ironic echo of the opening line from Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto, but this quote is taken from “The Power of the Powerless,” the most important essay by Václav Havel, the playwright and dissident who was elected president of Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Published last May, Free Speech is a book about all that has changed for global freedom of expression since the seemingly triumphant year of ’89. But what if the post-1989 world that Garton Ash is addressing has already vanished?

Reading Free Speech in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the American presidency was, for me, a deeply schizophrenic experience. On the one hand, Garton Ash’s spirited defense of free speech liberalism should be something that we can all rally around. Now is the perfect time for a broad coalition of liberals, leftists, and (actual) conservatives to reclaim free speech discourse from years of misuse by the far right. It’s striking that many of the pseudo-controversies of recent years, the insipid debates about trigger warnings and safe spaces, seem to have evaporated overnight. Perhaps the public conversation about free speech will sharpen just as our rights begin to disappear.

But I also share a generational suspicion that the unreconstructed liberalism of 1989 is what helped get us into this mess in the first place. Here I refer to a triumphalist articulation of classical liberalism, a political and economic language that was already criticized during the Cold War for its emphasis on possessive individualism and free-market ideology. After the collapse of communist regimes in the Soviet bloc, this tradition was nonetheless resuscitated and universalized, often at the expense of alternative visions of liberalism, human rights, and social democracy. The triumphalism of this post-1989 orientation can be summarized in one phrase: we can no longer imagine any alternative.

This is one reason why I recommend reading Free Speech with a copy of Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless” close at hand. Garton Ash’s new book can help us understand how the transformed conditions for freedom of speech will shape our opportunities for dissent, but Havel’s older essay can also remind us of a time when Western liberal democracy was not yet the end of history.


The connection between Garton Ash and Havel is not arbitrary. Garton Ash met Havel several times as a young British journalist covering opposition movements across communist East-Central Europe during the 1980s. In fact, Garton Ash played a large role in framing the Western reception of “The Power of the Powerless” when he reviewed the first English translation for The New York Review of Books in 1986. Havel famously places the word “dissident” in quotation marks in his essay in order to emphasize how the term’s usage had been shaped by Western journalists rather than through the local, everyday decisions that Havel called “living in the truth.” By 1989, Garton Ash had become the most influential of those journalists.

What set Garton Ash apart from his peers was his ground-level knowledge of the daily political dilemmas faced by oppositional movements in places as different as Prague, Warsaw, Berlin, and Budapest. Even years later, the depth of his engagement with these local cultures, and the breathless immediacy of his prose, have made him an indispensible guide for many of us who decide to study East-Central Europe. But I’ve always wondered why Garton Ash neglected to mention Havel’s reflections on the conditions for dissent in our own Western societies in his review of “The Power of the Powerless.” In the essay, Havel doesn’t just articulate a moral philosophy of dissent against the “post-totalitarian” conditions of late communist Czechoslovakia. He also offers a preliminary meditation on the prospects for a “post-democratic” transformation in all consumerist societies. Havel’s philosophy of dissidence had a clear resonance for audiences across the Eastern bloc, but near the end of the essay Havel also wonders, “Do we not in fact stand […] as a kind of warning to the West, revealing to it its own latent tendencies?”

For Garton Ash, at least, the answer appears to have been no. This is no surprise. The liberal interpretation of the fall of communism in 1989 has always depended on a circumscribed reading of the phenomenon of East-Central European dissidence. For Garton Ash and many others, the collapse of communism only served to confirm the fundamental superiority and durability of existing liberal-democratic institutions and norms.

Almost 30 years later, this interpretation of 1989 is still central to Garton Ash’s argument for universal liberalism in Free Speech. In particular, Garton Ash calls attention to four developments from that year that he thinks have shaped the present conditions of global freedom of expression: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests, the fatwa declared against the novelist Salman Rushdie, and the “invention” of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee.

Garton Ash calls the resulting situation “unprecedented,” but he argues that these four developments “only strengthen the case for a modernised version of a classic liberal position” on free speech. To evaluate this central claim of Free Speech, it’s necessary to explore each of the major developments that Garton Ash associates with the year 1989, beginning with the two that his updated framework is most obviously designed to confront: the rise of the internet and the emergence of a Chinese-led alternative to free speech.


The internet is “a product of Cold War America at the height of its power, self-confidence, and capacity for imagination,” Garton Ash writes in Free Speech. But as he shows, the consequences of the internet for global freedom of speech have never been more ambiguous. In order to illustrate how much has changed since the era of the Cold War, Garton Ash turns to two episodes involving a well-known statement made by the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1970.

In the speech, Solzhenitsyn quotes an old Russian proverb that says, “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.” But just to reach an audience within the Soviet bloc, Solzhenitsyn’s words had to be illegally distributed in samizdat form, meaning that each set of self-published copies had to be produced at great personal risk using a manual typewriter. Just to create a dozen reprints, a copyist would have to use heavy, thudding keystrokes to penetrate a small stack of pages alternating between carbon paper and onionskin. As a result, the reading experience would have been nearly as rushed and intimate as the mode of production — a reader was usually given only a few nights alone with a samizdat text before it had to be passed on to the next reader.

Fast-forward to 2013 when the famous Chinese actress Yao Chen typed Solzhenitsyn’s same quotation into Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. Solzhenitsyn’s Russian proverb, now translated into Chinese characters, was broadcast to over 30 million people in under a second.

But in which form did Solzhenitsyn’s words have more power? Just as it is tempting to fetishize the vanished world of samizdat, the arrival of new media technologies holds out the tantalizing possibility that our dissenting words have more power than ever before. And yet, as Garton Ash points out, “the technical ease of self-broadcasting produces a Tower-of-Babel cacophony in which it can actually be more difficult than it was previously for the individual voice to be heard.” On Twitter, this cacophony now includes the baiting propaganda of thousands of anonymous trolls, not to mention their flatulent head of state. As Garton Ash acknowledges, “Vast shit-tides of abuse are waiting to flow out of your box, if you only open the wrong gate.” To his enormous credit, Garton Ash dispenses with the fallacy of technological determinism at the outset. As he puts it, “the fax never set anyone free.” Neither has the internet.

Far from being a neutral medium of interpersonal communication, Garton Ash shows how the deep architecture of the internet has always been “culturally determined.” Garton Ash thinks that we’ve actually been very lucky up to this point. He argues:

the combination of the First Amendment legal tradition in the world’s most powerful state and the pro–free speech cultures of private American platforms such as Wikipedia, Twitter and Google produced a great leap forward in transnational freedom of expression.

The problem with “free speech cultures,” of course, is that they can also erode or disappear. Garton Ash also gently points out that the pseudo-libertarianism of the tech industry’s founding generation has always depended on a “profound illusion” that the internet has ever been independent of state or corporate influence.

Throughout Free Speech, Garton Ash refers to the combination of public and private power as P^2 — or power squared. For better or worse, he argues that collaborations between states and tech companies are “among the key determinants of our effective freedom of expression in our time.” Garton Ash is cautiously ambivalent about certain well-known applications of P^2. Take, for instance, the idea that social networks and smartphones can function as “liberation technology” in the hands of people challenging authoritarian regimes abroad, a strategy recently fashionable among both foreign policy and tech industry elites. But as Garton Ash points out, the US Departments of Homeland Security and Defense have tried to block many of the same circumvention technologies, such as Tor, that the State Department itself funded to help dissidents in seemingly faraway places like Iran and China.

Garton Ash is much less ambivalent about the harmful consequences of mass internet surveillance for global free expression. “I think back to eastern European dissident friends in their kitchens,” he recalls in his chapter on privacy and free speech, “writing down cryptic messages on scraps of paper to avoid the listening microphones of the secret police.” Garton Ash believes that the greatest danger of the internet for free speech is the loss of privacy, which he argues is a basic precondition of freedom of expression. He cites a recent survey conducted by American PEN with over 500 writers that revealed the chilling effects of NSA-led surveillance on their own work. For all these reasons, Garton Ash subscribes to the view that whistleblowers like Edward Snowden should be celebrated as “ethical resisters,” worthy of discussion alongside dissidents like Lech Wałęsa and Aung San Suu Kyi. At the same time, he is much less impressed by the “morally indefensible” leaks published by Julian Assange.

The greatest strength of Free Speech is its attention to how the internet has enlarged the terrain on which the battle for free expression will be fought in the 21st century. Whereas much of the American scholarship on free speech has focused on First Amendment issues within a domestic judicial context, Garton Ash argues that free speech “is no longer just a matter of a single national government telling you what you may or may not publish or broadcast in one country, or a single newspaper proprietor deciding what it will or will not print.” As a result, he believes that challenges to free speech require a global response based on cooperation between nation states, international bodies, transnational corporations, and networked individuals. Rather than building on the First Amendment tradition, he adapts Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which claims that the right to free expression must apply “regardless of frontiers,” as the central principle of his liberal framework.

Against this ideal of liberal universalism, Garton Ash presents the Chinese approach to online censorship and surveillance. Both these functions are combined under China’s massive “Golden Shield” project, which Garton Ash describes at some length in Free Speech. One of the most well-known functions of the Golden Shield is the attempt to control the flow of foreign information into China over the internet, hence the colloquial term used by the international media: “the Great Firewall of China.” Garton Ash draws on a major Harvard study on Chinese censorship to argue that China currently operates the largest and most sophisticated censorship apparatus in human history. But he also shows that, like any censorship regime, there are cracks in the system. As of 2015, for instance, Yao Chen’s quotation of Solzhenitsyn was still up on Sina Weibo and her followers had grown to 78 million. Ultimately, though, the arbitrariness of the system is actually key to how it promotes an atmosphere of uncertainty and self-censorship.

The Golden Shield is an extreme example of censorship on the internet, but Garton Ash shows that the larger Chinese approach to global information politics is becoming increasingly attractive to states around the world. In a 2014 speech unveiling the Portuguese-language version of the Chinese search engine Baidu in Brazil, the Chinese president Xi Jinping announced that each country should be able to manage the policies that govern media and information technology in their territory according to their own priorities of security and development. This nationalist approach, which Garton Ash refers to as “information sovereignty,” holds great appeal for many postcolonial and developing countries, not to mention post-imperial powers like Russia.

For Garton Ash, regional powers like India, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, and Indonesia are the “swing states for free speech,” and, he writes, “[t]he argument of this book is in no small measure addressed to them.” Of course, as the ominous crackdown on journalists and academics in Turkey demonstrates, a lot has already changed in the months since Free Speech went to press. As “illiberal democracy” continues to spread around the world, Garton Ash might also need to add a few “Western” countries to his list of swing states.


In a 2010 speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed the “freedom to connect” as a fifth addendum to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous four freedoms. “Internet blocking firewalls should come down,” she announced, “as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.” In Free Speech, Garton Ash repeats the metaphor of a “virtual Berlin Wall,” a symbol that calls to mind a world partitioned between free and unfree states. There is an unavoidable echo of the Cold War in Garton Ash’s contrast between US and Chinese approaches to information politics, not to mention all the talk of competition over non-Western swing states. But if Garton Ash is a liberal triumphalist when it comes to the fall of Eastern bloc communism, he is markedly less confident about the fate of free speech in Europe since 1989.

“Whereas that same quarter century saw a dramatic expansion of free speech in the eastern half of the [European] continent following 1989,” he argues, “it witnessed a narrowing of the boundaries of free speech in the western half.” What lies behind this ominous statement? In Free Speech, it’s as if Garton Ash’s liberal interpretation of the fall of communism in the Eastern bloc has combined in his political imagination with another seemingly unrelated event from 1989: the fatwa declared by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini against the novelist Salman Rushdie.

According to Garton Ash, “The biggest single chilling effect in Western Europe over the 25 years following the fatwa declared on Salman Rushdie in February 1989 was the result of threats of violence from people identifying themselves as Muslims.” My own suspicion is that the Rushdie affair has taken on so much significance for liberal intellectuals because it allows them to apply a Cold War–era framework of advocacy on behalf of dissident writers to what Garton Ash refers to as “the special problem with free speech and Islam.” A quite justified concern for the safety of writers like Rushdie helps to paper over the many incongruities between the censorship of writers under state communism and the chilling effect of violent threats by radical non-state actors. Free speech advocates should think long and hard about the consequences of shifting their attention from the threat of authoritarianism to the “problem” of Islam.

In Free Speech, Garton Ash draws a straight line from the Rushdie affair to more recent incidents like the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Leaving aside the question of whether these episodes are best framed as a problem of free speech rather than, say, extremist violence, Garton Ash’s public campaign to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in newspapers around the world after the attack puts him in some uncomfortable company. As he acknowledges, the debate around republication “risks swivelling the spotlight from the issue of violence, on which most can agree, to that of taste or offensiveness, on which there is chronic disagreement.” Much of the discussion in his chapters on “Diversity” and “Religion” is committed to arguing against a state-enforced remedy to the growing problem of hate speech, except in the most extreme cases involving “demonstrable harm.” Because Garton Ash rejects hate speech laws as a potential solution, he must supply an alternative remedy.

In Free Speech, his answer is “robust civility.” Garton Ash also believes that civil society, vaguely defined here as a combination of “private powers” and “networked individuals,” has a lead role to play in restraining hateful speech and promoting free expression. But Garton Ash spends much more time in Free Speech arguing for the normative value of civility as a kind of personal temperament than he does describing how civility might be put into practice by an active transnational civil society. Instead, his conception of civility is deeply privatized. In clarifying what he means by civility, he selects two of the most interpersonal definitions from the OED: “behavior or speech appropriate to civil interactions” and “the minimum degree of courtesy required in a social situation.” At one point in Free Speech, Garton Ash even reduces his dream of a Kantian world civil society to a plea for a more “civil world society.”

The concept of civil society brings us back to the liberal interpretation of East-Central European dissidence. According to the thesis promoted by Garton Ash and his peers after the collapse of communism, the phenomenon of dissidence had little to teach liberal intellectuals in the West that they didn’t already know. As early as his 1986 review of “The Power of the Powerless” in the NYRB, Garton Ash wrote of dissident intellectuals, “most of the positive ideas they advance are not strikingly new (though none the worse for being old) and where they are new, they are not obviously relevant to our Western circumstances.” He reaffirms this view in his otherwise dazzling book about the 1989 revolutions, The Magic Lantern: “If I am right in my basic analysis, they can offer no fundamentally new ideas on the big questions of politics, economics, law or international relations.”

To the extent that Garton Ash thinks that Havel and dissident communities can provide the West with a model, it is instead through the example of their exceptional personal qualities. Indeed, when Havel is celebrated in Free Speech it is not because of the philosophy or tactics of dissent he employed in Czechoslovakia; it is because he combined in one person the two universal “spirits of liberty,” courage and tolerance. While values like courage and tolerance are extremely important to foster in any political community, my own hope is that Havel and other dissidents have much more to offer us than just the example of their personality.

In the final chapter of Free Speech, Garton Ash returns to Solzhenitsyn’s quotation in order to bolster his larger argument that free speech should “strengthen the arm of the weak against the strong.” But for that to work, free speech needs to be reconceived as more than just a negative liberty — more than just a question of appropriate constraints. To be sure, we’ll need to defend our civil and political rights against state encroachment in the fights ahead, as Garton Ash’s chapter on journalism shows. But free expression also requires a positive program. Here I might advocate a semantic shift that Garton Ash himself introduces early in his book: from “free speech” to “word power.” As Garton Ash explains, “What I have called word power is not just the power of words in themselves but their impact when combined with other forms of power.”

Havel and the phenomenon of East-Central European dissidence can point us toward at least two potential models of word power. The first is their alternative conception of civil society. The central dilemma of “The Power of the Powerless,” after all, is the question of how isolated communities can build on individual acts of conscience and dissent to create broader forms of social solidarity. Drawing on other Czech theories of the “parallel polis” and “second culture” in his essay, Havel places great hope in everyday forms of “social self-organization,” from rock concerts and samizdat publishing to underground universities and independent trade unions. Often flattened in liberal interpretations of dissent, we should test Havel’s theorization of civil society against the lived experience of oppositional movements across a range of historical situations, including our own.

A second and related form of word power is civil resistance. In Free Speech, Garton Ash refers to civil resistance as “the most exceptional and heroic form of civility,” an intriguing formulation on which he doesn’t elaborate. Garton Ash’s brief reflections on civil resistance ultimately lead him back to his formative experiences in Prague witnessing the Velvet Revolution of 1989. “As we have seen,” he writes, “one of the most characteristic features of civil resistance is an outpouring of creative free expression in slogans, images, chants and gestures: civic theatre, the crowd as artist and the artist as politician.” In brief moments like these, Garton Ash reminds us that individual liberties are given substance through creative acts of social solidarity, including civil resistance.

But just as quickly, Garton Ash withdraws the possibility of civil resistance, concluding that Free Speech is “not mainly concerned with such extreme circumstances.” Instead, civil resistance is something that only happens elsewhere — in Havel’s Czechoslovakia or in Gandhi’s India, or more recently in places like China, Myanmar, or Egypt. “What is certain,” Garton Ash closes his final chapter, “is that those who stand up for free speech in these countries, against the armed and booted orthodoxy of their time, make harder decisions, and face graver consequences, than most of us in the West ever will.” There has always been reason to doubt such certainty, but perhaps now it is finally time that we listen to Havel’s warning.


Brian K. Goodman is a post-doctoral instructor in Human Rights at the University of Chicago.

LARB Contributor

Brian K. Goodman is a post-doctoral instructor in Human Rights at the University of Chicago.


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