Tomorrow, December 9, Joe Biden will finally host his long-planned “Summit for Democracy” – an international meeting officially meant to unite the democratic world in the cause of “defending against authoritarianism,” “addressing and fighting corruption,” and “promoting respect for human rights.”
The original goal of the summit, which the Biden team was salivating over well before even being elected, was to steal Boris Johnson’s idea to unite the liberal West and the most important democracies of Asia in opposition against China and Russia with a “D10” democratic alliance. It seemed like a great opportunity to channel those wholesome New Cold War vibes. But then the guest list ballooned beyond all meaning or practicality, expanding to 110 countries as the administration agonized for months about who deserved membership in Democracy Club (apparently Angola yes, Hungary no).
So not too much will happen tomorrow. High minded ideals will be cooed over. Speeches will be made about beating back the “rising tide” of authoritarianism, and Woodrow Wilson will be trotted out for quotations about “making the world safe for democracy.” A panicked White House photographer will try to somehow capture everyone’s little Zoom box on screen at once. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will probably apologize for something. The accompanying cloud of activists and “civil society” NGOs will titter amongst themselves (I’m afraid you’ve missed most of the exciting side panels on topics like “Racial Justice and Equity through Sports Diplomacy” already). Celebratory sanctions have been issued to mark the occasion.
What we absolutely won’t see are any of the Western “liberal democracies” dare to stand up and commit to defend actual liberal principles themselves. Because liberalism in the West is dead.
Don’t believe me? Let’s go on a little holiday tour to examine which Western democracies are still upholding the core values of classical liberalism that their nations gave birth to during the great philosophical flowering of the Enlightenment.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s take as our measure a handful of the most important principles of this grand idea that was liberalism:
that individuals possess universal and inalienable natural rights;
that “liberty of conscience is every man’s natural right” (as John Locke put it), and that freedom of religion is fundamental to a just and peaceable society;
that freedom of expression is paramount, as free debate is inseparable from the process of government by reason, and to all human individual and social progress;
that self-rule is the pinnacle of just and enlightened government, and that freedom of association and assembly is integral to political liberty;
that the rights of the individual supersede the will of the collective, and all citizens are equal before the law;
that there exists a necessary separation of the public and private spheres of life.
So how closely does the West follow these liberal principles today? Let’s begin our journey at the tip of those windswept rocks to the north of Europe, in those fierce Pictish lands that became the unlikely birthplace of so many Enlightenment ideas – in little Scotland, home of giants of liberalism like David Hume and Adam Smith. Today Scotland is again leading the charge – in the opposite direction.
In March of this year, the Scottish Parliament passed the Hate Crime and Public Order Act, which will come into force in 2022. The act criminalizes utterances deemed to be “aggravated by prejudice” against any protected identity group (including race, religion, or transgender status) with up to seven years in prison. How exactly any of this is defined is not clear. Private speech, even within privates home, is not protected. Indeed, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has argued that it absolutely “must be prosecuted.” A child’s report to a teacher of what a parent said at home will be sufficient. The Act specifies that it is immaterial “whether or not there is a specific victim of the offence,” and that “evidence from a single source is sufficient to prove that an offence is aggravated by prejudice.” In fact, “stirring up hatred” is now a criminal offense in Scotland – exactly the same all-purpose legal term so often put to use to punish dissent in the People’s Republic of China, including as the offense under which many of those pesky Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors were convicted.
Of course Yousaf and his comrades argue they have no intention to chill freedom of expression, but few can take this seriously, given how many people in Scotland have already been arrested for speech and thought crimes – people like Marion Millar, a feminist who faced prosecution this April for the “transphobic” act of tweeting a photo of a suffragette ribbon and “#WomenWontWheesht” (women won’t shut up). Already, between 2008 and 2018 there were 7,618 convictions for speech under the existing Communications Act of 2003, which the new legislation seeks to significantly strengthen. In Scotland, even filming your pug doing tricks can lead to the police showing up at your door. Maybe we should head south.
But it would of course be untenable for England – home of John Locke and John Stewart Mill – to be left behind by the Scots, so the rest of Britain is rushing to catch up. Britain now launches manhunts for 12-year-olds who allegedly send racist messages on social media, convicts teenagers of hate crimes for quoting rap lyrics in general circulation (fitting them with ankle monitoring bracelets for extra public safety), and jails people for offensive jokes. But the real innovation of the nation of George Orwell has been the invention of the “Non-Crime Hate Incident” – a brilliant category encompassing anything the police deem to potentially be offensive to someone, somewhere. That was the lesson learned by the unfortunate Harry Miller, whose 2019 tweets about gender were reported anonymously to police, who then quickly stormed into his workplace to “check his thinking.” Some 25,000 such incidents are now investigated by UK police each year, with each case filed in a permanent record that shows up in employment background checks even if no crime is ever prosecuted.
All of this is apparently still insufficient, however, as in October Prime Minister Boris Johnson threw his support behind new legislation, the Online Safety Bill, pledging to crack down even further on “hate speech” and “extremism” by imposing “criminal sanctions with tough sentences for those who are responsible for allowing this foul content to permeate the internet.” The bill may represent “state-backed censorship and monitoring on a scale never seen before in a liberal democracy,” as one free speech watch-group put it, but how can one argue with safety?
So, fleeing from the shores of Perfidious Albion, we make our way across the channel to seek liberté in France, land of Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu. On the surface, things seem to look a bit better here at first – President Macron has spoken often about the importance of free expression, especially after the murder of Samuel Paty, a teacher who showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his classroom and paid for it with his life.
And yet Macron does not seem to have complained much when a court convicted two men for “contempt” in 2019 after they burned an effigy of him during a protest. In fact, thousands of people are convicted annually in France for “contempt of public officials,” an ill-defined criminal offense that authorities have applied en masse to try to silence protests like those of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests). Meanwhile in 2018 France passed an “anti-fake news” law meant to “fight against the manipulation of information” related to elections – with language aggressive enough to prompt Twitter to censor the French government’s own election information service. And it is perhaps at least of note that two of the most popular opposition candidates in France’s upcoming election, Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, have both been prosecuted for speech crimes. Le Pen was indicted for “disseminating violent messages” by posting a photo in 2015 of an ISIS execution with the caption “this is what Daesh is” (thus also upsetting religious sensibilities), and was only acquitted five years later, in May of this year. Zemmour was convicted, not just once but three times, for various comments about immigrants.
But all this pales in comparison to the notorious “Avia Law” pushed through in May 2020, which aimed to eradicate all troublesome online expression by mandating that online platforms remove “manifestly” illegal content within 24 hours or face severe criminal and financial penalties. This would have weaponized enforcement of France’s existing hate speech law, which criminalizes “injurious” speech against any person or group based on their “origin, their belonging or not belonging to an ethnic group, nationality, race or religion” or for reason of their “sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or handicap.” France’s constitutional court struck down the core provision of the law only a month later, finding it in breach of fundamental rights. But the law’s champions, including namesake Laetitia Avia, a member of Macron’s party with a history of biting taxi cab drivers she dislikes, nonetheless continue to push for tougher speech laws. And Macron’s government has already succeeded in prodding Facebook into handing over “identification data of French users suspected of hate speech” to French authorities since 2019.
So, even if France has not yet said its last word on liberty, let’s continue our search for a more secure commitment to liberalism elsewhere.
Moving more quickly now, we approach the border with Germany – only to quickly change course when we learn that Avia modeled her law on Germany’s 2017 Network Enforcement Law (NetzDG), which fines internet platforms if they fail to remove illegal speech offending any of 22 sections of the German Criminal Code within 24 hours, and which unlike the French version is very much still in full effect. The law, which even Human Rights Watch criticized as “vague, overbroad,” and responsible for turning “private companies into overzealous censors,” was expanded in 2020 to force companies to forward all flagged content directly to the German equivalent of the FBI. Russia, Singapore, and the Philippines have approvingly cited NetzDG as a strong example of a censorship regime for their governments to build upon. The French probably could have warned us not to bother seeking any measure of liberalism in the dark heart of Europe.
Instead we board a Eurostar train for Brussels, figuring the capital of Europe must be the center of enlightened thinking on the continent. But there we learn that, this very day, the European Commission is set to approve a plan to amend EU law to more formally criminalize “hate speech” and “misogyny,” as well as to allow itself to push laws forcing EU states to crack down harder on problematic speech. The draft communique explicitly chides governments that have failed to sufficiently criminalize speech, thus allowing “gaps” in the regime of suppression. The EC therefore notes that the proposal is only part of a broader initiative to ram through a Europe-wide tightening of rules governing hate speech and the policing of online content like misinformation, including passing the Digital Services Act, EU legislation intended to force online platforms to crack down in the same manner that Germany does. While the public has not yet had a chance to see the full text of the new EC plan, we can surmise it probably will look a lot like “A European Model Law For The Promotion Of Tolerance And The Supression Of Intolerance,” an NGO (and Tony Blair)-led draft plan to “suppress intolerance” and work towards “eliminating” such evils as “anti-feminism” and “xenophobia.” Though admitting that “there is no common definition of hate crimes,” it is definitive in its assertion that “a pluralistic society must show zero tolerance” in this regard, because – echoing cultural Marxist Herbert Marcuse – “There is no need to be tolerant to the intolerant.”
Honestly Europe is starting to feel a bit unwelcoming for a little tour group of classical liberal refugees. But where could we go to seek asylum? Perhaps across the border in Amsterdam, the easy-going city that famously served as a liberal safe haven for so many dissidents, religious minorities, artists, free traders, and free thinkers over the illiberal centuries. But wait, what’s that? At least three people were hospitalized in nearby Rotterdam not long ago after Dutch police opened fire on protestors with live ammunition? That would be, just for the record, two more people than Chinese police managed to shoot in the course of crushing democracy in Hong Kong…
You tell me basically the whole of Europe is currently aflame with mass protests over systematically draconian COVID lockdown measures, vaccine mandates, and coercive biomedical surveillance by central authorities? A mad Austrian authoritarian’s ideas about health and societal purity are beginning to spread through the continent, starting with the Germans? And in Italy the unvaccinated are no longer allowed to work, anywhere, including remotely for private companies, because reasons? Ursula von der Leyen wants mandatory vaccination EU-wide, popular sentiments be damned?
That doesn’t sound good. Maybe we were a little too distracted so far by the unrelenting assaults on free speech, and didn’t notice all those other liberal freedoms being strangled to death. John Locke may have been insistent that “in the conservation of bodily health, every man may consider what suits his own convenience and follow what course he likes best,” but his sort isn’t welcome of in these parts anymore.
Ok, it’s time to leave. But where else in the West to go? Maybe stoic Scandinavia will be a bit more sober about preserving those ole’ liberal values? But no, Finland is putting people on trial for the act of quoting Christian scripture, and Sweden’s already undergone its own bonafide cultural revolution.
We could abandon the old world and head for the more dynamic Asia-Pacific, hopping the prison ship to that far outpost of the West down under. But wait, Australia has now become world famous for its not-quite-voluntary quarantine camps – err, “centers for national resilience,” sorry – and for hunting down anyone who unlawfully goes outside. (Not that everyone in Australia is very happy about it either). But then this is a country whose courts aren’t so sure liberties like freedom of speech are actually protected by its constitution anyway, rather than being just a “noble and idealistic enterprise which has failed, is failing, and will go on failing.” Crikey. No wonder they are also pioneering new methods of regulating online communications.
Meanwhile Jacinda Ardern wouldn’t let us into her COVID bunker of a country in any case, but Australia’s little colonial sibling New Zealand happens to be the global leader (along with our friend Macron) in the effort to establish a multilateral online censorship scheme (to include data sharing and inter-governmental coordination) as proposed by the “Christchurch Call to Action.” This shouldn’t be too surprising, since New Zealand is a country that literally employs a Chief Censor as a government official. So I think we can go ahead and cross it off our list.
I suppose that means we have to head for North America.
Canada might seem tempting, with its famously friendly people and vast tracts of land, but at this point we can’t be so easily fooled. This is the country that passed the infamous “Bill C-16” that, among other things, forcibly compels the use of preferred gender pronouns anyone demands. Some people got upset about its implications; others said they were overreacting. Now the state just jails people who won’t comply. This, however, is too lax a state of affairs for Canada’s prime minister and foremost black face enthusiast Justin Trudeau, who is seemingly determined to make up for his personal sins with ever more strenuous penance by the public. This includes the introduction to parliament in June 2021 of Bill C-36, to ban online “communication that expresses detestation or vilification of an individual or group of individuals on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.” This followed Bill C-10, which aims to put the state radio and television regulator in charge of speech on the internet. There is of course also an Online Harms Bill to create a “digital safety commissioner of Canada” in the works, because this is a Commonwealth country and thus fully in tune with the Anglosphere’s relentless march of progress.
So I guess we have no choice: it’s back to the USA as our final destination.
The United States of America, land of liberty, the first republic founded on the principles of the Enlightenment and the indelible words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ah, such were the words of a document that Thomas Jefferson once believed was the very “expression of the American mind” and hoped would “be to the world what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains… to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”
So much for that. Today the Declaration of Independence comes with a trigger warning, statues of Jefferson get tossed in the dustbin of history, and his name, like that of his fellow founders, gets scrubbed from public buildings.
So it should come as no surprise, I suppose, that the American government is now engaged in its own unrelenting campaign to circumvent free speech protections by bullying US technology companies into acting as censors of their political enemies in the name of combating “misinformation” and “hate.” Or that private companies have also been deployed to try to circumvent constitutional rights in the name of fighting COVID. Or that when courts have ruled actions by the executive unconstitutional, the executive now routinely just acts to implement its will anyway. Or that the state has now made the concept of equality before the law its sworn enemy, standing as it does in the way of its vision of progress. Or that when citizens dare complain about this vision, the blistering gaze of the security state is turned on them to make sure they think twice. Or that America’s “fourth estate,” the media, has deliberately and openly abandoned “objectivity” for “moral clarity.” Thus while the United States may have constitutional protections for liberties that most of the rest of the West lacks, can they remain a shield for long? It doesn’t seem like it.
That old era of liberty, the Age of Liberalism, is over. The real reason Biden’s summit for liberal democracies will fail, why it will not accomplish anything in turning back the likes of authoritarian China, is because there no longer is any liberal West. Everywhere upon the face of the earth, Actually Existing Liberalism is now just oligarch technocratic progressivism wearing liberal principles as a skin suit and flirting with authoritarianism.
And if you can prove me wrong, if you can find me even one country still truly committed to liberal principles, please let me know – because I would like a visa.
 Jefferson, being convinced that the American experiment was to prove that “man may be governed by reason and truth,” argued that, “Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press.” It sure seems like he might have got that one wrong…