Freedom of Speech: A Tribute to Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo's being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize has made me realize how many articles exist in the world in defense of liberty - but how few of those articles are intended for a non-American audience. Truly, the world deserves a better defense of liberty. We in America arguably enjoy more rights than our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world. It is our brothers and sisters who must learn to love liberty as we do. Only a universal love of liberty can defend liberty itself in this modern, globalized world.

So I present the following article, a modest attempt to fill whatever part of that void I can. The fact that this article is blocked by the Chinese government's firewall is an irony not lost on me. I dedicate this article to you, my Chinese friends.

How very lucky we are to feel comfortable sharing “bigger thoughts” with each other, and luckier still that the miracle of technology allows us to share these thoughts freely. I would like to offer another perspective. Of course, my perspective is limited. I have been to China, but have never been outside of North America otherwise. What I know of history, I have only learned here in America.

Given these limits, from what authority can I speak? Some write about the importance of rights, others write about the importance of cultural values. In America, our rights are our cultural values. We Americans are a strange group, a band of wayfarers from across the globe. We hold nothing in common except our government’s Constitution. You can see that we Americans even capitalize the word “Constitution!” Why should this be?

As I said, we Americans are a band of wayfarers. We did not originate from North America; we came here individually, for our own individual reasons. Our system of government did not come from our culture or our rulers from thousands of years ago. Other nations draw from culture and heritage, but we Americans have drawn from philosophy. Unlike all others, ours is a nation founded on philosophy. Even our Civil War was not about slavery, but rather about the Constitution, about philosophy. What a strange culture we are that we went to war three times in less than 100 years on matters of pure philosophy!

As you can see, ours is not a culture of tradition, race, or religion. We, like the Chinese and Bangladeshis, experienced the horrors of British Colonialism. I believe that there are no cultural values except for human values. Humans are the same all over the world, and they hunger for the same things.

Now, there is a man in China who is in prison for presenting controversial views against his government. I cannot comment on that. I know nothing about it. It would not be right. But I can comment on a man who only narrowly escaped imprisonment in my own country for holding fast to his freedom of speech. This is how he spoke publicly about it:

No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The questing before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

Who can deny that this man loved his country and his people, even though both had turned against him? You may never have read this paragraph before, but this public speech is known all over the world: it is the opening paragraph of Patrick Henry’s famous “give me liberty, or give me death” speech.

So we Americans are a strange bunch, because we take our freedoms so seriously. If the question is “why?” then the answer is: Because we always have. It is our culture. It is the way we are in America.

But as I said, I believe that there are no cultural values other than human values, and humans are the same the world over. Some of us were lucky to be born in a country that could overthrow its king at a time when kings did not hold a monopoly over tanks and bombs. However, I do not believe that people today hunger any less for freedom than they did 300 years ago, just because their governments are more powerful. When the US government throws Muslim people (or non-Muslim people) in jail and tortures them without due process of law, it is not because “American culture accepts this,” nor is it because “all governments are imperfect.” When this happens, the US is violating its own Constitution (the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th items in the US Bill of Rights, to be specific). We Americans all know this full well. It is not because we accept this violation of human rights that we cannot act. It is because the US government holds a monopoly of force against us. The government holds all the guns. Our only ability to protest is through our freedom of speech and our courage in front of a gun. Patrick Henry knew this when he gave that speech.

I believe it is this way in every country. When the British government acts, it is on its own behalf, not on behalf of British citizens. When the Bangladeshi government acts, it acts on behalf of itself, not on behalf of ordinary Bangladeshi citizens. There is a big difference between the values of a nation and the values of a nation’s government. In America, you will often see stickers on cars that say “I love my country, but I hate my government.” Perhaps this is why some can feel so strongly about freedom of speech, but can still be disillusioned by politics in general. Our nations are not our governments. A citizen is not the same as a President or a prison guard. Citizens serve citizens – governments serve only themselves.

America’s success is not due to savvy government planners, but rather due to our understanding that people are most successful when the planners “let us alone” (laissez-faire). If prosperity is a measure of success, then what can be said about a government that prospers while its citizens starve? In America, we want our government to starve while citizens prosper. This is a true separation of politics and economics. Unfortunately, even in America that separation is disappearing.

So I agree with those who point out imperfections everywhere, but I disagree with them on one point. When it is said, “Freedom of speech does not mean you can say and do anything,” I disagree. A man can be imprisoned or tortured, but so long as he can speak, he can say anything. This is what Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men… are endowed with certain inalienable rights…[.]

Freedom of speech does not come from a government or culture. Freedom of speech comes from being a human being. It is self-evident: human beings speak; therefore we can speak anything we please. The only way to stop us is to take our lives. But then, you have not taken away our freedom of speech, you have merely terminated our ability to speak further. Governments can turn us into piles of dust that are no longer human – but so long as we are human, we hold the human right to speak and say anything. We hold this right because it is a natural and inalienable part of being a human being.

This, at least, is how we Americans understand our rights. But, as I said, we are a strange culture.