Such times need Voltaire

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Friday 22 Jan 2021

Were Voltaire to visit the US these days, he would be appalled at the total desecration of his noble ideas and the impertinent violation of his lofty principle.

He would not allow such abuse of power or the deprivation of human rights.

Was this not the country whose constitution was established on the basis of his ideas of the Enlightenment Age? Did he not advocate freedom of speech and tolerance, the basic pillars of social justice?

He certainly would admonish the Big Tech media outlets and remind them of what he wrote in his Treatise of Tolerance in which he expressed the view that “Tolerance has never provoked civil war/ Intolerance has covered the earth with carnage.”

They are treading on dangerous grounds, but who cares. Voltaire has been dead for decades (1694-1778) and so have all the major figures of the Great Age of Enlightenment, like John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Baruch Spinoza.

It matters little now that the main political leaders behind the exceptional American constitution, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others, associated closely with the Enlightenment movement and incorporated their ideas.

With the advancement of technology, the human and philosophic ideals of this constitution, have been ignored, forgotten or re-interpreted. It sends shivers up and down our spine as we contemplate the dismantling of the greatest democracy of our time. The land of the free and the brave is fast becoming the land of the silent and the hypocrites.

The present threat to free speech is rapidly taking us to the Dark Ages: “If you are not with me, you are not to be.”

Francois-Marie Arouet, French philosopher, novelist, playwright and wit, born in 1694, could hardly tolerate the hypocrisy of his age. He authored more than 2,000 books, essays and pamphlets, in addition to over 20,000 letters. A versatile writer, he also wrote poems, plays, scientific papers and historical studies.

He was a great fan of coffee, reportedly drank 50 to 70 cups a day, which might explain his prolific output.

After an altercation with a French nobleman, he was arrested and imprisoned at the Bastille without any due process, a procedure now common in the US, 400 years later. He was suggested an alternative punishment, to be exiled to England, which he readily accepted.

Out of the Bastille, he adopted the pen name Voltaire and life in England proved to be the making of him. He admired Britain’s constitutional monarchy and the greater respect they had for liberty and free speech.

By the 1700s, new ideas began to emerge about people’s rights. Among the loudest voices was Voltaire’s. He fought for tolerance incessantly, refusing the notion that some individuals would have the privilege of free speech and worship, while others would not.

Fascinated by the new ideas, King Frederich II of Prussia invited Voltaire to his court, but Voltaire, always a trouble-maker, contradicted the king in a scientific dispute — left the court and went to live in Geneva. He bought an estate in Ferney, Switzerland, (now Ferney Voltaire), on the French/Swiss border. At the end of his life, however, he triumphantly returned to Paris.

An impressible advocate of free speech, he is responsible for these memorable lines: “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Has Big Tech ever heard of that? Silencing the president of the greatest democracy in the world is not only outrageous but downright dangerous. Who do you think is next? You.

Tolerance is acceptance of everyone, their ideas, beliefs, values and morals. Voltaire helped citizens stand up for their rights and express themselves freely without fear of retribution and a guarantee by the government.

How is the US government checking those fascist social platforms? Feeding them; encouraging them; using them. It is scary. We are back to the Age of Absolution. Whatever happened to the first amendment? Forgotten.

How would Voltaire feel about that? He who had a strong influence on the induction of the first amendment, which prohibits the government from censoring any individual’s speech. Big wealthy businessman are defying the constitution, human rights, freedom of expression, and the great democracy is silent.

Freedom of speech has given man dignity and power. It allowed citizens to overthrow despots and dictators. It freed the British colony of the US from the rule of the king of England and before long it became a haven for all the oppressed silent masses of the world.

Now they are fleeing from state to state; soon they will be fleeing their beloved country because of censorship, intolerance and retribution.

“Tears are the silent language of grief” wrote Voltaire, and there are enough tears to form rivers in every state of the no-longer United States.

The ideas of Voltaire had a strong influence on the world of the 21st century, and the first amendment of the American constitution. It is going nowhere, even if some refuse to adhere to it.

We shall not be silenced, Big Tech.

Voltaire remains a model for independent thinkers. Freedom of speech, even on social media outlets, is a human right.

It allows you to speak your mind without worry that a king, a higher power, or a Zuckerberg will silence you.

Freedom of speech made the world a better place, thanks to our champion, Voltaire.

“A people that elect corrupt politicians, impostors, thieves and traitors are not victims, but accomplices.”

George Orwell (1903-1950)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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