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Think Eastern Europe is Authoritarian? Try Germany and France

The supposed descent of Eastern European countries, and particularly Poland and Hungary, into the grips of authoritarian nationalist regimes has been the subject of heated discussion. This concern has not only attracted the anxious attention of our leftist media, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Review of Books; it has also occasioned heated reactions from Republican think tanks in Washington, most notably AEI [1] and the Heritage Foundation [2]. Both have issued statements of concern about the identitarian and anti-liberal direction now affecting Orban’s Hungary, Poland, and, perhaps less dramatically, Austria and Italy under right-of-center governments. Presumably Western European countries with socially liberal but pro-capitalist governments are better protected against the threat of this right-wing pestilence. In layman’s language, this may mean that these other European countries are seen as friendlier to American political and economic elites.

In view of these now prevalent attitudes, it may be useful to look at a recently concluded French study [3] by Libertex, a libertarian polling operation, on the open exchange of information in various European countries. This comparative study, which looks at various European countries in terms of their openness to dissenting political views, constructs several criteria for its investigation. Among them are the relative absence of hate speech laws, an impartial (non-politicized) judicial system, the willingness or unwillingness of governments to ask Google and Facebook to censor unacceptable political opinion (a practice that in Western Europe almost always targets the right), the number of news agencies, and the possibility of holding open discussion without government censorship.

By most of these criteria, the United States (with a total score of 92.1) is the freest country investigated, followed by Denmark (at 81.8) and the United Kingdom (at 71.3). But strangely enough, the black sheep of the PC West, Hungary (at 69.7), is just behind the United Kingdom, and is followed by Italy (at 69.1). Closing the rankings are Russia (at 51.1) and France (at 46.4). Germany, which is not included in the study, would, in all probability, rate at the bottom, given the extent of its “antifascist” government surveillance and its use of laws shutting down political opposition. (For further information on Germany’s scandalous “democracy deficit,” I recommended my recently reissued The Strange Death of European Marxism. [4])  

The polling, which offers “a realistic classification of freedom of expression,” particularly in France, “looks at the seamy side of the antifascist social engineering that is now taking place in Western democracies.” Germany and France have extensive hate speech laws: they punish the “trivialization” as well as denial of what is officially considered to be genocide. Laws that Libertex characterizes as “lois mémorielles” (legislation or directives dealing with impermissible historical memory) now include the criminalization of improper conclusions about the Armenian massacre in 1915, which scholars, teachers, and journalists are required under threat of steep fines and possible imprisonment [5] to view as an act of genocide. French and German governments also blithely prosecute critics of Muslim immigration as hate criminals. At the same time, they typically indulge or try to explain away anti-Semitic diatribes and actions involving Muslim activists. The media, with the cooperation of progressive governments, will often try to associate such verbal or physical attacks with “extremism” in the indigenous European population. According to Libertex, censorship targeting right-of-center authors and movements rarely receives the same media scrutiny as complaints issuing from the multicultural Left.

It also seems that countries that can be repressive in other ways sometimes permit a surprisingly wide variety of political opinions. Putin’s vindictiveness in dealing with some political opponents may not be reflected in as strict and systematic a form of censorship as what we find in multicultural France or in antifascist Germany. Contrary to a conventional classical liberal view, not all freedoms may be equally endangered even where certain freedoms are withering. The Libertex study also underlines the obvious fact that the “freest” countries in terms of expression are not as free as they once were. Even the governments of such relatively free countries as Britain sometimes treat brutally [6] those who get in the way of their efforts to build a multicultural society.

A possible weakness of the Libertex study is the use of at least one questionable criterion for making judgments. Libertex takes as a standard of freedom the “plurality of news agencies” that exist in the countries it evaluated. But it’s unlikely that smaller countries would have or even need as many press agencies as larger ones. Even more significantly, there’s no reason to assume that the increase of news agencies brings greater diversity of opinion. In the United States and in much of Western Europe, large press conglomerates and ideologically standardized news agencies both manufacture and propagate published opinions. Often those who are associated with these chains are no more interested in preserving diversity of thought than the French government that Libertex bravely attacks. Renewed freedom in the West therefore requires the proliferation of uncensored social media that provides the diversity of opinion that some of us demand. Unfortunately those who run Google and Facebook may be pursuing very different goals.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents [7].

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Think Eastern Europe is Authoritarian? Try Germany and France"

#1 Comment By Mark VA On December 5, 2018 @ 7:02 pm

The ideology claiming that in their natures the West is free and the East authoritarian, dates back to the Philosophes of the 18th century European Enlightenment. It goes by the name “Western Civilization”. It serves to this day as a comforting story;

Historian Larry Wolff, in his book “Inventing Eastern Europe”, brilliantly captures the minds that invented this self-congratulatory tale:



Hence the “surprising” find by Libertex. It will be ignored by West European elites. For them, ideology and narcissism trump reality. Any yellow vest can testify to that.

#2 Comment By Furor On December 5, 2018 @ 7:06 pm

In terms of free speech I don’t think Hungary is less free than the UK.

Though I don’t understand why TAC continuously defends what is happening in Eastern Europe and plays down controversial moves by politicians there

I would advise more restraint and skepticism, because if things in the end turn out bad, then people will be able to see who did what

#3 Comment By Petrus On December 6, 2018 @ 2:51 am

This article is a very important information sharing – Germany with its Lügenpress uncritically supporting Merkel’s policies, is a frightening example of completely servile media conglomerate, yet posing as a source of moral authority. I wonder where Sweden is on this list, too.

#4 Comment By Sid Finster On December 6, 2018 @ 10:03 am

When they say “authoritarian”, what they mean is “not in line with the current mainstream EU consensus.”

Suppressing speech is just fine, praiseworthy even, as long as the opinions suppressed are not those that Our Kind of People hold.

#5 Comment By rosemerry On December 6, 2018 @ 1:19 pm

Of course Russia is down the bottom and the USA and UK high up. If this is freedom, give me an alternative. The criteria are warped and the interpretation is personal.

#6 Comment By mark_be On December 6, 2018 @ 2:26 pm

One has to wonder at some of the metrics used in this study. For example, Twitter and Facebook themselves are not free conveyors of information, but private enterprises exorcising heavy self-censorship depending on the jurisdictions in which they operate. More importantly, they are only minor players in the Russian social media landscape, making any comparison on that basis moot. Additionally, just because something is not outlawed, does not mean it won’t have public repercussions. Using racial slurs might not land you in front of a judge in the US, but unless you’re in the really deep South, it will present you with a newfound wealth of free time for you to reflect on what you’ve done. On top of that, we never learn whether laws banning, for example, homosexual or pro-immigration “propaganda” are considered the equivalent of hate crime laws.

Metrics like numbers of press agencies or amount of funding to public TV measure nothing when presented decoupled from the amount of political influence over the editorial lines. It presents a very interesting image, though: political pressure on the press is comparable in all countries that are not Russia, yet any amount of subsidies to public broadcasting is somehow considered to increase the level of authoritarianism. That large media groups in certain countries are heavily intertwined with certain political parties or are outright owned by politicians or open supporters somehow doesn’t seem to factor in.

Giving France and Russia (and presumably Germany) comparable scores is entirely ludicrous. The Russian Federation is a functional autocracy, with personal and political liberties entirely relative to not disturbing the kleptocratic order. Just try and imagine Putin losing an election – it’s not going to happen. Merkel, on the other hand, is way past her political best before date and knows it, while Macron is facing popular protests he might not be able to control. Russian yellow vests would have been coloured blood-red by now, with blame squarely being placed on Western liberals trying to undermine the motherland.

So, I’m left wondering what this thing exactly intends to prove. It seems to be no more than a collation of disparate metrics, added together in an opaque manner, to prove that we here in Western Europe are really very unfree, that we really should be able to say anything we want at any moment without any repercussion, and that Macron is actually more likely to have you thrown in prison on spurious grounds than Putin. Yawn.

#7 Comment By Auguste Meyrat On December 6, 2018 @ 2:44 pm

Many thanks to Gottfried for making this point about Western Europe and mentioning the Libertex study. What’s going on in France (a topic I write about in an upcoming article for The Federalist) is a reaction to this kind of smothering. Even more than here, the elite in these countries control the media and actively suppress certain views willing to challenge conventional wisdom and see reality for what it is.

After the populist uprisings in Arab Spring, you can be sure that developed countries in the West will take note and use “hate speech” laws to silence dissenters. Does this work? On one hand, it prevents these movements from organizing and forming clear agendas. On the other, angry citizens will still lash out and voice their discontent with perhaps even more violence than otherwise.

#8 Comment By Erin On December 6, 2018 @ 3:37 pm

There has to be something wrong with this study when France is below Russia. I don’t recall the French government ever murdering journalists or shutting down newspapers/TV channels. (Even Charlie Hebdo is allowed to operate in France, which is about as offensive as they get).

France is also not a one-party system like Russia. It has had a succession of different presidents and parties leading the country and even Marie Le Pen has been competitive. That doesn’t occur unless there is at least some freedom of expression.

#9 Comment By polistra On December 6, 2018 @ 6:08 pm

“Authoritarian” = kicks out Soros.

“Liberal” = blindly obeys Soros.

#10 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On December 7, 2018 @ 10:53 am

France is also not a one-party system like Russia. It has had a succession of different presidents and parties leading the country and even Marie Le Pen has been competitive. That doesn’t occur unless there is at least some freedom of expression.

Russia is a dominant party system, not a “one party” one. There are four major political parties with seats in the Duma, not just one.

I wouldn’t call them a democracy either, but a “one party state” they are not.

By most of these criteria, the United States (with a total score of 92.1) is the freest country investigated, followed by Denmark (at 81.8) and the United Kingdom (at 71.3).

The United States is much less free than that makes it sound. We outsource our social control to civil society instead- e.g. you can legally be fired for expressing an unpopular opinion, which isn’t the case in much of Europe.

Europe has more than its share of problems, and I think the attempts to suppress anti-migration or un-PC speech in countries like England and Germany are contemptible, but even with all that, I think their environment regarding freedom of speech is still healthier than ours, because they make up for somewhat more government control on speech with substantially less social control.

#11 Comment By Philippe On December 7, 2018 @ 10:58 am

It’s literally traumatic to see that a respectable website, with balanced and measured views, falls into the “trap” set by a French website, obviously tied with conspiracy theories, which is clearly manipulating data.
For instance, look at the data used: the content deleted on Facebook factor takes into account the year 2015. It is absurd not to consider the fact that this year was marked by deadly terrorist attacks, giving way to massive ISIS propaganda, which in turn most likely resulted in the government reacting to said propaganda.
On the other hand, 2017 (aka the year for twitter data) was election year in France, an election cycle marked by the fear of fake news and foreign interference (France tried to learn from the US experience, to not be burnt).
Additionally, let’s be honest, any article that uses wikipedia as a source should automatically be discarded as a serious article.

But of course, noticing these things might require intellectual honesty, research ethics, and possibly a good understanding of the language in which the study one uses is written.

#12 Comment By Ed On December 20, 2018 @ 8:12 pm

It all depends on what weight you give to the various categories. The results clearly show that there is much more censorship of anti-government opinion in Russia than in France.

The survey also shows that there is more censorship of hate speech and unorthodox historical interpretations in France than in other countries, including Russia.

So while one certainly can’t say that there is greater freedom in Russia than in France, there is some room for questioning whether France is really more devoted to free speech than Poland or Hungary.

Law is always in flux, though, and the results a few years from now may differ.

#13 Comment By Bridge on the River Kwai On December 29, 2018 @ 11:47 am

Anyone with half a brain knows this has nothing to do with liberalism but France’s heritage of anti-Anglo-Saxon Republicanism. One would think that The American ““Conservative”” would be tolerant of the fact that not all countries want to enforce a Whig understanding of free speech, as long as they remain consistent, but I suppose jumping on the first opportunity to claim the oppression of the right (mainly Nazis, let’s be honest) is more attractive.

Gottfried even notes the anti-genocide law in the same paragraph as he talks about a “multiculturalist” war on the right.