1984 (the 326 page book, rather than the 366 day year of the same name) describes how a totalitarian regime could keep a lid on knowledge through a Ministry of Truth, Newspeak’s Doublethink, and the dreaded Thought Police. Democratically elected governments have, traditionally, had more trouble in keeping a handle, let alone a lid, on their populations’ perceived excesses.
Of course, even democratic societies were not always as liberal as they are today. As I have written previously, until the middle of the 19th century, tolerant Britain applied punitive stamp duty to newspapers. The aim was to prevent the rabble from being able to afford to read the subversive political pamphlets that proliferated over the combined Hanoverian reign of the various Kings George.
With the two World Wide Wars receding into distant memory, and the World Wide Web taking off in the 1990s, even hitherto totalitarian regimes had to adjust their bugging policies. The idea that it was possible to control the flow of knowledge started to look passé.
And then there was Hungary. Hungary, the country that had courageously revolted against the Soviets in 1956. Hungary, the country that led the way out of the Warsaw Pact and, in the 1990s, was a trailblazer for the new Europe. Hungary, the established member of the European Union.
Under its right-wing leader since 2010, Viktor Orban, Hungary has been looking increasingly smelly. Last month, the Government announced a draft law that would impose on internet providers a 150 forint (60 cent) tax on each gigabyte of data. Coming as it did around the anniversary of the 1956 revolution, the people got quite shirty. Realizing that their internet bill was going up, all hell broke loose, and the other day Mr Orban had to backtrack.
Of course, the whole thing was probably a lot more sinister than that. A democracy cannot tell people what to think but, like the governments of all those German Georges back in the old days, access to information can be squeezed by price.
The world fought long and hard for its freedom throughout the 20th century, including ridding itself of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Freedom of expression, and access to opinions so expressed, is a critical part of that achievement.
A prominent Rabbi once told me that, when his grandfather fled a Russian pogrom early in the last century, he determined to make a new life in America. Stopping off for a few days in England, he went to Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner on Sunday morning. Standing on a soap-box, one of the many speakers was insulting Britain’s indolent King (not called George, but his son, grandson, and great-great-great-great grandson were/are). He decided that any nation that allowed its people to freely criticize its monarch must be a great country and cancelled his plans to continue to the New World. Good choice.