Thursday, January 14, 2016

But how mighty is it?

Freedom of speech is a central creed. A portion of the citizenry may tolerate coerced confessions, warrantless searches, and inadequate spending on lawyers for the poor, but Americans tend to take personally their right to speak. Rights preserved or violated in the criminal justice system look remote to upstanding citizens who cannot identify with accused murderers, thieves and drug dealers. The right to speak, however, affects everyone who chooses to exercise it.

The people portrayed in these pages attest to the resilience of free speech used both to voice ideas and to try to suppress the ideas of others. ...

In Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist David K. Shipler offers a series of stories about contemporary free speech controversies in the U.S. The book continues the themes of his Rights of the People and Rights at Risk which explored how we have allowed our fear of terrorism and our fear of the (usually racially defined) Other to erode freedoms we think are embedded in our legal codes. In the first he seemed repulsed when describing how authorities had used the 9/11 atrocities as an excuse to extend lawless violation of civil liberties long the norm in communities of color to the rest of the population. In the second book, he seemed more habituated to ongoing abuses: ours has become a mindlessly fearful culture where principled resistance to authority has become exceptional.

This third book is an empathetic, intelligent, meticulous account of several contexts in which U.S. citizens have recently fought free speech fights. The flashes of indignation Shipler showed in the earlier volumes are largely absent. He calls himself "close to a First Amendment absolutist" but his object here is to understand more than to expose -- and certainly not to condemn broadly. Even where he seems to find restrictions on speech appalling, his touch is light.

On some of his topics I found the result enlightening. He carefully explores parental efforts to censor what books high schools may ask their children to read. Instead of portraying the protesting parents as narrow-minded bigots, he really allows them to explain what they are so afraid of. Their anguish turns out to be that their children are growing up in a too rapidly changing world, an understandable perception, even if not one that should control what young people may study.

Shipler's old indignation shows through in his chapters on the persecution of government whistleblowers and the national security state's attempts to intimidate and muzzle the reporters who tell their stories. We should grateful for journalists like James Risen who Shipler interviewed extensively for this chapter.

A section on "the cultural limits of bigotry" explores how changing rules of acceptable discourse -- no, it is NOT okay to say "ni__er" or "faggot" in public these days -- have left many citizens feeling silenced. Society at large sometimes punishes transgressors who break these mostly unwritten rules, like NBA team owner Donald Sterling who was forced to divest, though without losing his profit. But mostly, people who won't get with the program simply retreat to the welcoming silos of the right-wing subculture, bruised and angry. And since Shipler wrote, they have found Donald Trump to give voice to their fury.

Shipler seemed to me at his weakest in recounting how the Jewish Community Center in Washington DC let itself be bullied by conservative donors into booting out a much-celebrated little theater for mildly exploring some of the contradictions of Israel-Palestine. This is not a benign story; the inability on the part of much of the Jewish establishment to allow honest conversation about Israel is an active impediment to peaceful solutions, not some minor side-show. But Shipler doesn't go there.

Shipler is a thoughtful reporter; even a weak book from this author is worth reading. Presumably he has grouped the various topics in this volume together because he senses there's a connection under the general rubric of "free speech" from which we could learn. But he hasn't quite pulled out a connecting thread here. Since he seems committed to exploring the contemporary meaning of "civil liberties," maybe there will be a further volume in this series?

3 comments:

Brandon said...

Off-topic, but have you been following what's going on with the Anglican Communion lately?

janinsanfran said...


Brandon: I'm aware of developments in the ongoing British obsession with retaining leadership of the Christian denomination their empire spawned. And not much worried about it. The Archbishop of Canterbury can't patch up Humpty-Dumpty on the backs of gay folks. Ain't happening. The Rev. Canon Giles Fraser explains nicely in the Guardian:
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2016/jan/14/equal-marriage-is-the-next-stage-in-the-churchs-continual-reformation

Don't expect to comment further, though I have in the past.

Hattie said...

Free speech is a complex issue, and I see a problem in allowing people to step over the line with speech that intimidates, humiliates, threatens others. Speech is action: a speech act, never trivial.

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