David K. Shipler calls himself a free-speech absolutist in his seventh book, “Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword.”
“Lines are murky,” he writes, “and it’s always risky to use vague characterizations to give authorities the power to shut down speech whose content (rather than method) displeases them.” The point of the 1st Amendment, he continues, is to encourage debate and dissent. This means all debate and dissent, even that which makes reasonable people wary about the health — mental or otherwise — of the republic.
FOR THE RECORD:
“Freedom of Speech”: A May 3 review of the book “Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword” by David K. Shipler referred to New York Times journalist James Risen as Shipler’s former colleague. They did not work at the Times at the same time. —
The question of course is what constitutes “reasonable,” a dilemma with a different shape in the United States than in other Western democracies. “One of the pleasures of free speech in America,” Shipler explains, “is the ability to draw from any source and statement to bolster your view. Nothing is placed off-limits by censorship. But unless the speech is heard with vigilance, unless the audience exercises critical listening, the result is not enlightening.”
What Shipler — a former New York Times foreign correspondent who won a 1987 Pulitzer Prize for his book “Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land” — is describing is the anything-goes nature of American democracy in which, theoretically at least, every notion will stand or fall on its merits in the marketplace of ideas. It’s the sustaining argument of “Freedom of Speech,” that this right, enshrined in the 1st Amendment, serves as a collective superpower, allowing us to diffuse bad ideas.
"[S]peech is not a crime,” he writes, “even offensive speech. On the contrary, turning bigoted speech into the sunlight is much more curative than keeping it under wraps, because out in the open it can be countered and rebutted.”
By way of illustration, he offers not a history so much as a set of case studies reflecting our fractured times. In five largely self-contained sections, Shipler examines attempts to remove novels such as Graham Swift’s “Waterland” and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” from high school classrooms; he considers whistle-blowers, political speech in the age of Citizens United and Islamophobia. He writes at length about the racist hate speech directed at the president.
“If you have a flimsy argument,” he notes, “you can infuse it with vigor by using subtle racial stereotyping: Obama as all show and no substance, Obama as incompetent, Obama as deceptive, Obama as dangerous, Obama as not truly American. Deeply ingrained doubts about African-Americans, long embedded in the majority white culture, seem to have an amplifying effect.”
Shipler is right — both about the festering stain of racism and its effect on our political discourse, and also in regard to the role free speech plays in the interplay of ideas. This is why it’s essential to defend the rights of those whose views we find repellent: anti-Islamic demagogues such as one-time FBI agent John Guandolo, who claims to have “direct sources … [who say] that CIA director John O. Brennan converted to Islam while stationed in Saudi Arabia”; parents like Patti DeVivo, who, in a dispute with her daughter’s school over the book “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” said, “This freedom of speech, it drives me crazy.”
Throughout “Freedom of Speech,” the author allows such figures to express their beliefs before debunking them. Free speech by example, one might say, although it ultimately reveals a flaw in his argument. For freedom of speech to create the desired debate, after all, we need a populace that is if not informed then capable of critical thinking. Without that, we risk falling prey to what Josef Goebbels called the big lie, in which falsehoods, repeated often enough, take on the veneer of truth.
As an example, there’s the “birther” controversy, which lingers even after the release of the president’s long-form birth certificate. “To rummage around in the subject online is like stepping into a dizzying fantasy of bad satire,” Shipler writes. “Then you realize that the people writing this stuff take themselves seriously.” In a 2012 Pew poll, 17% believed Obama was Muslim. A 2011 CBS poll found that 25% of respondents thought he’d been born outside the U.S. That this is not the case doesn’t matter; such is the power of belief.
So what do we do about it? Shipler doesn’t address that in any detail, preferring to fall back on a loose faith in openness as an ideal. And yet, especially in his chapters on whistle-blowers — including Thomas Drake, once a senior NSA official, and Jesselyn Radack, a former Justice Department attorney, both of whom reported intelligence abuses — we see the flip side of that faith.
“You become radioactive,” Radack explains. "… Once you’ve been labeled … by your government, no one wants to touch you.” This suggests that the most dangerous threat to freedom of speech — indeed, to freedom — may not come from extremes of right or left but rather from the government.
Shipler’s account of the challenges faced by journalists is marred by giving too much attention to New York Times journalist James Risen, a decision that seems a little cozy, despite Risen’s courage and character. Nonetheless, his larger case is chilling, with its implication that the battle for press freedom may already be irreparably compromised.
For the record
May 3, 3:28 p.m.: An earlier version of this article implied that David K. Shipler and James Risen were once colleagues at the New York Times. They never worked at the Times at the same time.
“In fact,” Shipler writes, “officials have told some journalists that there is no longer any need to try to force reporters to identify their sources, so sweeping is the surveillance of communications.” He cites Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, who was told: “You’ve seen your last subpoena. We don’t need your people.”
What this suggests is that freedom of speech is both right and privilege, that we can neither take it for granted nor back away. For Shipler, it’s essential that we find a middle ground where we can hear one another, where we can debate and disagree with respect.
Again, I remain somewhat skeptical that this is possible, given the tone of contemporary discourse, but what other option do we have? No, we must participate in the conversation about who we are and who we want to be. That it is unruly, disturbing, scary even, goes without saying; this is also why it’s necessary. “Freedom of speech,” Shipler insists, “implies the freedom to hear.”
Freedom of Speech
Mightier Than the Sword
David K. ShiplerAlfred A. Knopf: 352 pp., $28.95