The treacherous terrain of free speech

Students from the University of Texas at Austin demonstrate against political influence on state textbooks March 10, 2010, in Austin. (Zuma Press/Caleb Bryant Miller)

By David K. Shipler
Published by Knopf, $28.95

Many may wonder at how the Republican Party, which takes pride in its patriotism and allegiance to the Constitution, can allow a representative to heckle the president during a State of the Union address, invite foreign leaders to speak despite the president's disapproval, and dismiss the president's authority in letters written directly to governments with which he is negotiating. Some may ask whether representatives feel accountable only to their constituents who live in neatly gerrymandered districts and whose only news source persistently delegitimizes the president.

So long as politicians seek to please only those who can vote for or donate to them, and so long as American voters listen only to sources that echo their preconceived attitudes and beliefs, no presidency of either party is safe from embarrassment. Such is the treacherous terrain of contemporary free speech, which David Shipler adeptly maps out in his skillful and sensitive Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword.

As in his other books -- A Country of Strangers, The Working Poor, and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Arab and Jew -- Shipler, former chief diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times and contributor to The New Yorker, seeks the truth through the life stories and words of those who have the most at stake.

In Freedom of Speech, Shipler narrates the stories of people who have risked their jobs and health, and who have exposed themselves and their families to public hostility in order to exercise their free speech rights. Shipler, who identifies himself as a strong advocate for unbridled free speech, clearly sides with the risk-takers against their opponents, but true to his values, he allows even those who hold views with which he obviously disagrees to rationalize their resistance.

Through this personalization, Shipler can show that the greatest costs of exercising speech rights are emotional: isolation, ostracism, distrust and depression. Most tellingly, by providing intimate portraits of the lives of those who dare to speak against the odds, Shipler enables us to see the human element behind free expression.

Certainly, his subjects are devoted to the ideal of liberty, but more than serving an abstract value, these citizens are satisfying a deeply felt need to speak and to have ideas and information freely exchanged.

In the section on books, Shipler describes the controversy surrounding the inclusion of such books as Waterland and Beloved in the curricula and libraries of two Michigan high schools. Shipler allows parents to voice their passionate desire to see these books removed, even though the parents he interviews have refused to read the books or have read only seemingly salacious excerpts that have been taken out of their narrative context.

Shipler also addresses the manner in which school boards, like those in Texas, subject textbooks to a litmus test of conservative political "correctness," by discriminating against content that is too negative, too willing to stress American failures or injustices, too unwilling to provide a balanced view of even subjects like slavery, or too muted in its praise of capitalism or "American exceptionalism."

In "Whistleblowers," Shipler tells the stories of Thomas Tamm and Thomas Drake, who ended illustrious careers of dedicated government and military service by leaking information regarding the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program. Even though they broke no laws and served a public good, their truth-telling brought them only ceaseless investigation, suspicion and disapproval (even from family members), as well as job loss and financial hardship.

Shipler finds that, since 9/11, the U.S. government has not only invaded privacy with greater malevolence, but it has also ruined the lives of those who would keep government accountable to the Constitution. Just as disturbing are the stories of reporters like James Risen who have risked jail sentences for refusing to reveal their sources.

In "Stereotypes," Shipler's portraits of racist bloggers and right-wing fearmongers repel us intellectually but engage us emotionally.

We may be willing to grant that David Marsters could have posted his vicious anti-Obama statement to Facebook by mistake. We may sympathize with John Guandolo's sense of duty, even though it has been inspired by paranoiac fear of Islamic world domination. But no sympathy is elicited or felt for conservative talk-show hosts who carefully couch their speech to draw upon traditional racial and ethnic stereotypes without fear of censure.

In "Politics," Shipler argues that so long as political speech demands money, the poor will lack the voice necessary to bring about change, and wealthy elites will fund candidates that oppose programs that help the poor, like the Medicaid expansion.

To show that it's the money, not the message, Shipler provides an example of a Democratic congressman who defeats a Republican in George W. Bush's home district. Because this candidate spent wisely on political advertising, he could win over even seemingly intransigent voters to his cause of helping the needy.

Nevertheless, the recent removal of restrictions on campaign finance money has only served to amplify the voices of the already privileged, and lax IRS enforcement has emboldened small fundamentalist churches to advocate for conservative political causes unfriendly to the poor.

Religious and political controversy forms the basis of Shipler's climactic chapter, "Plays," in which he tells the story of Ari Roth, the artistic director of Washington's Theater J, which presents plays that address the moral dimensions of the Middle East conflict.

Roth's struggle to stage a controversial drama on the Israeli treatment of Palestinians in 1948 brings to light the many consequences faced by citizens bold enough to shake the conscience of those who would remain willfully ignorant: the damage to reputation; the threat of defunding and loss of employment; and the denunciation from self-appointed arbiters of truth who haven't read the texts they hope to silence.

Roth emerges as the hero of the book, in that he embodies the qualities that Shipler most admires: the moral strength to tell the truth despite the consequences, but also the intellectual fortitude to listen all viewpoints, especially those that threaten one's worldview.

Through Roth's example, Shipler pricks the conscience of readers who refrain from telling the truth, or whose selective listening has lead them to disrespect and delegitimize those with whom they disagree.

[Dennis McDaniel is associate professor and chair of the English department at St. Vincent College.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here