Speech Defects

Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword BY David K. Shipler. Knopf. Hardcover, 352 pages. $28.

The cover of Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword

David K. Shipler has enjoyed an extraordinarily distinguished career as a journalist. His long service as an overseas reporter for the New York Times afforded him extended stays in the former Soviet Union and Israel. He’s written two prizewinning books, one on the penultimate period of Soviet history, the other on relations between Jews and Arabs in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. Since his retirement from the Times in 1988, Shipler has increasingly turned his attention to domestic ills (though his blog still covers foreign affairs). He now writes mainly on race relations, poverty, and the state of our civil liberties, broadly defined.

Shipler’s newest book pursues this last interest, but with a significant twist. His two prior books, The Rights of the People (2011) and Rights at Risk (2012), both pivoted on relations between citizens and the state, between the constitutional and legal rights to which we believe we are entitled and the discretionary authority that institutions of government want to wield over us. Freedom of Speech is, essentially, a set of cultural stories about the conflicts Americans have with each other over liberty of expression. Institutions of government do appear, particularly in the book’s second part, “Secrets.” Shipler examines the careers of prominent whistle-blowers who exposed the government’s post-9/11 practices of “extraordinary rendition” (the transfer of suspects overseas by CIA operatives to be tortured in allied nations) and the massive electronic surveillance of domestic communications conducted by the National Security Agency. But even here Shipler is less concerned with what the government was doing than with the reasons why dutiful civil servants evolved into impassioned whistle-blowers.

Like any responsible journalist, Shipler cares deeply about freedom of speech. He imagines—or, perhaps, idealizes—a citizenry that is not only free to voice its opinions but, equally important, keenly receptive to dissenting views. Shipler wants to survey the landscape of some recent free-speech controversies—to identify, explore, and explain the gusts of passion and opinion that swirl across this field of inquiry. Freedom of Speech is more about the culture of free speech than about its legal dimensions, and Shipler, ever the earnest reporter, is eager to describe the wide, frequently idiosyncratic array of personal motivations that animate and vex his individual subjects.

This concern with the culture of democracy is hardly an invention of our age. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote powerfully about the “habits of the heart” in Democracy in America, presciently musing on the subtle ways in which democratic public opinion might prove inferior to the exchange of ideas in a traditional aristocratic society. James Madison worried a great deal about the difficulties ordinary citizens would face in forming opinions on complex political subjects, while his good friend Thomas Jefferson, the great optimist of our political tradition, strongly favored the open flow of ideas that Shipler also admires. Jefferson, in fact, might have been a useful reference point for part 1 of Freedom of Speech, which highlights efforts to restrict what students can read in high school. Jefferson believed that schools should teach their students history before exposing them to the Bible, the better to give them an informed basis for judging the improbable claims on which so many appeals to religious authority rest.

But Shipler is decidedly presentist in his approach. Freedom of Speech is a book for our moment, not a deep reflection on the history of free expression and its cultural legacy in the United States. He discusses a fairly small number of incidents, some of them relatively unknown but illustrative of broader trends, others (like his account of the whistle-blowers) better known. The book opens with a long discussion of a partially successful bid by a small group of conservative and religious parents in Plymouth and Canton, Michigan, to remove a pair of novels, Graham Swift’s Waterland and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, from their high school’s English curriculum. In part 2, Shipler focuses on two federal whistle-blowers—Thomas Tamm, a Department of Justice lawyer detailed to the CIA to work on the Zacarias Moussaoui case who stumbled on evidence of the extraordinary rendition of detainees in the war on terror, and Thomas Drake, who coincidentally began working at the NSA on 9/11. He also profiles a select group of “new war correspondents,” like Jane Mayer, James Risen, Eric Lichtblau, and James Bamford, who have worked hard to find reliable sources within the government who will explain just what it is the United States has been doing in the cause of protecting our security.

Part 3 takes the story in a different direction. Its first chapter deals with issues of racial stereotyping; President Barack Obama, unsurprisingly, plays a starring role. Its second chapter examines how a small group of right-wing activists is publicizing the less-than-imminent threat of Muslim rule in the United States under the legal authority of sharia. Part 4 is positioned along some of the further poles of debate over the role of money in politics: One chapter explores how poorer Americans are often denied full recognition within the public sphere; a second chapter briefly discusses the Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 ruling in Citizens United before going on to review disputes over tax exemptions for politically active churches. Finally, in part 5, Shipler devotes three chapters to the story of a Washington, DC–based theater called Theater J, whose artistic director, Ari Roth, has gotten into trouble for mounting plays that some perceive as critical of the state of Israel at the city’s Jewish Community Center.

As this brief summary suggests, Shipler’s landscape is broad indeed; patient readers of this book will acquire a good sense of the astonishing diversity of concerns that color the exercise of different forms of free speech in our land of liberty. I wish I could also say that they will learn something, but that, alas, is not likely to be the case. I must exercise my own freedom of conscience to conclude that this book struck me as badly conceived, weakly argued, overwritten, desperately in need of editing, and, in the end, not all that helpful in fostering serious thought about the issues that genuinely trouble Shipler.

Like many a journalist turned book author, Shipler can’t resist including material he finds interesting, regardless of whether it adds much to the content of the book. The trouble is apparent from the outset, when Shipler quickly veers off course with an account of Jill Abramson’s recent dismissal as executive editor of the New York Times, then detours again into a reminiscence concerning his former Times colleague Thomas Friedman, who landed in hot water over a 1982 dispatch on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that used the word “indiscriminate” to describe Israel’s barrage of artillery. Neither incident illuminates any real issues about freedom of expression, beyond a quick aside from Shipler about how most of us tend to internalize the norms of the institutions that employ us.

Freedom of Speech abounds with similar digressions. In his account of school censorship, Shipler supplies three pages of dialogue demonstrating the cleverness with which Helen Bradley, a high school teacher in Irving, Texas, circumvents the state’s guidelines on how to teach the history of capitalism. A paragraph or two would have sufficed. And as he relates the saga of Ari Roth and Theater J, we get six pages describing how Roth’s parents escaped the Holocaust—fascinating material, but only tangentially related to the main controversy over the limits of free expression. Similarly, we learn a lot about his exemplary whistle-blowers’ parents and work histories, none of which has much bearing on the legal ramifications of their actions.

Of course, part of Shipler’s survey does involve understanding what sets the divergent voices in these disputes so bittlerly at odds. Biography and personality certainly matter here, as do the querulous suspicions that animate some of the contending parties: parents who don’t want their children reading about sexuality or the horrors of slavery; whistle-blowers who rightly feel that fundamental standards and legal norms are being betrayed; Islamophobes who believe that sharia will thrive under misguided constitutional protection; conservative Jews who worry that any criticism of Israel undermines its existence as a nation-state.

Freedom of Speech is rich in descriptive detail about the concerns and backgrounds of these parties. What it lacks is a serious argument, which may explain why the book simply ends, without a conclusion. That’s also the fate of this review, since I was unable to discover what Shipler wanted to say.

Jack Rakove teaches history and political science at Stanford University. His new book, A Politician Thinking: The Creative Mind of James Madison, will be published in 2016 by the University of Oklahoma Press.