Freedom of Speech: It’s Complicated

David K. Shipler's latest is an insightful and balanced romp through the contested zones of free speech in America.

The cover photo on David K. Shipler’s Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword is a fitting one. It depicts a protest banner proclaiming the power of the First Amendment. But the cropped style of the photo means the cause it’s being deployed in support of remains elusive. Left-leaning progressives? Right-wing conservatives? Religious fundamentalists? Secular stalwarts? One of the complicated aspects of the notion of ‘free speech’ is that it can be deployed in pursuit of such varied – at times contradictory – causes and ideals.

The book offers a sweeping survey of the complicated landscape of free speech battles in the US, which themselves emerge from “the great divides of current American culture.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning Shipler has selected several key battlegrounds emerging around issues of free speech, and examines these disparate battles with a remarkable degree of patience, balance and thoroughness. What results are five case studies, each of which elucidates particular dimensions of free speech debates in contemporary America.

The virtues of the book lie in its passionate quest for balance and fairness. While the occasional wry witticism seeps through, overall Shipler is painfully conscientious about trying to offer both sides of any debate. He avoids polemical analysis and critique, and while he is clearly on the side of expansive free speech rights, he extends this commitment to ensuring opponents of the view are provided every opportunity to express their perspectives, as well. Indeed, even in unsavory debates – such as the chapters on Islamophobic conspiracy theories – he allows the socially vilified conspiracy theorists open and fair space for comment. Shipler – a veteran of decades with the New York Times — is a journalist in the classic mould; rigorous and meticulous in his data collection and fact-checking, he goes to immense lengths to offer both sides of any debate fair comment.

Yet if the pen is mightier than the sword, its virtues can be equally double-edged. The fair and balanced perspective Shipler pursues offers interesting insights into the minds of antagonists as varied as small-town Christian fundamentalists and fanatical pro-Israeli partisans, yet one can’t help but wonder whether fair and objective balance actually moves these debates forward. In the chapters on Islamophobic conspiracy theories, for example, the reader finds themselves embroiled in a confusing muddle of conspiracies that are painfully ludicrous. Shipler’s meticulous debunking and sourcing of these conspiracies (one is reminded of Clive James’ wry admonition of Bob Woodward’s work: “he checks his facts until they weep with boredom”) suggests his conviction that patient, rational dialogue will prove mightier than irrational fear and hysteria. But will it? The revenue generated by right-wing, anti-Muslim pundits and the credence their ridiculous theories generate among some quarters suggests an ideological partisanship that may resist rational debate. But, good on Shipler for trying.

There are times, too, when the effort to offer fairness and balance becomes downright irritating. The picture that emerges of Americans who want to ban books in schools is one of well-meaning, over-protective parents who yearn – however misguidedly – to protect their children in an age of rapid cultural change. This sympathetic treatment of would-be book banners is interesting and insightful, but it’s unclear what it accomplishes.

Indeed, one may paint a picture of almost any ideological position as being well-intentioned-if-misguided, yet ultimately democratic vitality requires confrontation and contestation. Shipler’s objectivity conveys a profound faith in the fundamental liberal promise of free speech, articulated through such core liberal principles as the notion that banning books makes them more popular (and powerful), the best response to distasteful speech is more speech, and so on and so forth. Yet cynics would argue that even the mightiest pen finds its match in a Hitler, a Stalin, a McCarthy. And yes, free speech emerged from the grip of tyrants like these, but – with the possible exception of the last – victory didn’t come from mighty pens alone.

The case studies themselves are varied and interesting. Shipler first focuses on efforts to ban books in high school curricula and libraries. The most successful and fascinating of the book’s case studies is the second one, focusing on whistleblowers in American national security and intelligence agencies. This section is truly revealing; a riveting read that focuses on lesser-known whistleblowers whose greater obscurity often led to a greater personal price paid for their commitment to higher principles than the orders of their superiors.

The third section, on anti-Muslim conspiracies, has already been discussed; it offers useful ammunition for those seeking to refute right-wing Islamophobic pundits, but I would be about as eager to engage in debate with believers of these conspiracy theories as I would be to try proselytizing affirmative action among the Ku Klux Klan. It also ventures into the messy zone of trying to explain ‘the cultural limits of bigotry’, rationalizing what types of slurs are unacceptable and why, and why and how some people don’t understand the shifting limits. This is murky terrain indeed; it struggles to define cultural acceptability, and it’s not clear that an objective analysis of cultural and racial slurs is even possible, let alone desirable.

The fourth section looks at how free speech and public debate – particularly electoral campaigns – are compromised by access to capital and class privilege. Here Shipler argues convincingly that “money is speech, poverty is silence.” It’s a topic he’s addressed in his other works, and the section here offers a useful introductory window into the issue, and into the contentious Citizens United case that’s inflamed debate in recent years.

Finally, he looks at the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict as it manifests in arts funding in the US. His focus here is a smallish Washington-based theatre that tries to present plays which challenge official, mainstream Israeli perspectives. But theatres rely on donors, and donors are susceptible to lobbying, and that’s where things get messy.

It’s a pleasure to read Shipler’s prose, which is engaging and offers elegant narrative reportage. These are essentially extended journalistic essays, packed with detail and research. Shipler’s reportage has a knack for the sort of detail that makes a story compelling and human; the seemingly trivial detail which actually plays a vital role in helping the reader develop a bigger and more complete picture of a person, or frame an issue. There’s a lot of useful and first-rate research here.

While the reportage is first-rate, and the individual sections are each successful to varying degrees, as a book, however, it leaves something to be desired. There’s no over-arching argument or analysis which emerges from the collected studies. In some ways, it is perhaps the author’s rigid journalistic training which mitigates against the development of an argument in the text. Rigorous fact-checking and tracing back of sources, efforts to offer fair and balanced opportunity for both sides to comment in a debate, and a hesitation to editorialize all reflect the first-rate skills of an orthodox reporter, but it’s perhaps for this reason that reporters write reports and not books.

Books require an argument, which requires partisanship; the ability to argue through a particular lens. While the reader may emerge a great deal more familiar with the nuances of these fraught debates, they emerge without any real sense of what to do with this knowledge, or what it reflects about our society beyond the fact that our society is fraught with complexities and contradictions. Perhaps that is the message it intends, but it risks leaving the reader feeling empty.

By his own admission, Shipler’s experience is grounded in “a lifelong career as an observer”, and his exquisite powers of observation are deployed in full force here. But surely an observer, particularly one with such a profound breadth of experience and observation, can also offer analysis, and build on analysis to produce argument: insightful recommendations on where we go from here. It would be truly useful to hear what Shipler’s recommendations would be.

The sword is a formidable weapon because it doesn’t equivocate: it acts fearlessly, decisively and confidently in pursuit of a clear cause. If the pen is to prove mightier, then it must do no less.

RATING 7 / 10