Review: The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson

Review: The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America by Michael Eric DysonThe Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, current events, history, politics
Pages: 368
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 2nd 2016
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A provocative and lively deep dive into the meaning of America's first black presidency, from “one of the most graceful and lucid intellectuals writing on race and politics today” (Vanity Fair).
Michael Eric Dyson explores the powerful, surprising way the politics of race have shaped Barack Obama’s identity and groundbreaking presidency. How has President Obama dealt publicly with race—as the national traumas of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott have played out during his tenure? What can we learn from Obama's major race speeches about his approach to racial conflict and the black criticism it provokes? 
Dyson explores whether Obama’s use of his own biracialism as a radiant symbol has been driven by the president’s desire to avoid a painful moral reckoning on race. And he sheds light on identity issues within the black power structure, telling the fascinating story of how Obama has spurned traditional black power brokers, significantly reducing their leverage. 
President Obama’s own voice—from an Oval Office interview granted to Dyson for this book—along with those of Eric Holder, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, and Maxine Waters, among others, add unique depth to this profound tour of the nation’s first black presidency.

My Review:

I chose to review The Black Presidency this week for two reasons. One is the obvious, February is Black History Month. The second is less obvious. This week is the week of the Presidents Day compromise holiday, the Monday between Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday. To review a book about the first black president in the week between holidays celebrating one president who owned people who looked like this president and a later president who freed those slaves and made this presidency possible (whether he personally could have imagined it or not) seemed like serendipitous timing.

There is also another factor. To this reader, so much of the criticism aimed at President Obama smacks of racism, whether those critics intend it to or not. Certainly, to this reader, the groundswell of hatred feels like it has racism at its dark heart.

The kind of identity politics that uses this president as a representative of an under-represented class in public life is not new. It is also not over. Barring an unforeseen tragedy, the Democratic party will either nominate the first woman to lead a major political party ticket or the first Jew to do so. Women have previously, but not often, campaigned in the primaries but have never headed their party’s ticket. Likewise, no non-Christian has ever headed a major party ticket. For that matter, there has only been one non-Protestant president, John F. Kennedy.

The Presidency of the United States has been the ultimate “glass-ceiling” job, and it has been historically difficult for anyone not fitting a particular mold – male, white, Protestant – to reach that Oval Office. So one of the things I was looking for in The Black Presidency was to read more about how race and racism have affected Barack Obama’s presidency, to perhaps learn something about the ways that sexism or anti-Semitism will rear their ugly heads in the campaign, and possibly the presidential term, to come.

Back to this book. The author is looking through the lens of representation, in all its multiple definitions. Because whether he wills it or not, Barack Obama has become both a prominent face of Black America and the face of America. And while the first part of that equation will have some resonance forever, the second is specific to his presidency. Next January, a new president will be sworn in and someone else will become the face of America to the world.

At the same time, like anyone who is a member of an underrepresented or non-dominant group, Barack Obama is supposed to serve as a representative of his group to the broader community, and to represent his group’s interests to that broader community. Anyone who has ever been the only person of their kind in a particular setting has a teeny, tiny taste of what this feels like. To be the only woman in a group of men, particularly in technology, is one example. To be the only Jew in a group of Christians can also make one feel a bit like Daniel in that lion’s den.

So the author is evaluating Obama’s presidency through how he has reacted, particularly what he has said and done, in relationship to all of these axes. It has had an effect on how he has presented himself, in the stereotypical images he has consistently tried to avoid. It has had an effect on how he addresses the black community, and what policies he proposes that do or do not affect that community. It has certainly had an effect in the way that people see him and interpret his actions.

Reality Rating B+: I found this book to be on the one-hand, well-rounded, in that it attempts to look at as many of Obama’s actions and speeches through the lens of representation and representational politics as possible. It is not intended as a study of all of the President’s actions, or of actions that do not or possibly could not relate to race. At the same time, it is admittedly difficult to view this president without at least contending with the way that some portions of the population are either using race as the only way they see him, or are pretending that they are not seeing race at all.

And it is impossible in the U.S. not to see race. A point that is also explored in the book.

This is not, however a complete political biography of the 44th president, nor is it intended to be. And I’ll admit that I was hoping to see more about the way that others view him and the way that those issues have continually buffeted his administration. Because while the axes will change, I think that the buffeting will repeat if either of the potential Democratic Party candidates becomes the next President.

Review: Give Us the Ballot by Ari Berman

Review: Give Us the Ballot by Ari BermanGive Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, politics, U.S. history
Pages: 384
on August 4th 2015
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A New York Times Notable Book of 2015A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2015A Boston Globe Best Book of 2015A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2015An NPR Best Book of 2015Countless books have been written about the civil rights movement, but far less attention has been paid to what happened after the dramatic passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 and the turbulent forces it unleashed. Give Us the Ballot tells this story for the first time.
In this groundbreaking narrative history, Ari Berman charts both the transformation of American democracy under the VRA and the counterrevolution that has sought to limit voting rights, from 1965 to the present day. The act enfranchised millions of Americans and is widely regarded as the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement. And yet, fifty years later, we are still fighting heated battles over race, representation, and political power, with lawmakers devising new strategies to keep minorities out of the voting booth and with the Supreme Court declaring a key part of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.
Berman brings the struggle over voting rights to life through meticulous archival research, in-depth interviews with major figures in the debate, and incisive on-the-ground reporting. In vivid prose, he takes the reader from the demonstrations of the civil rights era to the halls of Congress to the chambers of the Supreme Court. At this important moment in history, Give Us the Ballot provides new insight into one of the most vital political and civil rights issues of our time.

My Review:

Give this book to anyone who believes that the struggle for voting rights in America is over. Because the all too recent history told in this narrative shows all too clearly that it is far, far from over.

This is a difficult book to review. The history related is searing in its intensity. And it is impossible to be neutral. For those who are of the liberal persuasion, it is an indictment of man’s (and woman’s) continuing inhumanity to those who are not part of the white majority. For those who are conservative, it will read very differently. I’ll admit that my mind just won’t go wherever that it.

I wanted to take a bath when I finished, because the things that were done to suppress the African-American vote (and the Hispanic vote) were disgusting and sometimes deadly. In reading this history, it feels as if the deadly has mostly moved to other arenas, but the disgusting is still very much alive and kicking.

A voting rights case in Forsyth County, Georgia, (one county over from my house) was just settled this past week. Voting rights are still being fought for in the U.S., but the fights have moved from the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the judicial system. The fight is no less bloody for that blood being time and ink instead of red.

This may be progress of a sort, but it is progress that must be constantly and rigorously defended.

And in a nutshell, that is the lesson of Give Us the Ballot. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was landmark legislation, but it also marked a beginning and not an ending. Poll taxes and literacy tests were finally over. The battleground simply moved to Voter ID laws, redistricting and “at large” elections.

The right to vote is one of the bedrock principles of the United States. This history shows that the fight to make sure that every eligible person is allowed to vote, and that their vote counts, and that their vote has effective power, never, ever ends.

Escape Rating A: This is a book where I think it will be impossible for any reader to read dispassionately. As a liberal, I frankly wanted to wash at least my hands after reading it. I found the indictment compelling and also slightly nauseating. Both that blatant attempts to suppress the votes of blacks, hispanics and students continue, but that they are all too often successful and cloaked in coded language. And frankly, I still hear “dog whistles”.

Progress has been made, but it has also been beaten back by those in power who want to retain that power. And the tools used to beat that progress back seem designed to obfuscate either the motives of the perpetrators or the consequences of their actions. Or both.

This history clearly shows, at least to this reader, that Voter ID laws, reduction in the hours of early voting, voter roll purges and other such measures are both racially motivated and completely partisan. They are designed to suppress the votes of groups that generally vote for the Democratic Party. For someone who votes liberal, it reads like an attempt to turn the clock back and prevent the changes to the population that are occurring in fact from having a proportional impact at the ballot box and in the politics of the country.

Someone with a more conservative political inclination will undoubtedly see this history differently. I doubt that anyone can be neutral on this subject. This history will certainly make you think, whatever side of the political spectrum you fall upon. Thinking about the right to vote, and about making sure to exercise that right whenever possible, is always important.

Reviewer’s Note: Give Us the Ballot was nominated for the American Library Association’s Notable Book Awards for this year. As part of the Notable Books Council, I am pleased to say that this book was on our Awards list for this year, along with other outstanding works of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. Give Us the Ballot is an intensive history of an important and timely topic. It was also a perfect book to re-read and review over the Martin Luther King Day weekend.

Review: Hissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer

Review: Hissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy DwyerHissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Timothy Dwyer, Marc Peyser
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, history, nonfiction, politics
Pages: 352
Published by Nan A. Talese on March 31st 2015
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A lively and provocative double biography of first cousins Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, two extraordinary women whose tangled lives provide a sweeping look at the twentieth century.
When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, his beautiful and flamboyant daughter was transformed into "Princess Alice," arguably the century's first global celebrity. Thirty-two years later, her first cousin Eleanor moved into the White House as First Lady. Born eight months and twenty blocks apart from each other in New York City, Eleanor and Alice spent a large part of their childhoods together and were far more alike than most historians acknowledge.
But their politics and temperaments couldn't have been more distinct. Do-gooder Eleanor was committed to social justice but hated the limelight; acid-tongued Alice, who became the wife of philandering Republican congressman Nicholas Longworth, was an opponent of big government who gained notoriety for her cutting remarks (she famously quipped that dour President Coolidge “looked like he was weaned on a pickle”). While Eleanor revolutionized the role of First Lady with her outspoken passion for human rights, Alice made the most of her insider connections to influence politics, including doing as much to defeat the League of Nations as anyone in elective office.
The cousins themselves liked to play up their oil-and-water relationship. “When I think of Frank and Eleanor in the White House I could grind my teeth to powder and blow them out my nose,” Alice once said. In the 1930s they even wrote opposing syndicated newspaper columns and embarked on competing nationwide speaking tours. Blood may be thicker than water, but when the family business is politics, winning trumps everything.
Vivid, intimate, and stylishly written, Hissing Cousins finally sets this relationship center stage, revealing the contentious bond between two political trailblazers who short-circuited the rules of gender and power, each in her own way.

My Review:

A fascinating dual biography of the first two female power-brokers in the U.S., along with a peek inside one of the longest-running First Families in U.S. history, and with a look at the way the rich and famous lived in what has often been called “the American Century”.

We think of them as being from two different eras, but they were not. While Alice Roosevelt Longworth was the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the U.S., and Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the U.S., Alice and Eleanor were not just cousins, but they were born in the same year – 1884.

And for two women who on the surface seem to be exact opposites, there are a surprising number of similarities – and some absolutely fascinating differences.

Alice Roosevelt, formal portrait by Theobald Chartran 1901.
Alice Roosevelt, formal portrait by Theobald Chartran 1901.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth was a lot like Princess Di or the Kardashians. She was famous because of who she was, not what she did. When her father Teddy Roosevelt became president she was 15 years old and rebellious into the bargain. And she loved the publicity brought by her rebelliousness. The press loved her, she made great copy, and they dubbed her “Princess Alice”.

A color was named for her, Alice Blue, and a hit Broadway song was named for that color, “Alice Blue Gown” in the musical Irene. While Alice was famously everywhere, her cousin Eleanor was shy, retiring and still far from growing into the woman and the reformer that she would later become.

And it’s entirely possible that both girls “set their caps” for their cousin Franklin, but Eleanor caught him. Alice married Nicholas Longworth, a Congressman from Ohio who eventually became Speaker of the House. Longworth was the first in a long line of older, politically powerful men that Alice loved, and whose careers she both nurtured and skewered.

In her old age, Alice became famous for the saying, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” Alice was often viciously malicious throughout her long life, and her cousin Eleanor was a frequent target. Alice enjoyed being bad, and Eleanor was always frightfully good.

Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932
Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932

Eleanor Roosevelt could easily have been just like Alice – famous for being the President’s wife (instead of his daughter) and not known for much else. Instead, Eleanor Roosevelt became one of the most famous American women of the 20th century. FDR’s polio in 1921 forced Eleanor to become the more active political campaigner, while FDR ran for Governor of New York, and after two terms, President of the United States. It was impossible to be shy and retiring on the campaign trail, even in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Eleanor was forced out of her shell, and she found the confidence to not only campaign for her husband, but to champion the reform causes that were near and dear to her own heart, even if her husband disagreed with them. Eleanor became the quintessential upper class do-gooder, but unlike many of her type, she didn’t just pay causes lip-service, she got stuff done.

Alice and Eleanor were like the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz – always on opposite sides, but still very much family.

Mrs. Democrat (Eleanor) and Mrs. Republican (Alice) wielded their very real power in completely different ways. But they were alike in their background, in their tragedies, and in being the first women to have so much power at their own fingertips.

Reality Rating A: Eleanor Roosevelt is a historical figure that everyone thinks they know about. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, on the other hand, at the beginning of the 20th century was much more famous (and infamous), than her cousin Eleanor ever thought of being.

That the situation reversed had a lot to do with the different ways that these women wielded power, and their often divergent paths in life, in spite of, or perhaps because of, their very similar beginnings.

We often forget that Eleanor Roosevelt was Franklin Roosevelt’s cousin as well as his wife. Roosevelt was both her maiden name and her married name! And in our current era of political dynasties, the Kennedys, the Bushes,, and the Clintons, we sometimes forget that the Roosevelts got there first. Between 1900 and FDR’s death in 1945, there were 12 presidential elections, and either TR or FDR was on the ballot 8 of those 12 times. Only 1908, 1916, 1924, 1928 lacked a Roosevelt on one ticket or the other. Not even the Bushes have been that dominant, whether in success or failure.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Roosevelts were always in the news.

The story in Hissing Cousins isn’t just the news that they made, but how both women achieved their fame (or notoriety) and what they did with it.

While they both became power-brokers, they went about it entirely differently. Sharp and sparkling (and often maliciously vicious) Alice always worked behind the scenes. Her whispers were like a knife in the dark to many a political career, including on her own side. Eleanor was a public-minded and public-spirited reformer, she came out from behind her husband’s shadow and held office in her own name and for her own causes. Eleanor emerged from her own shyness to hold forth confidently in the sunshine. Alice liked publicity for herself, but she worked for her party behind the scenes.

Which of them was more truly influential is a bit hard to tell. While every President from TR to Gerald Ford met with Alice Roosevelt Longworth, what was said, what advice she gave, was not recorded. It was not intended to be. Although Richard Nixon was a favorite of Alice’s, it’s a pity that she didn’t meet with him in the White House, we might have recordings. But “Princess Alice” made the politicians court her, not the other way around.

Alice’s power was a kind of soft power, and the type that women historically held. Her power was the power of influence and gossip. She had good political instincts, and she used them to help those she favored, but it wasn’t the kind of power that led to speechmaking or officeholding of her own. She worked best from the shadows.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s use of power is the model we see today. She held offices of her own, admittedly mostly after FDR died. But she worked in her own name, particularly for the United Nations. What she said, what she did, was recorded as hers. Her successes and failures were also publicly hers.

But seeing their lives laid out side by side, as they each struggled for the limelight, and struggled with their children and their especially domineering mothers in law, we see how alike they are amongst their differences. And it makes for a fascinating story.

Review: Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier

Review: Data and Goliath by Bruce SchneierData and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World by Bruce Schneier
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: current events, history, internet, politics, technology
Pages: 400
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 2nd 2015
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Your cell phone provider tracks your location and knows who’s with you. Your online and in-store purchasing patterns are recorded, and reveal if you're unemployed, sick, or pregnant. Your e-mails and texts expose your intimate and casual friends. Google knows what you’re thinking because it saves your private searches. Facebook can determine your sexual orientation without you ever mentioning it.
The powers that surveil us do more than simply store this information. Corporations use surveillance to manipulate not only the news articles and advertisements we each see, but also the prices we’re offered. Governments use surveillance to discriminate, censor, chill free speech, and put people in danger worldwide. And both sides share this information with each other or, even worse, lose it to cybercriminals in huge data breaches.
Much of this is voluntary: we cooperate with corporate surveillance because it promises us convenience, and we submit to government surveillance because it promises us protection. The result is a mass surveillance society of our own making. But have we given up more than we’ve gained? In Data and Goliath, security expert Bruce Schneier offers another path, one that values both security and privacy. He shows us exactly what we can do to reform our government surveillance programs and shake up surveillance-based business models, while also providing tips for you to protect your privacy every day. You'll never look at your phone, your computer, your credit cards, or even your car in the same way again.

I should have saved this book for Halloween. It is possibly the scariest thing I have read in a long time, and all the more frightening because it is true.

Two things keep running through my head about what is outlined in this book. One is a play on this quote from George Orwell’s 1984. It’s not that “Big Brother is watching you”, but that “Big Brother and all of his pesky little brothers are watching US”. All of us. Every single one of us. All the time.

And that the late Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip Pogo from the late 1940s until the early 1970s said it best, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Data and Goliath gives readers a clear picture of just who Big Brother and all his little brothers are, and a good idea of what they are collecting when they watch. We also get to learn all the pesky justifications for why they watch and collect. Also what they do with what they collect, and how secretive and obfuscatory they are about their true purposes and their abuses of our privacy and any attempts at oversight.

Just as fascinating are all the things that are being done in the name of security that actually make us less secure in addition to making us less free. Some of that is truly scary.

The author doesn’t leave us without hope. This book is definitely a call for action, so there are plenty of ideas that can be implemented to address this streaming away of our privacy that claims to, but doesn’t actually make us more secure. The irony is that our increasing lack of privacy makes it easier, in fact downright simple, for those who wish to maintain the status quo to know in advance that we are moving against them, and for them to move against us, with all the power of the state at their backs, first.

Can we manage to get enough watch placed on the watchers in place before they make it impossible?

Reality Rating A-: The text is occasionally a bit dry, but the abuses of technology that it outlines are enough to keep the reader on the edge of their seat in spite of that. Because this is all true, and it’s enough to scare way more than your socks off.

One of the things the author makes abundantly clear is that we are all being watched, as in surveilled, all the time. Having a cell phone is enough to do that. Cell phones tell their carriers, and then anyone who has access to that data, where we are every minute of the day, within a couple dozen feet. From knowing where we are, it can then track who is around us, and from that, it can tell where we work, where we sleep, who we sleep with, where we eat, what we do for fun. Other tracking systems track what we buy and where we buy it, whether online or in real space. Anything we buy with a credit card is tracked. And even if we pay cash, cameras at the store we went to show what we bought and when we bought it.

The descriptions of just how easy it is to diagnose someone’s medical conditions by tracking their movements and their purchases shows just how easily one’s privacy, even about the most private things, can be breached.

And for those who say that there is so much information that no one could be looking for them in particular. Well, that may be true. But, if the government is looking for someone who is in your vicinity, your information will be scooped up and analyzed. And kept. If ten years from now what you bought or wrote today is deemed questionable, it is possible that something you forgot long ago could come back to haunt you.

For those who say that if someone has nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear, the arguments against that logic are pretty easily demolished. We are human, we all have things to hide – from the child who tells their parents they brushed their teeth when they didn’t to the worker who is searching for another job and doesn’t want their employer to know to the spouse who wants to hide a present or a special announcement until the right moment to the people organizing a surprise party. These are all things we want hidden, and none of the them are illegal or even guilty secrets (except maybe the non-toothbrushing child, but didn’t we ALL do that?)

As the author makes very clear, one of the big issues about this push-pull between surveillance and privacy is that we are often not aware how much of our privacy has been stripped away, or how much data is collected about us and how it can and will be used either against us or to sell us stuff that big computers are able to figure out that we might want based on all the tiny details they know about us.

Or to put it another way, we are not the customers of Google or Yahoo or any other search engine, we are the product. We get free search, and those companies collect data about us which they sell. We’re not the shepherd, we’re not even uninvolved bystanders watching as the sheep go by – we ARE the sheep. If you want to learn about all the ways that the sheep are being tagged, and who is looking at all the tagging and tracking data generated by the sheep, this book is a great place to being your search

There is always a question about “who watches the watchers”. In this book, the author provides the answer, and that answer is “no one”. And that makes me very afraid indeed..

Review: Freedom of Speech by David K. Shipler

Review: Freedom of Speech by David K. ShiplerFreedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword by David K. Shipler
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: current events, history, nonfiction, politics
Pages: 352
Published by Knopf on May 12th 2015
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A provocative, timely assessment of the state of free speech in America
With his best seller The Working Poor, Pulitzer Prize winner and former New York Times veteran David K. Shipler cemented his place among our most trenchant social commentators. Now he turns his incisive reporting to a critical American ideal: freedom of speech. Anchored in personal stories—sometimes shocking, sometimes absurd, sometimes dishearteningly familiar—Shipler’s investigations of the cultural limits on both expression and the willingness to listen build to expose troubling instabilities in the very foundations of our democracy.
Focusing on recent free speech controversies across the nation, Shipler maps a rapidly shifting topography of political and cultural norms: parents in Michigan rallying to teachers vilified for their reading lists; conservative ministers risking their churches’ tax-exempt status to preach politics from the pulpit; national security reporters using techniques more common in dictatorships to avoid leak prosecution; a Washington, D.C., Jewish theater’s struggle for creative control in the face of protests targeting productions critical of Israel; history teachers in Texas quietly bypassing a reactionary curriculum to give students access to unapproved perspectives; the mixed blessings of the Internet as a forum for dialogue about race.
These and other stories coalesce to reveal the systemic patterns of both suppression and opportunity that are making today a transitional moment for the future of one of our founding principles. Measured yet sweeping, Freedom of Speech brilliantly reveals the triumphs and challenges of defining and protecting the boundaries of free expression in modern America.

Most of the time, freedom of speech is an abstract concept. And even though it is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the interpretation of what that simple phrase, “freedom of speech”, means in real life often depends on interpretation, and on which side of the current debate you might happen to be on.

The text in the U.S. Constitution reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

One of the things that people often miss is that the direction of this law is to Congress. As written, it reflects the things that governments might want to do to us – it doesn’t actually address things that we might do to each other as private citizens.

There are a few legal restrictions on the freedom of speech, but there are many other ways to restrict speech. This book discusses real cases of where the freedom of speech has come under attack or into question, and by personalizing these stories provides a way for us to appreciate both the strengths and the limitations of those few brief words in the Constitution.

The author has grouped the situations where the “rubber meets the road” as far as free speech is concerned into some very challenging situations. The issues that he covers are: censorship, whistleblowing, bigotry, politics and culture. Because free speech is challenged in different ways and through different means in each of these instances.

One of the contradictions that is made unflinchingly clear, we may have freedom of speech, however, it may be abridged, or chilled or denied. What we don’t have (and generally shouldn’t) is the freedom from the consequences of that speech. And whether we like it or not, the challenges to our freedom of speech may very well be people who firmly believe that they are defending it.

Or us.

Reality Rating A: It’s the way that the author has personalized the abstract that brings this book to life. He doesn’t just talk in glowing platitudes about the freedom of speech, he takes deep dives into the hearts and minds who have fought, or are being fought, to protect or abridge that right.

And he also dissects some of the ways that free speech hurts, and why that makes it even more necessary.

The first section immediately drew me in, because it covered censorship, particularly as it applies to library book bannings and challenges. This is a subject with which I’m intimately familiar. At one of my former places of work, I was the person tasked with responding to challenges and overseeing the formation and the work of the staff assigned to serve on challenge committees and make recommendations.

absolutely true diary of a part time indian by sherman alexieEven though this is Banned Books Week, the reality is that in today’s climate, books are challenged rather than banned. And it is generally books aimed at a teenage audience, although not always. As the author demonstrates by getting into the cases in Missouri (Slaughterhouse Five), Michigan (Waterland and Beloved), New York State (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and practically everywhere (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian). The late-breaking case about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in Tennessee shows that this is very much still happening. The one area where even childrens’ books get challenged is homosexuality, as the cases of Heather Has Two Mommies, And Tango Makes Three and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding make perfectly clear.

But in all these cases, the parental request is not to ban the book from the world, or even the U.S. This is impossible. But it generally comes down to “not their child” or “not for children” or “not at school”. They are often trying to maintain their child’s innocence just a little longer, and resent a school system that prefers to expose their children to what many people believe is the real world.

The striking thing is that such challenges always include the caveat that the person is not against freedom of speech, merely that this one thing, whatever it is, and whether they’ve read it or not, should not be protected, or that their children should be protected from it.

What is also clear in this section is that censorship can take many other, and more insidious, forms. Teachers in schools are unfortunately forced to teach to their state’s tests. And those tests can reflect biases and perspectives that support a political agenda or maintain the status quo. One of the big debates right now is about American exceptionalism and the beneficence of capitalism. Materials that do not reflect the desired perspective can be excised from the curriculum, and even where the teachers have limited freedom to teach from materials that are outside the curriculum, they may be squeezed out of those lessons by the unrelenting pressure of time to prepare their students for the tests.

Should we learn how the rest of the world views us while we are in high school, or should such knowledge wait until adulthood? Of course, with the prevalence of echo chambers on the internet, if we don’t seek out views that challenge our own, we may never find them.

The chapters on whistleblowers and the cost to those who choose to expose wrongdoing in organizations of which they are a part, especially when those organizations are the government, is chilling. The press may have freedom, and speech may be free, but the cost to individual whistleblowers is life-changing in a catastrophic way. And yet, a free society needs people who are willing to shine lights into dark places and risk the excoriation, persecution and sometimes prosecution that follows. By interviewing less famous whistleblowers, the author shines a light on how speech can be suppressed by the chilling effect of a threat to one’s job, one’s security, one’s personal freedom. And it gives us a little light into why people do it anyway.

Each section is like the two I have described. The author illustrates this abstract concept of freedom of speech by giving us real people and real situations to follow and empathize with. The sections on bigotry, hate speech and conspiracy theorists are particularly chilling, at least in part because those are areas we often feel squidgy about.

I found the last section particularly riveting. The story is about a very edgy artistic director at Theater J, an often flying-on-the-edge of controversy theater at the Jewish Community Center in Washington D.C. The art director put on challenging productions that often sold out, but equally often asked questions about Jewish themes and Israel’s place in the world and some of its past acts and policies that made some people very uncomfortable, out of a fear that questioning Israel’s actions might erode Israel’s U.S. support in Congress. The Q&A sessions after the productions were intellectually challenging and provocative. But because some of those plays shone a harsher light on some of Israel’s acts than certain conservative felt was desirable, there was a lot of push-back from potential donors to the Theater’s parent organization. We see the increasing pressure, as fears about money and perceptions that the Theater may be willing to go further out than its organization feels it can tolerate, create more and more artistic compromises. Speech may be free, but the cost to exercise it is not.

In writing this review, I took a look to see what had happened to the artistic director. He was fired, after 18 years as artistic director, because he wasn’t willing to back off from that intellectually challenging edge. He’s started another theater company elsewhere in DC, but his story shows that the cost of standing on that ledge of freedom of speech can be high.

If you are interested in putting human faces and voices to that abstract concept of freedom of speech, read this book.