BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Debates on freedom ...

One of the truly awesome things about the neighborhood I've lived in for 40 years in downtown Chicago is the presence of the Newberry Library, a research institution with a global reputation (for instance, the “originals” of the Popul Vuh reside in their collection), which has a great love of books and free speech. These interests come together every summer in the concurrent events of the 4-day Book Fair, and (on Saturday) the Bughouse Square Debates (this coming from the nickname of Washington Square park in front of the Newberry). “Bughouse Square” has a long an colorful history, being a major “speakers corner” for the labor movement (and others … including the characters in the famed Dill Pickle Club, a half-block down an alley from it) in the early 1900's, and today it is supposedly the only place in Chicago where one can host a protest without a permit – the only requirement being that the speaker is on a raised platform, even if that is simply “a soapbox” (hence that usage). The debates feature a “main stage” with guest speakers, but also a half-dozed “soapbox” stages set around the park where anybody can get up and speak their piece to the (often heckling) crowds.

One of the annual features is the awarding of the the John Peter Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award, named for former Illinois Governor J.P. Altgeld who served from 1893-1897 and is best known for pardoning three of the Haymarket convicted bombers, and resisting the Federal government's efforts to crush the Pullman Strike. This summer, the award went to author Wendy Kaminer, an unusual selection in that she's not local. As part of the award presentation, the recipient gives a talk, and I was sufficiently impressed that I was wanting to check out some of her stuff, and found a copy of her 2002 Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today.

Ms. Kaminer is a former ACLU board member, and that organization's “better angels” are exhibited in this book. While I had sort of been hoping for a Libertarian screed, what Free for All features is more a “pox on both your houses” middle ground, with fingers wagging at both the Left and the Right, the Democrats and Republicans, and the Bush and Clinton administrations. As is the case in books dealing with “issues of the day”, much of this seems almost amusingly dated (there is a lot of indignation being thrown at names that I'd not had run through my head in a very long time), and this book is collection of columns that were published primarily in liberal bastion The American Prospect (with some from Free Inquiry, The Nation, Dissent, and The New York Times) in the years 1999-2002. Needless to say, talking about liberty in relation to terrorism had a different palette prior to 9/11/2001 than after, and she notes that she edited some material here to reflect the changes brought on by those attacks.

Frankly, as this is largely a philosophical look at our freedoms, the “collection of columns” format weakens the book as a whole … while an Ann Coulter is perfectly effective when pulling together thematically similar rants into a book, this feels a bit disjointed, and that's certainly not helped by jumping around within its timeframe. It is also topically a bit spread out, addressing 10 different areas, with some getting as few as just two columns, and others eleven. There are two sections on national security issues (“Homeland Offense”, the two “bookending” this, starting with a “post-9/11” group of columns and ending with a “pre-9/11” set of pieces), one on public/private privacy dynamics, an extensive section on free speech, issues around religion, issues on law & order, two sections on “women's issues” (one “rights” and one “wrongs”), and two looks at “anti-individualism”, one being offenses of the Left, and the other of the Right.

As you might suspect, this is not a particularly uplifting read, as it primarily is an exposition of how our rights and freedoms are getting abused … and this is before the excesses of the current POTUS and his out-of-control administration. Personally, from a perspective of the recent “pen wielding” disregard of the rule of law over the past several years, many of the issues fulminated over in here seem downright quaint.

Anyway, the author somewhat sets up her perspective in the Introduction:
      America's disloyalty to liberty is disheartening but predictable. Liberty leashes power and, right and left, people who find themselves in possession of power tend to resist restraints upon its use. Cynics don't care if they abuse power to advance their own interests; people who take pride in their own virtue generally manage to convince themselves that they exercise power virtuously (even when they exercise it harshly) to serve the public good. Powerful people convinced of their own goodness are as dangerous to individual liberty as powerful people for whom goodness is irrelevant.
One of the pieces here, “Toxic Media”, deals with the “big issue” (in 2000) of violence in games and shows, and the uproar of how this is targeted to children. When was the last time you saw hand-wringing over that on the Sunday morning talk shows? Here's how Kaminer closes out this piece, which I think does present some solid “philosophical” points that arise out of this:
      It's unfortunate and ironic that amoral corporations, like Disney or Time/Warner, stand as champions and beneficiaries of First Amendment rights. As gatekeepers of the culture, they're not exactly committed to maintaining an open, diverse marketplace of ideas. Indeed, de facto censorship engineered by media conglomerates may threaten public discourse nearly as much as federal regulation. And, gratuitously violent media enriches neither our discourse nor our culture.
      But speech doesn't have to provide cultural enrichment to enjoy constitutional protection. We don't need a First Amendment to protect popular, inoffensive speech or speech that a majority of people believe has social value. We need it to protect speech that Lynn Cheney or Joe Lieberman considers demeaning and degrading. Censorship campaigns often begin with a drive to protect children (or women), but they rarely end there.
One topic that is “up to the minute” is that of gun rights … and the author makes several very good points in the “Gun Shy” piece (the following is pulled from a couple of pages with about 2.5 paragraphs – that I felt was somewhat peripheral to the main argument – skipped):
      Gun sales are said to have increased dramatically after September 11, to the bemusement of some who point out that guns won't protect us from terrorists armed with viruses or nuclear bombs. Still, it's long been clear that many Americans feel reassured by firearms, and if you fear the civil disorder that further attacks might bring, the desire for a gun is not entirely irrational.
      So, it's not surprising that people might assert their rights to own guns while they cede less controversial rights to privacy or speech by embracing electronic surveillance or supporting repression of dissent. It's debatable whether an increase in gun purchases will protect or endanger them. Armed with studies and statistics, advocates and academics on both sides of the gun debate argue about whether gun ownership deters and successfully interrupts violent crime or simply increases the chances of any assault becoming deadly, as well as overall levels of violence. People often choose sides in this debate reflexively (your views on gun control signal your position in the culture war), but questions about the practical effects of gun ownership aren't easily resolved. …
      Constitutional scholars and historians right and left have been engaged in a lively debate about Second Amendment rights for some years. But outside the pages of law reviews, liberals tend to embrace gun control and scoff at the Second Amendment, asserting that it only ensures the power of the states or the collective right of “the people” to organize armed militias. The trouble is that the Bill of Rights was intended to empower individuals, not groups (and certainly not governments). It was intended to restrain organized majorities, not to arm them. Indeed, most liberal civil libertarians adamantly construe the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth amendments as grants of individual rights. (They'd construe the Third Amendment similarly if the government ever tried forcing us to quarter troops.) Still, they perversely single out the Second Amendment as a grant of collective rights, mostly because of a cultural aversion to guns. Liberals tend to disdain the right to own a gun the way conservatives disdain the right to read pornography.
This is one of the most clear statements on the gun debate I've seen (certainly more nuanced than the popular “What part of 'shall not be infringed' don't you understand?”), and it's, if anything, a more key debate in 2015 than it was in 2002!

Again, Free for All is a bit dated, but the discussions of our rights and freedoms within the contexts of some now “historical” debates is worth reading. As a testament to that, it is still in print in paperback, so might be out there in the brick-and-mortar book world, but the on-line big boys have it in stock and the new/used guys have it for as little as 1¢ (plus shipping) for a “very good” copy.

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Tags: book review

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