Book Reivew: Freedom, Like it or Not

Henry Steele Commager: Freedom, Loyalty, DissentAnthony Lewis: Freedom for the Thought That We Hate With the inauguration of Barack Obama looming, and soon-to-be ex-president Bush embarking on a round of image rehabilitation and retroactive whitewashing, it seems as good a time as any to look back over the Bush legacy and look ahead–create a wishlist, if you will–to what one might hope from the Obama administration. Thousands, if not millions, of words have been written over both the past eight years, and America’s prospects for the future. While it’s true that only the passage of time will provide sufficient perspective on all that we’ve experienced since November of 2000, we still have to live in the present with the consequences of all that’s been done since.

The aftermath of the Bush presidency, for the short term, has been an evisceration of the Constitution, of our rights, and of our civil liberties. Those on the Right seem to have been concerned with the Second Amendment, but precious little else; we’ve seen the Bill of Rights otherwise consigned to the shredder. The NSA and the government’s wiretapping programs have given the lie to the Fourth Amendment; the holding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay without the right to trial, and without access even to counsel, makes a mockery of both the Fifth and Sixth Amendments; and the First Amendment–the “first freedom,” as Nat Hentoff once dubbed it–has been honored more in the breach.

It’s against this backdrop–a dismal near past, and what one would hope would be a brighter future–that we take up two books published half a century apart. The first, Henry Steele Commager’s Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent, was published at the height of McCarthy-inspired hysteria and anticommunist witch-hunts; the second, Anthony Lewis’s Freedom for the Thought We Hate, appeared just shy of two years ago.

We do not encourage dissent for sentimental reasons; we encourage dissent because we cannot live without it. –Henry Steele Commager
As an historian, Henry Steele Commager could hardly have been called a dispassionate chronicler or observer. Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent is a full-throated defense of those values, at a time when each was under attack—and also at a time when his defense could well have brought the author himself under fire. Originally a series of essays appearing in Harper’s and elsewhere, this slim volume asks, then answers, a series of simple questions. If some of the questions seem a tad too obvious—whether or not freedom, say, or experimentation, are necessary or ought to be allowed—it bears remembering that at the time these essays were published, those freedoms weren’t something to be taken for granted.

In the collection’s first essay, the author explains why, exactly, we need freedom. This would seem a no-brainer, unless and until you stop to consider the time at which he was writing. Among other reasons, a free society cannot remain such, and cannot hope to function, without criticism undertaken in good faith. Then, too, justice ceases to be justice if not exercised in a spirit of equality under the law. To arbitrarily pick and choose the kinds and occasions of criticism we’ll accept, or to apply justice in an equally arbitrary fashion, undercuts the very raison d’etre of a democratic society.

Other essays, while ostensibly on other subjects, expand upon this theme. Oliver Wendell Holmes once characterized America herself as an ongoing experiment; Commager augments this argument, stating that when we stifle experimentation, we not only stifle that which is unique to the American polity, but also take away some part of our own ability to see the road ahead. We condemn ourselves to making the same mistakes repeatedly, because we eliminate the possibility of new thoughts and methods that could move us forward.

Finally, when we begin to question who is loyal to America, we end up in some very real sense questioning who is American. Once we start down this road, we’ve already turned our back on a long past that’s as likely to be checkered as glorious. It’s worth stopping from time to time to think over the people and ideas that we’ve thought to be alien, unassimilable, and ultimately un-American. We’ve sworn that Socialism, Blacks, Irish, Italians, Latinos, women’s rights, and a host of other peoples and issues could not, and would never be, American. Those very things and peoples, often as not, have been to our strength rather than our detriment once we’ve learned how to assimilate them and find room for them in the ongoing experiment that we are always becoming.

[I]f there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought we hate. –Oliver Wendell Holmes
Like Commager, Anthony Lewis’s writing seems animated not only by a sense of history, but also by a sense of duty; he also brings a critical eye into the bargain, not only delineating the history of the first amendment, but also interjecting the occasional editorial comment on the court cases and societal context in which they occurred.

Lewis concerns himself, in the main, with the earlier history of the First Amendment and the case law that surrounds it; fully two-thirds of the book are concerned with cases up to the early years of the twentieth century, with much more recent history getting more scant attention. Regardless of this, Lewis’s central thesis—that our understanding of the First Amendment, and how that understanding is made manifest both in law and in society is continually growing and evolving—is upheld throughout. The law, and its interpretation, is also placed firmly in context not only of its own time and place, but also how it’s set precedent here at home, and influenced the exercise of law abroad.

And what a history it’s been. Lewis reminds us that so much of what we presently take for granted in the freedom to criticize our elected officials, to be relatively unfettered by concerns of libel, our rights of assembly, expression, and freedom of thought itself were all, in the not-so-distant past, subject to persecution and prosecution. The “activist judges” of whom certain parties have been heard to complain recently are the very same jurists who have given us the latitude and freedom of expression that we now, sadly, too often take for granted.

Like Commager, Lewis emphasizes the remedial nature of free speech, the idea that dangerous or subversive thoughts and words are best remedied not by censorship but by exposing them to sunlight, and to strenuous debate. Lewis also finds validity in Commager’s earlier advocacy of the free marketplace of ideas, realizing that to remove them—even those we find disagreeable or downright odious—is to effectively dismember the body politic. Lewis quotes Justice John Marshall Harlan thus: “That the air may at times seem filled with verbal cacophony is, in this sense, not a sign of weakness but of strength.”

Freedom of speech and of the press—that is, freedom of inquiry, criticism, and dissent—are guaranteed in state and federal constitutions now over a century and a half old. It is a sobering fact, however, that each generation has to vindicate these freedoms anew, and for itself.
We have already seen what happens when a society suppresses unpopular or dissenting thought; little, if anything, good can come of it. In the 20th century, Germany, Japan, and the former Soviet Union learned this the hard way, as did Saddam Hussein in the 21st. However, the phenomenon is not unique to totalitarian systems. Groupthink and the stifling of dissent have consequences no less disastrous in otherwise free and open societies. Had the present Bush administration shown a willingness to listen to other ideas–regardless of whether they were popular, politically or patriotically correct–many of the disasters of these past eight years could have been avoided. As Edward R. Murrow famously stated, “We ought not to confuse dissent with disloyalty.” With the inauguration of a new president scant hours away, one could be forgiven for hoping that freedom of thought, and the freedom to express one’s thoughts, might once again find breathing room.

Henry Steele Commager on the web
Anthony Lewis’s Wikipedia entry, with links and resources

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *