A Pulitzer Prize winner surveys the American cultural and political landscape and asks if “the freedom to hear” remains intact.
Near the end of his narrative, Shipler (Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America, 2012, etc.) thanks one of his many interview subjects for her time, and she in turn thanks him for his attention: “The listener is everything in telling a story.” The remark serves as both apt praise for his alert reportorial skills and as a succinct expression of the focus of this odd-angle take on freedom of speech. The author features a wide variety of writers and speakers who inject ideas, information, disinformation, prejudice, and fear into the marketplace, but he also focuses on the marketplace itself, on those auditors who wish to hear no “evil,” no truth, nothing at all discomfiting to their own views. Shipler surveys the limits of what is legally, economically, and culturally permissible, looking, for example, at what happens when parents challenge the inclusion of controversial books in the high school curriculum; when government employees, and the reporters to whom they leak, expose classified information; when a Washington, D.C., theater stages performances about Arabs and Jews that address the historical narratives of both sides. The author explores the fallout from political speech corrupted by outright deceit and the connection between money and political expression. He discovers a pattern in “the cultural limits of bigotry” in which the innuendos of right-wing radio talkers go uncensored while the careless one-time remarks of a blue-collar worker or a small-town official become occasions for firing. Of course, no bigot identifies as one, any more than would-be censors identify as free speech opponents. Rather, they object to certain speech, citing a more important value, say, protecting children or national security or fairness. Shipler describes himself as the closest thing to an “absolutist on the First Amendment as possible without quite being one.”
Good stories, great interviews, and a potent plea on behalf of vigilant listening.