When free speech struggles against fear

Monday, May 21, 2007

Censorship is cyclical. If censors always prevailed, the present would never move forward, at least insofar as ideas and ideals are concerned. The quest for truth imposes its own term limits on the guardians of the status quo. And yet, the censor — like a junkie fixed to his junk — persists. Of course, in the end the censors always lose, but along the way they can inflict heaps of prosecutorial pain.

Such a lesson, and more, can readily be found in pair of new books — Christopher M. Finan’s From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America (Beacon Press), and Kenneth D. Ackerman’s Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties (Carroll & Graf). Though in different ways — one more panoramic, the other more microscopic — the two works succeed in offering up much to consider in our post-9/11 world, a world in which “security” too often takes on a talismanic quality in trumping liberty.

The struggle for free speech
From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act is, essentially, a book about the struggle for free speech in America and those who have fought that fight in the face of zealous opposition. It is, notes author Finan (president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression), “the story of our triumph over government censors.” Even so, the victory is never final — “the fight continues,” he readily adds. Heed those words.

Finan’s engaging book is a work of many well-told stories, all true. It is the story of Mitchell Lavrowsky, who was brutally assaulted by government agents during the infamous 1919 Palmer raids because of fear of communism. It is the account of New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith who was brave enough to veto “Red Scare” legislation. It is the record of Margaret Sanger and her husband, William, standing up to the fetishistic preoccupation of Anthony Comstock et al. with prosecuting any form of sexual expression. It is the real-life tales of two spirited publishers, Barney Rosset (publisher of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “HOWL”), who jeopardized their livelihoods in the name of artistic freedom. And it is the story of the courageous struggle of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Coalition Against Censorship, among others, to eliminate the excessive and liberty-denying tenets of the PATRIOT Act.

There are, to be sure, yet more stories about the sometimes-tragic defeats and occasional joyous victories of those caught up in the law’s censorial web — and Finan tells more of them, as well.

Finan’s book brings an important point into sharp focus, namely, the free-speech purpose is often in the struggle, in the fight to look Power in the eye and assert, against all odds, that inalienable right to speak one’s mind as one sees fit. Let the heavens fall and the jails be full, if need be. The heroic ideal is to strip one’s sleeves and show one’s scars and then proudly say, “these wounds I had on Crispin’s day.” Indeed, there is powerful emotion there. It is the heroic sentiment of the late comedian Lenny Bruce (1925-1966), whose life was destroyed by the State. And for what? Word crimes.

If there be a moral to such tragic stories, it is this: The very purpose of the First Amendment is to rid us of the existentialistic need for Camusian martyrs. The First Amendment is a promise to the living that the government will tolerate much that it fears.

By that measure, Christopher Finan does an admirable job in revealing how America’s most fundamental freedom has too often become its most vulnerable one. From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act is a book to be read and discussed by freedom-loving Americans and by teachers, too. For there — in the classroom — is where Finan’s free-speech stories most need to be read … and remembered.

Freedom and fear
The frontispiece for Young J. Edgar is the text of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments. It is an apt introduction to this remarkable book and the vocation of its anti-hero; it is also a salutary reminder of what can go terribly wrong when freedom succumbs to fear. If the past is indeed prologue, then there is ample reason to read Kenneth Ackerman’s stimulating yet sober accounts of J. Edgar Hoover’s career and its lasting impact on our national security and freedom.

Ackerman, a Washington, D.C., lawyer by day and writer by night, knows how to combine a good narrative (he has a real flair for his craft) with solid research (the book has 40 or so pages of notes and bibliographic materials). He engages his readers immediately with his captivating portrayal of Attorney General Harlan Fisk Stone offering a 28-year-old Hoover the job of acting director of the FBI. “I’ll take the job, Mr. Stone, but only on certain conditions,” the young upstart replied. What follows — for a 48-year run — is the stuff of which fascinating history is made.

Truth is not always user-friendly. Our villains, like our heroes, are not always one-dimensional. So, too, with J. Edgar Hoover. On the one hand, he did solve the Lindberg baby-kidnapping case. He did, recall, capture or kill the likes of “Machine Gun” Kelly and “Baby Face” Nelson, not to mention John Dillinger. And he did introduce scientific crimefighting to the FBI, something that has assuredly benefited the public. On the other hand, notes Ackerman, he also oversaw “decades of FBI abuses: black bag jobs, covert wiretaps, and systematic violations of law.” This was the man, after all, who blackmailed presidents.

One of the strengths of Young J. Edgar is the author’s unflinching willingness to show the complexities of the times and how they gave rise to the Palmer Raids, in which thousands of innocents were unlawfully rounded up, beaten and routinely jailed. Then again, when there are 10 terrorist bombings in a single day, and when they include attacks on the homes of the attorney general (Palmer) and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (FDR), something major had to be done. From those ashes rose J. Edgar’s phoenix.

Unless someone turns up a heretofore-unknown cache of papers stored in a chest locked away in a basement somewhere, Young J. Edgar will long be the definitive account of the Red Scare of 1919-1920 and the roles played by Palmer and Hoover in ordaining that state of affairs. Hence, it is a book well worthy of the public mind. I say this even though I found a nit to pick about Benjamin Gitlow’s role in “writing” The Left Wing Manifesto. Nonetheless, the work is otherwise quite reliable and authoritative.

If in the half-century in which he ruled over the FBI Hoover became a monster, it is because We the People — and the three branches of government, too — allowed it to happen. When we feared “the Reds” in 1919 or 1950 or 1970, we either gave Hoover more power or allowed his already immense power to swell to the bloating point. In the process, as Ackerman shows with historical acumen and rhetorical elegance, the rule of law became a mockery and the ideal of government transparency became a travesty. Unchecked and hidden power — it is the quintessential formula for tyranny.

Kenneth Ackerman closes his book by asking a poignant question: “To the extent that our modern war on terror is paralleling the attitudes of the 1919-1920 Red scare, we have to wonder: How many young J. Edgar Hoovers are we creating today?”


Ronald Collins is a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. He is the co-author of Mania: The Madcap Stories of the Lives that Launched a Generation (with David Skover, Sourcebooks, 2008), and We Must Not be Afraid to be Free (with Sam Chaltain, Oxford University Press, 2008). His latest work, with Skover, is The Trials of Lenny Bruce (Sourcebooks, 2002).

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