Discussions of free speech in the United States often call upon the adage—misattributed to Voltaire—that “while I disagree with what you have to say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (The quote in fact comes from Evelyn Hall, who wrote a biography of the French philosopher.) It’s a succinct summary of a the cherished American idea that speech should not be abridged because we find its content objectionable.
But according to New York University Law Professor Jeremy Waldron, it’s severely flawed.
Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” This is how Louisa May Alcott begins Little Women. She wrote it in 1868, when she was 35, after months of urging by Thomas Niles, a Boston publisher who wanted a story for girls. She had not had much luck with a serious novel, she needed money, and it was part of a deal that her father, Bronson Alcott, had proposed. If Louisa said yes, Niles would agree to publish Bronson’s philosophical treatise, Tablets. A dutiful daughter, she couldn’t say no.
Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution—How a Despised Minority Pushed Back, Beat Death, Found Love, and Changed America for Everyone By Linda Hirshman, Harper Collins, 464 pages, $27.99
Fifty years ago, being gay put you beyond the social pale. You could be savagely beaten, kicked out of public spaces and private clubs, arrested, fired, expelled from your family, and scorned as a pariah. Today, lesbians and gay men are all but equal, with full marriage rights in view—supported by President Barack Obama in action and words. How did we win so much so fast?
Maybe an excess of cultishness will just always disgruntle me. It's not like I've read every last online analysis of last week's episode of Mad Men—of course not, because I'd still be at it at age 90. But I got irked anyway when I couldn't turn up any heretics willing to opine that the big shock of Christina Hendricks's Joan consenting to be pimped out by her bosses at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for the sake of landing the Jaguar account was kind of, how you say, jiveass.
You've got no secrets from me this week. Unless you were one of the early birds who devoured the thing in vast, debilitating insomniac gobs after clawing the Amazon.com box open on publication day, you are now somewhere between page 300 and 500 of Robert A. Caro's The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. IV. (Spoiler alert: JFK doesn't make it.) And you're so engrossed that you're ignoring your significant other's timid semaphore signals—ah, can't beds can be as wide as the Atlantic sometimes?—to the general effect that he or she misses sex.
Meals, too, and dammit, Joey. Isn't it your turn to walk Bowser?
Even granting that testifying to congressional committees is not on the list of an oil CEO’s favorite things to do, when ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond, known to his employees as “Iron Ass,” arrived at the Dirksen Senate Office building one morning in November 2005, he was in an especially reticent mood. Among other things, the Senate Energy Committee wanted to know about the corporation’s role in formulating policy with Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force. Raymond—who was chummy with Cheney and seven weeks away from his retirement, after 12 spectacularly profitable years at the helm first of Exxon and then Exxon-Mobil—did not think the committee needed to know.
It’s taken me almost my entire life to come out of the closet as a liberal. In college at the end of the 1970s, I was no revolutionary, but I thought of myself as a radical. Working at “the independent socialist newspaper” In These Times in the 1980s, I tried on actual socialism, with some relief at having a name for what I thought I believed. Later I became a progressive, when that term came to stand for the Paul Wellstone-Howard Dean “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
When I was a kid, I was plagued by nightmares. One scary TV show, and boom, I'd wake up paralyzed with terror after a night in which animal-headed people tried to kill me all night, or Nazis pursued me through the streets of New York. After awhile, my little brothers knew to protectively chase me away from the television if something even faintly Hitchcockian came on; while they'd watch, I'd hunker down in my bedroom with Anne of Green Gables or, later, Tolstoy. My basic aversion to, or caution about, horror movies and scary books lasted well into my adulthood, until I learned how to tune down the fear and sleep through the night. But horror is a taste that I've never fully developed.
The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women By Elisabeth Badinter, Metropolitan Books, 224 pages, $25.00
Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting By Pamela Druckerman, Penguin Press, 304 pages, $25.95
Don’t smoke or drink while pregnant. Breast-feed for a year, if possible (it almost never is). Buy organic. Read to your little one every day. Don’t work full time unless you have to, line up the right schools, and if you can’t manage everything on this list, try not to wreck your kids’ fragile psyches with the guilt unleashed by your failure.
Once upon a time, we all knew their names. They shaped our world and our attitudes to ourselves. We had their books on our bookshelves, since there were very few books on the subject. Or we read about their travails in our subterranean newspapers—Gay Community News, The Washington Blade—which we received in the mail, in brown manila envelopes so that we weren't outed unintentionally to our neighbors. (Yes, seriously.) For the most part, the rest of the world ignored us. And so these figures who loomed so large in our lives were invisible to the rest of you. Who ever heard of Sharon Kowalski, except lesbians and some politically aware gay men? Or read the depressingly tragic Well of Loneliness (mentally comparing with its contemporary, the much more playful Orlando) if it weren't a mandatory part of your cultural history?
Did Timothy Noah catch a wave or anticipate one? In 2010, Noah, a longtime public-policy reporter now at The New Republic, wrote a ten-part series in Slate about American economic inequality. This was at a time when the most discussed issue in U.S. politics was how much government Tea Partiers aimed to slash and how quickly we must balance the budget—even in the face of the worst downturn in eight decades. Then, about a year after the Slate series, Occupy Wall Street and its proxies around the country seemingly awakened the nation to the vast disparity of wealth between the top 1 percent and the rest of us.
Awhile back, I wasted an evening watching the 2011 film version of Jane Eyre, something that every former lit major should avoid. I loved the novel for its depiction of the vivid, rich inner life of a proud introvert who is passionately engaged in her life despite the fact that she knows it to be outwardly pathetic. The movie, unable to reproduce the character's inner liveliness, reduced the story to a melodramatic and utterly unlikely romance between a poor orphan and an arrogant nobleman. I had wasted marital chits on a movie that I hated as much as my wife knew she would. (Sports movies, here we come. Sigh.)
Americans have never felt at ease with empire, and with good reason. Running an empire often demands that we betray our republican ideals, at least for periods of time. It can also be costly in gold and in blood. So it was no surprise that after the fall of the Soviet Union, the American people leapt at the opportunity to lay down the imperial burdens we had carried since World War II. Politicians in both parties assured us that we could off-load our responsibilities onto a “global” market mechanism, overseen by a new institution created in 1995 called the World Trade Organization (WTO). Many if not most of us said, “Good riddance.”