Sunday, August 16, 2015

Book Review: "End of Discussion" by Ham and Benson


A confession: I resolved to give up reading books like this when I was an undergrad. After slogging my way through Hannity and Colmes and O'Reilly and Franken, I finally decided that I was done reading books that would be functionally useless (because out of date) by the time the paperback edition came out. But, for End of Discussion by Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson I broke that rule for the following reasons:
1) Free speech and public discourse are topics I'm interested in;
2) They asked for my opinion on the book, and hence appealed to my pride;
3) The book was free, on the condition that I write a review (but not necessarily a positive one—boom! you've been disclaimed!);
4) There is precedent for this departure from my normal practice.
And, I'm glad I broke my own rule in this case. Not because I think this book is going to stand the test of time—in that sense it fits in with the books listed above. Don't get me wrong, Ham and Benson seem eminently more reasonable and thoughtful than most who write these sorts of things (see those linked above as examples). But this is still a book dealing with a single issue and examples of that issue that are current right now, and almost certainly will not be twelve months from now.

Still, End of Discussion is interesting, well-written, and accessible. It is not eye-bulgingly paranoid or blindly ideological or any other of the extremes that conservatives can tend to run toward. For those reasons, and for the questions this book raises about free speech in public life, I am quite happy to have read it and quite happy to recommend it as an useful contribution to the present conversation over free speech. (And yes, I do agree with the authors that it is unfortunate that we even are having a conversation about a freedom that a decade ago was simply assumed.)  

Summary

The central argument of End of Discussion is obvious from the subtitle—it's about how modern liberalism would rather shut down opposition than engage it. The authors suggest that a tendency on the left has been "not to declare our words or actions offensive, which would be preposterous enough... but to slowly and steadily declare our very existence offensive." (pg 6) Rather than have an argument about—to use an example mostly from the 90s that doesn't turn up much in the book—the merits and demerits of affirmative action, the left has begun taking pernicious position of simply declaring opponents to the program to be 'racist' and hence not worthy of being engaged in public discourse.

Now, there are obviously groups we do that with all the time—no one is going to seriously invite the Klan to send a representative to a public debate on race relations. But even that's not the same thing as saying that we're going to use political or social power to punish someone for their beliefs, particularly someone who is in the mainstream (like conservatives) and not on the fringes of society (like the Klan). Ham and Benson quite rightly point out that this aggressive argumentation is not just a new form of speech, it's actively destructive to a core American freedom.

End of the Discussion is structured loosely like this:

  • ·         Introduction to the book and to leftist outrage (Chapters 1-3)
  • ·         Specific topics and places where we see this outrage, including:
o   Race (chapter 4)
o   University Campuses (chapter 5)
o   Feminism and gender issues (chapter 6)
o   Media (chapter 7)
o   Homosexual issues (chapter 8) Full props to one of the authors for having the courage to come out publicly in this chapter—in a footnote. And I say "courage" not because I think it's particularly courageous to come out these days. For that, you've got to look back to Andrew Sullivan and Ellen Degeneres who came out before it was culturally acceptable. But coming out as a homosexual conservative? That takes courage and, from what I understand, is one of the ways to get yourself shunned in the LGBT community. And of course, there are those on the right who will hear that one of the authors is homosexual and that will be for them, well, the end of the discussion.
o   And, uh... stand-up comedy (chapter 9) Okay, okay, this one is about what you can and can't say in public using stand-up comics as examples, but still...

  • ·         What to do about it as a thoughtful conservative (chapter 10)
So obviously, this is a pretty wide-ranging book overall.

Strengths:

End of Discussion has several things to recommend it. At the very least it is well-written and carries a good sense of self-aware humor throughout. This is necessary when writing about contemporary liberalism—the alternative is despair.

Even better, Ham and Benson are reasonably even-handed given their own biases and preferences—far more so than my previous experiences with these sorts of books had led me to expect. They admit failures of the right as well as of the left, and encourage dissent and disagreement with what they have to say. Sure, it's a book and not a blog post (hence no "comments" section) and therefore encouraging pushback functionally means nothing, but there is still some level of humility here that we don't often see in books about American politics.

Most importantly, I think they're right. And you don't have to take my word for it, there's a whole industry of old Leftists—mostly sixties radicals who would rather be tied to a car by their thumbs and be dragged around town than associate with conservatives—who are horrified that the next generation of liberals is taking seriously everything they said about getting rid of traditional American freedoms. Okay, so that's an ungenerous way of putting it. Perhaps a better phrasing would be to say "the radicals of the Sixties didn't see the direction their teaching would lead their leftist heirs, despite the continuous and loud warnings from their counterparts on the right. Now they're trying desperately to correct those errors before all the good things they worked for are lost." And there were good things being pursued by the New Left. But, as the most thoughtful respondents to their pursuit pointed out at the time, their method was ultimately destructive to their ends. When we combine this with instant national communication and the increasingly thin skins of Americans, we should be concerned about a serious threat to the freedom of our republic.

But, that's getting on my own hobby-horse and away from the book review. The short version of this section is: End of Discussion is a solid enough and well-written book.  

Weaknesses:

I said that one of the strengths of this book is that it's fairly even-handed, and I stand by that statement overall. But here and there some of their examples could have been used a bit more carefully. Just as one example, the recent hubbub at Marquette gets cited as evidence of the liberal attack on free speech on a college campus. Here's a much more balanced treatment. The short version is: the goings-on at Marquette weren't so much an example of "how liberals shut down conservatives on campus" as they were an example of "how absolutely everyone on campus can end up doing exactly the wrong thing."

A second weakness is, as I've probably said ad nauseam at this point, that this book isn't going to stand the test of time. Two years from now people won't be reading this as a great contribution to discussions of free speech, or even as a good historical summary. So, you know, weigh the value of that before you decide whether to pay Amazon $18 for it. I won't say this book isn't worth $18, just that for the same price you could buy eighteen books at a used bookstore, or a new copy of Augustine's Confessions and Howell Raines' My Soul is Rested and have enough left over for a good cup of coffee.  I like to think that the authors would agree with me on this, but I don't know them at all so I couldn't say for sure.

One last point that might merit some further consideration. It might be the case that modern liberals are not necessarily more intolerant of free speech than modern conservatives—it might be that they are just the ones in power right now. Were conservatives the ones currently dominating culture and politics, they might be curtailing free speech while liberals trumpet the First Amendment. Let's not kid ourselves about the seduction of power and the temptation to use that power to shut down people you disagree with. These are not one-sided enticements which conservatives are immune to.

With all that said, the weaknesses of End of Discussion certainly do not outweigh its strengths. I am happy to recommend it to anyone interest in the state of free speech in contemporary society.



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