Book Review: “The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent” (by P.E. Moskowitz)

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me a copy of this book for review.

Of all the issues facing us today, one that continues to excite an enormous amount of outrage from the right (and sometimes from the left) is that of “free speech.” Whether it is Milo Yiannopoulos being met with fierce protests at UC–Berkeley or racist psuedo-scientist Charles Murray being met with a similar outrage at Middlebury College, the First Amendment is on everyone’s lips. P.E. Moskowitz’s The Case Against Free Speech is thus a very timely contribution to the fraught (and sometimes violent) discussion surrounding this pressing issue.

I was honestly quite excited about this book. For some time now I’ve been grappling with the complicated issue of free speech and how it can be that Nazis and others who advocate genocide have their rights championed by people across the political spectrum. Though I don’t always agree with Moskowitz’s conclusions, I appreciated the way they lay out in exhaustive and excoriating detail how it is that free speech has increasingly become an empty signifier. While we pride ourselves on our championing of this essential right, the reality is that we have always imposed certain restrictions on certain types of speech, usually so that those who possess power can continue to do so without undue interference from below. Given that many (though not all) of those who have attempted to impose such restrictions have come from the right, it is galling to see them now up in arms.

For me, the most compelling (and convincing) example of the American right’s hypocrisy is their continued bankrolling of radical conservative thought in the American academy. At the same time as they are doing so, of course, they help to lead the charge against those who would push back against such corporate control of our intellectual life. For people like the Kochs, free speech only matters in so far as it allows them to continue building their influence and, it goes without saying, their wealth.

Throughout The Case Against Free Speech, Moskowitz gives attention to those whose stories are frequently left out of (or deliberately effaced) in discussions around free speech. In these pages we meet those young people who led the protests against Milo and Murray, the labor protestors of the early 20th Century, and numerous others who openly confronted the injustices they saw in the world. Dismissed by many as special snowflakes and rabble rousers, here they emerge as people of passion and deep intellect, profoundly invested in changing the world for the better and confronting the deep and structural inequalities that have blighted (and continue to blight), the promise of the American dream. As they point out, it is almost always the marginalized who are sacrificed on the altar of free speech. Those who have been discouraged (often violently) from speaking truth to power are all too frequently the ones who are the first to suffer in these battles.

There were times when Moskowitz’s history lessons threaten to detract from the primary thrust of their argument, and it would have helped if they had tied together those deep (and very problematic) histories with the issues of the present. Part of this, I think, comes from the book’s organization, which doesn’t seem as coherent as it should be. It sometimes shuttles between past and present in a not-entirely-coherent manner, and this makes it easy at times to lose track of the thrust of the argument.

It’s worth pointing out that this book is straightforward about its political investments. Moskowitz is very clearly a radical, and in my view this allows them to sometimes fire their criticism at both those who are acting in cynically self-serving ways and those who, for better worse, truly do believe in the essential virtue of the American experiment. Be that as it may, The Case Against Free Speech is nevertheless required reading for all of those who want (or need) to take a good, hard look in the mirror at the myths that we construct around ourselves and that prevent us from seeing the realities of our troubled present.

At the end of the day, however, The Case Against Free Speech leaves us with a conundrum, one that has no easy answers. Do we really want to abandon the idea of free speech, as empty as it may sometimes seem? What would this actually look like in political practice? These are questions we will all have to grapple with, both today and in the days to come.

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