You know if a book comes out about free speech, I've got to read it. (I'm into another one now!) Kirsten Powers is a lifelong lefty liberal who is currently a commentator at Fox News, and she is watching in dismay as illiberal leftists use silencing tactics to shut down debate and smear people they disapprove of--left or right. Practice saying "illiberal left" ten times fast, because the phrase shows up a lot in this book!
Powers goes over several recent cases you've probably heard about if you've been paying attention--the UCSB professor who assaulted a teenage girl participating in an anti-abortion demonstration, and then claimed to be the victim; the ousting of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla; the way California (and other) universities pushed the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship groups out, and so on. She uses these and many other examples to list the tactics we see used all the time and describe them in detail.
She is particularly careful to note that the people using these tactics very often use jaw-droppingly racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive speech that they claim to oppose--and she admits to having bought into it herself once. Sarah Palin, for example, along with many other women, has been derided as somehow not actually a woman because she is conservative--or else derided as a brainless bimbo, as if it's OK to call women bimbos as long as they have the wrong beliefs. That was so common that people barely thought about it. Any black person with conservative beliefs can expect to be subjected to a fairly endless stream of racist insults from some leftists who are perfectly willing to say things like "Uncle Tom" or much worse. It's not only conservatives who get it, though; plenty of devoted liberals have come under fire for stepping out of line--for example Wendy Kaminer, of whom I am a fan.
Indeed, to read this book is to see a lot of ad hominem attacks described and called out. The ad hominem is not only a favorite tactic, it's often the only tactic; people willing to demonize and smear those they disagree with rarely actually engage in a debate, or try to use reason to refute an argument. They're trying to shut down opposition instead of dealing with it, which doesn't speak well for the strength of their ideas.
Powers talks a lot about the state of journalism and news, which was probably one of my favorite sections. I already know about famous cases, but I'm a lot less clear on exactly how the Obama administration has treated the press corps compared to previous administrations. Powers really calls the White House out, reminding us that Obama promised to be the most transparent administration in history, and then bringing out a long list of exactly how the opposite has mostly been the case. (And she doesn't even bring up the NSA!) She also talks about what it's like to work at Fox News and criticizes the popular meme that Fox is evil--with a bunch of statistics to back up her statements. She is annoyed by the catch-22 where people claim that Fox never has liberal commentators, and then criticize her for being a liberal who appears on Fox. (Also Brit Hume gets a good story, which made me happy because I like him.)
The point is that ad hominem attacks, smearing, and silencing tactics are not one bit liberal, befitting free citizens of an open society. They're authoritarian tactics that exert power over others to oppress. And so:
The more success the illiberal left has in terrorizing people who express dissenting views, the fewer objections there will be. Most people understandably just want to do their jobs and support their families. Given the choice between being shunned by their peers or losing their job for a personal view, they will almost always choose silence over confrontation. Because of this, society should always err on the side of respecting people’s right to determine their own beliefs and express them without fear of official or unofficial retribution. Debate and persuasion should be the reflexive response to disagreement and even harmful propositions, not an authoritarian impulse to silence. It should be so not only because it is just, but because no society can flourish without the clash of ideas.This is not a deep or difficult book; it is in fact a fairly quick read. Powers does not delve into history or complex philosophical questions. She is interesting and gives the reader some good stuff to think about, and this would serve as a reasonable introduction to deeper reading such as Jonathan Rauch's Kindly Inquisitors or my current read, Flemming Rose's Tyranny of Silence.