I spend a lot of time—too much time, some might argue—on social media lampooning those among us who don’t read. The topic also shows up in this column frequently, as I truly believe that the answers to many of society’s most pressing quandaries and quagmires are in books. Not all books, of course, and no doubt there is also some stuff worth reading online, but whether you agree with me or not, that’s my argument, and I’m allowed to holler it from Beacon Hill to Barnstable in no small part because of work done by the fearless attorneys and social justice advocates at the American Civil Liberties Union.
A new hardcover, Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases, packs countless decisions that most of us take for granted (if we know of them at all) into a compelling 300 pages, all in courageous tribute to a century of “pivotal legal battles, fought primarily by underdogs” that “have advanced civil rights.” From the introduction by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, who donated their advance to the ACLU and, along with 40 contributors including top talents such as Jesmyn Ward and Dave Eggers, forwent payment for their efforts, which as far as I’m concerned are downright heroic:
Things, we feel, have been getting worse. Liberty and equality are everywhere under attack. And that’s why the work of the [ACLU] feels more precious to us than ever before. The ACLU lawyers and staff are the brave souls who suit up, blast off, and do what they can to divert and repel all those incoming meteors, or blow them right out of the sky. We admire them. We admire them the way you must admire people who devote themselves to doing, to the utmost of their ability, any thankless, impossible, and absolutely essential job.
These are their stories, those attorneys, of countless lives they impacted irrevocably through the courts, and here they’re told through personal and narrative lenses fit for readers ranging from legal scholars to those lacking relative prerequisites. For me there are wholly new lessons, like in Chabon’s lengthy obscenity-laced history of United States v. One Book Called “Ulysses” (1933), as well as a chance to brush up on classics I have encountered in prior research, like Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). The latter, which established that “students and teachers do not shed their constitutional rights to free speech at ‘the schoolhouse gate,’” is handled via college protest memoir by novelist Elizabeth Strout.
Needless to say, almost every point and chapter seems especially relevant under President Trump—from the ACLU’s work on behalf of white supremacist speech, to a MAGA precursor called the Better America Foundation, to American studies professor Brenda J. Child’s piece on indigenous family separation and the Indian Child Welfare Act, to a section on the First Amendment title fight that was New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), which Salman Rushdie opens with a sprinkle of sarcastic smite about our current “time of unimpeachable integrity in public life.”
As for the impeachable but unpunished among us: “He lived up to his promises,” ACLU National Legal Director David Cole writes in the foreword, “and so have we. In just the two-and-a-half years since Trump took office, courts have repeatedly ruled against his administration’s rights-offending policies. Courts have declared illegal a raft of anti-immigrant initiatives, including separating children from their parents in hopes of deterring refugees from coming to the United States.” For starters.
As a reporter, my favorite slogan to come out of the Trump resistance so far is These days, the world needs Clark Kent more than it needs Superman. No doubt about it, but without First Amendment crusaders to catch our backs, journalists—along with educators, activists, and anybody else whose career or passion often requires that they take unpopular public positions—would be no more useful than a Putin fan zine published by the Kremlin.
CHRIS FARAONE, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF