Anthologies are, inevitably, uneven. No matter how tightly edited, the individual contributions necessarily vary in character and quality. And in an audiobook, the format in which I “read” this collection of essays about the landmark ACLU cases of the past century, the problem is compounded when so many voices enter the mix—not just those of some forty contributing authors but of dozens of readers as well (few of whom were the authors themselves). The result, then, is that Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman’s The Fight of the Century offers moving and insightful reflections from many of the contributors with a handful that are tedious and self-referential. On balance, though, the book presents a powerful, panoramic view of the ACLU’s often heroic effort to force our nation to live up to its ideals.
The Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman (2020) 332 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
An impressive roster of writers
Chabon and Waldman have assembled an impressive roster of writers that includes some of our worthiest and most recognizable names. Among them are Viet Thanh Nguyen, Ann Patchett, Geraldine Brooks, Dave Eggers, Daniel Handler, Yaa Gyasi, Steven Okazaki, Elizabeth Strout, Jonathan Lethem, Salman Rushdie, Jennifer Egan, Scott Turow, Neil Gaiman, Jesmyn Ward, George Saunders, Anthony Doerr, Charlie Jane Anders, Andrew Sean Greer, and Louise Erdrich. Likewise, the readers include many marquee names from Hollywood as well as the literary community. Unfortunately, I can’t find anywhere a list of the readers. Nor, by the way, is there an accessible table of contents for any edition, except in print on the hardcover. I decline to spend another $16 for a copy.
Establishing legal precedents in landmark ACLU cases
Though necessarily episodic, The Fight of the Century encompasses many of the most important constitutional issues litigated in the course of the past century. Included are cases involving celebrated, landmark ACLU cases such as United States v. One Book Called Ulysses (1933), Roe v. Wade (1973), and Citizens United v. FEC (2010) as well as many that have established important legal precedents but are little remembered outside legal circles.
On the side of expanding our freedoms—almost all the time
The authors reflect on freedom of speech, racial inequality, abortion, gay and lesbian rights, and a long list of other issues that have raised the ire of liberals since the First World War. In almost every case, the ACLU has stood on the side of the angels, expanding human rights to reflect the growing diversity and tolerance of American society. Uniformly, the authors praise the ACLU lawyers who took on these often difficult cases. But there is one glaring exception.
The ACLU goes off the rails on Citizens United
In a powerful essay about the Citizens United decision, Scott Turow blasts the ACLU. Unaccountably, the organization treated the case as a test of the First Amendment, its signature issue. Turow’s essay, “Spending Money Isn’t Speech,” lacerates the logic that sent the ACLU careening off the deep end on this tragic miscarriage of justice. Turow is, after all, an attorney as well as an author, and I would find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t prevail in a courtroom presided over by a dispassionate judge. You don’t need to be a lawyer to understand when an advocate is employing what are often called “technicalities” to justify an unreasonable position. And that surely was the stance of the five Justices and the ACLU itself when they weighed in on the side of equating money with speech.
Yet in this compendium of landmark ACLU cases, the organization’s position on Citizens United is clearly an outlier. It’s hard for any civil libertarian to find fault with the ACLU’s work on any of the dozens of other cases explored in this collection.
For further reading
I’ve reviewed books by many of the authors who contributed to this anthology. You can find any of them who’ve appeared on the site by typing an author’s name in the Search box at the top of the Home Page.
A year ago I posted Ten big issues Washington is ducking, and not just under Republicans. It’s intriguing, and a little disappointing, to note that the essays in The Fight of the Century touched on only three or four of those ten issues, by my most generous interpretation. In fact, on one of those—public corruption—the ACLU is steadfastly opposed to the actions taken to date to combat it, as I’ve noted above.
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