Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Booknote: On Dissent

Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover, On Dissent: Its Meaning in America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. ISBN: 9780521767194. 

This book will serve well as a textbook in various political science and civics classes. The concept of dissent is crucial to American history and political thought, and this book is a good way to understand how this concept has evolved and developed over time in the United States. In the U.S., people love to give lip service to the idea of dissent. Many say it is something to be valued and cherished, but they often deride or condemn it when it does not agree with their views. Also dissent is something that many people just do not know how to define. Jurists, lawyers, politicians, pundits, so on have written here and there about dissent. However, this book aims to really look at the foundations of the concept, explain its roots, its development, and the forms it can take as well as its limitations and borders. The authors aim to address what is dissent, who is a dissenter, and what are the boundaries of dissent. They do this on the basis of three attributes: dissent is intentional; it entails criticism, and it is public.

After the prologue, the book is organized into five chapters. We begin with the idea of judicial dissent and peaceful protests. From there, we go with civil and uncivil disobedience. This is followed by vagaries of violence where the question is raised of whether violence can be an expression of dissent or not. Next, we have Dissent, Inc. where we find out if a corporation can ever express dissent or not. In light of things like the recent Citizens United decision, it is a good question to ask and explore. Finally, we look at dissent and the parameters of the law. The authors do something interesting in this book. They have a series of experts and scholars from various fields, their informationis personae, to speak upon dissent and the various issues related to it. Some of their experts include Noam Chomsky, Phil Donahue, Ralph Nader, Martha C. Nussbaum, Nadine Strossen, and Cornel West among others. The book also features a solid annotated bibliography for readers who wish to learn more on this.

As I mentioned, I think this book can be used as a textbook in various political science and civics classes. It is well organized, and it is pretty accessible for readers. The use of the experts serves to almost make the book like a conversation and debate. In a time when Americans still struggle to defend and preserve their rights of free expression, of voting, of civil liberties and freedoms, this is a book that needs to be read. Dissent has often been a tool of change, and it has taken many forms. It is time we stop just talking about it or speculating what dissent is. This book goes towards defining and educating its readers on what it is and what forms it takes. Those who seek to be well-informed and thoughtful in their understanding of politics and civil rights should add this to their reading lists. This book reminds us that in a democratic culture, all views are at least given a chance in the market of ideas, even if they are objectionable to some.

Academic libraries will certainly wish to add this to their collections, especially if they are strong in American history and politics. I know I am ordering it for our library given the college's strong history of dissent. Some public libraries may wish to consider it depending on their patrons.

Overall, I'd give it 4.5 stars out of 5.

Disclosure note: Once again, I get to tell you I read this as an e-book via NetGalley provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. There, that should keep The Man happy.

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I jotted some passages and quotes from the book that I wish to remember. These are not part of the review. They are simply some concepts I wish to remember.

From the prologue:

"Dissent might moreover cultivate a democratic culture of tolerance, where all views are suffered no matter how objectionable they may be. Democracy is diversity and diversity of views is often born out of dissent. One measure of a thriving democracy is the extent to which it fosters vibrant dissent" (xii).

Why we need some clarity in what is dissent:

"For not every disagreement or disbelief, purposeful protest or unintentional transgression, symbolic or aesthetic expression, corporate or commercial contestation, criminal wrong or politically violent conduct, or religious action taken in God's name ought to be tagged dissent. We trust most would agree" (xx).

Dissent entails risk. This does make me think why many librarians self-censor when it comes to expressing a dissenting view, or even just a differing opinion, publicly, regarding something in the profession, something usually seen as conventional or accepted wisdom. The risk of getting silenced, blacklisted, so on is relatively great in our small profession (it's not small, but it feels small. At any rate, others have discussed the silencing in the profession better than I ever could. Go look them up. The keywords "silencing and librarianship" should yield some results on Google).  Then again, compared to getting killed for dissent, self-censoring in the profession does not seem too bad. Personally, especially after my experience at the end of the summer of 2013, I think there are more important things than professional dramas and spats. In fact, for future reference, maybe reading segments of this book as part of the Civil Rights Tour experience might be a good idea. Anyhow, here is the quote I wanted to remember on this:

"Second, dissent, at least in its more vibrant forms, entails some degree of risk of adverse consequences. That risk might run the gamut from public condemnation and social ostracism to personal injury and imprisonment. Speaking truth to power, after all, can have its price. But such dissent is valued precisely because one steps up and assumes the risk. If expression or action is entirely immune from any public scrutiny, there is little, if any risk incurred. Speaking privately to friends or ideological cohorts, then, lacks both the edge and the peril of dissent" (21).

The public element of dissent includes personal integrity:

"Third,  implicit in the idea of speaking truth to power is the notion of personal integrity-- that is, assuming ownership of one's views" (22).

However, there is allowance for anonymous dissent. After all, there is a tradition of anonymous criticism and literature of dissent. (This even applies for many librarians who dislike being criticized by "anonymous" blogging critics.)

Finally, for now, what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does. This is something that a lot more of Americans in the United States need to remember and actually understand:

"It safeguards the speech of those who refute our creeds, reject our values, renounce our government, and even repudiate our very way of life. This uniquely American principle of free speech provides a haven for irritating ranters and irksome rogues who feel  the need to spoil our parade. In short, it protects the voice of the other. And whose voice is that? It is the voice of the dissenter" (103). 

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