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Spring/Summer 1995, Volume 12.2

Book Reviews

 

Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy, Reviewed by Paul A. Trout
Utah History Encyclopedia, Reviewed by Candadai Seshachari
Luminaries of the Humble, Reviewed by Judy Elsley
Firekeeper: New and Selected Poems
, Reviewed by Kathleen M. Herndon

 

 

Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy by Samuel Walker. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994, 217pp., $11.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Paul A. Trout, Department of English, Montana State University, Bozeman.

Perhaps nothing reveals the moral burden of free speech more than the continuing debate over—and the impulse to—restrict hate speech. Should the shouting of derogatory and humiliating epithets and the publishing of scandalous lies that defame whole groups of innocent people be legally protected? Should rancorous, prejudiced expressions be exempt from the legal punishment meted out to libel, slander, and threats? As Rodney Smolla has aptly remarked in Free Speech in an Open Society, the hardest free-speech questions of all are posed by hate speech.

In Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy, Samuel Walker provides a clearly written, accessible account of this country's almost century-old legal and social struggle to develop a national policy on hate speech. That policy was not firmly established until the middle of the twentieth century when a series of Supreme Court decisions made it clear that the First Amendment protects even the speech of bigots and race-baiters. This outcome was not inevitable (nor is it completely settled). According to Walker, three factors led to the legal protection of racial and creedal invective. First, a long line of Supreme Court justices feared government control of public debate more than they feared the harm done by hate speech. State legislation against religious or racial vituperation was often so sweeping as to endanger fundamental rights of expression and association. Over the decades, the Court went from grudgingly tolerating provocative speech to welcoming and encouraging it, establishing the principle that in a free society social change and freedom of expression have a higher priority than public order, civility, or concern for people's sensibilities.

The second reason that hate speech was finally subsumed under the First Amendment was that during the early evolution of First Amendment law, no advocacy group existed to argue for criminalizing 'group libel.' Ideas have no force in the world without advocates. There was, however, an advocacy group that argued for protecting hate speech. During the 1920s and 30s the American Civil Liberties Union filed briefs in a number of crucial cases that decisively influenced the development of First Amendment law (15). And third, virtually all the major civil rights organizations concluded—after a number of well-intentioned laws were used to repress their own provocative and offensive tactics—that the best way to insure the civil liberties of powerless minority groups was by protecting the individual rights of their enemies (13). The long-term political interests of historical victims of discrimination would be advanced best, civil rights activists concluded, not by group-libel legislation but by the broadest content-neutral protection of offensive speech (126). Thanks to this strategy, the civil-rights movement of the 60s had the freedom to demonstrate publicly and express their own "offensive" and "upsetting" messages (161-62).

The historical record and the collective wisdom of tens of thousands of past judges, lawyers, academics and activists would suggest, then, that the recent advocacy of campus speech codes, however well intentioned, is misguided and dangerous, especially for minorities. Although Walker makes this and other telling points against speech codes, his treatment of this phenomenon strikes me as overly cautious and blinkered. For example, he argues that the reason the campus speech code movement is "the most successful effort in American history to restrict hate speech" is that it is supported by a number of influential minority lawyers. (133). But why should lawyers, especially minority lawyers, now ignore or reject the lessons of history and legal tradition? Why are they so hostile to the First Amendment? Walker does not answer this question.

I also find his claim somewhat problematic that the campaign for speech codes was provoked by a "frightening upsurge of racism" across the country (135; also, 129, 132, 163). Walker cites a count of 250 incidents of bigotry on campuses from 1986 to 1989. That amounts to only 83 a year, spread over 3,000 campuses! Even if each "incident" were dramatic, this figure hardly supports the notion that there was a "shocking resurgence of racism" on campuses (128). Walker even admits as much when he finally acknowledges that "it is impossible to say definitively whether there was a real increase in racist events on campus…there are no systematic data on such cases" (130).

Another problem is that Walker assumes that all racial "incidents" are caused by whites (132). But people of color can hurl epithets as venomously as anyone else, and often do. Indeed, a number of reported racial "incidents" involve minorities shouting epithets at, or intimidating, whites or other minorities. One could argue, then, that speech codes would directly hurt some minorities because some minorities are racists. But this is an admission Walker is not ready to make. Ironically those who argue for speech codes subtly concede this unpalatable fact when they insist that such codes should not apply to historically victimized groups but only to whites (1, 81-82; 139-40). Surprisingly, Walker does not seem to sense that this effort to exempt minorities from speech codes has grave implications. Earlier civil rights groups protected the right of their enemies primarily because hate-speech regulations could be used against them. Contemporary advocates of speech codes, however, attempt to forestall this unfortunate eventuality by insisting on a "contextual" application of restrictive regulations. The regulations, in other words, do not apply to blacks or other 'protected' minorities and so cannot hurt them. This "victim's-privilege" (14) argument thus encourages minority groups to abandon their traditional commitment to free speech and content-neutral laws and to try to repress the freedom of their 'enemies.' Not only does this explain why the drive for campus speech codes represents the "most serious threat to freedom of expression since the Cold War" (6); it also suggests that speech codes may increase racial tensions, not lessen them. These issues have to be confronted because, as Walker acknowledges, the debate over speech codes "is far from settled" (14).

A reading of Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy left me with one overwhelming conviction; that although allowing people to hurl offensive epithets at each other under the protection of the First Amendment may not be the best way to insure uniformly civil public discourse, it has proved the most effective method for insuring the right of marginalized and oppressed groups to voice their grievances, and for including even racists—of whatever color and creed—in our democratic society.

 

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Utah History Encyclopedia edited by Allan Kent Powell. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994, 674 pp., $50 (cloth).

Reviewed by Candadai Seshachari, Department of English, Weber State University

If you need some basic information about Utah's history, its lands, its past, its peoples, the events that give it shape, and the people who have molded it, where would you go to find that information without looking through a hundred different sources? What if you want to know more about the Mormon Battalion or the Mountain Meadows Massacre, or about John Williams Gunnison after whom the Sanpete town of Gunnison is named, or about the Japanese contribution to Utah's economic and cultural history, or about five hundred other items of historical, cultural or religious import? Today you would want to go to the Utah History Encyclopedia, a handy publication for the reader who needs instant and dependable information about Utah's history.

As editor Allan Kent Powell points out, a work of this collaborative nature could hardly have been feasible without the institutional support of the Utah State Historical Society, a grant from the Utah Centennial Commission, and the goodwill and generosity of two hundred and seventy historians and other scholars who researched and wrote the entries that appear under their names. Many of the contributors, such as Leonard Arrington, Thomas Alexander, Helen Papanikolas, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Eugene England, Gene Sessions and William Mulder, to cite a few, are highly regarded and recognizable Utah scholars.

From a basic list of two thousand topics the advisory committee considered, five hundred were finally included in the Encyclopedia on the basis of their importance and popular recognition. Given the goals set for the Encyclopedia and the size of the task, the editor and his advisory committee have done an admirable job of selecting topics that have an important bearing on the history, culture and geography of Utah. The editor points out that these five hundred topics fall under six categories: individuals, events, organizations, institutions, places, and themes and subjects. The Encyclopedia's 250 photographs, reprinted from the collection of the Utah State Historical Society, were chosen with an eye to celebrating Utah's rich past. This book is not an encyclopedia in the formal sense of the word. Unlike more traditional encyclopedias that carry information about facts and figures, Utah History Encyclopedia is a compilation of scholarly articles on pre-determined topics, a compendium if you will. The writers were given the freedom to craft their information and interpretation in a style that was interesting and to the point. As such, the Encyclopedia is not burdened down by jargon or a ponderous style. Much of the writing is lucid and reader friendly. Even a high school student can read the entries for as much profit as pleasure. One may leaf through it at random as through a treasure house. The Encyclopedia even makes excellent bedtime reading. One can learn here about Camp Floyd and its rapid rise and fall in mid-nineteenth century Utah; about Utah's vigorous canning industry which thrived between the 1880s and 1930s; about Governor Herbert Maw and the politics of dissension during his active political career; about the irrepressible Joe Hill and the IWW movement in Utah; about Utah's spectacular canyons, mining industry, the activities of the Ku Klux Klan; and, of course, about Utah's romance with the railroads.

What is glaringly missing in the Encyclopedia, however, is an entry about the history of Utah itself! While choosing not to provide an overview of Utah's history, the editor refers the reader to several one-volume histories of Utah by Charles Peterson, Richard Poll, Dean May, and the forthcoming history by Thomas Alexander. But this is poor solace to one who might want to browse through a brief five-page history of Utah, much like the ones the New Columbia Encyclopedia provides for numerous countries. The omission of a brief history of Utah is a grievous and unpardonable error of editorial judgment.

One other problem with the Encyclopedia lies in the decision of the advisory committee to give authors a "free rein of what to include, how to organize each essay, and how to present it." Though highly laudable as an act of confidence in the scholarly abilities and writing skills of the contributors, it is nonetheless an unsound approach in producing a work of even and consistent excellence. For instance, set next to Leonard Arrington's professional entry about Mariner Stoddard Eccles, Mariam Murphy's discussion of Thomas Kearns certainly points to the need for a stricter editorial oversight. Again, Jay M. Hammond's entry about John D. Lee is a model of compactness and good critical judgment while Hammond's own discussion of Governor Leavitt is "newsy" and without much substance. Not a word is said about the popular Governor's many achievements; instead what the reader is told is that Michael Leavitt's parents had five other sons—and that the Governor himself met his future wife while she "was attending SUU and participating in the local Shakespearean Festival." The entry also lists the names of each one of their five children, perhaps a concession to the Utah penchant for acknowledging one's progeny.

But one should not quibble about these lapses. It is not by any means "the first complete history of Utah in encyclopedic form" as the dust jacket claims [italics added]; it is, however, a very fine work of ready reference which should belong not only in the libraries, but on the bookshelf of every enquiring high school student—and of anyone who wishes to glean important information about Utah history.

 

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Luminaries of the Humble by Elizabeth Woody. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994, 129 pp., $35.00 (cloth), $15.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Judy Elsley, Department of English, Weber State University

Elizabeth Woody's second book of poetry, Luminaries of the Humble, constitutes the thirtieth volume of the University of Arizona's Sun Tracks series which celebrates Native American literature. The series creates a public space where we can hear voices of people who have traditionally been marginalized or silenced. These books also demonstrate the rich literary inheritance of Native American peoples.

Woody is of Yakima/ Warm Springs/ Wasco/ Navajo descent, and an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Oregon. Her first collection of poems, Hand into Stone, received an American Book Award in 1990 and is reprinted in a new collection of her work, Seven Hands, Seven Hearts, published by Eighth Mountain Press.

She practices what she names "ethnopoetics," writing a bridge of sympathy and understanding between her own people and the non-Native American reader. She knows that much of her history "was not accessible or commonly known"(x), but, as she says in the introduction, telling her people's stories is a heavy responsibility:

My mother had told me that thoughts and actions return to their source seven times greater: I had to be responsible for the movement words participated in. (xi)

She understands that her poetry is not "purely a personal concern or event; its spiritual evolution comes from one's responsiveness to a community"(xiv). Spiritual medium, then, rather than anthropologist, Woody remains intimately connected to the people and land she describes.

The title of this collection reflects Woody's way of seeing the world. Everything—land, plants, animals, people—embodies the luminous source of light that is the essence of life. This is cause for humility, for we are not the makers of our own lives, but rather the material through which the luminous shines. Quoting a great-aunt in "Plateau Women," Woody writes:

She says, "When you bring out from the heart a wonderful being,
it is all from the Earth, goes to the Earth. The spirit blooms
and we have this Light feeding the root. We have to remember
our source of nourishment, or we will starve."

Woody's reverence for life enables her to write about such superficially unattractive subjects as domestic violence or alcoholism with a respect that honors people's lives and individuality.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, "Interiors of Landscape," gives a social context to the poet's world, broad brushstrokes that paint a particular landscape of the Northwest. The second section, "The People," articulates a series of sensitive, often intimate, and loving portraits of Native American people. The third section, "Inheritance Obscured," raises the issues and names the injustices faced by her people, often in sharp and angry terms. The collection of poems moves from the gentle, general descriptions to the strongly named specific issues, reflecting Ursula Le Guin's comment that "this book gathers itself slowly, like a mountain lion, and then leaps."

In the first section, "Interiors of Landscape," Woody writes with a quiet awareness of the rhythm of the natural world, its details and colors, vividly describing what she sees and experiences as, for example, in "Markers of Absence":

The leaves denote by their pitch
the endurance of drought.
The clouds are sallow exhaustion.
Tumbleweeds roll a weak case
for the heart of shadows.

"We each possess a song, mystery, and the sacred," Woody says in the introduction, an approach to nature that is everywhere evident in this first section. Her writing is most vivid in her fresh use of metaphor, as in "Light," where she writes, "Junk is rumpled energy in its own slum"—and in her thought-provoking ideas as, for example, in "Home and the Homeless," when she says, "Age, the creak in the handmade screen door fades behind itself."

In the "People" section, she writes with a fierce love about those she knows, giving us insight and sympathy for people we might reject because we usually judge from the outside. For example, she describes, in "Maria at Quarter to Eight in the Morning," an alcoholic homeless woman wandering the streets, a compassionate description laced with a respect and pathos, enabling us to see her as fully human:

Absently litter stumbles through the streets
behind Maria, the Old-Country lush.
She shopping bags her life of beer and wigs.
Some spring of youth is only untied shoes .
She walks into her domain
with the demeanor of a queen,
That she has something for you, anything you may need
among her things.

The last section addresses such issues as alcoholism, homelessness, sexual abuse, and murder—significant problems she sees troubling Native American people. For all the sympathy and respect she shows, she does not romanticize the people or the world they live in, but sees them clearly and honestly, naming both the beauty and the pain. Anger and tension frame this section, infusing the natural world with menacing force as we see in "Straight and Clear":

The Earth is a shield, the drum of love,
the first murmur, the terror,
a powerful woman who whispers
into his ears at night.
Vision is not dream, but the absolute mind viewing
continuity, itself, straight in the clear circle.

This is a beautifully produced book, with art work on the cover by Joe Feddersen, also a Native American. Woody's work is formatted using plenty of white space, so the reader's attention is always focused on the individual poem. The aesthetics of the actual book reflects the publisher's respect for the poet's work.

Woody's poetry makes an important contribution to contemporary literature by describing and interpreting, in a sympathetic way, particular aspects of Native American culture. Often inadequate and fractured, words still remain a powerful way to reach from one culture to another. What she says about pictographs of hands in "Straight and Clear" could be true for her words: "The hands are presence, / action, as well as tool for rebuilding from the wreckage." Woody's poetry acts as a tool for rebuilding history, reconstituting dignity, and communicating culture.

 

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Firekeeper: New and Selected Poems by Pattiann Rogers. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 1994, 260 pp., $12.95 (cloth).

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Herndon, Department of English, Weber State University. (Return to top of page)

Firekeeper. The word makes me think of ancient societies, guardians of rituals and tellers of tales, priestesses who live with the mysteries of life. But Pattiann Rogers is no antique visionary whose power rests in her ability to interpret for others what they cannot explain for themselves. She is a poet whose work describes the lushness of the natural world, the timelessness of life, and the beauty of human sexuality. She invites us to share in her observations.

Firekeeper is a compilation of selected poems from five earlier volumes and a collection of new poems. I am struck by Rogers' ability to balance scientific accuracy with sensual pleasure. Indeed both qualities linger long after I have turned the last page of this new collection.

I resist sorting Rogers' work according to themes because her poems chafe at categorization. But there are unmistakable patterns in the poems selected for this volume: animals, life cycles, connections between animals and humans, and an overriding awe of the mysteries of the universe.

"Justification of the Horned Lizard" questions why the creature wants to live with its "short prickly horns and scowling/Eyes, lipless smile forced forever by bone,/Hideous scaly hollow where its nose should be" (77). The answer is in the desire for life and survival. In "The Power of Toads," the oak toad and the red-spotted toad might "think that when they sing/they sing more than songs, creating rain and mist/By their voices" (63). But actually the thunderstorm has a power of its own, unrelated to the fervor of the toads' courtship and mating. Rogers wonders if perhaps our single certain discovery might be the "sweet/Promise of good love beneath dark skies inside warm rain" (64). Snails, Siamese fighting fish, caribou, and storks mate with vigor in "Making a History."

Rogers often begins a poem with a human subject, sometimes mundane, moves to an observation of an animal, and concludes with an almost spiritual observation on the significance of life. "When You Watch Us Sleeping" does just that. A sleeper lying on patchwork becomes tangled in baobab branches. The watcher turns into "the green anole on the banyan" (157). The living body is "so great/a sum of beauty that a billion zeroes follow it" (158 ). And the watcher is challenged, "Don't you love us?" (158).

One amusing conversational poem, "Parlor Game on a Snowy Winter Night," speculates on fooling weasels with false china eggs. In the end, the dogs find "a weasel in the snow/With bloody yolk on its whiskers and a broken tooth" (86). In another, "To Complete a Thought," an unnamed woman and man are seduced by the suggestive sensuality of ten playful cats: "She sighs, stretches…he watches…catches and pulls loose…the trailing sash of her cashmere robe" (193).

"For the Wren Trapped in a Cathedral" makes me remember my visit to St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Birds are sometimes caught in that massive space, and they perch "on the bishop's throne" (141) as the bird does in this poem. The wren changes color from scarlet to brown to violet—and finally to red "with Mary's Grief…the Journey into Egypt…the Miracle of the Five Thousand…the Crucifixion" (141-142). But when she escapes, she carried "her own story,/Sacred news from the reality of artifice,/Out into the brilliant white mystery/Of the truthful world" (142). We are aware that Rogers finds her truth in the awesome strength of nature, not in the man-made artifice of the cathedral. 

A metaphor for the movement of the universe can be found in "Elinor Frost's Marble Topped Kneading Table." [The] "flour-caked fists and palms knuckling/the lump, gathering, dividing, tucking/and rolling" (185) the dough in the same way as "the sea, bellying up the hard shore,/draws back under its own next forward-moving/roll" (185). The baker becomes the center of "the dark nebulae and the sifted rings/of interstellar dust" (185). This methodical kneading of dough and spinning of planets provides a comfort, a predictability in our busy and uncertain lives. In "The Laying on of Hands," Rogers cautions us to find "a gentleness we haven't learned yet…a subtlety we haven't mastered yet" (218). We cannot forget to notice the lilac and beggarweed, the "spore-filled moss" (219) and the "tight molecules/of suckers and sapwood" (219). Perhaps with time and attention we too can see with the naturalist's eye. Rogers may invite us to join her, to become a firekeeper.

 

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