Saturday, August 12, 2006

Review: Free Speech 101

I just finished reading Joe Vogel’s book, “Free Speech 101: The Utah Valley Uproar Over Michael Moore” and I must say it was a terribly interesting read.

Now, I imagine all of you who read this know that I care about politics and the goings-on in the world and I happen to like Michael Moore. You probably all know that I am also what some people call (in a negative connotation) a “liberal.” You also all know that I worked for a long time on “This Divided State” and am quite outspoken. I just wanted that out of the way before I get into explaining why this book is a “must read.”

Joe Vogel is a self-described “conservative.” Joe Vogel doesn’t exactly agree with Michael Moore. Joe Vogel is probably someone that I would get into very friendly but fierce debates about politics if we were to come upon the subject. As it stands, I’ve only spoken to him a few times, interviewed him with Steve a couple of times and I interviewed him at the premiere of the film. I’m only guessing we’d get into debates since he doesn’t actually talk about his personal politics all that much in the film beyond his admission of being generally conservative. (On a side note, who cares what people label themselves as, really?) But, at the end of the day, you get the impression that no matter how much of a lunatic you are and how preposterous your ideas and opinions might be, Joe Vogel is the sort of guy that would listen respectfully and answer with thoughtful care. He’s the type of guy you’d have fun talking politics with, no matter how radically your opinions differed.

Anyhow, the book takes us through the decision making process behind bringing Michael Moore to Utah County and the intense pressure that Joe and Jim Bassi went through to make sure the event happened. This Divided State is a very public look at the controversy, but Free Speech 101 takes us behind the closed doors and shows us how bad things really got. Really: if you thought things were bad by watching our film, this book will turn your hair white.

I was surprised at how much opposition was faced, not from the community, but from within the school itself. Reading the book, you get an anxiety-filled taste of the extreme pressure that Joe was going through. Perhaps my perception of the pressure was augmented by a couple of things, though. First, I had intense pressure and stress stemming from the same issues but to different ends and second, I spent a year of my life watching and re-watching every little bit of vitriol and each of the characters in the book (with few minor exceptions) I was able to assign faces and voices, too. Having been there, I was able to truly relive it through Joe’s words and to say that it caused a stir in me is an understatement.

The book made me want to get up and do something about politics again. It reinvigorated my disdain and disgust for the whole “UVSC-Michael Moore” situation and the current political situation and climate. I feel like I’ve been phoning in my involvement in the mid-term elections, largely through this blog and reading this book made me want to change that. Any apathy that I may have developed in the last few months has been erased completely by Free Speech 101. (Seeing a book in print written by what I would consider a peer (hopefully not arrogantly so) also lit a fire underneath me to redouble my efforts to finish the novel I'm working on.)

The best thing about the book, however, was that none of that was what the book was about. The book was about the personal trials Joe went through to protect the very soul of free speech. The book illustrated how fragile a thing it is and hinted at the idea that we should be out there doing what we can to protect it, whether we agree with what people have to say or not. It was a refreshing thing to read, despite having to relive a taste of Joe’s stress.

I had talked to Steve briefly about the book, he’d received an advanced copy to read, and he had mentioned to me what he felt was a glaring omission in the book. That omission being the reconciliation between Jim and Joe. I would have to strongly disagree with Steve about this. I don’t think the point of the book was Joe’s travails as a person. The book was about Joe’s travails as a steward of free speech and adding in something ancillary to that would have side-tracked the book. I’m sure Joe could have ran off on tangents throughout the book about how this strained his personal and professional relationships, but they would have been distractions. I admired the fact that Joe didn’t use this book as a personal soapbox for people being mean to him or angry or unfair or how they made up afterwards. The book kept a razor-sharp focus on the issues of free speech and I think it benefits for it.

Everyone on both sides of the political spectrum would benefit from reading this book. Even though the “detractors” of free speech in the book are conservatives, it’s not hard to imagine similar reactions from the opposite end of the spectrum against a “conservative speaker.” The book, as I hope “This Divided State” is, is an excellent means to learn how you shouldn’t go about communicating your ideas. As such, the book is a valuable learning guide and I would highly recommend that all who read this blog read Joe’s book.

(On a side note, I found it ironic that a book about freedom of speech and expression in an open society has all of the naughty words dashed out. It seemed silly, given the subject matter of the book. One letter was even “edited for vulgarity.”)

(I must also say that I apologize for any glaring mistakes in my writing. I'm always conscious about mistakes and fix them when I catch them. I don't have an "editor" so I do my best.)

UPDATE: Joe emailed me to explain that he's a self-described "independent." I want to apologize for the confusion. I was referring to a moment in the book where he calls himself "personally" conservative. Didn't mean to give anyone the wrong impression.


Anonymous said...

hey bryan, loved divided state. It was a definitive look at the rift in the country within the microcosm known as UVSC.
Will definitely try to get a copy.

Anonymous said...

can't wait to read this book!

i heard him speak on NPR the other day. he's very balanced and seems to know his stuff.

Kevin said...

This book isn't in my "to read" pile.

I agree that the "conservatives" of UVSC are probably rank with desire to control the minds of their students.

Unfortunately, I don't think a book that says that denying free speech is the foundation of the American conservative movement will have any positive effect.

The threat to free speech is not the "conservative" or "progressive" (modern liberal) philosophy. The threat exists when you have groups driven by the desire to dominate discourse and who work actively to deny others an opportunity to express their ideas.

In my life, progressives have been far worse in this area than other groups. It is true that the right has been adopting the means of the left to try and get a foothold on campuses. The book is valuable in warning of the dangers that occur in this game when politicians adopt the means of the opponents.

I think you are right that it would be good for conservatives to read. Conservatives should ask if adopting the same methodology as the left really leads to balanced objective schools.

Unfortunately, I think pure partisan attacks simply add to the problem. I suspect that the primary use of this tome will be by wanks on the left who want to project their methodology on the right.

BTW, Mormons probably best belong in the category of neocons. That is people who shifted from the left to the right. When the LDS were far left, they had a desire to control schools and media. Now that they are far right they still have a desire to control schools and media. The Utah Valley experience really shows that the problem transcends the left/right debate.

As I am a slow reader, I really would only invest time in this work if it had a more objective view than the title and blurbs I've read suggested.

Speaking of which, I think the "Divided State" paradigm works a lot better because it can be used to explore more than one side of a divisive issue. The "Conservatives are enemies of free speech" tact can only lead to further political divisiveness.

Gad said...

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