Is free speech dead? Chicago's Ellis Cose takes a clear-eyed look at that question in his new book

Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Ellis Cose grew up in the Henry Horner Homes, a public housing project on the Near West Side of the city, near what was then Chicago Stadium, and the setting for local author Alex Kotlowitz’s compelling 1992 book “There Are No Children Here” (Doubleday), subtitled, as you may have forgotten, “The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America.”

The Horner Homes are no longer around, razed to make way for what are now handsome townhouses and condominiums. Cose is around, having been a bright young man mentored by the great poet/teacher Gwendolyn Brooks. He made his mark as a youthful columnist at the Sun-Times and then wrote for national publications on his way to becoming one of the leading voices in the current bookshelf filled with the works and ideas of Black authors.

His latest book is his 12th, a provocative, enlightening and deeply researched “The Short Life & Curious Death of Free Speech in America” (Amistad).

“What is free speech?” he asks at its outset, offering an answer, of sorts: “The plain meaning is that government cannot tell you what you can or cannot say,” and then going for 190 more pages that explore the complex history of what was an optimistic creation by the nation’s founders, which Cose calls “a utopian concept,” and detailing the “dangerous assaults” on it that have intensified over the centuries.

The book has received much attention and praise.

Some comes from Ibram X. Kendi, the author most recently of “How to Be an Antiracist” (Penguin Random House), the latest in his string of bestsellers which include 2016’s “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” (Bold Type Books) which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, making Kendi, then 34, the youngest to ever win this award.

He described Cose’s work as “stunningly original” and “an abolitionist book for this moment, for this time when free speech slumbers in chains.”

Cose is a child of the turbulent 1960s, who as a teen “bore witness to the madness of the times.” This insanity, especially prevalent in his neighborhood, included gunshots and death and, in April 1968, a neighborhood that exploded in fires and looting and shootings in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He read the newspaper coverage of these events and became convinced that the city’s four daily papers, with their mostly white staffs, covered his community as if it were a strange foreign land.

Cose was a smart and observant kid, testing so well that he was able to attend what was then the all-male, predominantly white Lane Tech High School on the North Side. He was also socially aware, writing, unprompted by classroom assignment, a 100-some page paper addressing race and riots in America.

His English teacher (he still remember her name, Helen Klinger) was so impressed that she put him in touch with Brooks, then the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet laureate of Illinois who was teaching at Northeastern Illinois University.

Always an admirably soft touch for young, aspiring writers (and young people in general), Brooks called Cose and the two met. “She did something so empowering,” Cose says. “When she handed my paper back to me, she had written on it, ‘One day you will be a great writer.’”

He started on the path while a student at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He was studying psychology — “I didn’t think it would ever be possible to make a living as a writer,” he told me — when he sent some of his writing to Sun-Times editors Ralph Otwell and James Hoge. They offered him a job as an editorial assistant and quickly he was writing a column for the op-ed pages. He was 19 years old.

Since then he has been a contributor to many publications, was a Newsweek columnist and contributing editor for 17 years, chairman of the editorial board of the New York Daily News, and the inaugural writer-in-residence for the American Civil Liberties Union. He is currently a member of USA Today’s board of contributors and frequent guest on television news shows.

And he has written all those books.

In this one, he takes us back to the earliest days of the First Amendment, ratified in 1791 by, Cose writes, “frustrated and exhausted men” guided by the belief that “in the competition of ideas, good ideas generally crowd out bad.” In less than a decade it was under assault by the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts. It’s had a rocky road ever since, getting especially bumpy in the wake of World War I and particularly so since the invention of the internet.

We meet the important players in this ongoing story. There are heroes and villains and visits to foreign countries, landmark courtroom cases, Skokie when Nazis wanted to march in 1977 and Charlottesville, Virginia, when violence scarred the city in 2017.

Things have gotten particularly messy in the social-media land of the internet. As Cose writes, “Although the Founders were indisputably brilliant, they were not granted the gift of foresight. They had no way of seeing — or imagining — a republic where, at the highest level of political power, truth is reviled and honor forsaken. They had no way of knowing that a process of selecting presidents, designed to elevate the best of the best, would degenerate into a system for consolidating power in the hands of amoral partisan hacks.”

The president is far from ignored: “Donald Trump was certainly not the first wealthy person to decide that wealth entitled him to rule the world. But he perfectly embodied the thought, in style and substance, that, decency be damned, everything — everyone — is for sale.”

Cose also states bluntly that the internet “has shown us that free expression can be poisonous.”

If all this sounds a bit heady to you, Cose delivers it in cogent fashion, arguing persuasively that free speech — which so long has been one of American’s most revered freedoms — is being co-opted by those with big money and nasty political motivations.

He is, in the book and in the conversation we had, troubled by “the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and other apps that specialize in bursts of short, superficial communication,” and sees political dialogue peppered with “lies swaddled in bigotry.”

Cose now lives comfortably on the Upper West Side of Manhattan but he is still remembers the inequities of his youth and is more aware than ever of the complexities of this land of ours.

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