When Freedom Is Unlovely


Defending My Enemy: American Nazis, the Skokie Case, and the Risks of Freedom, by Aryeh Neier, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1979, 182 pp., $9.95.

This book's publicists do it an injustice. By emphasizing, on dust cover and elsewhere, the author's personal history (escaping Hitler's ovens at age two, national executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, 1970–78), they lead the reader to expect a largely personal, rather anecdotal blow-by-blow of the author's role in the ACLU's controversial defense of the Nazis' right to march in Skokie, Illinois. On the contrary, the actual events of Skokie and Neier's own role in that case are only the jumping-off place for a book that goes far beyond what I was led to expect.

Despite all their publicity, the events of Skokie were hardly the first occasion on which the ACLU undertook the representation of Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, or a variety of other individuals espousing odious or unpopular causes. By reviewing briefly some of the history of these other cases, and their consequent controversies, Neier successfully attempts to place the ACLU's decisions in Skokie, and the resultant public furor, into a realistic perspective. It is an excellent device, effectively leading the reader to the philosophical, legal, and political discussions that follow, by drawing out the continuing themes, implicitly bringing the reader to recognize their universality.

Skokie was hardly an isolated or unique confrontation: in scores of earlier cases the ACLU has chosen, as a matter of policy, to defend the rights of demonstrators—no matter how vile or unpopular their views—against governmental interference in order to defend the First Amendment. As Neier so eloquently states it, "abridgements of freedom are directed first against the most universally despised. It would be more pleasant for defenders of freedom to rally around the causes of a better class of victims. But if we wait until nice people are victimized, it may be too late. The first place to defend freedom is the first place it is denied."

Beyond providing the historical context and organizational background of the Nazis, the ACLU, the KKK, and Skokie's survivors of the Holocaust, Neier effectively dissects the psychodynamics of each of the groups. Particularly welcome is his candor in distinguishing between supporters of the ACLU whose primary commitments are to leftwing causes—many of whom resigned in protest at the ACLU's "defense of an enemy"—and ACLU supporters whose primary commitment is to free speech and civil liberties. He is also to be commended for his willingness to name specific proponents of each view within the organizations.

Adding yet another valuable piece of the whole picture, Neier shows a rather sophisticated knowledge of the media tactics of protest. He graphically demonstrates that the same technique of outrageous confrontation on opposition "turf' which the Nazis sought to exploit in Illinois is also regularly used by the Jewish Defense League and American civil rights demonstrators. The occasional subtlety of his continuous drawing-together of such recurrent themes does not deprive the whole of any of its cumulative impact.

As a constitutional lawyer, I found most welcome the surprising depth of chapters exploring the philosophical, legal, and political arguments used by the various sides. Drawing upon arguments from landmark First Amendment cases, contemporary commentators, philosophers, and politicians of many eras—often through pertinent verbatim quotations—Neier tries to carefully analyze and unravel the tapestries of emotional rhetoric and political cliche with which the various partisans have usually illustrated their positions. In this he is surprisingly successful.

Even Neier's format—grouping the arguments for one side largely into a single chapter and not addressing individual answers to each until the following chapter—which on first reading seemed awkward, actually tends to add to the forcefulness and reality of the presentation. It is too easy to dismiss an argument lightly if one is given an immediate reply; Neier's format leads one to consider more seriously the merits of the opposing views.

My only major frustration with Neier's presentation stems from his omission of either a table of cases, case citations, or footnotes to the sources of his quotations. How could a lawyer-author so infuriatingly and so needlessly have reduced the practical usefulness of his book by omitting these time-saving tools of the trade?

In all, though, Neier communicates and supports his point quite effectively. From the prologue—where he quotes Sir Thomas Moore's "I'd give the Devil the benefit of law for my own safety's sake"—onward, he makes it quite clear that his commitment to free speech for all, including Nazis, stems from no altruistic motive but from a need to limit government power for his own safety's sake.

Some seven years ago, as a law student, I furiously realized that someone kept tearing down posters from our Libertarian Law Students Association bulletin board. I was finally driven to fill the empty board with one very angry retort: "Those who censor others' posters are saying a great deal about the inability of their own ideas to stand up to competition." By carefully and fairly presenting all sides of the controversy in Defending My Enemy, Neier says a great deal about his own confidence that truth will prevail in an open marketplace of ideas.

Linda Abrams is a lawyer practicing in the Los Angeles area.