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Paperback Originals

June 29, 1986|JONATHAN KIRSCH

The Fourth of July is an appropriate moment to ponder the questions in How Free Are We? by John Sexton and Nat Brandt (M. Evans: $9.95; also available in hardcover, $17.95): "Can I do anything my religion tells me to do? Can anyone tell me that I can't read something because it's obscene? Is school busing constitutional?" The answers are to be found in our Constitution, and Sexton--a professor of constitutional law at New York University Law School--leads us through the history, interpretation and application of the Constitution with a chattiness that sometimes reminded me of the Virginia ladies who serve as tour guides at Mount Vernon and Monticello.

Thus, for instance, we learn that George Washington had to borrow money from an Alexandria merchant in order to attend his own inauguration, and that the states of Connecticut, Georgia and Massachusetts did not ratify the Bill of Rights until 1939. And next year's Bicentennial of the Constitution appears to have been very much on the minds of the authors and their publisher.

But we also are introduced to both the fundamental legal doctrines which are embodied in the Constitution, and the Talmudic intricacies of its interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court. Sexton may be intentionally plain-spoken, but he is also lawyer-like--and, I think, laudably so--in his careful explanations of legal concepts and his frequent citations to the opinions of the Supreme Court. And if the authors seem to slight such weighty topics as the regulation of interstate commerce in favor of the sexier Constitutional controversies--birth control, the right to die, sex and pornography, school prayer and school busing, the right to bear arms, the power to make war, and so on--it is neither surprising nor especially deplorable.

A darker and more anguished vision of America is described by Mike Davis, a scholar and an activist of the so-called New Left, in Prisoners of the American Dream (Schocken: $10.95; hardcover, $24.95). Davis unabashedly seeks to rewrite history, although he chooses a curiously antique and overheated rhetoric in which to do so: "The smug liberal teleology of U.S. history, with its happy endings in a perpetually self-reforming 'society of affluence,' scarcely accords with the new politics of inequality and social revanchism that have become dominant since the late 1970s," Davis writes by way of introduction to his collection of essays on the relationship between labor and the socialist movement, and its "central dilemma: the paradoxical disparities between economic militancy and political passivity, individual awareness and collective lack of confidence."

Indeed, "Prisoners" is as dense and brooding as "How Free Are We?" is light and chatty--it is sometimes hard to grasp that both books are ostensibly about the same country. Davis, a native of San Bernardino, blames California ("The prefigurative laboratory for national political trends," as he puts it) for providing "the primitive accumulation of conditions for the emergence of the New Right and the presidential ambitions of Ronald Reagan." He bemoans "forty years of marriage between labor and the Democrats (which) have produced a politically dispirited and alienated working class." And he condemns "Miami Vice" and "Hill Street Blues" as expressions of "a culture that justifies the spiralling viciousness necessary to justify socio-economic apartheid."

Where else can we find this kind of self-convinced neo-Marxist ideological fervor nowadays? I mean, even Dorothy Healey doesn't talk like this anymore. Of course, Davis styles himself as an authentic revolutionary, and I doubt that he cares much about alienating his readers with a prose style that often reads like a parody.

Reflections on America: An Orwell Symposium, edited by Robert Mulvihill (University of Georgia: $12.95) offers yet another perspective on our nation in the early years of its 3rd Century. These 13 essays are drawn from a 1984 conference at Rosemont College that focused on Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty Four" as a kind of socio-politico-cultural benchmark for measuring our progress (or lack of it) toward the Orwellian fate that he described so memorably. Some of the contributors are concerned with the author himself: Robert Coles pays homage to "this singularly literate spiritual wanderer," and Bernard Crick provides an intimate biographical essay to accompany an album of family snapshots. Others write about the Orwell canon: "The plainest prose is a counterfeit of natural utterance," writes Hugh Kenner. "Swift in the eighteenth century, George Orwell in the twentieth, are two of its masters."

But it is the ambition of "Reflections on America" to address "the great political and social obstacles to that very decency which so preoccupied Orwell," as its editor writes. So Murray N. Rothbard decries "totalitarianism based on perpetual but peripheral cold war," which is what Orwell feared most--and which is exactly what prevails in our times. Joseph Weizenbaum argues that "the computer has become the technical instrument which . . . is an index of the extent to which our world (in America) has been transformed into Orwell's world of 'Nineteen Eighty Four.' " And Ruth Macklin worries about the collaboration between psychiatry and technology in threatening "the moral values most cherished in America and most threatened by George Orwell's vision . . . freedom and privacy."

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