February 2020

Michael Chabon & Ayelet Waldman

Life, liberty and the pursuit of justice
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Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman gather dozens of celebrated writers to remember, reflect on, criticize and celebrate a century’s worth of landmark ACLU cases—and the American values they represent.

In 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will reach the venerable age of 100. Fight of the Century celebrates that centennial with essays about ACLU civil rights legal cases, written by exceptional American writers. But this terrific book originated for a slightly different reason: the election of President Trump in 2016.

Shortly after the election, Ayelet Waldman reached out to a close friend from law school who now works at the ACLU and said, “Whatever you need . . . we’re here.”

Waldman, a novelist and essayist known for her, shall we say, provocative vehemence, recounts this interaction with her law school friend while speaking to me over the phone from her home in Berkeley, California. Also on the line from Los Angeles is her husband and co-editor of this collection, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Chabon.

The ACLU responded to Waldman’s offer by suggesting the couple create a book in a similar vein to Kingdom of Olives and Ash, a collection of essays they edited about the occupation of Palestine. Waldman and Chabon agreed.

“I initially contributed to the effort by writing email solicitations,” Chabon says, almost demurely. Obviously when Michael Chabon makes a request, writers listen. “And even when writers said no or later withdrew, there was enthusiasm for this project.”

“We weren’t paying anybody, and these are all people who could make a fortune for an essay,” Waldman adds. “But almost everybody we approached was eager to do it. People wanted to stand for true patriotism, to take a stand for the Constitution.” 

Chabon and Waldman also say that diversity of backgrounds and points of view was very important for the collection. Waldman says, “I think we achieved the kind of diversity that is a rare thing for anthologies. It’s one of the things we’re most proud of with the book.”

The collection’s first essay is by Viet Thanh Nguyen about a 1931 case concerning the right to fly or not fly a flag. It’s a deftly nuanced exploration of the use and meaning of flags (national and otherwise) that draws on the Pulitzer-winning novelist’s experience as a Vietnamese refugee living among defeated people who bitterly argued about the appropriate use of flags.

Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, The Dutch House) writes beautifully about a 1941 case in which a California law was invoked to criminalize a man for transporting his brother-in-law, who was poor and needed a home, into the state.

Another Pulitzer winner, Elizabeth Strout, invokes her youthful protest of and confrontation with Secretary of State Alexander Haig in a commemoration of students who won the right to wear armbands in protest of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

“Sometimes it feels incredible to have to be defending the value of things that, when I grew up, were taken for granted by people across the political spectrum.”

Novelist and New York City public defender Sergio de la Pava contributes an often funny autobiographical essay on a 1963 case that resulted in the requirement that all states create some mechanism for poor criminals to have legal representation.

Legal-thriller writer Scott Turow, a longtime ACLU supporter, pens an intensely critical examination of how the ACLU’s support for a 1976 ruling laid the groundwork for the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Supreme Court ruled that political contributions are a protected form of political speech.

This by no means covers the range of cases and essays in the book. Chabon himself contributes an eye-opening, amusing account of the deliberate and shrewd effort to contest the obscenity case against James Joyce’s Ulysses. Waldman, who has written openly about her mental health issues, critiques a horrifying case that finally resulted in granting mental health disabilities legal due process.

“Some people wrote from the gut,” Waldman observes. “And some people really dug in and did a tremendous amount of research. We connected them with ACLU lawyers to guide them and help them find the resources. People who had never done legal research in their lives did legal research.”

One of them was George Saunders. “It was beyond research,” Waldman says. “He was really trying to understand esoteric legal concepts and grasp them in a way that made us understand the cases in new and interesting ways.” 

Chabon and Waldman worry that the Bill of Rights and the ACLU have fallen prey to our national partisan divide. They mention a morally difficult case from Skokie, Illinois, in which the ACLU defended the rights of Nazis to march in a predominately Jewish suburb. 

“Sometimes it feels incredible to have to be defending the value of things that, when I grew up, were taken for granted by people across the political spectrum,” Chabon says.

But the essays in Fight of the Century offer us a spirited defense of values that Americans hold in common.


Author photo © Andy Freeberg.

Get the Book

Fight of the Century

Fight of the Century

By Ayelet Waldman & Michael Chabon
Avid Reader
ISBN 9781501190407

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