On free speech and hate

January 27, 2017

Before anybody rushes to remind me that there’s already scholarship, legal theory, and jurisprudence on these issues–I know. I’m not making a legal argument.

Two precipitating events have me thinking about this topic.

The other day, our colleague and friend Sid Dobrin posted a photo on Facebook of somebody with a swastika armband bicycling around the University of Florida campus. He came back yesterday and drew a crowd. The swastika-wearing cyclist swears (O! Dear me! How could anyone think I have bad intentions?!?) the “protestors don’t understand my intentions” and that he doesn’t “mean to hurt anyone.”

Yesterday, at West Chester University where I teach, two “preachers” showed up on campus (this happens periodically) spewing incendiary bigotry at anyone and everyone within shouting distance. Unfortunately, a couple of students reacted strongly enough that they were arrested and are likely to be charged with assault.

So here’s the thing.

I understand what the First Amendment says, and that the jurisprudence around free speech has historically protected groups like the KKK and their right to speak. I understand as somebody who studies rhetoric and activism that sometimes groups need to create very uncomfortable spectacles and situations in order to mobilize people on behalf of issues. As somebody who was deeply involved in organizing our faculty strike last fall and has been doing activism of various kinds for 30+ years, I get it.

But I want to challenge people who defend the Nazi-bicycle-guy and the two “preachers” (who I refuse to acknowledge as Christian based on how explicitly hateful they are) to explain something to me.

The presumption free-speech laws and jurisprudence make is that such speech is necessary to the healthy functioning of democracy. Explain to me how riding a bicycle around a campus with one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, waving a swastika around at people, is positively contributing to democracy. Explain how we’re advancing public deliberation about, um, anything at all by standing in the middle of WCU campus telling women that they’re sinning just by being at college, or that calling people “faggots and whores” accomplishes anything useful at all. And “because if we don’t use our free speech rights, we lose them” isn’t an answer. And “because they can” isn’t an answer either. The question is: what do those hateful incendiary utterances do to advance public discourse about anything at all?

I’m listening.


‘Accountability’ isn’t enough [some angry language]

August 1, 2011

Not a great day for those of us who spend many of our waking hours fighting against various aspects of neo-liberal hegemony.

It looks like sometime today, both houses of Congress will pass a bill to raise the nation’s debt ceiling; in that bill is also a radical realignment of our budgetary and social priorities, tilting our economic structure in more sharply towards the ultra wealthy. The poor, working, middle classes will wind up paying more for less, while the rich pay less for more AND suck up more of other people’s money for themselves. This outcome of the new policy is clear and well-documented.

What troubles me the most about it is that it will devastate working and living conditions the huge majority of the country. On that level, it’s a clear betrayal of all that’s good and right about our country.

After that, what troubles me most is the utter shamelessness of the Republican Party, which serves nobody but the ultra-elite (although it’s exploits the ever-living fuck of Evangelicals, racists, and anybody else who will listen to their madness). Other than the occasional token effort to make this effort sound like it was about anything other than vacuuming up more power and resources for themselves, they have made almost no effort even to pretend like there’s any agenda here other than real one. That is, like the moment in 1984 when O’Brien admits to Winston that the Party only does what it does because it can, the GOP is steadily revealing its true agenda–or trying to hide it less.

You’d think with the recent exposure of the Koch brothers’ machinations, the influence of the shady group ALEC, example after example of radical right-wing leaders sucking at the government teat while they decry government programs–and then not really even trying to explain themselves because they don’t really have to)… You’d think all those things would make conservatives act a little more cautiously as the (mostly) men behind the curtain are revealed to be what they are–selfish, greedy, inhumane pieces of subhuman shit.

Instead, the opposite has happened. As the conservative machine becomes more visible, it becomes even more brazen. As the institutions you’d expect to stop (at least resist) them continue to fail us–you know, the Democratic Party, the law, the voters–I suppose there’s no reason for them even to pretend to be anything other than what they are.

And that, activist friends, helps me focus on what I’ve been increasingly see as the heart of the matter for the last year, maybe more: how to excise the political, economic and social poison these subhuman scum have injected into the system for nothing but their own gain. Lots of us have adopted, adapted the terminology of “accountability,” which is close to right–how do we hold these monsters ‘accountable’ for what they’re doing? But I’m increasingly sensing that the discourse of accountability makes it too easy to let these criminals off the hook. Elected officials are held accountable at the ballot box, if ever. That’s not enough.

We’re starting to see some movement in the right direction, I think, and I’m currently hanging my hopes on:

The recall elections happening in Wisconsin  When elected officials do the opposite of what you elected them to do, grab them by the backs of their necks and throw them on the scrap heap. There’s no reason to wait two years to vote them out.

The ballot initiative in OH to overturn SB5  When your legislative apparatus passes legislation that the huge majority of citizens reject, override the vote.

I’m all in favor of conventional kinds of activism and organizing. Although I’m not terribly impressed with the Coffee Party leadership (the rhetoric of the organization sounds like a thousand other people who suddenly got political and don’t yet understand that they’re not the first people to have thought about this stuff, but maybe that’ll wear down soon), the general idea of a citizen movement acting responsibly and demanding same is hard to argue with. As a union member and leader-of-sorts, of course I’m committed to labor activism and unions as strategies and modes of organizing.

But what we’re seeing in Wisconsin and Ohio right now is something else. Yes, it’s reactionary in the sense that it’s about undoing damage that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. But more important, I think, is that it’s directly responding to the problems. It’s not waiting for Election Day to trade people who did bad things for other people who will probably do bad things–it’s attacking the problems NOW.

If there’s any chance of salvaging our current form of government (if, in fact, that’s even a good idea–but I’ll set that aside for now), I believe we have to start here. Punch the assholes in their faces for being assholes. Yank them out of office when they violate the will of the people. Organize against laws that nobody wanted passed in the first place.

This is, by the way, exactly what the Tea Party says it does. It’s also exactly what the mainstream corporate media reports the Tea Party doing. Two things about that: (1) No, they don’t. The Tea Party is nothing but a tool of the Koch Brothers and Dick Armey-and-friends, and is about as authentic a grassroots movement as ‘Americans for Prosperity.’ (2) Even if that’s not true (or getting less true–some analysts believe the Tea Party is getting out from under the control of its masters), there aren’t very many of them. Reports of the Tea Party’s mass-movement-ness have been greatly exaggerated.

If the Tea Partiers and progressives want to have an actual grassroots battle for the soul of the nation, count me in. When you Tea Partiers tell the Kochs and the Armeys and their friends to take their resources and shove them up their asses, when you tell your mouthpieces of Fox News you don’t need their corporate support–that is, when you practice anything you actually preach–then we’ll have an interesting situation on our hands.


Let’s talk about sacrifice

March 6, 2011

So the buzzword of the year so far is “shared sacrifice.”  Scott Walker says he can only balance the Wisconsin budget if those greedy public employees would just be willing to sacrifice a little.  John Kasich of Ohio says the same–at the same time he and his legislature define university professors as managers so they can’t belong to unions, but anyway…  Democrats and Republicans in Washington spew the same line of crap, that in hard times we all have to sacrifice together.

I see people on the left resist this, not stridently enough, by reminding audiences that “sacrifice” is happening largely on the backs of the poor, working and middle classes.  And it is.  But maybe we can make a little better version of the point by asking a slightly different question.

What are the rich sacrificing in any of the current budget proposals?

Nothing.  They get: more tax cuts, tax incentives, tax breaks.  They get: reduced labor costs via union busting, decreased safety and environmental regulations by defunding regulatory agencies.  They get: bailouts when they mismanage their businesses into the ground.  They get: nearly exclusive access to the mechanisms of power because they have all the money they’ve stolen and the leisure time to use it since they don’t do anything useful with their time.

Name one thing that any of this budget voodoo costs the rich.  One.  And then ask yourself who’s making the policies.  And then ask yourself who’s paying the price.  And then ask yourself why we aren’t burning these people out of their houses (Because we’re more ethical than they are?  Apparently).  And then, finally, ask yourself how long you’re willing to continue putting up with a situation in which every single decision coming from a conservative-dominated system hurts YOU and EVERYBODY YOU KNOW, unless you’re one of the wealthy.

The talking heads like to talk about having to make “hard decisions” in difficult times.  Well, for those of us who are actual human beings, who are sick of seeing our humanity and dignity spat on every day by rich people who don’t care whether anybody else lives or dies, we have to ask ourselves a hard question too–how long do we wait?

 


Another open letter to Governor Scott Walker

February 28, 2011

[The first one of these I posted, last week, wasn’t really an open-letter–it was just a blog post acting like a letter.  This is the letter I just sent to Governor Walker, at govgeneral@wisconsin.us.  Send one too!]

Governor Walker:

As a resident of another state (PA), I understand that your concern
with outsiders’ perception may be minimal.  However, it’s important to
many of us around the country that you understand our response to your
budget repair bill, and our support for the protests happening around
the Capitol Building.

In short, it’s become abundantly clear to all of us, despite your
attempts to argue differently, that the budget problems are simply a
pretext for busting the unions.  We know this based on two items.
First, the unions have publicly agreed to your budget demands, and you
refuse even to acknowledge, much less negotiate, much less accept
their concessions.  As a result, it’s clear as day that you have no
real interest in resolving the short-term budget problem.  Second,
while I don’t approve of Ian Murphy’s prank phone-call tactic, the
results of that call make very clear that you, as a collaborator with
the very publicly, very virulently anti-union Koch Brothers, intend to
break the unions–even though you say out loud that your intention is
different.

You’re the Governor, obviously.  You have some legal authority to make
some decisions, and you have some responsibility to the voters who
elected you; we all understand that.  However, the citizens of your
state, and those of us around the country who are watching, are
becoming more and more skeptical of your motives.  Every time you
repeat the canard that the budget problem demands flexibility, while
at the same time you refuse to accept the exact concessions that would
fix the problem, it makes you look bad.  Every time you repeat the
canard that you’re not trying to bust the unions, even though most of
the relevant sections of the bill have absolutely nothing to do with
economic issues, it makes you look bad.  Every time you tell a Koch
brother, real or fictional, that you only decided not to provoke riots
in Madison because you thought it might make you look bad, you look
bad.

Do the right thing, Governor.  Negotiate with the unions.  It’s very,
very simple.  And as an academic, I rarely believe anything is simple.

Seth Kahn
West Chester, PA


If there were actual lefties in the mainstream media, this accusation might make more sense

January 15, 2011

OK, that’s snarky, but I couldn’t help it.

Charles Blow, in this morning’s NY Times (Sat 1/15), makes a reasonable point about the damage liberals have done to ourselves by attributing to Sarah Palin responsibility for Jared Loughner’s attack in Tucson a week ago today.  Reactions to her “blood libel” idiocy aside, it’s probably true that the rush (no pun intended) to pile on Palin almost certainly has damaged the possibility for real reconciliation (we’ll also set aside the extent to which reconciliation with the hard right is a worthy goal).  And it’s very likely, over the long haul, to generate sympathy for her that: (1) her opponents don’t want to give her and; (2) she doesn’t deserve.

My problem with Blow’s argument isn’t that he’s wrong.  It’s that he reinforces the extent to which people see what passes for liberalism in the mainstream media as actual liberalism.  I’m sorry, but with very few exceptions, actual representatives of the left don’t show up on TV.  The usual suspects–Paul Begala, James Carville, Donna Brazille, George Stephanopolous, et al (notice these are all Clinton administration veterans)–are barely even Democrats, much less actual liberals, much less lefties.

So the “polarization” that Blow and others have (correctly) accused the press of reinforcing isn’t really coming from the “poles.”  It’s coming from a mainstream media that barely represents the left end of the spectrum at all, while attributing liberalism to voices that aren’t much less conservative than “conservatives.”

One other issue with his argument that I have to raise–just because….  His claim is premised on the idea that we all jumped on Sarah Palin before we really knew what had happened.  Near the end of the column, he cites a poll in which 42% of respondents say they don’t think “political rhetoric” had anything to do with the shooting.  I’m just curious: what evidence do those 1100 randomly chosen people scattered across the nation have that the rest of us don’t?  That is, other than a handful of tidbits that we’ve learned about Loughner in the last few days, those poll respondents have no grounds whatsoever on which to make that determination that the talk-ocracy didn’t have a few days earlier.  Or put more directly, why is it OK for poll respondents to exonerate Palin/Limbaugh/Beck/O’Reilly based on no more evidence than Palin/Limbaugh/Beck/O’Reilly were accused at first?  If the claim “We don’t know what motivated him and probably never will” cuts one way, it cuts both, doesn’t it?


Shining some light on the dark underside

January 13, 2011

I read the text of President Obama’s speech in Tucson last night and watched it just this morning.  If you haven’t actually listened to it yet, you probably should.  It is, as he’s given to from time to time, a remarkable performance–humble and sad, visionary and inspirational, humane, all the characteristics of the Obama that drew us to him during the campaign and all too often get washed out by the noise of daily politics.

From cruising around the blogosphere last night after the speech, I gather that even some of the more conservative punditocracy were praising the speech.  I haven’t seen any reactions from Republican members of Congress, but when Charles Krauthammer gives a Democrat the nod, the Democrat must have done OK.  So let’s just say, for the sake of conversation, that Obama’s call for renewed civility and decency in our political discourse made a mark on the people with the loudest (that is, the most mass mediated) voices: elected officials and pundits.

Then I made the mistake (or, faced the demon–choose your metaphor) of beginning to read comments sections of stories about the speech.  I don’t know if YahooNews draws an especially nasty crowd or what, but it didn’t take 2 minutes from the end of the speech before screeches of “traitor” and “communist” and “worst President ever” and “he wasn’t even born here” showed up.  Today, out of the first ten comments, two of them say, “Google FEMA Concentration Camps and find out what Hussein means to do to YOU!”  Nobody explicitly calls for his assassination or violence directly against him, but let’s just say that his call for decency seems to have fallen on some deaf ears.

One of my favorite bloggers, Ed at Gin and Tacos, wrote the other day that one of the big problems in our current political scene is that nobody seems willing to call out the crazies.  What the hell is wrong with them?  How can anybody listen to a neighbor (much less a Congressperson or respected “journalist”) propagate the kind of insanity that we’ve come to take for granted without responding to it?  And I’m not just talking about the militaristic metaphors and the “climate of hate” that’s been flying around for the last few days.  I’m talking about somebody I defriended on Facebook because they thought it was hilarious when Barack Obama got his lip split playing basketball and said something like, “Damn, I wish I’d learned to play basketball so I could have smashed his face in.”  About the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!  If one of us peaceniks had said anything of the sort about George W. Bush, we’d have been accused of being TRAITORS (gasp).  In fact, some of us did say terrible things about George W. Bush (if there were an emoticon for a raised hand, I’d use it here) and were routinely called traitors.  Of course, we were also called traitors when we said nothing at all about GWB, but that’s another story…

Anyway, so my question for now is this.  If the big voices in our country got the message last night, and have begun to realize that the way we talk to each other is counterproductive, horrifying, unworthy of us, call it what you will, how do we get that message to the people who really need to hear it–our neighbors and co-workers, the people stockpiling weapons caches in case they need to revolt, the people who hide behind anonymity to threaten others’ safety and well-being, and so on?  There’s an argument to make that it took decades of building up to this level of anger and viciousness and that it will, therefore, take decades to build it down.  We don’t have time for that.  How do we accelerate that process?

I guess another way of asking the question: how do we, as activists, organize in our own communities (physical, virtual, professional, …) to support a more productive, humane discourse?  How do we even begin to talk about rebuilding trust, believing that what people who think differently are doing isn’t automatically an attempt to destroy us?

Once trust has been breached, it’s very difficult to rebuild.  At least right now, that’s the biggest challenge I see.


When We Do It, It’s Democracy; When You Do It, It’s Tyranny

January 12, 2011

[Let me make perfectly clear, at the outset, that I’m not laying specific blame for Jared Lee Loughren’s actions at the feet of Sarah Palin, or Rush Limbaugh, or Glenn Beck, or….  Not that I expect this disclaimer to matter much.  As I’ve been reading blogs and comments sections over the last few days, it’s pretty much impossible even to mention one of the right-wing heros without drawing immediate defensive responses that have little or nothing to do with what actually got said.  But hey, it’s worth a try.]

An extended version of a discussion that just started on my Facebook page when I posted a link to Sarah Palin’s statement re: the Giffords’ shooting.

Apparently, in Palin’s world, exercises in vicious rhetoric are “healthy debate” and “democracy” when Republicans do them.  Witness–

Some signs from Tea Party rallies (there are zillions more of these, of course, but I’m trying to make the point quickly)

When Rush Limbaugh says, “What Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country. He’s sitting there in jail. He knows what’s going on, he knows that…the Democrat party is attempting to find anybody but him to blame. He knows if he plays his cards right, he’s just a victim. He’s the latest in a never-ending parade of victims brought about by the unfairness of America…this guy clearly understands he’s getting all the attention and he understands he’s got a political party doing everything it can, plus a local sheriff doing everything that they can to make sure he’s not convicted of murder – but something lesser.”

When Sarah Palin herself posts an advertisement with crosshairs over the districts of Democratic incumbents whose politics she doesn’t like.

When Palin’s spokesperson denies that the crosshairs are gunsights.

When Joe Wilson yells “You lie!” at the President of the United States during a speech in front of the entire Congress and nation.

When Sarah accuses then-candidate Obama of “pallin’ around with terrorists” (Former Weatherman Bill Ayers)

When Sarah adopts the riff of “real Americans” as a central campaign theme in 2008, as if to suggest that anybody who’d vote for Obama isn’t a real American.

Endless criticisms of mainstream media for “gay-friendly” depictions of relationships, leading to the degradation of marriage, the evils of children everywhere, wars (oh, hi, Westboro Baptist freaks!), and so on.

Referring to the Affordable Healthcare Act as “socialist” and claiming that it will install “death panels”

The orchestration (largely organized by Freedom Works, although many Tea Partiers may not know that) of disruptions all over the nation at health care Town Hall meetings

This list could go on and on and on and on and on.

You could (I won’t, but it’s possible to) make an argument that, in fact, these are healthy exercises in democratic process.  As Palin herself puts it, democracy requires vigorous debate and exchanges of ideas; if you don’t like what somebody does/says, vote ’em out!  And that’s true.

The problem with Palin’s statement is the double-standard it applies.  That is, it’s fine for Republicans/conservatives to depict Obama as Hitler; to blame entertainment and news media for the collapse of “family values”; to disrupt Presidential speeches by accusing the President of terrible things; and so on.  But it’s “irresponsible” (gasp), unconscionable for anybody to explore the possibility that the extremely vitriolic, vicious, violent language that she and her ilk (Beck, O’Reilly, Limbaugh and the gang) deploy at just about every opportunity, might have had even the least bit to do with what happened on Tucson on Saturday.

So when you and your friends say it, it’s democracy.  When my friends and I say it, it’s “irresponsible,” or as you and Rush often like to put it, tyrannical.

As I concluded the Facebook post this morning (this is about as concisely as I can say it, which is why I’m just using it again)–

Be quiet, Sarah. Unfortunately, the same arrogance that makes you think we care what you say keeps you from understanding when you need not to talk.