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.

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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.


Extremism on both sides? Let’s make this perfectly clear

January 9, 2011

I wrote a post about a month ago in which I disputed the “liberals and conservatives are equally vitriolic” claim, but feel like it’s worth saying something else about that.  A friend posted this link on Facebook this morning, and I (not to put too fine a point on it) DEFY any of you to develop evidence that liberals have planned, attempted, and executed this many acts of horrific violence–just in the last TWO YEARS.

Or put it this way: sure, there are plenty of angry lefties.  I’m one of them.  But the “Both sides are just as bad” argument is total bullshit.

 


Moderates and “Extremists”

October 31, 2010

Just read this piece on cnn.com and it prompted me to post for the first time in, oh, almost two months–

http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/10/31/avlon.rally.sanity/index.html?eref=mrss_igoogle_cnn

I didn’t go to the Stewart/Colbert “rally,” and as I read more about it, I’m glad I didn’t.  Although it sounds like it was probably fun, and while I respect Stewart and Colbert as much as you can respect professional entertainers’ political work, the more I read, the more I realize the rally seems to have reinforced one of the great misnomers (read: bullshit) of this political period.

In simplest terms, the notion that “extremists at both ends of the spectrum” have hijacked our political discourse is crap.  Total and complete crap.  No, that’s an insult to crap.

Yes, there are extreme leftists.  Chances are, unless you’re one of them, you’ve never seen or heard of any of them.  There’s simply no equivalent on the left for the lies, hatred, vitriol, distortion, power-hunger, lies, lies, hate, violence, lies, and violence and hate of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, John Boehner (who, if he’s not one of this gang sure seems to want to be), Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn, Rand Paul, Andrew Breitbart, James O’Keefe, …  the list goes on and on and on and on.  None.  Amy Goodman?  Who does a radio show that about 43 people listen to?  At least she doesn’t make shit up out of whole cloth to suit her agenda.  Michael Moore?  He’s a clown, and nobody on the actual left much listens to him anymore (if we ever did anyway).  Barack Obama?  You’re an idiot if you think he’s a liberal.

The facts are quite simple.  Our political discourse has been hijacked by bad people who spew whatever shit is convenient at the time in order to scare people into ceding power to them.  It doesn’t matter if the shit they spew is the same shit they spewed last week, or last year, or whether the new shit as antithetical to the old shit.  These people will say anything (read: ANYTHING) to maintain power for themselves and their friends, no matter what the cost to the nation or the world.  And it’s THEM, along with their corporate-media lapdogs, who propagate the myth that “extremism” comes from both directions.  It doesn’t.

We’ve seen this strategy before.  Conservatives are very good at accusing liberals of doing whatever conservatives are actually doing; it allows them to deflect attention from the fact that they’re the ones doing it.  That anybody actually believes the shit they spew is, quite simply, a bonus.  Their primary purpose is to generate noisy, horrible-sounding static; the goal is to make people stop listening.  And it’s working.  Yesterday’s Rally to Restore Sanity was, by most accounts, a pretty much content-free feel-good session from which nothing at all emerged.  Yay.

What it will take to send the rightwing extremists back where they belong is simply to shut them off.  I don’t mean that those of us on the left should ignore their existence.  I do mean that we have an obligation to put their hate-filled shit in its proper context at every turn.  Don’t debate them head-to-head because they never, ever listen; and neither do they have any actual commitment to the positions they take, so changing their minds isn’t really a goal.  Instead, we have to make sure that the larger swath of the public, who isn’t firmly committed to left or right (they call themselves “moderate,” while I call them “uncommitted,” but that’s a topic for another day), doesn’t hear the shit unchecked.  Call out the lies.  Call out the flip-flops.  Don’t let their hypocrisy, hate, and lies slip down the memory hole.

If leftist extremists EVER have the kind of bully-pulpit the right currently does, we can talk about finding the “center” and extremism from “both sides.”  Until then, the insistence that it’s coming from both sides is simply right-wing propaganda.


Town Hall meetings

August 11, 2009

So today, for the first time, I saw Obama supporters step over the line in an attempt to respond to Freedom Watch and the Tea Baggers’ disruptions at town hall meetings.  What CNN didn’t comment on, when they showed the clip, was how totally furious the Obama supporter was.  And I don’t think it was the security that was not-very-gently leading her out the door.  She seemed like she was headed straight for the conservative contingent, and wanted to tangle with them.

Probably best that she wasn’t able to; it sure wouldn’t be very helpful for the first blood to be drawn by somebody who’s ostensibly on the same side I am.  I don’t want any blood drawn, of course, but the fury emanating from the right on this issue isn’t much different from the fury that emanates from anti-abortion activists; seems like the right has adopted that page from the playbook.  Infuriate your opposition, and then jump up and down celebrating when one of us acts on it.  Lovely.

I appreciate what the Dems are trying to do as they respond to this madness in their own meetings–to call the tension out, make a point of asking for some decency (civility is just too much to ask for these days, I guess), and do the best they can to keep the meetings moving while assholes try to shout them down.  It makes the assholes look really bad, as if they didn’t already.  Unfortunately, the people who need to be convinced that the assholes are assholes won’t be convinced even by direct evidence.  Not sure what to do about that.

By the way, a public shout-out to CNN, who hasn’t handled this whole mess very well.  But today, Rick Sanchez actually got on the air and explained to viewers that most of what the Freedom Watch people and the Palinites are spewing is just wrong.  I’m not sure it’ll make a huge dent in the problem, but at least somebody tried.  It’s a start.