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A Feckless Country: Free Speech in America

Updated: Nov 10, 2018

“I refused to suffer in silence. I signed, I sobbed, & groaned, and sometimes screeched and screamed. And I must confess to my shame and sorrow, that I sometimes swore.”

– John Adams to Harrison Gray Otis, 1823


People say, ‘What’s it like to be a minority of one, or a kick-bag for the Internet?’ It washes off me like jizz off a porn star’s face.”

Christopher Hitchens


When Emanuel Leutze finished his 1851 painting of George Washington braving the Delaware River on Christmas day in 1776 he got everything wrong. The Continental Army travelled in the dark, not at dawn, the stars and stripes were not yet the flag of the infant United States, the boat is too small and the river is too wide. Admirers often say Leutze captured the “spirit” of the day but I have often disagreed with even that assessment. Washington is at the front of the boat staring at the opposite shore line boldly against the cold, facing impossible odds as a wholesome American demi-god. This may be the Washington we know but it is not the Washington that was. When the general left his tent that night there was a pretty good chance it would be his last night on Earth and he knew it. It was a last ditch effort to save the American Revolution. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine had written from the camp that winter. It was lowest point for the Americans up to that point. The mood was depressing. It was more of a march to the scaffold than a march to victory. While loading onto the boat, Washington was standing behind General Henry ‘Ox’ Knox, a two hundred eighty pound bookseller from Massachusetts who would later become President Washington’s Secretary of War. As Knox was entering the boat Washington kicked him on his behind. “Shift that fat ass Harry,” he said to him. “But slowly, or you’ll swamp the damned boat.” This is a true story of the real Washington told by Knox himself after the war.


Emanuel Leutze’s cinematic portrait alongside Henry Knox’s narrative of the day’s events serve as an allegory of two competing ideas of what the United States was and should be. Is it Leutze’s Washington, stoic and unnerved? Or is it Knox’s “Shift that fat ass” Commander-in-Chief? The truth of the matter is the latter story actually built our country. Though many non-believers of that truth, typically the prude ones, reject it and opt for the image of a messiah. Unfortunately for them, free speech, which includes vulgarity, is the hallmark of every democracy, especially ours. Today it finds itself infringed upon. It is scared and running, chased from all directions. A lot of people have a misconceived idea of liberty especially when it comes to free speech. Free speech doesn’t grant you the right to scream “fire” in a crowded movie theater or spray paint a swastika on private property. Your Bible verse cannot tell anyone what to do. Nor can your Quran or Torah. The First Amendment protects us from that. Your rights end where mine begin and vice versa. One has the right to speak but it doesn’t mean we all have to listen. “The First Amendment only protects citizens against restrictions on their speech by government actors,” said Lyrissa Lidsky, the dean of the University of Missouri School of Law. “Facebook and Google are not government actors. So the First Amendment simply doesn’t speak to their conduct.” Lidsky is concerned however with certain networks being able to pick and choose what speech they allow and disallow. “I am an ardent, ardent defender of free speech,” she said. “I would hope, for free expression purposes, that platforms would go case by case.” Jack Dorsey the CEO of Twitter (one of the only Internet networks that has not suspended Alex Jones from its platform) believes the best way to combat misinformation on these platforms is to invalidate them with arguments rooted in fact and reality alongside true investigative journalism. This is the hard way, but it is the right way and the only way you can truly combat false information and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. Right wing conspiracy theorists (now in the main stream) have always claimed, with little to no evidence that tech companies like Facebook have attempted to silence them. Now they have proof. Banning Alex Jones has made him a victim. He has received a surge of new users since his removal from some networks. All it did was move him and his followers to obscure parts of the Internet. Realistically, banning Alex Jones did nothing.


At Reed College in Oregon, students marched into the classroom of Professor Lucía Martínez Valdivia, a gay mixed-race woman, during her lecture. Dressed in all black the protestors shouted Martínez Valdivia down, silencing her during class and confronted her afterward, having already written a letter accusing her of being anti-black. They considered this intrusion justified since the English professor was wearing a t-shirt which read “Poetry is lit,” a clear appropriation of African American culture according to the protestors. Another “controversy” at Reed was the teaching of Plato and Aristotle, which protestors called “white supremacist” and “anti-black.” These students were not open to dialogue with their teachers. They had been offended for one reason or another, and so their educators must be punished. Lucía Martínez Valdivia had respectfully asked students to refrain from occupying her classroom while teaching since she has PTSD and was afraid a protest would trigger it. Her request was ignored in the pursuit of some greater justice. “[I] dealt with physical anxiety – lack of sleep, nausea, loss of appetite, inability to focus.” The offended had become the offenders. An irony lost on the protestors. No doubt a result of missing their English classes. This is just one instance at one university in the United States where free speech is completely taken for granted; treated as non-essential, a nuisance. At Berkley comedian Bill Maher, an atheist, was disinvited from giving the commencement speech in 2017 because of comments he made about Islam, which the change.org petition to disinvite him called “bigoted and racist” as well as “offensive”. Islam is a faith that is practiced by people of all different colors from all different backgrounds. Criticizing a belief system does not make you racist. Believing that a religion should be held to a lower standard because many of its followers don’t have white skin is. When conservative radio host Ben Shapiro spoke at Berkley it cost over $600 thousand dollars to pay for his security, as well as barricades to protect against the one thousand protestors. Although there was no violence that night, police worried Shapiro’s appearance would be a repeat of Milo Yiannopoulos’ visit that February, where violence and destruction was the order of the day. Outside of Shapiro’s event protestors held signs that read “No Trump. No KKK. No fascist USA.” Ben Shapiro is Jewish and is listed as one of the top ten Jewish journalist to receive the most online abuse. Although Shapiro is a panderer, who sounds smarter than he actually is, he is not a hard right-winger. Especially when compared to Milo Yiannopoulos, whom Shapiro called a “provocateur.” Once again the protestors couldn’t make a good case, their goal was vague and their attacks missed the mark. Ben Shapiro did not agree with them and that was enough. He had offended and therefore deserved whatever he got. Unfortunately for these protestors being offended is not a counter point; it’s an escape from having to make one. College is supposed to be a place where people learn to think for themselves. They are supposed to challenge their own thinking and put their debating skills to the test. That can’t happen if one refuses to have a conversation all together which is easy to avoid from the comfortable living of a West Coast university. It is obvious these students aren’t interested in advancing or preserving the general welfare of their community but are only concerned with promoting their own self-righteousness. Where this problem stems from is hard to pinpoint, but the solution lies in the educators. “In the face of intimidation, educators must speak up, not shut down,” says Lucía Martínez Valdivia. “Ours is a position of unique responsibility: We teach people not what to think, but how to think.” For those on the left, this is a civil war. In the 1960s Berkley was the bastion of free speech, the First Amendment was something liberals cherished and now issue has been handed it over to the other side, though not really.


Some on the right, like Shapiro, believe they have a monopoly on free speech. They don’t. Donald Trump was famous on the campaign trail for removing protestors and now as president he removes journalists that ask “tough” questions. The leader of the Republican Party tweets and moans whenever a news report doesn’t flatter him. He called Nazis “good people” after a white supremacist murdered a woman at their Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville Virginia. Trump called for the firing of a comedian that called his daughter a “feckless cunt” on her comedy program and wanted the libel laws changed for his own sake. A man who calls the free press the “enemy of the people” is no friend to the First Amendment. These feelings are also shared with the rest of his party. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell informally reinstated the gag rule, originally used during the 19th century to obstruct any debate on the topic of slavery, when Senator Elizabeth Warren was reading a letter by Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor. 43% of Republicans believe the President should have the authority to close new outlets that engage in “bad behavior.” Their arguments are almost always fueled by emotion rather than facts or logic. They are suspiciously eager and perfectly willing to dismiss information at even the slightest hint of bias. The attackers of free speech on the left, however foolish, are a fringe; mostly confined to small pockets of rebellion on college campuses. None of their voices have any real authority or power on a national scale. The conservative attacks on free speech are in the main stream and they come from the White House and Congress where they hold the majority. That is much more dangerous than a bunch of 20 something year olds at Berkley. If conservatives feel the real threat to free speech is coming from the left, they’re ignoring the elephant in the room. It is a convenient talking point for now but if they were really worried about the First Amendment they would be looking inward.


Free speech in America is a fickle thing. People are often satisfied when they see the other side being silenced in one way or the other, with little regard for free speech and its limits. However these are always hollow victories. You never really know if you believe in something until you question it. That is why it is always good to surround yourself with people you disagree with. During the 1950s when Senator Joseph McCarthy insisted on removing all Communist literature from American libraries, President Dwight Eisenhower rebuffed the suggestion. “Don’t join the book burners,” he advised students at Dartmouth College. “Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go to your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own decency. That should be the only censorship. How will we defeat communism unless we know what it is, and what it teaches, and why does it have such appeal for men, why are so many people swearing allegiance to it?” If Eisenhower can’t convince you of the importance of the right to write, read, speak and think perhaps the wise words of playwright John Waters will. “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”


Sources:

Davis, Kenneth C. Don’t Know Much About History: Everything you need to know about American History but never learned. HarperCollins Publishers, USA (2001)









Meacham, John. The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. Random House, New York (2018).

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