Speaking American as a second language
The correct answer every American should reflexively give to naked assaults upon freedom of speech is “Go to hell.” It just rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it? Sometimes we throw in directions, or explicit instructions for what the totalitarian is supposed to do when he gets there.
Of course, it’s a little harder to say “go to hell” when it’s not your speech getting censored. We work out those conflicts by challenging ourselves to defend tough cases as an intellectual exercise. During our school years, we review the history of battles fought to protect deeply unpopular speech, and congratulate ourselves for living in a highly evolved society where the American flag can be burned as a form of expression, and we endlessly debate the definition of “indecent” material.
“I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it!” is our battle cry. How quintessentially American is that declaration? The First Amendment is sacred – it comes first for a reason, don’t you know! This veneration of the First Amendment is, to a certain degree, connected to the media culture’s reliance upon it. There are parts of the Bill of Rights that reporters who worship the promise of centralized government power would rather not dwell upon, but the First Amendment is written in fire upon the insides of their eyelids, because without it, they would find themselves out of business.
And yet… the fiery American ideal of free speech has been eroding for a long time. Many have accepted the notion that criticism equals oppression, which goes a long way toward clouding their ability to perceive actual oppression. One of the highest-profile “freedom of speech” celebrity causes of the past decade was the fate of the Dixie Chicks, a group of singers who criticized President George Bush on foreign soil, in a manner that angered many Americans, including a sizable portion of their fan base.
We were told that criticizing the Dixie Chicks, or declaring an angry refusal to purchase their albums, constituted “censorship.” In other words, you weren’t allowed to respond to their speech. Anything less than polite applause for their outrageous remarks was caricatured as oppression. Rolling Stone ran a cover photo of the nude singers tattooed with words like “boycott,” “Saddam’s Angels,” and “Traitors.” A healthy commitment to freedom of speech obliged us to defend their right to free speech without disagreement.
During the early days after 9/11, the media had a collective heart attack when George Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, suggested that “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.” This comment was widely interpreted as an ominous sign of twilight for freedom of expression.
Do you recall what prompted Fleischer to make this comment? He was not talking about “comedian” Bill Maher’s disgusting assertion that it was wrong to call the 9/11 hijackers cowards, because they were gutsy enough to get on airplanes with box cutters and die in their assault on America, whereas our political and military establishment was cravenly lobbing cruise missiles at its enemies. That was brought up later in the interview with Fleischer, and he said that if press reports of Maher’s comments were accurate, it was “a terrible thing to say.”
No, Fleischer’s famous comment about people watching what they say and do concerned a Republican congressman, John Cooksey, who said on the contentious topic of security screening, “If I see someone come in and he’s got a diaper on his head and a fan belt around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over and checked.” But it didn’t matter what Fleischer was actually talking about. It didn’t even matter that he was merely a press secretary venturing his personal opinion about how people should refrain from inflammatory remarks during a moment of national crisis. The reflexive American outrage at censorship kicked in, stoked by hyperventilating “reporters”… and within a matter of days, the genial Ari Fleischer had become an unlikely symbol of incipient star-spangled fascism.
We’ve even flirted with the idea that refusing to subsidize certain forms of expression is tantamount to censorship. This was one of the core arguments deployed during the late 90s battles over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. If government started getting picky about which art it forced taxpayers to subsidize – even when said “art” involved crucifixes and urine, or images of the Virgin Mary and elephant dung – the result would be nothing less than an offense against the freedom of speech. One hears the same thing when funding for PBS or NPR is challenged.
But now we face an assault on free speech emanating from foreign sources, entirely based on the un-Constitutional notion that a single religion’s laws concerning “blasphemy” must be respected as a matter of American policy… and the official response was not “Go to hell.”
To this very day – after nearly a week of murderous violence in the Middle East, complete with chants of “Death to America” and little kids holding up signs that say “Behead all those who insult the prophet” – the response from the Obama Administration is still “nuanced” and qualified. Nothing said by anyone associated with this Administration could be interpreted as an absolute refusal to entertain demands for censorship. It’s always accompanied with concessions to the mob: well of course we denounce the video, we understand why you’re insulted, nobody should be running around insulting anyone else’s religion.
Really? How long has that been the official policy of the Obama Administration? I ask because I happened to be channel-surfing the other day, and came across a movie called “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.” It’s about a couple of stoners having “hilarious” misadventures on Christmas Eve. At one point, they die and go to Heaven, where they encounter Jesus Christ as a whiny lounge lizard who has a babe hanging off each arm. In another scene, a wacky plan to steal a Christmas tree involves literally punching the teeth out of a Catholic bishop, followed by a journey through a shower full of nubile naked nuns. The actor who plays Kumar is named Kal Penn. He used to work for the Obama Administration. There’s even a joke about it in the movie.
Far too many people have clearly learned to speak American as a second language. The commitment to freedom of speech and religion is a political decision, swiftly abandoned in the face of violently determined opposition. If you’re a law-abiding, harmless member of an entirely peaceful congregation, you and your beliefs can get mocked, insulted, and even pushed around by ObamaCare laws all day long. Meanwhile, the criticism of favored speech can be oppressed through government force, as in the case of Democrat mayors declaring war on the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain – not because of anything the company did, but because its CEO expressed politically incorrect views in support of traditional marriage.
The response to “I order you to be silent” is no longer “Go to hell,” but an invitation to further discussion of terms: Who’s giving the order? How disagreeable is the person being told to shut up? What are the artistic merits of the speech that must be suppressed?
And while the Obama Administration makes its calculations with respect to “Innocence of Muslims,” the Iranians just added another half-million dollars to the bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head. Reuters chose to report this by delicately noting that Rushdie is “an Indian-born British novelist who has nothing to do with the film.” An imam in Dearborn, Michigan who just attended a State Department dinner just said, while denouncing the violent attacks on American embassies abroad, that the people who made the film “should be stopped,” with measures from the U.S. government “much more strong than verbal condemnation,” and accused those promoting the film of having “blood on their hands.” Negotiations over the price of silence continue.