Freedom For The Speech We Hate

Freedom For The Speech We Hate

by

Marc Colten

For the past several weeks I have been agonizing over a dilemma. I recognize that I am quite fortunate to live in a country where I can even have this problem. I can’t imagine the citizens of North Korea facing the same existential crisis. This is my problem:

freedom-of-speechThis is Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech”, part of his “Four Freedoms” published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, and it is one of the few times I truly had a problem with Rockwell.

Look at the scene, reminding us of the precious freedom we had and for which our soldiers were fighting. Unfortunately, Rockwell missed the point. It’s true we cannot see everyone in the room, but in 1943 this small town (the speaker has a “Town Meeting” agenda in his pocket) was less likely to be as diverse as they are today. Look at the man to his right, looking up at him admiringly. His father perhaps? In any event, no one is trying to silence him. He is not being ejected from the room. Are we to believe that this man is saying anything other than America is great, the war is just and mom’s apple pie is a the best dessert? Rockwell was certainly not suggesting that this man was protesting sending our soldiers overseas to fight and die for foreigners and Jews. Yet many Americans had that view, more publically before Pearl Harbor, but even in 1943 there still had to be many of them.

Now, today, we are faced with the public airing of the same views and symbols of the people we were fighting back then. But would we silence these people if we could? You cannot regulate thought or even expression. Even in concentration camps the condemned prisoners created art in secret while they were forbidden to show them, or to discuss their views. We hated Trump for his attempt to silence a Latino reporter, mocking his background and his Spanish language network and for trying to replace a judge for his Mexican heritage. We were certainly, and justifiably, angered by the Right Wing response to Black Lives Matter who were reviled and ridiculed for their anger at police violence.

So what do we do when it is speech and thought we hate? Do we ban the swastika, or the Confederate flag? Do we ban speeches and marches or demand some form of ID to buy Tiki torches? We know we cannot, and should not, control thought. Or do we? Do we think that suppressing expression will isolate those people, convincing them that they are alone so that their hate dies out from loneliness? Or will it simply refine it, making it more vicious, fueled by proof that they are being persecuted?

I have been aware of these people for decades. As a Jew I see myself as the target of so much of their hatred. But what am I to do? What am I to think? I deplore these people but that is my freedom of thought. This article is my freedom of speech. But I find myself terrified by my own beliefs. Is my acceptance the same as approval? We must not be silent, but neither should they, no matter how much we wish they were.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

Are we ready for where this belief might take us? Trump has proven that anger and hatred are strong selling points. Politics might never be the same again. Politicians are faced with a problem unique to their profession. Do they want to do the job, or do they want to keep the job? Trump’s form of demagoguery might very well become the norm by politicians who convince themselves that only by playing to hatred and bigotry can they stay in office to accomplish anything. I honestly don’t believe “Profiles in Courage” will be updated in our lifetimes. With only moral suasion on our side, there may be no good outcome.

I didn’t write this article to say that I had the answer, only that I was terrified by the question itself. Only in time will we have an answer.

The “Old Joe” Syndrome

I remember an episode of MASH where Corporal Klinger tried another crazy scheme to get out of the war which led to a classic exchange:

Major Burns: “Why is he trying to get out? I like it here.”
Colonel Potter: “Great. One of you is nuts and now I’ve got to figure out which one!”

We’ve come to that in the story of the dueling military moms. Cindy Sheehan protested for weeks at George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford. TX and naturally the right wing media has gone out of its way to demonize her. The most obvious way of dismissing a Gold Star mom is to point out that, in her grief, she isn’t seeing the “big picture”. Each fallen soldier leaves behind grieving families but the rest of us go on with our lives. It’s ugly and sad, but that’s the way life is. So, why not simply walk away from Sheehan? The answer is that it simply isn’t the way the Republicans do business.

Demonizing the opposition is standard operating procedure for the Bush administration. However, even by Bush standards, it’s been pretty ugly:

“Self-sainted Mother Sheehan throws acid in the face of the other grieving Gold Star mothers who don’t happen to agree with her lunatic ravings.” – Ann Coulter

“I can’t help but notice that Cindy Sheehan is from Vacaville, California, very close to U.C. Davis, very close to U.C. Berkeley, reasonably close to U.C. Santa Cruz, where I believe that a lot of those WTO protesters came from. What do the university anti-war protesters have to do with her?” – John Gibson

“To expiate the pain of losing her firstborn son in the Iraq war, Cindy Sheehan decided to cheer herself up by engaging in Stalinist agitprop outside President Bush’s Crawford ranch. It’s the strangest method of grieving I’ve seen since Paul Wellstone’s funeral. Someone needs to teach these liberals how to mourn.” – Ann Coulter

“I mean, Cindy Sheehan is just Bill Burkett. Her story is nothing more than forged documents. There’s nothing about it that’s real, including the mainstream media’s glomming onto it. It’s not real. It’s nothing more than an attempt. It’s the latest effort made by the coordinated left.” – Rush Limbaugh

“In a broader sense, none of the particulars about Sheehan matters: not her remarks about Israel and neocons, not her lefty politics, not her divorce and not whether she’s entitled to a second presidential audience. What matters is her ability is to serve as an icon, a symbolic rallying point for an antiwar movement. And all she needs to achieve that is the moral claim she already has, being the mother of a kid who was killed in Iraq.” – Dana Milbank

“Now, look, when my youngest son’s face got blown off in Panama, Mrs. Liddy naturally was unhappy with that, but she didn’t go down and protest outside the home of the president. She went down and stayed with her son until she grew him a new face, and then with his new face, as a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, he went all the way from Kuwait to Baghdad. That’s how to do it.” – G. Gordon Liddy

“Just to be clear: although Cindy Sheehan’s campaign is a campaign of hate directed against her own country in time of war, although it is filled with unconscionable lies and slanders against her own countrymen – not to mention, by implication, her own son – it does not in my view constitute legally actionable treason. Is its intent – defeat of America on the field of battle, designation of her own country as the enemy of humanity – treasonous? It is. Allow me to say also that as a Jew I do not appreciate her attempt to make the Jews of Israel who have been the targets of 25,000 terrorist attacks in the last five years responsible for the terrorist war against us. This a hateful woman with a hateful message.” – David Horowitz

“At Cindy Sheehan’s side since Aug. 6 when she began her antiwar protest outside President Bush’s Texas ranch have been three groups that openly support the Iraqi insurgency against U.S. troops: Code Pink-Women For Peace, United for Peace & Justice, and Veterans For Peace.” – Robert Novak

“The “Peaceful Occupation of Crawford,” as Sheehan has dubbed it, seems a protest less against war than against good manners, deodorant soap and the march of time. Yet, the most heart-rending feature of the entire spectacle is Cindy Sheehan herself. She seems to believe this transient crew will help her piece together her shattered life — a dead son, a wrecked marriage, a shredded family. But how long can one lean on people who don’t even call themselves by their own names?” – Tony Snow

“Sad yet riveting, like a wreck by the side of the road, Cindy Sheehan, a plaything of her own sincerities and other peoples’ opportunisms, has already been largely erased from the national memory by new waves of media fickleness in the service of the public’s summer ennui.” – George Will

“No one in the media finds this rhetoric overheated. But just how overheated is Cindy Sheehan? In the world of politics, this woman deserves a padded cell. On her website, Sheehan wildly proclaims that “overwhelming” evidence proves the president is a traitor: “George [Bush] and his indecent bandits traitorously had intelligence fabricated to fit their goal of invading Iraq.” – Brent Bozell

It makes me feel young again to read these comments because the Right hasn’t changed its arguments since the 60’s. Once again anyone who opposes a war is a long haired smelly hippie commie who hates America and wants the enemy to win. What makes it particularly amusing (or sickening) is the comment above by David Horowitz who, in the 60’s, was editor of Ramparts magazine, which had just that attitude. He has gone from hating America to hating those who dare to disagree with him.

If Cindy Sheehan is nuts then what about Tammy Pruett, who Bush quoted as being okay with her four sons in Iraq dying in combat?

“Tammy says this — and I want you to hear this — ‘I know that if something happens to one of the boys, they would leave this world doing what they believe, what they think is right for our country. And I guess you couldn’t ask for a better way of life than giving it for something that you believe in.’ America lives in freedom because of families like the Pruetts.”

Pruett is a classic example of the “Old Joe Syndrome”. Don’t bother looking it up, I just named it. In the John Wayne version of “The Alamo” there’s a scene in which the Mexicans (in a 19th century romantic gesture) allow the women and children to leave so they won’t be massacred. One of the women is blind and someone suggests that her husband (“Old Joe”) should be allowed to leave because who will take care of this blind woman if (actually when) her husband is killed. Before anyone can say anything the blind woman steps forward and says:

“Oh, no you don’t! Why Old Joe is twice the man any of you are. You can’t send him away. He’s got just as much right as the rest of you to stay here and you can’t deny him that!”

I half expected a rifle butt to smack her in the head. “Oops,” says Old Joe. “I’ll just get her out of here.” Don’t get me wrong – Old Joe and Tammy Pruett’s sons have every right to stay where they are, but where does Tammy Pruett get off speaking for them? Unlike Casey Sheehan, they can speak for themselves if anyone bothered to ask. While neither Cindy Sheehan nor Tammy Pruett can truly claim to speak for their children, I believe that Sheehan is closer to the truth, since I take it as a truism that the dead would, by and large, prefer not to be dead:

Knowlt Hoheimer (from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology)

I was the first fruits of the battle of Missionary Ridge.
When I felt the bullet enter my heart
I wished I had staid at home and gone to jail
For stealing the hogs of Curl Trenary,
Instead of running away and joining the army.
Rather a thousand times the county jail
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,
And this granite pedestal
Bearing the words, “Pro Patria.”
What do they mean, anyway?

As for Pruett’s four sons, I’d prefer to hear it from them, not their mother (and certainly not from the president speaking for her) how willing they are to die in Iraq. I’d also like to hear from the Pruett sons’ soldier comrades. I’m betting on “Your mom’s crazy, dude.” It was bad enough for Bush to speak on behalf of America and dare the terrorists to “Bring it on!”, but I don’t know how you’re supposed to feel when your mother says how willing you are to die for the president.

The real reason the Right is trying to smear Sheehan is that they think that if you kill the messenger you’ve killed the message. This is not unlike Martin Luther King in the 60’s. It was not a good idea to say, publically at least, that you felt that blacks should remain second class citizens so instead they tried to get dirt on Dr. King. The idea was that African-Americans would prefer to continue to be discriminated against rather than follow a man who had committed adultery. With Sheehan they think that the anti-war movement rises and sets with Sheehan and that it will simply evaporate if they label her an anti-Semitic lunatic. The fact is, liberals were against the war before Sheehan and will continue to be against it whether she stays or goes.