During our latest round of free-speech wars, I wrote some posts at Twitlonger on the subject. In the past I would have left them there, or tried to integrate them into a single essay. Now I will try a simple method: publish them sequentially, internet style, in reverse chronological order. The first post below appeared October 12. The last one appeared October 10.
Relationship between free speech and freedom
The disturbing thing, noted by FCC chair Amit Pai in the article below, is opponents of free speech seem to be everywhere. One group after another adopts the position, ‘free speech for me but not for you’. This stance comes out most clearly when campus gangs – they are not hecklers – use force and coordinated action to silence speakers they do not like. The president weighs in regularly with invective designed to demean the ideal of free speech, and therefore free thought. This president is highly conscious of his popularity with certain groups. He would not attack the First Amendment if he thought his loyalists would desert him as a result.
Journalists regularly say, freedom of the press is essential for democracy. They are right. The principle reaches further still. Free speech is essential for thinking: any kind of worthwhile thought. If you lose your ability to speak and write freely, you have lost all your liberty. Animals, who have their own languages and whose speech is not regulated, have more freedom than you do, if you cannot express yourself as you like. If you want to suppress freedom of thought, you want to place yourself and all your brethren beneath the animals.
‘Freedom of speech for me but not for you’ has never worked anywhere, for anyone. If you deprive one group of their freedom in this respect, you remove that freedom for everyone. Even if you count yourself among the overlords in a society that disallows freedom of speech to underlings, you will never have freedom of thought. The entire society becomes like a school of fish, where every member of the school follows unseen signals. They all respond instinctively to signals outside themselves.
To take a simple example. Campus activists want to eliminate hate speech from their community. They regard certain kinds of speech as too objectionable to tolerate. We can readily see the consequences of activism in this vein. Have you listened to college students who talk about why they pursue this aim, to extinguish certain kinds of speech? They all sound the same, like automatons. They think the same way. They use the same vocabulary. They seem to have attended a totalitarian sleep-away camp, to use one person’s description of current educational institutions. How can you go away to college, and come out thinking like everyone else?
Free speech and open minds go together. Open minds support every kind of discourse, no matter how objectionable. People open to many viewpoints do not feel any obligation to attend to every other viewpoint, but they definitely want to choose from every possibility. In an open culture, you can sort high quality thought from low quality thought quite easily. That is why you go to college, to learn how to do that. In a closed culture, this sorting process is harder to accomplish. As our culture closes up and divides into like minded groups, we find colleges participate in this pattern. You may well feel isolated if you do not adopt dominant modes of thought.
We do not depend on our leaders to teach us about free thought. We do depend on them to leave us alone. Our expectations for people who lead us in the public sphere are low right now. People of every political label feel a sense of distrust and betrayal. When the president excoriates people who disagree with him, we note it. It makes us feel uneasy. More disturbing still is recognition that so many among the president’s enemies and adherents agree with his fundamental argument: get in line. We cannot tolerate people who do or say things we have ruled out. When we rule certain things out, however, the group in power abandons any pretense of principled behavior. Group members know that when people in another group grab more power than they have, the other group will rule them out. You utterly lose your freedom when your only assurance of keeping it rests on superior power and coercive practices.
‘Freedom of speech for me but not for you’ has never worked anywhere, for anyone. If you deprive one group of their freedom in this respect, you remove that freedom for everyone.
Donald Trump vs. the media
Today Trump said journalists have to stop writing whatever they want to write. I thought that was free speech.
Here’s the quotation, delivered in public with Candadian Prime Minister Trudeau: “it is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write.”
He went further and said news outlets should lose their license to broadcast if they don’t produce news he likes. Fortunately, several people who know the law better than Trump does said, it doesn’t work that way.
Well of course it doesn’t, but Trump does not care what the law says. We are in for some interesting battles here.
NFL players: kneeling shows respect for your country and defeats the president’s insidious tirades
Here we go, NFL players: the league’s chief goat, Roger Goodell, says you have to stand.
Goodell’s latest announcement is absolutely consistent with his craven approach to league discipline. His first response to the president’s demand that any ‘son of a bitch’ who kneels should be fired was correct. We do not listen to that kind of language, nor do we bend to that kind of demand around here. Two and a half weeks later, after Pence pulls his own little protest in Indianapolis, Goodell joins owners Jerry Jones and Adam Gase in the basement of self respect.
I said it yesterday, and I’ll say it once more: men and women who bend to Trump’s will abase themselves. In their own hearts, they can never live down their shame. They show themselves they have no self-respect, just has Trump himself has no self-respect. People who respect themselves, and who expect others to have the same self regard, do not talk the way Trump talks. Bullies and belittlers hate themselves even as they are full of narcissistic self-congratulation. The poisonous gas that billows from their mouths, their hearts and their unhappy souls affects everyone who contacts them. If you want to understand how this psychology operates for someone who is powerful but not president, think of the current stories about Harvey Weinstein.
We used to call people who act like Trump and Weinstein pigs. Unfortunately the name insults an animal recognized to have high intelligence and a friendly disposition. I have heard Trump called an oaf, a clown, a bully, and insane, but I have not yet heard anyone call him a pig. That is exactly what he is: cartoonists have no trouble giving his face and head a piggish look when they draw him. Why does this collection of horrendous traits seem to coalesce in people like Weinstein and Trump? Do we just let them get their way often enough that they can’t see how rotten they are?
NFL players, please don’t let Trump get his way this time. To a person, you share a warrior’s solidarity all of your fellow players. If all of you refuse to play over this issue – all it takes is that everyone kneel together – Trump, Goodell, and the owners will back down. They may not back down immediately, but Trump picked the wrong fight this time. His position has no foundation except in his own hobbled mind, a mind infested with ugly pustules and overflowing contempt. Do not give in to him. Do not give in to people who side with him. You can afford to take a stand and kneel on this one. Please do it.
‘Freedom of speech for me but not for you’ has never worked anywhere, for anyone. If you deprive one group of their freedom in this respect, you remove that freedom for everyone.
Discover whether team owners will actually forfeit games to please the president
Mr. Trump disrespects himself, his office, the people he leads, and his country. Why would we care to listen when he talks about respect?
Time for every football player to kneel during the anthem. Let them meet in advance to decide what they will do. Let Jerry Jones forfeit every game. If the players show unity on this issue, they will win.
The president has picked a fight that takes this issue beyond police mistreatment of black people. By calling every player who kneels a son of a bitch, he coarsely deploys his personal authority to intimidate others. He calls upon team owners to carry out his threat for him. All players should respond to a threat like that. They can expect support from every American who loves freedom. If team owners want to lock them out for their stand, let them.
Give President Trump the dummy test
I show up at work today and see we now have a loyalty test for playing football. Jerry Jones threatens his players because the president threatened to take away his tax breaks. Or perhaps Jones can give a better reason for making his players pawns in Trump’s great game, rather than regarding them as the assets they are?
I would say Jerry Jones, Joseph McCarthy, Donald Trump, and all the other tub thumpers show equivalent respect for the First Amendment, the Bill of Rights in general, and for our republic. Trump and his allies talk about disrespect and patriotism. In fact, thumpers give us the best example of disrespect for our country and its traditions any ignoramus could possibly conjure.
Interestingly, the Fox News article shows Jerry Jones kneeling with his players before the Cowboys’ game on Monday, September 25, three days after Trump profanely attacked the NFL and its players on Friday, September 22. Only two weeks passed before pressure applied by the White House reversed Jones’ position.
We have seen a lot of attacks on free speech during our country’s history, mostly during wartime. I suppose the latest from our government shows how far our civil conflict has progressed.
Let’s review one more time the significance of a few key concepts that President Trump apparently does not understand. First, when you, as president, call a fellow American a son of a bitch in public, that is not okay. It is especially not okay when you call him that because he exercised his right of free speech in a way you don’t like. You disrespect him, you disrespect what your flag stands for, and you disrespect the Constitution. President Trump does not understand any of that.
Let’s review one more time the significance of a few key concepts that President Trump apparently does not understand.
We do not love our country, or honor our flag, because people with power tell us to do that. We love our country because it is home, and because we respect our fellow citizens. We honor our flag as a symbol of our home. It stands for mutual respect. When people stand during the national anthem, citizens express respect for their country. They may stand out of habit or early training, but teachers and parents all told us from early in our lives that this public rite is important.
That does not mean that sitting or kneeling during the national anthem is a sign of disrespect. If someone kneels to call attention to police mistreatment of black people, that’s what it means. You cannot impute another motive to the kneeler, or another meaning to the kneeler’s posture, just because you want to. One’s behavior during a public rite is entirely up to each person. If one intentionally deviates from custom, the significance of the departure also depends entirely on the actor. No one can force a particular meaning onto someone else’s behavior, or blame another person for an action that does no harm.
Moreover, even if people who kneel do intend to disrespect the flag and other national symbols, the Constitution and the law firmly protect their right to do so. No one doubted what protesters meant when they burned the American flag during Vietnam war protests in the 1960s. They meant to say, ‘I hate my country because it fights a hateful war, and I’m burning this flag in public to let you know that.’ People reacted strongly against that public demonstration, but few could doubt, when the question came before the Supreme Court, how the justices would decide. Their decision did not need a lot of legal reasoning. Of course you can burn the flag in public. How could you prohibit it? Why does this question even come up?
It comes up because some people apparently can’t tolerate the idea they may have to share their country with people who don’t feel the same way about it they do. That’s the source of ‘love it or leave it.’ If you don’t love your country, we don’t want you here. If you are not a patriot, get out. If you disrespect our flag, we will disrespect you.
Without a doubt, social cohesion depends on mutual respect. Yet public demonstrations directed against national symbols does not signify disrespect toward fellow citizens. It typically expresses dissatisfaction with some controversial element of public policy. Opposition to the Vietnam war grew gradually through the sixties, until the country underwent an incipient revolution from the Chicago riots in 1968 to Kent State in 1970. Opposition to government’s actions grew into public demonstrations that, from one point of view, appeared unpatriotic.
Protesters now say violence against black people by police has to stop. Police mistreated black people long before Rodney King was beaten nearly to death in 1991, and they continued to mistreat black people in the decades after. As police forces became more militarized and more concerned with self-protection, the mistreatment became more lethal. Moreover, video evidence brought this violence into people’s homes, just as television crews brought the Vietnam war into people’s homes.
That brings us back to our current president. If you need an example of disrespectful, demeaning treatment, look to a leader who refers to a fellow citizen with whom he disagrees as a son of a bitch.
Why would people say free speech stops with the flag, or with the national anthem? Why would we disallow expressions of dissent if they touch symbols of national unity? Yet attacks on people who demonstrate their dissatisfaction in this way is an act even more divisive than provocative expressions of dissent. You cannot force people to be patriotic in the way you demand. Many would regard the courage required to call attention to police mistreatment with the highest respect. It actually shows a devotion to country, and to our common ideals, that few of us have. To denigrate these demonstrations as unpatriotic completely misses their point. Negative, abusive responses are just as destructive, and demeaning, as the terrible expressions of disrespect and contempt toward soldiers that occurred during the 1960s.
That brings us back to our current president. If you need an example of disrespectful, demeaning treatment, look to a leader who refers to a fellow citizen with whom he disagrees as a son of a bitch. I’m not going to say the president ought to set a good example, though he or she should. Trump’s behavior goes way beyond any possibility of an example one would want to follow. Further, no one would argue this or any other president should forgo controversial statements, disagreements, or criticism. Controversial statements are not the problem here. Trump’s expressions of disagreement show profound disrespect for individuals, for law and custom, and in this case, for rights of free speech.
Honestly, to be criticized by this president brings you more honor now than you could accrue with a lifetime of good deeds.
Why he has found any support at all for the fight he picked with the NFL is more than a little troubling. To see Jerry Jones travel a full 180 degree turn in just two weeks is almost inexplicable. What leverage could the president possibly have over someone like Jones? I’m going to raise your taxes? I’m going to call you a son of a bitch, too? Honestly, to be criticized by this president brings you more honor now than you could accrue with a lifetime of good deeds. Colin Kaepernick was already a hero. In a few words, President Trump showed everyone what kind of treatment heroes receive from strongmen. Trump drew attention to Colin’s friends, too, heroes who follow his bold example.
Jerry Jones does not see things that way, but he will see soon enough that he has brought shame on himself, and on his team. That’s unfortunate for the players he employs, since he pays them to play a game people want to watch, and to play it well. If he wants to force them to behave a certain way during public rites like the national anthem, why doesn’t he simply line up a bunch of dummies at the sideline during the music? If he puts helmets on his dummies, television cameras and fans can’t tell the difference. Of course, one person would gladly stand with the dummies, and also not know the difference: Donald Trump.
“Setting aside the fact that the FCC doesn’t license cable channels,” Ajit Pai said last month, “these demands are fundamentally at odds with our legal and cultural traditions.”
Strong man in action:
Viewer’s comment on Trump’s speech:
Can a Trump supporter explain to me how they are OK with this? I understand that it runs against your opinion, somebody Mealing instead of standing during the anthem. But, isn’t this included in freedom of speech? Nobody is getting hurt, this person feels that they have a right to express something, and this is a country that prides itself on its freedom of expression.
How are you any different from Antifa and Berkeley if you want to hurt people for expressing their opinions? I stand for our anthem and I am proud of our anthem and flag because I am not forced to be. Because I know that it is the country behind that flag and the anthem that guarantee my freedom to be for or against anything I want.
So can someone please explain to me how you could be in favor of this statement, even if you are proud of the flag and the freedoms it represents?