The Austin Chronicle

Page Two

Talking points

By Louis Black, November 11, 2005, Columns

A letter in this week's "Postmarks," printed under the headline "Rational Discourse for Fellow Travelers," raises one core issue worth addressing. As to the value of the overall letter, that is, as always, up to you, the reader.

The writer notes "Mr. Black is a neoleftist utopian who clings to moral relativism as the key ingredient to understanding the meaning of life. This makes it convenient for him and his ilk to find sympathy, tolerance, and acceptance of deviant ideologies such as Marxism, suicidal pacifism, anarchic chic, equivocating multiculturalism, and whatever ideology the mavens of social fashion may deem as admirable. Conversely, moral relativism affords him the fig leaf to be outraged at any ideological opinions labeled as unfashionable, i.e., his severe and totally untrue criticism of conservatives as the voice of a new McCarthyism."

And he finishes: "These truths are self-evident. All one need do to see it is to make a moral commitment to objective truth seeking. Unfortunately for Mr. Black, he is left wanting and advocating a mindset of moral hypocrisy that has shown historically to be the pavement on the road to hell. He and his fellow travelers must be resisted totally. Rest assured, they will be."

Now as much as I admire and would love to spend time contemplating that very last, two-sentence, oh-so-patriotic American threat against those with whom the letter-writer disagrees (which, if nothing else, seems to contradict the last sentence of the paragraph quoted above it), that's not the issue.

The writer makes this charge: "Mr. Black's incoherent leftist rant is eclipsed only by his naked and abject hypocrisy ["Page Two," Nov. 4]. He accuses conservatives of actively delighting 'in hating fellow Americans and blaming half the population directly for all and any problems' while doing exactly the same thing in his article relative to his opinion regarding conservatives. Mr. Black has no clothes!"

This is not just a legitimate charge, but one I worry about all the time. Am I just doing what I accuse those with whom I disagree of doing? How much and how often am I using the tactics I deride in others? How often do I slip into impassioned, unreasoned, partisan ranting or personally self-righteous indignation? I'm trying to be somewhat fair and relatively reasoned while strongly advancing one point of view and frequently disagreeing, sometimes vehemently, with others.

There are times I know I'm glossing over an idea when there is not enough room to really express it; other times I set up straw men, throw philosophical sucker punches, or bait readers. Those are conscious and/or deliberate. Often I worry about when I do it less intentionally.

My response to the letter-writer:

"Dear V., Thank you so much for helping me make my point. I hate no Americans. I hate no Republicans simply because they are Republicans. I believe in the two-party system. When Democrats gerrymandered or redistricted against Republicans, I protested. One can disagree with others' ideas, policies, and tactics without hating or demonizing those with whom you disagree. Rather than the name-calling you delight in, I celebrate the differences and disagreements among Americans. Until, that is, one side feels disenfranchising all those they disagree with is acceptable in a constitutional republic. The founding fathers felt that our government would be best if it came out of the clash of differing beliefs. I adhere to that position and would feel equal despair if an intolerant leftist majority were running this country. Indeed, I despair at the viciousness on all sides in modern American political discourse. ..."

Now, I should have added that in the case of this administration, I shift to a more extreme position. Bush, operating not out of ideology or empathy but with intuition and disengagement, has led this country down a road from which it will not be easy to return. The damage done and continuing to be done, nationally and internationally, is unbearable. Still, I know that when the Democrats finally return to power it won't be long before I'm hoping that it will soon swing back to the Republicans. And vice versa.

Probably more than most, I believe the governmental genius of this country lies in some of the political outcomes, created by the bipartisan situation, that so many others find its greatest failings: compromise, deadlock, debate, constant changing of course, indecision, and communication. Finally, it leads to an evolutionary, ongoing philosophical growth toward the middle that drives both the hardcore right and the hardcore left crazy.

One of the keys to the success of a constitutional republic is the idea of principle independent of ideology. This means that constitutional guarantees of freedom are across-the-board and independent of ideological mutations when it comes to implementation.

Freedom of speech means freedom of speech for all. Now, if any heard a self-satisfied sigh from the left, slap them out of it. Suppressing any speech, banning any ideas, censoring any books is suspect! Any such action must be considered and executed with the greatest caution. Ideology is an affectation and not a determiner. When ideology is a determiner of which speech is allowed and which isn't, it's a first step toward fascism.

This is true of the left and the right. Neo-Nazis marching through a Jewish suburb, the Klan gathering in public, protest marches, and radical dissent are, in a sense, one and the same. Keep in mind that any exception that is made is a precedent for more exceptions. This means shouting down speakers with whom you disagree or demanding the removal of racist or sexist texts and censoring hate speech are the same as censoring books on homosexuals, attacking anti-war protesters, or ignoring the rights of nonbelievers.

When I had a short-lived talk-radio career on AM station KJCE a couple of years ago, on one show I broached the topic of the Dixie Chicks and Natalie Maines' controversial statement regarding George W. Bush. My point was that, whether you agreed or disagreed with what she said, didn't the organized response chill your blood? Especially because this was a relatively simple statement by a performer, not part of an ongoing political soliloquy.

Now, this was a right-wing talk station, so many of the callers had no trouble with pseudo-censorship, but the more reasonable ones offered that, sure, there was free speech, but you had to be prepared to live with the consequences. So what happened when the consequences were orchestrated? The mainstream media reported the statement and the hysteria around it but certainly didn't keep it current. No, that was left to right-wing radio talk-show hosts who not only spent days obsessing on the matter, but continued to bring the topic back up whenever it was a slow news day.

To be clear: Maines' statement caused relatively little reverberation within American society but was rather hysterically focused on by the community that was not only the most indignant about the remark but nearly beside itself that it was being paid so much hysterical attention. Those champions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Young Conservatives of Texas, even picketed the Dixie Chicks show. This was political masturbation, at which the members of YCT are masters.

I was taught that defending the speech I disagree with most was crucial and necessary in defending my own. Insisting on the rights of all others, especially those with whom I was most uncomfortable, was what was expected. Free speech didn't mean tolerating others' thoughts as much as you could, or allowing them to speak but engineering all kinds of retribution, or even being so appreciative of the right, you not only don't use it but chide those who do.

Free speech is less a right than a responsibility, while protecting such speech for all is a mandate. It is our duty as citizens to speak out when we think something is wrong. Criticizing the United States government at home or abroad is not anti-American; it is a civic responsibility.

The right wing often celebrates the idea of this country but then attacks the reality by insisting it has been kidnapped by secular lunatics or subverted by "Marxism, suicidal pacifism, anarchic chic," and "equivocating multiculturalism." Which is beyond nonsense.

The left is more open about criticizing the government overtly, rather than suggesting there is a pure, Valhalla version of it just over the horizon, hidden by the smudges of traitorous liberalism. The left also thinks it's been kidnapped by lunatics, though religious rather than secular.

I would be equally vehement about defending talk radio and communist publications. Respecting freedom of speech doesn't begin with what you most strongly believe, but with what you find nearly intolerable.

Notice the "nearly." Shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre, child pornography, and hate speeches aimed at inciting violence are all areas where some restrictions make sense – but, of course, when they are created and applied, it must be hesitantly, and with the greatest of caution.

I'm sure it breaks the hearts of judges who rule in favor of the near-pornographic when it involves children. But don't be mistaken: This is neither judicial activism nor an ideological assault on traditional morality. It is a judicial judgment, which understands the importance and considers the ramifications of restricting speech, as difficult a call as that often must be, in order to leave our basic right, this core freedom, undamaged.

I understand that the conservative right is sure all its members are patriots. I believe that deeply and in all honesty. It would be nice if they could reciprocate by accepting that most Americans who disagree with them are just as patriotic, protective of this country, and dedicated to the existence of its core ideals as they are. We are not the enemy within, nor fellow travelers, nor self-hating anti-Americans. We just disagree – in many cases quite intensely – on policies, laws, governmental responsibilities, constitutional guarantees, and economic, social, and foreign policy – among many other things. end story

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