Page Two: Selling Short in the Marketplace of Ideas

"Consequences" wrought in the pursuit of silencing speech should be of deep concern to all

Page Two
This is the last column for a long time that will address the issue of the Dixie Chicks and free speech, but it does so because I'm still perplexed by many of the responses to my two previous columns on the topic. Either I'm not making myself very clear or I'm missing something pretty basic.

Free speech: When I write about "free speech" in this column, it is almost never a reference to the First Amendment to the Constitution, which grants all citizens free speech. As with the other freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, this means that the government won't prevent speech. When I refer to free speech in this space, I am usually referring to the fact that a healthy, sane society thrives when there is a willingness and atmosphere that encourages the free exchange of ideas between all citizens (of, in this case, the constitutional republic of the United States). The more open the atmosphere, the healthier the societies; assaults on free speech are their most deadly cancers.

Opinion: This is my opinion and nothing more. I am the editor of this weekly, but I have no judicial, political, or legislative authority of any sort. Not only am I not advocating censorship or speech restrictions, but I would fight those restrictions, no matter who they were against, as well. What I present here are ideas; they are absolutely not a call for legislation, boycotts, or to shut up, in any way, those with whom I disagree. The contention here is that, in the Chicks' case, the response was more the result of a continued, malicious focus on the topic by some of country radio and right-wing talk radio than anything else. Rather than being an expression of individuals' disgust, this outrage was manipulation of the public by overt demagoguery.

One relatively harmless comment by the Dixie Chicks was wildly exploited in a massive media campaign (this is not suggesting any conspiracy). The response was not a nationally spontaneous reaction by individuals but instead was driven by radio's obsessive focus on the comment. Participating stations not only stopped playing Dixie Chicks' music but encouraged people to destroy their CDs and not to attend the group's concerts, as well. This was clearly aimed at wrecking the Chicks' career, which both C&W deejays and right-wing talk-show radio hosts made explicitly clear, usually by stating it outright.

This campaign had the unavoidable subtext of attacking both the anti-war movement specifically and, more generally, anyone who questioned U.S. policy. Right-wing talk radio's position on the Dixie Chicks matter was very much in line with its main thesis: that most of this country's problems are really caused by other Americans (clueless Democrats/liberals/progressives/communist-Marxist traitors). Encouraging many Americans to hate many other Americans is obscene. Respecting, rather than demeaning, other Americans' opinions – even when disagreeing with them or encouraging others to do so – is healthy: Free speech doesn't just invite debate but is dependent on it.

"Free Speech" and Consequences: It does seem that some of the letters on recent columns are not disputing points that have been made but instead my right to respond. Evidently, if I believe in open dialogue and free speech, and in addition express ideas that are different from other people's, I am being a hypocrite.

One letter states that, although I acknowledge everyone's free speech rights, I then add that I "would prefer that right to be exercised without having to worry about censorship or retaliation. That does nothing but move the debate from the meaning of free speech to the meaning of retaliation, since 'censorship,' properly defined, refers solely to governmental penalties. ... If an audience retaliates by not buying CDs or concert tickets, that is (or should be) perfectly acceptable in a free society ... but that seems to be what Louis' beef boils down to. Unfortunately for his position, saying whatever one likes and having immunity from the consequences is not free speech but irresponsible speech. Only dictators get to enjoy that one. [His] observation that 'Criticism is not censorship, expressing concerns is not demanding legislation, and disagreeing with people is not telling them to shut up' adds little light, as it could apply equally well to any side of the question – to the Chicks' criticism of Bush or to the resulting criticism of the Chicks or to Louis' criticism of the critics."

Actually, of course, that last sentence is not true. The Chicks were expressing an opinion with no implications of censorship or legislation. Yet criticism of the Chicks, hyped up by media, was very clearly aimed at telling them to shut up. If you feel this wasn't the result of media but a spontaneous protest by individuals, then we disagree, and there is no real issue here for you.

Yes, there can and sometimes should be consequences to what one says – but disagreeing with an opinion is not, in and of itself, suppression of that opinion. Unfortunately, the notion of consequences is waved as a battle flag under whose colors almost anything is justified.

In an open society with a free exchange of ideas, it shouldn't be the case that we hold our noses or are morally repulsed by what others say while begrudgingly acknowledging that they have the "right" to speak such vile lunacy. Instead, many different viewpoints and opinions, discussed and debated (even viciously), result in the most reasonable considerations. Free speech is not just a privilege granted in the Bill of Rights; it is fundamentally necessary and healthy for a democratic constitutional republic. "Consequences" that are very clearly wrought in the pursuit of silencing speech should be of deep concern to all. One would think that, whether coming from the left or the right, most of us (even, if not especially, hardcore conservatives) would vehemently object to any such campaigns.

Outrage should be especially fierce when the campaign against particular speech is one that is artificially stoked and media-mounted. It comes as no surprise that letter-writers on this issue address their own motivation because, in any seriousness, would anyone really try to argue that Natalie Maines' statement was in any way potently anti-American and/or traitorous? Come on, how upset can one get at "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas"?

If the Chicks (or any group) were from Arkansas and, an administration back, had said the same thing about Bill Clinton, what do you think would have been the hard right and talk radio's response?

Beating This Topic to Death: Yet Maines' comment resulted in an outrageous, scary, and uncalled-for reaction. Sadly, it was not very unique; under the headings of "consequences" and "patriotism," assaults on Americans' freedom to speak their minds have become commonplace. It is troubling to watch the free expression of ideas being met by economic boycott and speakers being personally attacked and demonized, accompanied by calls for censorship, repressive legislation, and even social ostracism. One would think true conservatives would be die-hard defenders of an open society. In the same ways, however, some of them swoon over the possibilities of one-party/one-ideology politics; they have participated in the administration and Republican right's sustained effort at suppressing and silencing dissident voices.

Elements of both the left and the right have come to regard dialogue, in general, as immoral and cowardly. Debate, especially when excited and partisan, is discouraged, as there is only one "truth." Compromise, one of the most crucial principles behind the kind of government laid out in the Constitution, is regarded as selling out.

My concern is that there is so little respect for ideas and opinions, many think that any disagreement is not just an expression of opinion. Instead, they assume, it has to be some kind of call for censorship, legislation, retaliation, or a denial of the right to speak for those who think differently. Clearly and again, this column participates in the ongoing dialogue among all Americans about ideas and philosophies. It does this by presenting my opinions. One thing I am very specifically not doing is asking for any active government, community, partisan, legal, or consistent response. Suppression, silence, acquiescence, or conformity epitomizes the antithesis of what is intended. My opinions are just more fodder for thought in an open, engaged society – and nothing more. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

free speech, First Amendment, censorship, talk radio, boycott, Postmarks, Natalie Maines, Dixie Chicks

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