The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/columns/2008-07-18/645899/

Page Two: Critical Grasp

Civil disobedience and free speech are cut from the same unalienable cloth

By Louis Black, July 18, 2008, Columns

One of the ongoing mysteries of the Chronicle for me is the unpredictable nature of what does and what doesn't spark readers' reactions. Long ago, I was cured of expecting a storm of response to clearly controversial, sometimes purposely provocative cover stories. More often than not, the most widely shared reactions are responses to other letter-writers or a throwaway line or a reviewer of a local show (art, music, dance, etc.). More ambitious political stories, especially those focused on nuts and bolts, usually receive little feedback. Stories about budget cuts in the social safety net, even when they affect large numbers of children, may receive a couple of responses. Almost anything to do with animals usually gets a storm of responses. Cover stories about animals, especially when a photo of dead kittens is run on the cover, probably get the most responses.

The Chronicle receives a very healthy amount of feedback on our ongoing political and cultural content. The "Postmarks" section, which features reader letters as well as comments made online, also inspires considerable feedback. Leaving specific items, stories, or reviews aside for the moment, generally one can discern a relative predictability to readers' reactions in "Postmarks" – ranging from savage responses and dismissive attacks to careful, constructive thoughts and differing critical positions. There are also letters explaining that what the writers think are unrepresented points of views, questions, and/or corrections.

The less frequent, more torrential storms of response are quite a different story. Relatively early in our history, it became apparent that on a weekly basis, one issue following another, that I was not just out of, but completely missing from, the ballpark when it came to predicting what in the Chronicle would provoke significant response and determine its tone.

I read over and write headlines for most of the "Postmarks" we print in the issue and/or post online. Sometimes a letter stands out in that it seems to be stating the unusually obvious or is hopelessly confused. On some occasions, the headlines given these letters may also seem unusual.

Hardly a month goes by when one letter or another that struck me as unimpressive or absurd doesn't generate the longest threaded online response. A letter I think not worth reading might receive 50 responses.

Almost every letter the Chronicle receives is posted online. The very few that aren't most often are clearly libelous. Even though a letters column is very clearly what it is, with the letters neither authored nor edited by staff, the publication the letters are in is legally responsible for their content.

The reality is that most letters get at least posted, with minimal changes, if any. In each printed issue, we include as many letters as space allows. Letters attacking the Chronicle, an article, or a writer are almost always published in the issue, as well as posted online.

Overall patterns and tones of responses are of critical interest to me, though specific targets usually are not. The editors and staff of this paper can be trusted. The indefinable relationship we have with our readership can also very much be trusted. Saying that they can be trusted is not to say their criticisms are accurate. Each group has different concerns and goals, but the gist of criticisms can be understood. Trust allows for discretion and audacious choices. Often, and more so lately, when there is a barrage of letters to the editor and posts on certain topics, I don't weigh in with a comment (at least not nearly as often as I used to), and though I'm a windbag in offering my thoughts, I do always take our readers' thoughts and comments seriously.

Two weeks ago, in his "After a Fashion" column, Stephen Moser wrote: "Speaking of bikes, my heart began to turn to stone as I was stopped at Riverside and Lamar watching a parade of bikes indulging, presumably, in some form of civil disobedience. What that meant was that dozens of clowns on bicycles took up the entire street and brought most traffic to a standstill. After several minutes of obnoxious waving and smiling from the riders, I was ready to pull a Lizzie Grubman and plow right through them and be on my way. But I was hesitant to rack up a lot of hit-and-run charges against me ... and then there would be all that damage to my car. The thing is, all the smiling and waving did not make me sympathetic to the scofflaws' 'cause.' It made me think: 'Don't give bikes the right. Give 'em the finger.'"

The number of serious, angry, and negative responses was surprising, but it was the consistent tone and content of the comments that was the most dismaying. In order to illustrate the severity of Moser's transgression and to add moral weight to his sin, different posters and letter-writers took the comments as constituting a real threat, actively encouraging others to commit violent crimes and/or an expression of overt discrimination.

Let's get realistic here. Moser's column is often a bitch-fest and frequently over-the-top. Anyone thinking that Moser and comrades are really going to plow into bike riders or are seriously encouraging others to do so is really stretching. I don't really believe most folks thought that Moser was actually advocating violence rather than vividly indulging in his sometimes Queen of Hearts, "Off with their heads!" hyperbole.

But I'm not just here to defend Moser (a vice that even I indulge in reluctantly), but to raise a more serious issue.

Now, some of those who partake in Critical Mass bike rides or just wrote in to defend them claim that these events are not protests or statements but simple celebrations of bicycles and bike riders. Many of these writers, I bet, would be quick to express disgust at politicians who speak in mobs of words that together lack any meaning or Bush double-speak that turns a strategic retreat into a "surge." Public speakers, news conferences, and issued statements are usually about clouding the issue, hiding it behind waterfalls of falling words rather than clarifying anything. In general, there is an ongoing abuse of language and meaning in the public arena as all too many try to mislead, obscure, and confuse, with spin valued far more than content. When one is living in a time of mass, deliberate misspeak, the comforts of a straight and comprehensible response can't be overestimated.

If, when walking a duck, one says it is not a duck, this statement, no matter how assured, changes nothing.

The mass bike rides of Critical Mass are acts of civil disobedience. At one time, they were even proudly labeled as such. There is nothing inherently or disingenuously critical in that statement: Civil disobedience is a powerful political social tool, one to be respected and appreciated.

I have no issues with Critical Mass, the rights of bike riders, and civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience is not an area that I'm very knowledgeable in, but it has always seemed to me a complicated action involving a number of parts and responses. The core action involves knowingly breaking a law or laws as a means of protest. It is crucial that the action is peaceful and well-ordered. Protesters accept but do not cooperate with the immediate reaction of the authorities charged with enforcing the law. Most of the time, this reaction involves just arresting protesters who go limp when being hauled away. When the police react with violence, it's another story.

The idea behind most actions is to make a statement and spur public dialogue over the relevant issue. Critical Mass is an expression of civil disobedience; thus, in some ways at least, the action is inherently political. Why this is being denied, I don't know. It may well be to soften legal consequences. This is also fine, and this column is certainly not advocating mass arrests or forceful dispersion.

Political actions, however, should invite citizen response. Moser offered his response to the action metaphorically. It was a response that could be challenged as being petit bourgeois or decadently detached from any relevance. Those who wrote in, however, actively campaigned against the statement of this response. It is all right to commit a political action. It is all right to commit a "social activity of celebrating bikes" with some clear infringements or at least possible interpretation of law-breaking. Free speech is, of course, an absolute. Our right to make public statements should not be challenged, especially when they are within reason. If, as a bike-reliant or supportive individual, I've chosen to join other riders to make a statement, there should be minimum interference with this action on the part of local law enforcement, and absolutely no legislative efforts to forbid it.

The very right the bike riders were exercising during the ride, even if it wasn't political or an action, is exactly the same that the letters and posts assert should be denied Moser. Negative responses to what Moser wrote are not only more than legitimate and appropriate, but are expected.

There may well be some fancy two-stepping and more spin in response to this column. But the bottom line is the letters and posts were not challenging Moser's opinions, but were overtly saying that such opinions should not be printed.

Invariably, someone is going to comment that I am doing exactly what I am criticizing here – that as I chide those who felt what Moser wrote crossed the line into unacceptable, I'm trying to do the exact same thing, suggesting that these people should be silenced.

There is a major difference. The Chronicle posted all the letters received, as well as printing several in the weekly issue. Online posts were not edited. If, sometime in the future, someone is perceived to commit similar excesses, causing readers to write in urging exactly the same kind of criticisms, those will also be posted and printed.

Rights are at best fragile. Folks writing in to protest or strongly criticize any Chronicle content are most welcome to do so. The issue is not the criticism of Moser but the stated opinion that what he wrote crossed the line into unacceptable. Taking his content with a seriousness not previously applied to it was a crucial, strategic step toward not just disagreeing with what he wrote, but rather suggesting it shouldn't have run. In that extreme, well-intentioned letter-writers go too far. That is my opinion. We will not stop someone from stating his or her opinion, even if we disagree with it.

My concern is that the world is going to end, or at least this country fall, not with a bang but a whimper. Instead of any significant event or outrageous activity causing the demise, it will be an epidemic of whimpering, complaining, and whining swamping the republic. Already we see too many people in pursuit of their own rights feeling that, as part of that package, certain rights have to be denied to all of us. The problem lies not with the people who don't want to hear unpopular opinions, but with those who try to suppress them and demonize the speakers. When the anti-toll-road folks (to use just one random example) praised as brave and populist any politician who came out against toll roads, they were not celebrating the truly courageous but instead those who most obviously and obsequiously pandered to them.

(A disclaimer: I realize this next discussion probably has more to do with my lack of stability and twisted addictions than with the modern world.) Lately, I've been listening to a lot of self-titled "Patriot Radio." The folks on the channel range from 9/11 truth seekers to those fighting the new world order to post-apocalyptic survivalists. Many fit into all categories. What is most astonishing is that, as they announce their pure patriotism, swear fealty to the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and pledge themselves to the uphill battle of good (them) against evil (others), they also profoundly disregard any constitutional, guaranteed rights and protections for that latter group. If someone is labeled guilty, he or she is guilty. The new world order/international banker crew, in their view, is made up of international criminals and terrorists who receive not even the slightest presumption of innocence. These "patriots" know better. They are armed and ready for war. Most of us are moronic sheep, they claim: willfully compliant with our demonic masters because we like being slaves and can't handle the truth. A bit oddly, all true Americans and true patriots share almost exactly the same beliefs. Opening one's mind, accepting the truth, and understanding reality all basically mean agreeing with their beliefs. Their vision is consistently the rule of men, themselves, over the rule of law, as the entire judicial system is corrupt. Almost any public servant, politician, industrialist, diplomat, etc. is inherently an enemy of common decency and the American people, deserving of anything that happens to him or her. They love the Declaration and the Constitution, swearing by the statement that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Conceptually, if not specifically, they just want to make an addendum pointing out that after being created, people were divided into three groups: the masses, who are beneath contempt because they acquiesce to the masters; the masters, who are criminals and traitors, having been tried, convicted, and sentenced in the minds of these patriots; and then themselves, the only real patriots, protectors of what our founding fathers intended – noble, pure, and on the side of good, they deserve these rights. No one should suppress their speech, therefore – with the only catch being that those who disagree with them are criminals, traitors, or being mindlessly manipulated.

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