Page Two: We Are the Eggmen

In the abstract, people are usually good about defending free speech. They fall apart in the specifics.

Page Two
When in school we first learned about the United States Constitution – and especially the first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights – it really did seem relatively simple and almost overly obvious. The Bill of Rights guarantees all citizens of this country that the government won't infringe on their most basic liberties. These include basic freedoms – of speech and of religion – as well as rights: the right to peaceful assembly, the guarantee of a speedy trial, and the protection of the accused from excessive bail and/or fines, as well as from cruel and unusual punishment.

There are, of course, entirely different discussions for which the Bill of Rights can serve as a jumping-off point, especially those that involve the Second and 10th amendments, but not for this week's column. Those are ongoing, widely participated-in public discourses, so we need not worry about ignoring them, but here the exact meaning and ramifications of those two amendments are not the topic.

When, from an early age, we were taught about all this, it was always made clear that the best way to defend the rights of all citizens was not to mobilize only over issues affecting oneself or challenging one's beliefs, but very much the opposite. Defending one's own speech when you feel it is challenged is one thing, but the obligation is to defend speech that one finds to be the most offensive and with which one violently disagrees.

The conflict over freedom of the press is about protecting not only one's own views, but everyone's. Exactly where the line is crossed – where free speech or free press actually have such a negative impact on society that they need to be restricted – should be as hard-fought and controversial as it is. If anything, as absolutely horrible as most find it to be, banning child pornography should be an always-difficult process, never one wherein the name of the common good, individual rights, and freedoms are trumped.

It is because of this I have trouble with hate speech and hate-crime legislation. Unfortunately, the world isn't black and white but is instead filled with complexity. The reasons driving such legislation are completely understandable. But are those very legitimate concerns best addressed by challenging people's basic rights? I'm not taking a firm stance here but rather pointing out that weighing the restrictions of rights against the overall good of society is never easy.

During such a turbulent, evolving time as the last decade, the ongoing, most depressing, and scariest reaction has been the willingness of too many people, on an uncomfortable number of issues, to suppress basic rights and freedoms in the name of safety, patriotism, and social cohesiveness. This is upsetting enough when accompanied by an intellectual rigor and concern with the exact meaning of the law being a critical part of the debate. When for the supposed good of all of us, encroachments on our freedoms are driven by sentimental and emotional reactions in ways that are casual and taken for granted, it should make us nauseated.

It isn't that I think the last 10 years have seen the American public become less progressive. This would mean suggesting that much of the populace had found its thinking moving forward and evolving until any number of incidents and fears caused a retraction and retreat. In fact, I don't think attitudes or opinions have changed all that much – it's that standards of what was proper, acceptable, and considered moderate in public discussion for social consideration have disappeared. The ideas people are now willing to champion publicly, which spokesmen are screaming loudly and clearly about, should at the very least embarrass all of us, as well as cause widespread concern.

Yet these outspoken fear mongers continue to champion racial hatred, religious intolerance, condemning those with different ideologies, and American exceptionalism (with its implicit endorsement by the almighty of this nation over all others). There seems to be very little negative reaction; the careers of media pundits, political leaders, and political spokespeople preaching all kinds of divisiveness, if affected at all, seem mostly to be so in a positive way. Not being called out for their rhetoric, they venture further out, deeper into language that was until recently socially marginalized because of the hateful and discredited beliefs it represented.

In fact, utilizing the two-pronged attacks of damning liberal media and denouncing every aspect of political correctness has resulted in the condemnation of more moderate speech, especially that which chastises radical approaches.

Ours is a country where citizens are happily, and in seemingly large numbers, getting in touch with their inner racists, their inner religious intolerance, and their nationalist, chauvinist, elitist selves. Sadly, many of them cite their motivation as a return to a purer government based more closely on the Constitution, when every aspect of their thinking stands in stark opposition to every constitutional principle.

A basic idea of this country is that the laws are the same for everyone, making law more important than man. In the eyes of the law and the government, all citizens are regarded and treated as equal, regardless of their social, economic, or political standings.

In many of our minds, this means that the very rich and the very powerful should neither be given special treatment nor be regarded as above the law by the judiciary or government. But it also means that the poor, the antisocial, the criminal, and the renegade are as protected as any other citizen.

Years back, the American Nazis wanted to march in Skokie, Ill., an area where an unusually high percentage of the population was made up of concentration camp survivors. The ACLU became involved, defending the Nazis' right to march. This was not because, as is often asserted by the union's conservative and proudly self-proclaimed patriotic opposition, the ACLU lawyers hated the United States, swooned at the sight of swastikas, or were more vehemently committed to defending the rights of the guilty than they were those of the innocent.

Actually, the ACLU was risking widespread censure and political attacks to defend our rights – the rights of you and me, our parents and our children, our friends and neighbors. The only way to protect every citizen's freedom of speech and religion is to hold the right itself as the absolute standard. Who they are, the content and intent of what they are saying or implying, is a minor matter and not the most germane issue.

We have become tired of lawyers using the language of the Constitution and the laws of this land as a way to free criminals and defend predators. Many of us are sick of the "slippery slope" argument, which asserts that if in this case (whatever the particular case is) we rule one way, we set a precedent that can result in the law being pushed in directions with which we disagree. Often these statements are accompanied by the assertion that all this lawyer talk is stupid and what these discussions lack are common sense. After all we know that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it is a duck.

This is often the easiest position to assume in the heat of social and/or political debate – except that whenever the law's application of law becomes a bit more arbitrary and less obsessed with sticking to the letter, we all lose. No matter what you think about a particular case, there are not and absolutely shouldn't be plebiscites held on legal cases. It matters not at all what the people feel about a certain case. The idea behind the checks and balances of the government is to live in a country of laws and not one based on the whims of the population.

Take the controversial Islamic center in New York City. The absolutely offensive argument is that an entire religion should be denied the most basic constitutional protection because of the outlaw actions of a very few people of that faith. It also argues that the sensibilities of those who lost family and friends on 9/11 should be regarded as more important than and able to trump the Bill of Rights. Added to this that any consensus of that group is anecdotal in nature, with no sophisticated polling done (and lest this seem like a contradiction, I wouldn't care if polling had been done regardless), it doesn't even represent the unanimous feelings of survivors.

Political, religious, and community leaders have gone so far beyond just disgracing themselves in this fiasco. The blatant pandering to the masses, the playing on prejudices while exciting the most base and despicable public biases in the most cynical ways, has seen the American body politic reaching new lows.

The very worst hypocritical attack on the integrity of the Bill of Rights is to argue that certainly we have religious freedom, but good taste or concern over the feelings of others should have an impact on when and whether we choose to exercise our freedoms. In the swamp of such logic, there are no rights.

In the abstract, people are usually good about attacking censorship and defending free speech. They fall apart in the specifics. There is something they see or hear or read that they don't like. They aren't in favor of censorship exactly, but they don't think that what offended them should be allowed to be spoken or heard or read.

Fighting for ideas that one finds the most offensive, articulated by people who might be odious, is not going to the extreme to fight for rights. It is the mundane, middle-of-the-road, mainstream battlefield where what is really being defended are the freedoms and rights of all of us.

The circle is unbroken, as Martin Niemoller said after World War II:

"First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me."*

Or as the Beatles so eloquently articulated it in "I Am the Walrus":

"I am he as you are he as you are me

And we are all together."

*This is not a biographical endorsement of Niemoller, the jumping-off point for a discussion of contradictions and hypocrisy. Regardless of the speaker's motivation and intentions, it has rarely been stated so elegantly.

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U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, First Amendment, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union, American Nazis, Skokie, Islamic center New York, Ground Zero mosque, Martin Niemoller, Beatles

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