January 29, 2011: Incredible that 9/11 is almost ten years ago. So much has changed. Including our attitude about free speech. After 9/11, it suddenly felt necessary to lower your voice in restaurants when criticizing the government. Who knows-- waxing negative about U.S. policies in the Mideast might cause folks in the next booth to alert Homeland Security that a terror symp was downing a burger at Joe's Grease N' Go.
Speaking of grease and go, as the prep for invading Iraq ramped up so did attacks on speech. Pro-war pundits (aka the laptop bombardiers) suggested-- or outright declared-- that the various progressives, libertarians, and paleocons who expressed doubt about attacking a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, were traitors. Numerous patriots called for the heads of antiwar celebs. Sure, some of the latter were knee jerk anti-American. But since when does getting your britches in a bunch over the opinions of singers and actors qualify as "standing tall"? Then there was our much vaunted free press...
Until polls showed public support was waning, most of the fourth estate banged the drum for the Iraq war and kissed the rump of the Bush administration. Those on the right like to say that the mainstream media is overwhelmingly liberal. Maybe so in sentimental moments. But ultimately they worship at the alter of triumphant big government.
As Iraq wore on, and over several election cycles, tolerance of free speech seemed to be reviving. But the revival never completely took hold. Speech was still more likely to be viewed as a weapon rather than protected expression. The tendency was encouraged-- and simultaneously made manifest-- by broad, imprecise, and propagandistic terms such as "War On Terror" and "Hate Speech".
Terrorism and discrimination are specific actions that can be defined and addressed. Terror and hate haunt the human condition. Both also have a non-evil place. Is it wrong to hate cruelty to children? Some wars are just; should military forces on the side of the angels not strive to inspire terror in their enemies?
Note re just wars: the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II did not deem Iraq a just war. The Catholic theory of just wars doesn't cover speculative ventures. Fighting Nazi invaders is one thing, attacking countries you perceive might pose a threat in the future is another. Self-serving motives are too likely to influence the perception of "threat". (Catholicism can be so cynical about human nature.) Advocates of the war were annoyed that His Holiness didn't get American exceptionalism. Neocon Catholic philosopher Michael Novak made like Henry VIII and tried to get the Pontiff to bend. Sorry, no divorce. Catherine is still your true wife.
Circa 1980's, neocons had lauded John Paul II for his support of Solidarity, the non-governmental labor movement in Poland that triggered the fall of communism throughout the Eastern bloc. But the not-a-just-war decision blotted the Catholic copybook big time. (Besides, who wants to remember good things about unions?) Some on the right were so bugged by the Pope's intransigence that they borrowed a meme from the left and snarked about pedophile priests. Bipartisanship is indeed possible!
Suppression of speech is another issue on which left and right can come together. Albeit with different apps. The left, which once championed free speech to the max, is traveling fast down the road of suppression. Covering over nasty words the way Victorian ladies allegedly covered furniture legs*. Baying for "civility". Seeing hidden, murderous intent in political rhetoric and thought crime in dissent. Depicting non-compliant citizens as slaves to the right-wing rhythm. Meanwhile, those on the right who believed being against Bush and the Iraq war was treason, are outraged by those on the left who deem Tea Party talk inflammatory.
Though some may find it difficult to define inflammatory speech (in terms of directly connecting one person's rhetoric to another person's destructive action) both left and right have no problem recognizing it. Particularly when folks with whom they disagree are speaking it. As for all of us outside neat little ideological circles, it's important to remember that suppression of speech, once started, tends to spread.
First they came for Sarah Palin and I snickered 'cause I'm not a right wing nut. Then they came for Keith Olbermann and I laughed 'cause I'm not a left wing loon. Then they-- Oh. Wait. Who's that knocking on my door?
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
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*Victorian ladies are oft said to have covered furniture legs with shawls in order to prevent said legs from arousing impure thoughts in male guests. The story is most likely apocryphal. Myriad photos from the period show plenty of naked leg. On the furniture, not the ladies.