Amid phony furor over dog whistles, and the meaning of “blood libel,” the major media not surprisingly missed the central point of Governor Sarah Palin’s eight-minute address to her Facebook supporters Wednesday:
Poliltical speech doesn’t cause violence, it helps us avoid it.
It really can be boiled down to that simple, refreshingly retro, concept. Indeed, Governor Palin reminded us that political speech is fundamentally protected, and central to our nation’s enduring freedom. In quoting President Reagan, she reiterated that individuals are responsible for their own crimes, and rejected any notion of “collective guilt” that might be concocted as a libelous pretext to quash political opposition.
She even set the narrative for those of us on her side who might be tempted to play “tit for tat” in accusing the left of inciting violence. She rejected any attempt to connect speech with crime, however, tragic the circumstances.
Which makes what President Obama said a few hours later all the more hollow and unsatisfying. Yes, I know, I know, according to most of the pundits, he gave one of his trademark “brilliant” oratories that salved our nation’s wounds, and rhetorically brought us all together. But did he? Really?
Forgive my lack of “moral imagination” but I don’t think the point of free speech is to “bring people” together – especially not coming from the guy who told his supporters to “get in their faces and argue” with opponents. I don’t think the Founding Fathers would have a problem with arguing, actually. From what I know about them, they weren’t utopists enamored of shallow, marginally-healing words. I think they envisioned a nation of competing visions (of arguing, if you will) and stridently contrasting ideas. Thankfully, they designed a system for managing that perpetual conflict and limiting the power of any one ideological contingent, a framework that has survived an (un)Civil War, and even political assasinations.
Governor Palin rightly pointed this out, asking essentially: “When was our political discourse ever more civil?”
So, now we have a situation where our president magnanimously declares that “uncivil rhetoric” did not cause the Arizona shootings. But there is a subtext to his words: He believes there is such a thing as “uncivil” rhetoric and his clever speech masterfully laid that “uncivil” label on the Tea Party movement, while distancing himself from the leftwing “blood libel” still being manufactured about the movement on a daily basis.
Why else, we might ask, would President Obama spend so much of his speech lecturing us on the virtues of being civil — if so-called “incivility” bore no responsibility in the Tucson calamity? It would make as much sense as a physician counseling a congenital heart disease patient on the virtues of sign language. Granted, in times of tragedy, a nation often comes together spontaneously as we saw after 9/11 or the shuttle disasters. But we didn’t need President Bush to remind us to embrace one another after our nation was attacked. We cried together. We mourned together. And Democrats and Republicans stood shoulder to shoulder on the steps of the Capitol singing “God Bless America” with no grand “call to unite.”
One of the things that perpetually bothers me about Obama’s brand of politics is its emphasis on pryric bipartisanship. Obama campaigned on a supposed new kind of politics where presumably we’d all just get along. His promises didn’t even survive his campaign, where he famously told a Philadelphia audience in June 2008, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” Yes, nothing brings people together more than a gun to their heads.
In the final analysis, the federal government has a metaphoric gun to all of our heads. It controls how much of our earnings we keep, it controls whether we have fair trials, and whether we have a right to freely elect our representatives. And that is why we need robust free speech (and a second amendment, but I’ll leave that for another post).
Strikingly, there is one major instance where free speech can be curtailed. That is in instances where someone is falsely accused. We have defamation laws in this country to protect reputations from lies. You cannot falsely accuse someone thereby causing them financial, or emotional harm with impunity. You can be sued civilly, although the remedies for public figures are understandably more limited, so as to give broader harbor to political expression.
So, why is it when Sarah Palin defends Constitutional freedom of speech and points out the truth about being falsely accused, it makes liberals come unhinged?
Maybe because in liberal newspeak truth is considered “uncivil.”