Saturday, August 18, 2012

TWO STORIES OF A SMALL TOWN STIFLING FREE SPEECH, AND A MORAL

Story one: A local controversy arose from a float in the Fourth-of-July parade which not only flew a rebel flag, among many others, but also received the best-in-show award, with prize money attached. The flag and the prize offended an unknown number of Las Cruceans. Speaking on their behalf, Mayor Ken Miyagishima criticized the float and the award, and apologized for them. He convened a City Council working session to find ways to prevent the adverse effects of future displays which might offend some citizens’ sensibilities or tarnish the city’s reputation. The irony of the unavoidable discussion on free speech at the working session was the advanced denial of any, even short, speeches by any of the two- or three-dozen citizens in attendance.

Every member of City Council genuflected to the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. The formulaic statement was, “I support free speech, but…”—always the formulation of those who make free speech secondary to whatever follows. Greg Smith quoted from writers through the ages on the subject. Others sought ways to prevent floats from presenting messages which did not reflect and reinforce the City’s receptivity to diversity and inclusiveness, and thus gave offense to many.

The most outspoken advocate of restrictions on offensive messages was Olga Pedroza, who wanted to find ways to avoid partisan messages as well as partisan parade judges. She defined “partisan” to mean pertaining to a particular party; in fact, the word can also pertain to a particular cause or person, like diversity or inclusiveness, presumed to be primary popular civic virtues in Las Cruces. To her credit, Sharon Thomas challenged Pedroza to draw a line between what was partisan and what was not. Pedroza retreated to a position still infringing on free speech: disqualify offensive messages from receiving any prize.

Miyagishima suggested the development of guidelines for awards which would conform to the city’s preferred messages. Miguel Silva suggested that parade officials screen out floats which are offensive or likely to give offense. These suggestions infringe upon free speech by hugger-mugger administrative devices.

The only good suggestions came from Nathan Small and Gill Sorg, who, between them, questioned the desirability of competitions and awards at all—good points because they neither sanction nor censure any statement or symbol.

My fear is that the Mayor will persuade City Council to substitute political correctness for free speech in the city’s future Fourth of July parade. Parse the words any old which-way, but any restriction on expression in advance or any reward for pre-selected views in the event necessarily violates the First Amendment. If they believe, as they say they believe, in free speech, the Mayor and Councilors should decide in favor of free speech, with no “if’s,””and’s,” or, most especially, “but’s.”

Story two: Weeks later, at an NAACP meeting to which Tea Party invited themselves and were accepted as guest speakers, angry, hostile attendees asked variations of two accusatory or belittling questions. Bill McCamley, District 33 candidate for state House representative, aptly captured them: did the party know that it had offended many people, and did it not think it better to avoid doing more harm than good. Olga Pedroza, District 3 City Councilor, wanted to know whether the Tea Party had come to issue an apology. Leticia Duarte-Benavidez, District 5 County Commissioner, asked whether the Tea Party would have flown the swastika. Arrogant self-righteousness or political grandstanding underlies such comments and questions.

The appropriate responses and answers: what the party knew and whether it gave offense do not count. Free speech means that it can decide for itself what views to express and whether to take its audience’s possible responses into account. Taking offense proves no virtue and justifies no restraints on free speech or other civil rights.

McCamley, Pedroza, and Duarte-Benavidez, among those who expressed offense and urged its avoidance, echoed segregationists in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, who took offense at civil rights activists and urged quiescence, silence, and invisibility. They took offense at “uppity” blacks and then took offense as well at out-of-state, mostly northern, whites, the majority of whom were Jews, who lived and worked with blacks. They reviled and abused these offenders of traditional community norms, that is, the “southern way of life.”

They did not stop at giving advice about what was good for the blacks or asking for apologies or likening them to communists. They continued with firing activist employees or family members, refusing loans and foreclosing on mortgages, curtailing peaceful marches, terrorizing blacks by bombing their churches and burning their homes, and attacking “Freedom Riders.”

They further terrorized the blacks and whites who gave offense by killing them. When I was in the South in 1964, I was 280 miles away when segregationists took so much offense at civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner that they killed them near Philadelphia, MS, in June. I became a lifetime NAACP member in 1968 and have supported its causes ever since.

My experience, both from being on the ground and from reading the history of the times, is that efforts to squelch free speech and expressive action have no natural limits. Such efforts, unrestrained by a decent respect of oneself and others, and a determined regard for others’ rights, can lead to intimidation and worse. So I was appalled by the local NAACP’s chapter disrespectful reception and treatment of its Tea Party guests. I would hate to think that the operating assumption was “now it’s our turn, turn-about is fair play.”

I suggest that, when the NAACP involves itself in Black History Month, it promote a more textured view of both past and present. I hope that it will support a nuanced moral perspective to counter the abiding sense of grievance and indignation which prompted its ill-mannered behavior toward invited guests who had given offense and from whom they still took offense.

A moral: In blogs and columns, I have forthrightly opposed the Tea Party’s positions, expressed, implied, or inferred, but I defend its right to oppose diversity, inclusiveness, even equality. The issues of diversity and inclusiveness, since the emergence of since-discredited multi-culturalism and political correctness, are recent, but contentious, ones. They overlie the issue of equality, a contentious issue in America’s past, its present, and, certainly, its future. As I have argued previously, I take equality to be inseparable for democracy.

But not everyone agrees. Indeed, the Constitutional provision for counting slaves as three-fifths persons implies either a contradiction of the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal” stated in the Declaration of Independence or a reconsideration of who counts or how much they count as “men.” I believe that the implicit departure from principle was made to achieve a political compromise to create a constitution for the country. But others believe the departure to have been a sober recognition of a moral reality that some races are inherently superior to others.

The country divided on the issue, fought a civil war to resolve it, passed amendments establishing equality under the law, and thought that the country had moved on. Many thought so and made up the myth of “one nation,” enshrined in the Pledge of Allegiance. But the issue lingers or, perhaps more accurately, festers. Thus, the country’s post-Civil-War history includes the KKK, White Citizen Councils, and an array of white supremacist groups, Jim Crow laws, restrictive residential covenants and red-lined insurance districts, differential loan rates, job discrimination, segregation of the military services, states rights opposition to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, recent proposals to revise or repeal the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, and current efforts to impede the exercise of the right to vote on the fraudulent grounds of voter fraud which would have greater effect on minorities, among others.

So the debate, which goes to the definition of what America is or ought to be, goes on. Partisans on both sides must discuss the issues; those on one side must not debar those on the other. It would be a bitter irony, indeed, if those who proclaim diversity and inclusiveness practice the exclusion of those with contrary views. There is nothing easy about discussions of controversial issues, but the alternative to talk is—what exactly? So let such controversies be, if possible, teaching moments for all, in which speech is free and unfettered.

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