The Myth of Free Speech

The United States Constitution is a notoriously vague and laconic document, and those who have amended it have taken pains to do so with the same parsimonious language exemplified by the original. In fact, in the very first of its many adjustments, only 10 words were added to -- if we may indulge in a bit of Bush-speak -- "codify" the fact that Americans have the right to mouth off at will: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech..."

These 10 simple words have given rise to a rather dangerous misconception, especially when the expression "freedom of speech" is truncated to simply "free speech," creating an unfortunate double entendre. "Free speech," of course, means speech without constraint, as in liberated speech, but it also means speech without cost, as in, well, free speech.

The idea that one can speak out with impunity, with no fear of costly consequences, is true in proportion to the powerlessness of the speaker. When Janis Joplin hoarsely intoned that "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose," she certainly hit cultural pay dirt -- the truly free are those on the bottom rung of the ladder, whose voices, it seems, are never heard. That, however, doesn't prevent, at least here in America and even in places like Bolivia of late, these "unhearables" from trying.

In a nugget of ironic-doublespeak gold, the U.S. Secret Service has created something called "Free-Speech Areas," meaning locations where protestors and other lowly types of citizenry are corralled so that President Bush and other members of his coterie need not be disturbed or inconvenienced by this "free speech" thing, since the people exercising their First Amendment right find themselves out of the Commander-in-Chief's earshot. After all, the Constitution said they had a right to speak their minds, but remained typically mute on whether or not anyone might be obligated to listen.

Mr. Bill Neel, a retired Pittsburgh steelworker unhappy with Bush's stewardship of the economy, said it better than I can: "I thought the whole country was a free-speech area." Well, Bill, as we all eventually come to learn, it is and it isn't.

If a tree falls in the forest, the saying goes, and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The Secret Service thinks not, apparently, and does its best to isolate its charge from all such disagreeable thuds, lest he begin to understand that his so-called "compassionate conservatism" is pauperizing some Americans while leaving others blown apart in the sand half a world away.

My molecules may not have been assembled until well after 1941, but I think it's fair to assume that once Tojo's warplanes turned Pearl Harbor into a blazing graveyard, a lot of voices were left unheard as American citizens of Japanese ancestry were herded off to the desert and the rail lines leading to Auschwitz-Birkenau were left in tact because Roosevelt had other, more pressing priorities. A similar situation exists today in the aftermath of the attacks on Washington and lower Manhattan, with the government not only turning a deaf ear to anti-war protesters here and abroad (protesters always get the deaf ear, except perhaps when Nixon chatted with a few of the "bums" across from the White House), but also consolidating its power under the Patriot Act to maintain greater vigilance over suspected subversives. All a President has to do, really, is, in election season, convince a bit over half the electorate (or not even that, given the events of 2000) that dissenting voices are unpatriotic, and he is free to go about his duties insulated from the public at large. Press conferences are not required here in the States, so Presidents make a lot of rehearsed addresses and decide willy-nilly when they're ready to answer a few questions, walking off behind the iron draperies at will.

To repeat: Presidents must convince the electorate that dissenting voices are unpatriotic. Or at least, Republican presidents do that, though I must admit that under the reign of Lyndon Johnson, the Democrats did their share of demonizing, too. Still, it is Republicans who claim to have a much clearer idea of what patriotism is, and who have no qualms about being belligerent and exclusive in their "love" for the U.S. of A. They are quick, especially during this open-ended war on terror, to paint critics as un-American, as if only they themselves were the arbiters of what constitutes a love of country. Because of this, they get caught saying some pretty outrageous things, and often get away with it, though not always.

When Trent Lott told the late Strom Thurmond that if the country had bought into the centenarian senator's 1948 vision of racial segregation, we'd be better off today, he lost his job as Senate Majority Leader. When Rush Limbaugh said the media was bending over backwards to see a black quarterback succeed -- why, the very idea -- he was forced to resign from ESPN.

See? Like I was saying, in the mouths of the powerful, speech never comes free -- when you have a voice that does get heard, what you say has a definite price.

But that doesn't mean there aren't numerous other outbursts that go for bargain rates. Washington State Republican Representative George Nethercutt, Jr., said recently that, regarding Iraq, "The story of what we've done in the postwar period is remarkable. It is a better and more important story than losing a couple of soldiers every day."

He should get active duty in Karbala for a statement like that. To my knowledge, he wasn't even censured. Free speech? Let's just hope no American family who has lost a son or daughter heard that obscene remark, or they would have certainly paid quite a mark-up in grief.

And then there's "Old Faithful" Pat Robertson who suggested that if he "could just get a nuclear device inside [the State Department,]" that might be a way of making war on the war against the so-called war on terrorism. "We've got to blow that thing up," he added. Now that is definitely free speech, in the sense that Robertson was completely free to stick his sanctimonious foot far into his maw, but last I heard, he was still sitting in the Chairman's seat at the Christian Broadcasting Network.

His brother of equally suspect "orals," Jerry Falwell, has even more legroom between his enamel. "Muhammad was a terrorist," he declared, setting off a minor firestorm of protest from those few not afraid to stick up for Muslims these days. Add this to his post-September 11 assessment that pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians and the ACLU helped guide Osama's disciples to their targets and you have one hell of a loose cannon who nevertheless continues to hold some kind of employment when perhaps he might be better off preaching to the choir at Bellevue.

More recently, a born-again Lieutenant General by the name of William Boykin has been making the rounds of evangelical Christian churches for the purpose, it seems, of demonizing Islam, declaring that the war on terror is "a battle against Satan" and suggesting that, to paraphrase the old dog food commercial, "my God is better than your God." He even let slip that he believes God put Bush in the White House (given the current mess in Iraq, he might want to specify which God he's talking about). It's all very well and good that the President flits around the world insisting we are not crusading against Muslims per se, but when the people under him spout off to the contrary, well, it seems no disciplinary action is taken. Ever cognizant of that all-important hardcore Christian vote, even scrappy ol' Rumsfeld puts on the velvet gloves to deal with Boykin's babblings. Now just imagine if some top brasser under Clinton had hopped about the country suggesting that the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy regarding gay soldiers was unconstitutional and a desecration of all the liberties the armed forces are sworn to defend. The Pentagon goodfellas would have been quick to see that their Democratic boss expelled the transgressor immediately, whereas, in Boykin's case, we've seen no such outcry at all. This can only suggest, to us and the rest of the world, that Boykin's vision of today's world is not, at least in the eyes of our military and perhaps the Administration, so far-fetched after all.

In America at present, it's the warriors and the worshippers who are calling the shots (worshippers of the "real" God, that is).

Perhaps that's why Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam was ill-advised to play rough on stage with his Dubya mask. And why the Dixie Chicks almost ignited a civil war when they publicly lamented the President's geographical ancestry. And why Michael Moore was soundly booed at the Oscars for denouncing the Operation Iraqi Freedom. And "lefty" Tim Robbins saw the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame cancel a tribute to the film "Bull Durham" in which he starred as pitcher "Nuke" LaLoosh.

It makes you wonder if there was ever a time when opposing government policies was not a costly thing to do. I don't think so. The Hollywood Ten tried it, as did three young civil rights activists in Mississippi, and some kids at Kent State, and -- well, you get the idea.

Speech is never quite free, no. But the price has a lot to do with how radically the message clashes with the prevailing state-of-thought. Eminem had plenty of disparaging things to say, but it failed to slow his ascension one iota. Thabo Mbeki could deny for years that HIV causes AIDS, and get away with it, because apparently it was something the people felt comforted to hear. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, just the other day, declared that "Jews rule the world by proxy," and was roundly applauded, indicating that his sentiments, at least to many in the Islamic realm, are hardly extreme.

People rarely speak in a vacuum, and left or right, no matter what they say, their comments often reflect a "truth" that, for better or worse, needs to be exhumed. That's one value of free speech, in its liberating sense. But when it comes to free speech as it relates to "cost," then always some will pay a higher price than others. Today, under the present reign of anti-terror, the cost has been considerably higher for those critical of the nation's present course. But as American soldiers continue arriving home in boxes at Dover Air Force Base, and the cost of Americanizing the Middle East grows even steeper, and the relationship between the Iraq war and September 11 grows ever fuzzier, that may change.

Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, when he was still defending himself, said there are "three truths: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." Alas, he left one out -- the truth that people are willing to hear.

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