Category Archives: Free Expression

That Chewing Sensation…

Life occasionally offers us delicious examples of comeuppances to our enemies. Recent events have provided two in quick succession:

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I hope you weren’t eating. But we need a reminder. This is Dianne Feinstein, U. S. senator from the State of California. Those of us who care about rights are well versed in her dedication to tyranny, but just in case some of my readers have missed the memo, here’s what she told 60 Minutes:

More recently, she’s taken time off from pushing gun control to criticize the actions of Edward Snowden, accusing him of treason. She has no problem with the NSA spying on American citizens.

But in the last few days, she’s swung around so fast that I’m surprised her hair isn’t on backward. It seems that the CIA had the nerve to spy on the Senate. And that’s too much for her highness. Has she become a born-again good citizen, ready to protect our rights? I doubt it. But it is pleasant to see her cooked in her own sauces.

This story recalls the tale of the frog and the scorpion. The scorpion asks the frog for a ride across a river, and though the frog is suspicious, he allows the scorpion on his back. The scorpion stings the frog in midstream, explaining that such an act is in its nature. The characteristic of spy agencies is that they spy. It’s the job of legislators to provide oversight, not carte blanche, but when someone like Feinstein falls down in her duty, she has only herself to blame when she is on the receiving end of violations.

She’s not alone, though, in experiencing a comeuppance. Blowhard British loudmouth, Piers Morgan–this fellow:

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is set to have his show, Piers Morgan Live, cancelled by CNN. Morgan developed a reputation for telling Americans how we should run our country and for shouting over his guests who didn’t meekly agree with his every comment. And lo! his ratings plummeted.

Now he’s welcome to express himself however he chooses, but at the same time, we’re not under any obligation to listen to him.

These two deserve each other:

With any luck, they can buy an island and inhabit it together, monitoring each other’s activities and explaining to each other how they are superior to the rest of us.

Barring that, we can enjoy seeing them wake up to the chomping sensation in their bums. Feinstein and Morgan, what you’re feeling is called life biting you in the arse. Since sitting will be difficult for you, how about joining us in standing up for our rights?

What to Do

In discussions about gun violence on news sites and gun control blogs, I’m often asked what my solution to the problem is.

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The incident at Newtown, Connecticut brings particular poignancy to this question.

First, let’s put this problem into perspective. The current U.S. population is somewhat over 318,000,000, according to the Census. Adding in non-resident visitors and uncounted aliens and rounding for ease of calculation, I’m calling it 320,000,000. Of that number, roughly 30,000 die per annum from gunshot, of which deaths two-thirds are suicides. That works out to 4.7 / 100,000, a rate that we hadn’t seen since the early 1960s.

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The chart here shows data from 1976 on.

This means that your chances of dying by gunfire in America in raw numbers are one in about 10,600. If you don’t shoot yourself, your chances improve to one in 32,000. The numbers vary from city to city, but in our centers of population, murder victims tend in large percentages to be people with criminal records themselves, so if you’re not a criminal, your odds get even better.

But certainly, 30,000 is too many. The answer to this problem in the eyes of some is gun control, but as regular readers know, that is something that I regard as a violation of the rights of good people. Is there another answer?

Submitted for your consideration are my suggestions for reducing violence of all types, including firearms violence, in this country:

1. End the War on Drugs.

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We’ve had a number of efforts at prohibition of substances, going all the way back to attempts at drying up the nation in the nineteenth century, but our current efforts at banning classes of entertaining drugs other than tobacco and alcohol got going for serious in the 1970s. In the forty years since, we’ve wasted a trillion dollars, and half of all federal prisoners are in for drug crimes.

As we saw in the 1920s during the Prohibition of alcohol, we are seeing again: Banning a substance only encourages criminal smuggling, gang warfare, collateral damage, and the ruining of lives of many who merely possess the forbidden fruit. Addiction should be treated as an illness, not a crime, and all recreational substances should be regulated in the manner that our two legal drugs, tobacco and alcohol, are. All who were convicted for mere possession should be immediately released and pardoned to remove the stigma of a criminal record.

2. Incarcerate violent offenders for longer terms.

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Once drugs cease to be a criminal matter, we will solve the problem of overcrowded prisons. This will create room for violent offenders. Criminals who use a firearm in the commission of a crime can have extra time added to their sentences.

3. Improve schools.

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As a teacher, I’ve gone on at length here about education reform. To sum up, we need to spend more money to pay teachers what they’re worth, to reduce class sizes, to repair and upgrade facilities, and to offer a wider selection of classes. The goal here is to provide all students with a chance to succeed. It seems obvious, but the more educated a population is, the less crime that population commits.

4. Improve access to mental health services–with the caveat that privacy must be protected.

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In these incidents of mass shootings, some shooters are seeking revenge against those whom they perceive as having wronged them, but the typical case is a young, white, male, loner with mental health problems. Unfortunately, such individuals don’t often see themselves as needing treatment. I suspect that part of their reluctance involves a fear of being reported, so making privacy a guarantee is important. Of course, young men who head down the road to becoming a mass shooter reach a point of no return. That leads me to the next two points.

5. Stop making these shooters stars.

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As author and space scientist, David Brin, argues, we should treat these mass shooters in the same manner as the Ephesians wished to treat the arsonist who burned down the Temple of Artemis. His name was to be erased and never recalled again. This, of course, will require the voluntary cooperation of news organizations, since we cannot do right by violating rights. But as long as America has a love affair with wacko killers, those nutcases will have motivation.

6. Address bullying.

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Here in America, the intellectual loner is not a popular type. But a core value of our nation is that we all should be free to express our own individuality. That is one of the key messages that should be taught until the concept is absorbed. We can be ourselves without demeaning others. At the least, it should be clear that attacking others will not be tolerated.

But there’s more. We’ve created a culture in schools where someone who acts in self-defense is treated the same way as the person who started the fight. One solution to this is to teach martial arts–Krav Maga, for example, since it’s free of the religious overtones of Eastern systems–and make it clear that human beings, even students, have the right to stop physical violence used against them.

These are my answers to the problem, realistically assessed, of violence in our society. We will not eliminate all of it. Violence is in human nature, and Americans are more violent as a culture than other societies, but we can go a long way along reducing it. And we can do so without violating our rights.

If It Quacks Like a Duck…

The news reports that Duck Dynasty star, Phil Robertson, has been suspended from his A&E program indefinitely for comments he made regarding homosexuality. Now I can remember when A&E was more arts than entertainment, and I only became aware of the program in question when I figured out that the pictures I was seeing in stores were not of ZZ Top.

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But let’s consider this matter in detail. This is what Robertson said to GQ Magazine:

It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.

Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong. Sin becomes fine. . . . Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.

In other words, he takes a point of view held by many in this country. It’s a position that I disagree with, as I’ve said many times before. At the same time, I support his right to express his beliefs.

Some have said about this incident that Robertson still gets to say what he pleases. He just won’t be appearing on a corporation’s television show. This raises the question of how corporate image is affecting our understanding of free speech.

There’s a concept here that we need to understand. It comes from statements of the pope that are taken to be infallible. Those are called ex cathedra, or from the chair. (A cathedral is the seat of a bishop, by the way.) The idea here is that the pope is speaking as the pope, not as an ordinary human being. If Francis I, for example, looks at the sky and says that it’s going to rain, that’s not infallible. If he declares in an official statement that rain is the gift of God, that will be taken by Catholics as the way it is. (Sort of…)

The same notion should be applied to other famous people. In fact, it should apply to us all. As regular readers of this weblog know, I teach composition and literature at a college. I don’t name that institution here because I’m not speaking as its representative. My views expressed here are solely my own. What I say in these articles should be taken as my private expression, not something that I’m saying as a part of my job.

If Robertson had said what I quoted above on the A&E show, that network would have some claim to making an objection. Or perhaps there should be the standard disclaimer at the start, telling viewers that the opinions expressed here are not the network’s, so don’t sue us. But when he speaks to a separate magazine, he should be seen as speaking for himself.

I realize that this requires some sophistication of thought. Peter Jackson once told Charlie Rose in an interview that the reason he didn’t select someone like Tom Cruise to play Aragorn was that he didn’t want the audience to see Tom Cruise instead of the character. And that’s a problem with a lot of people. But the actor is not the character. That’s true of scripted fiction, and it’s true of “reality” T.V.

Besides, what was the network expecting? A duck hunter from New York City? (New York City?)

First or Second?

The Huffington Post continues its several-weeks-long rant against gun rights today in an article titled, “Protecting Second Amendment While Trampling the First.” The author, one Ken Toltz, claims that those of us who defend gun rights are violating the free speech and free press rights of those who are against us.

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His argument is that we gun-rights supporters have been too loud in our opposition to gun control. He reminds us that Dick Metcalf, once of Guns & Ammo was let go because he pushed gun restrictions in an editorial, and he brings up the open carry protest that was organized outside a restaurant that some Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America whiners were visiting.

Really? That’s all?

Metcalf wrote an article in a magazine devoted to guns and gun owners. Should it come as a surprise to him that the readers didn’t appreciate his support for gun control? But in what way has he been prevented from expressing his opinion? His story has been told by the news media again and again, and he remains free to speak his mind on blogs, in magazines that will have him, and anywhere else that he cares to speak. All that he was denied is the one outlet where his views don’t match the readership.

Regarding the Moms for Gun Bans, if you can’t stand a counterprotest, too bad. The attitude of gun control freaks, one that I have observed repeatedly in debates with them, is that anyone who disagrees with their position is either too stupid for consideration or a bully. It’s the same kind of thing that gets stereotyped in movies about Southern mamas. Whenever someone says something that mama doesn’t like, she gasps and faints. Fortunately, we do not live in that matriarchal tyranny any more. Moms have to provide the same facts and logic that everyone else must offer to win a debate.

But the strangest claim of all of Toltz’s screed is that gun-rights supporters are shutting down the debate. Seriously? Has the media been silent about gun control? Have gun control blogs disappeared? Has The Huffington Post been prevented from advocacy? A short survey will show you that the answer to these questions is no.

Over the years of writing this weblog, I’ve declared my love of both the right of free expression and free speech and of gun rights. I find it bizarre for someone to use one right to call for the violation of another, but that’s what you must be able to do in a free society.

And that’s the limit of what you should be able to do. When it comes to making laws that violate the rights of others, talk is all you have a right to. We who support gun rights will talk. Some of us, myself included, more than others. But action, when it is correct, defends rights.

Have Your Cake and Speak It, Too

There’s a case out of Colorado that has the left and the right of our political spectrum in a stew. A bakery near Denver, one Masterpiece Cakeshop, refuses to sell wedding cakes to gay couples. Administrative law judge Robert Spencer says that the business will be fined if it continues this policy.

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Regular readers of this weblog know that I am a supporter of equal rights for all, straight, gay, or in between. I see it as necessary for our society to give official recognition to the marriages of gay or lesbian couples. But there is more here that just one set of rights.

The owner of the bakery believes that gay marriage is wrong. He sees it as going against his Christian beliefs. So be it, and I don’t feel qualified to comment on that. But he is in a creative business. His cakes are his speech, in the same way that a musical composition, a photograph, or a sculpture is speech, as we understand the concept today. To require him to bake a cake in celebration of something he disapproves of is to force speech.

If Masterpiece Cakeshop sold oil changes, there would be no question here. It should change the oil of anyone who can afford that service. If the bakery sells pre-made cakes, those should be offered to anyone who has the money. But if the business is using the creative skill of its employees to make products to suit its customers, it has to be free to do that in whatever manner those creators see as right. When the business and the customer can’t come to an agreement in that situation, the two must be free to part company and seek others.

Fishing for the Fellow under the Bridge

In my time writing and commenting on discussion boards and weblogs, I’ve run across a disturbing word: troll. Commentors are cautioned not to feed the troll, and anyone who expresses an opinion different from the majority’s risks being given that label. The term has two possible origins:

1. In Norse mythology, “troll” is a word used as a synonym for the Jötunn, the giants who are the equals and rivals of the Æsir and the Vanir. Readers of The Hobbit know of them as the monsters that confront Bilbo and the dwarfs before being tricked into staying out past dawn and turning into stone. Trolls also show up in the Harry Potter series. Then there’s the troll who lives under the bridge and eats travellers who try to cross.

2. The French verb, troller, means “to quest.” It’s used in English to refer to dragging bait through the water in hopes of catching fish.

The second of those is probably the origin of the term in Internet usage, since the offending commentor was someone who threw out silly or unrelated remarks in hopes of derailing the discussion, but it’s come to have both meanings, as seen by the idea of avoiding feeding said creature.

What disturbs me is the notion that a discussion must only be conducted by people who already agree on the main points. I’ve seen far too many cases of dissenters being called trolls for merely offering a contrary view. Our kind of society depends on a lively debate and a respect for the right of everyone to hold individual opinions. Yes, there are obvious cases of someone whose sole interest is to disrupt the conversation, but too often, moderators or participants label opposition as disruption.

This kind of attack is akin to the ad hominem fallacy. It’s directed at the person, while ignoring the points being presented. It’s also a sign of a small mind that is unable to address outside thoughts. I’ve said before that we get the society that we deserve. We shape that society by our participation in the marketplace of ideas. It should also be remembered that some of the Jötunn–Skaði, for example–live with the gods and are their friends. Odin himself consults Mímir, the giant guardian of the Well of Highest Wisdom. We dismiss trolls lightly at our peril.

Innocence and Experience

Over the last week, the world has seen film criticism turned into violent protest. The movie in question, The Innocence of Muslims, portrays the prophet Muhammed as a child-molesting, adultering, homosexual thug. In doing so, it has offended many, some of whom attacked U.S. embassies in North Africa. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three members of his staff in Libya were killed in one of those incidents.

I didn’t want to watch the film, but for the purpose of writing this article, I saw it on YouTube. It’s some thirteen minutes of inept acting, bad dialogue, pathetic effects, and an absence of character development or a coherent plot.

But the protests aren’t over the fact that it’s a lousy movie. The problem that some see in it is that it depicts Muhammed as a bad person. It calls into question the origins of the Islamic religion. Is it offensive? Certainly. Is violence an acceptable response? Certainly not.

The implication of the protests is that the religion in question is too weak to survive criticism or insult. Ideas cannot be defended by violence. Those who accept ideas do have the right to defend themselves against physical harm, but offense doesn’t qualify. People have the right to live and to believe, but ideas do not.

Understand the point that I’m making there. A person has the right to be a Muslim or not, but the religion itself has no right to special protection. Ideas have to stand or fall on their own strengths and flaws. As we’ve seen time and again, nonsense gets the protection of swords and shields, but that doesn’t make it true. Good ideas are often suppressed, but that doesn’t make them false.

So what makes a religion true or false? It’s not scientific evidence or historical events, no matter what some believers may say. Religion isn’t subject to those considerations. What makes the difference is the narrative power of the religion and the meaning that it gives the lives of its participants. In terms of social utility, we can consider whether the religion makes a person better, but that goes beyond the validity of the religion itself.

I’ve seen questions asked about how a film like this could have been allowed. This comes mostly from countries that don’t respect freedom of expression. Those countries also don’t typically respect freedom of religion, either. America has extraordinary religious freedom and no official religion and a high rate of participation in religion. Those two facts are connected.

With that in mind, the right response to an offensive movie is to speak out, to make a new film, to preach, and to argue. If the religion in question has good ideas, it will survive. If not, it’s not worth fighting for in the first place.