Brian Steffen

Making sense of media and higher education since 1989.

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Sarah Palin & First Amendment 101

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Sarah Palin, First Amendment Scholar

While much of the nation is in an uproar over Sarah Palin’s invocation of “blood libel” in a recorded response, distributed online today, to the weekend Arizona shootings, her talk also demonstrates a gross misrepresentation of the First Amendment and its protections.

In a talk that at first sounds like a Meiklejohnian love letter to freedom of expression, Palin argued Wednesday that:

No one should be deterred from speaking up and speaking out in peaceful dissent. And we certainly must not be deterred by those who do evil and call it good. And we will not be stopped from celebrating the greatness of our country and our foundational freedoms by those who mock its greatness by being intolerant of differing opinion and seeking to muzzle dissent with shrill cries of imagined insults.

That’s consistent with the right’s defensiveness of its extremist rhetoric: Liberals want to silence us and shut us down. One can imagine only a brief period of time before the Thought Police starts shipping brave, dissenting conservatives off to concentration camps for re-education. (Just to think of it, when will the conservative Daniel Ellsberg step up and be rung up on an Espionage Act charge?)

Let’s add the voice of Tea Partier and defeated Senate candidate Sharron Angle of Nevada to the chorus of oppressed, censored conservatives:

Expanding the context of the attack to blame and to infringe upon the people’s Constitutional liberties is both dangerous and ignorant. The irresponsible assignment of blame to me, Sarah Palin or the Tea Party movement by commentators and elected officials puts all who gather to redress grievances in danger.

Both Palin and Angle are swatting at straw men. The First Amendment protects citizens from censorship by government and punishment after the fact for their expression of ideas. No pundit, activist, political figure or leader of any movement has been silenced in this manner. Other than opportunistic grandstanding by Rep. Bob Brady, D-Penn., no one has suggested criminalizing eliminationist rhetoric. No one’s suggested the creation of civil penalties for such speech.

What Palin, Angle and others don’t get is this: The First Amendment protects you from government interference in speech, but it doesn’t protect you from being criticized for your ideas or their expression. Indeed, those who criticize the use of crosshairs in political advertising or the suggestion that Second Amendment remedies should be available to patriots are exercising their own First Amendment rights. Their providing the rest of the selection in the marketplace of ideas.

When you speak out on any subject and express any view, the First Amendment protects you. When governments try to stop you, it’s unconstitutional. My own view is that the Constitution should similarly protect you when powerful private groups organize to punish you for your speech: Such was the case, for example, with the campaign of repression against the Dixie Chicks in 2003 for daring to criticize George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq War. It turns out that the campaign was hardly a spontaneous expression of ordinary-citizen rage but rather actively cultivated by corporate radio powerhouse Clear Channel.

When I advised a student newspaper for 16 years, undergraduates often fretted when administrators expressed disapproval of what they published. Sometimes the student journalists mistook the criticism as censorship. As their adviser, I told them I’d always defend their right to publish what they wanted. But, I also told them, don’t expect anyone to love you for what you publish. And don’t expect them to not criticize you.

That’s the lesson the Sarah Palins, Sharron Angles and Rush Limbaughs need to learn.

That the free exchange of ideas is “indeed essential to the nature of a free state,” as William Blackstone wrote nearly 250 years ago, is a given. But that’s never meant that anyone gets a free pass in public opinion for whatever it is they say or whatever methods they use to say it.

The rhetoric of modern conservatism is full of allegations of oppression by the left. It’s time we call them on it.

Written by Brian Steffen

January 13, 2011 at 2:18 am

Posted in Media, Politics

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Good News from the Giffords Shooting!

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Jared Lee Loughner, Lone Nut

Hooray for us! We’re not to blame!

That’s right: We’re all off the hook for Saturday’s mass murders of six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl born on 9/11, and the woundings of 14 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

This must be a huge load off the minds of the media and the public that is now absolved of any need for soul-searching. At least that’s what the public has concluded. Two polls out today show that majorities don’t think there’s a connection between eliminationist political rhetoric emanating largely from the right and the Arizona crimes.

Public opinion is buying into the lone-nut theory now gaining currency in media coverage. Who wouldn’t think so, based solely on the Hannibal Lecter-ish mugshot of accused assassin Jared Lee Loughner? (Even the fashion and the lighting is positively Lee Harvey Oswald. Note how the shadowing gives Loughner the same black eye that Oswald got from the Dallas police.)

Lee Harvey Oswald, Another Lone Nut

We also have the benefit of the conclusions of seemingly half the people in Arizona — all duly quoted in the reportage of the past several days — that Loughner was and is seriously off his rocker. (Isn’t it amazing how the discussion of the guy’s erratic behavior reaches critical mass only after he goes Glock?)

The upshot is that the radio flamethrowers are back in business as usual. (Rush Limbaugh insisted today that Loughner is in league with Democrats.) And we’re all heading back to our work and families.

Show’s over folks: Time to move on.

Meanwhile, 9,000 more people will die in gun violence in the United States throughout the rest of 2011. (Click here for a chart that shows the comparative gun-death rates in dozens of countries. Pay special attention to the countries that have higher gun-murder rates than does the United States — not the kind of comparison group to which I’d like to belong.)

We can all rest easy tonight, secure in the knowledge that we need do nothing in a nation that lets Jared Loughner and 34 percent of all Americans own firearms with few or, in many cases, no restrictions.

Well, maybe there is one thing we can do: Pray that one of those thousands of lone nuts with guns in the United States never crosses our path.

Written by Brian Steffen

January 12, 2011 at 2:53 am

Posted in Media, Politics

Tagged with ,

Sarah Palin’s Not to Blame

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Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

When news of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords came through on Twitter Saturday, it was immediately clear that it was going to be a banner day for breaking-news journalism and all the hype and overstatement that goes with such situations.

Most egregious was the NPR flash that Giffords had died, amplified by CNN and other outlets. Those were quickly corrected, and the narrative has shifted to the debate over who’s to blame for what will go down as one of the bloodiest days in American politics.

As could be expected, Sarah Palin and Tea Partiers are taking much of the heat. Keith Olbermann excoriated them and others for their hints of violence and their adoration of firearms as a symbol of a conservative take-back of American politics and culture. Radio hosts came in for special criticism from Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik for their “vitriol.” Dupnik said Arizona has become the nation’s “mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

Such is standard practice in American media, politics and culture: They are to blame. We are not.

Or, at least in this case, conservatives are making sure we understand that they’re not to blame. David Frum writes at his blog:

Conservatives have been quick to repudiate – to brand as offensive and disgusting – any suggestion that the Tucson shooting was somehow inspired by the extreme anti-Obama political rhetoric of the past 2 years.

In this, conservatives have the facts on their side. By all reports, the Tucson shooter was a very mentally disturbed person. Even if Jared Lee Loughner was aware that Sarah Palin’s PAC had posted a gun sight next to Congresswoman Gifford’s name, that awareness cannot be translated into a motivation. It makes no sense to talk of the “motive” of someone who is fundamentally irrational.

Frum’s right, kind of. It’s too easy for liberals to blame conservative thought for this shooting. But the rantings of Loughner on his social media sites show him to be obsessed with fear of the “other.” And exploiting that thinking is exactly what conservatives do to build an electoral base and governing majority.

But it’s still not that as simple as that. The question is why we fear others, and that’s too easily dismissed as being the product of right-wing rantings. To his credit, Olbermann took some share of the blame Saturday night. Here’s his Special Comment from MSNBC:

But not even Olbermann hits the point: Sarah Palin and her gun-worship rhetoric are not to blame. Neither are Glenn Beck, Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or — as excessive of a right-winger as there can be — even Michael Savage. They don’t create the anger and resentment we see reflected in the screeds of people like Jared Loughner. They merely reflect and amplify it.

So where do anger and resentment come from? Not from individuals or even social institutions such as the media. It comes from social processes. Dominant social groups in any culture, when they perceive their control of the culture is endangered, will use rhetoric first to lash out against the threat to the order. In a capitalistic culture such as ours, it’s a white-male-Christian worldview that has controlled our discourse and our institutions for centuries. Sometimes the rhetorical exercises are cynical, designed to mobilize bases of support that might otherwise be silent. Sometimes the rhetoric is honestly believed.

Whatever its rhetorical motivation, anger and resentment are first directed toward legitimate public action — campaigning for political candidates, winning elections, “taking back” institutions. When House Republicans opened the 112th Congress last week by reading the text of the Constitution on the House floor, apparently for the first time in the nation’s history, they were pandering, ultimately, to the anger and resentment that gave rise to the Tea Party in the first place.

Fair enough. Elections, as they say, have consequences.

But what’s remarkable about politics in media culture is this: The more legitimate power the anger-and-resentment crowd gains, the more angry and resentful they become. As I noted earlier in the week with a post based on my overhearing a strategy session at a local coffeehouse on the impeachment of the justices of the Iowa Supreme Court, there is a sincere belief that any compromise is a sign of weakness not to be tolerated.

That, at root, is the poison of our system: The irony of living in the most powerful nation on Earth, with it’s people enjoying the world’s greatest share of material resources, is that it makes us fearful, angry and resentful.

Simply because Sarah Palin placed crosshairs on an electoral map, including one aimed at Giffords’ district, as a way of encouraging donations doesn’t mean that Loughner took her message literally.

What the Palins, Limbaughs and others on the right do accomplish is this: They legitimate anger and resentment. They give it an outlet, an organizing principle. They insist there is a world of us (God-fearing, pro-family, patriotic) against them (pro-immigrants, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, etc.). They insist that there is no room for them if America is to survive.

We have no idea whether Loughner’s ever heard of Rush Limbaugh, seen Sarah Palin or can even identify them. For all we know, he could turn out to an archetypal Rebel Without a Clue.

So rather than blame this polarizing figure or that, what we have to do is understand the way that media work in a marketing-oriented capitalistic culture. The media are but a platform for the content of others, and the content that is expressed is that which will generate an audience.

Written by Brian Steffen

January 9, 2011 at 7:50 pm

Cream and Impeachment with That Coffee, Please

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State Rep.-Elect Kim Pearson

Being a member of both the Godless professoriate and a liberal ex-journalist, I’m probably just the kind of guy your conservative Christian parents warned you about when they packed you off to college. But I’m really not a bad guy, definitely not the creeper my college-age sons accuse me of being.

When not plotting the end of the world, I go to my local coffee spot to write syllabi, answer e-mails and do the various tasks of small-college administrivia. On Thursday, though, a group of self-identified conservative Christians seeking to impeach the remaining Iowa Supreme Court justices took the table next to me and spent about 90 minutes talking about their prospects for success.

Let me be clear: I was there first.

The group, which included at least one staffer from the Iowa Family Policy Center, was joined later by Kim Pearson, the Tea Partying soon-to-be state representative from Pleasant Hill who describes herself at her website as “not part of the political establishment” but at the same time “a part of the great patriotic awakening that is happening across our state and country.”

“I am a wife and mother who is passionate about God, family and our country,” she further panders at her site, drawing an apparent distinction with her Satanic, family-hating, pro-French opponents.

Pearson is one of three newbies in the Iowa House who are planning to push for impeachment of the remaining four justices of the Iowa Supreme Court. Their crime: Following the Rule of Law rather than the Rule of One Particularly Addled Brand of Conservative Christianity.

Having demanded that Iowans vote on whether to keep three justices in office after they found that the Iowa Constitution prohibits a ban on gay marriage, Pearson and the others at the table now don’t have the patience to let the same process work with the remaining justices. We can’t wait for another election, they say, so let’s run them out of town now.

Why have conservatives grown impatient with letting people vote on retaining justices? Perhaps because they’ve realized that their gun had only three bullets in it:

Over coffee with her fellow travelers, Pearson fretted that Branstad will sell out social conservatives. “The people who don’t think the justices broke the law don’t understand what law is,” she said. “They broke the moral law.”

Earlier, the IFPC types were strategizing how to make Iowa politicians aware that they’re beholden to The Truth. Not Diverse Truth. Not Multiple-Perspective Truth. Just The Truth. And, indeed, the organization links from its website to The Truth Project, which will give you an idea of what kind of truth they’re thinking should be established as The Truth.

The Panera conversation at times took place in hushed tones, which is understandable given Pearson’s statement at the table that she’s been labeled “the daughter of Satan, a wacko and uneducated.“ (At least the last part is demonstrably false: Pearson has a law degree from the University of Iowa.)

“They are so intolerant!” she added, apparently a reference to those of us who don’t believe that politics by pitchfork is good policy.

The odds of the justices being removed from office are remote. Impeachment theoretically could clear the House, where Republicans will hold a 60-40 advantage, but Democrats control the Senate 26-24 and it seems likely that the senators won’t go along. (Though one coffee klatcher expressed hope that the Holy Spirit would help the senators see The Truth in this matter.)

But ideological and theological purity matters more to this crowd than getting something done. For her part, Pearson is unbowed when it comes to impeachment: “Anyone who thinks we’re going to be bipartisan on this is on the losing side,” she said. “There will be no compromises.”

No compromises? None? No consideration of the views of the nearly half of Iowans who voted against throwing any justices out of office?

This is the woman the people of eastern Polk County have sent to the Statehouse. They need to keep an eye on her. We all do.

Here’s Pearson on election night last fall:

Written by Brian Steffen

January 7, 2011 at 10:54 pm

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