Sunday, July 26, 2020

The First Amendment: Freedom vs. Authoritarianism

     It pains me to have to write this.  It's probably going to cost me some readers.

     But it's an important principle, one at the very heart of our country's strength, and it appears to me that we're in danger of losing it:  The First Amendment.

     Freedom of thought; freedom of belief.  Freedom of expression.  Freedom of the press.  These are very basic things, things that are supposed to be set outside the government's grasp.  They apply not only to ideas we like, or to ideas that most people agree with -- they also apply to unpopular ideas.  Repugnant ideas.  Wrong ideas.  The most effective way to fight bad ideas is to counter them with better ideas, not by attempting to suppress them.

     In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court wrote, "There is no mysticism in the American concept of the state or of the nature or origin of its authority.  We set  up government by consent of the governed and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent. [...]
     "Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. [...] Freedom to differ is not limited to things  that do not matter much.  That would be a mere shadow of freedom.  The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order."

     When I wrote about law enforcement apparently targeting journalists, in reports a Federal judge found so credible he grated a temporary restraining order, I received a few comments.  They were...heated.  Vitriolic.  The people who wrote them are free to hold such ideas, of course.  I'm not obliged to post them on my blog, but I will quote from them in order to address the significant concerns they raise.

     Let me be clear: to the extent that modern "cancel culture," largely a phenomenon originating in the Left, focuses on silencing unpopular opinions, it is a bad thing; and to the extent that that it turns government powers to that end, it is contrary to the Bill of Rights.  But the fact that one side of a conflict is bad does not necessarily mean the opposing side is good; they can both be bad, and to varying degrees.

     When a commenter writes, "I am so tired of watching Portland Antifa and their I'll get away with arson and battery etc that I want to see the mobs machine gunned into hamburger. I want to see Portlands gutters running with the blood of these idiots. If that includes a bunch of lefty so-called journalists, it's just collateral damage and no great loss," the course of action he endorses is completely contrary to American values.

     Individuals who commit arson and battery indeed ought to be arrested by police and changed with their crimes -- but the person standing next to them, waving a sign and jeering, is not equally culpable.  In any event "machine-gunning" is not how the government should or, Constitutionally, can respond -- and if they could, there would be nothing to keep a future, Left-leaning Administration from doing the very same to a rioting mob of Right-wing protestors.

     As for "lefty so-called journalists," there's nothing in the Bill of Rights that limits press freedom to one political leaning or another: John Stossel, Glenn Greenwald, Sean Hannity, Rachael Maddow and some nitwit with a blog are all protected from government interference, even when they're offering up nothing but opinion.  It is generally understood that the government is expected to not shoot them, especially when they have taken pains to make themselves identifiable as "press."

     Dreams of  "gutters running red with blood" are best left to authoritarians: fascists and communists, either of whom will kill you just as dead for saying the wrong thing.  That's not how it is supposed to work in the United States of America.  When you urge it, you are urging the overthrow of our system of government.

     Another commenter was irked at the press:
     "I duuno but I have not seen any evidence of a true independent reporter for some time."
     I'm not sure what this means, especially in a world of blogs, Twitter and YouTube videos open to anyone.  Most professional journalists do work for some entity, and they answer to some kind of an editor -- but they operate pretty independently: it's the only way you can cover a developing event.  And it is true that if we send reporters working for National Review and The Nation to cover the same event, they're going to deliver very different views of it -- not because they got their marching orders from above, but because they freely chose where they wanted to work, based in part on congruent outlooks.

     "Also the police know that if a protest is not broadcast in living color it can die out."
     That doesn't give the police the right to censor or deny coverage.  That would be the opposite of a free press.  Still, it seems nonsensical; I have seen everything from long-term "Occupy" camp-outs to Second Amendment rallies get lots of attendance despite receiving only cursory TV coverage.  It takes more than the chance to grace TV screens to get feet on the ground -- especially for more than one day.

     "We saw that with the Vietnam war. Put all the losses up and cover up the wins and before long you have a vibratent anti war faction."
     This is a distortion of history -- of something that was on TV screens every night of my childhood and teens.  Opposition to the war in Vietnam started in 1965 with opposition to the draft, especially in the age group subject to it.  Protests grew after that, still focused on the draft, escalating to the mass turning-in of draft cards in October, 1967.  The Tet offensive in early 1968 resulted in the first press coverage implying the U. S. military in Vietnam was weak -- with causality lists to support that impression.  The truth was closer to a strong U. S. military, fighting a war under conditions and with aims that were so misaligned with reality as to make the war unwinnable: they'd been a given a mission that left them stuck throwing men into a meatgrinder.  Under such circumstances, a "vibrant antiwar faction" was inevitable.  You're blaming the media for what should be laid on Congress and the Presidents who were running that "police action."

     "But sure, let's make a protected class that wants to tear down civilization. That will end well."
     The men who wrote the Bill of Rights, and who got the Amendment passed in the U. S. Congress and the legislatures of the States, were convinced that by protecting freedom of belief, freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of the press from government meddling and limitation, they were protecting the exchange of ideas fundamental to the United States of America.  I'm quite sure there are reporters, commentators and editors who would love to "tear down civilization," everything from radical Islamic fundamentalists to black-flag anarcho-communists to pipsqueak Nazis to some kinds of crazy I can't even conceive of.  Our best weapon to fight them is to address and counter their destructive nonsense with constructive sense, with better ideas -- ideas that include freedom of the press.

     You cannot improve a free society by making it less free.  That road only leads to one place, and it's not freedom.

     History is unmistakably clear about that.


RandyGC said...

Pretty much agree with your view point.

From a selfish pragmatic viewpoint targeting journalists or even "making the gutters run red" with the blood of Antifa, Marxists and other barbarians is a bad idea.

Not because I particularly care about their welfare (I would cry no tears if the Antifa lot were taking out by a large lightning strike), but I care about the the welfare of my family and friends.

Once the gloves are off for one group, they become easier to take off for the next, until they stay off.

A basic rule of politics in particular and society at large is take the law/tactic/action you are considering and give it to your worst enemy. Can you, would you, want to live with the results?

I'm seeing a lot of short memories on both sides when discussing the "unprecedented" actions of both the .gov and their opposition in the streets.

Comrade Misfit said...

Well said.

Glenn Kelley said...

KIlling the messenger is as old as mankind . It is always practiced by the loser .

Anonymous said...

I have no problem hearing and reading opinions that I disagree with because I learn perspective. I may or may not change my opinion, but it is always good to take the opportunity to learn.

Where full stop happens for me is when they demand my actions and opinions change to match theirs. There is my line in the sand.

Free speech is everyone's right. Our actions are to be determined by the individual.

DrSmØke - WØNQX said...

Well Stated, Bobbi!

Damn! We think alike :)