Sunday, March 06, 2011

A soldier's grieving mother and free speech.

Lottie Hermanson's son, Michael, was killed in Iraq. At his funeral the hateful fundamentalists from the Westboro Baptist Church showed up to taunt her and the rest of Michael's friends and family. As you no doubt know, the Supreme Court recently ruled such protests are legally protected by the First Amendment.

Lottie said: "Even though speech may be hurtful, wars mean things. If you're not free to speak your mind, your thoughts, then you're really not free. She endorsed a group called the Patriot Guard, which was formed to protect grieving families from the hateful "gospel" of the Jesus-mongers from Westboro. The head of that group, Tony Krogh, was also interviewed and said: "The decision was based on the fact that these soldiers have died protecting that freedom, the freedom of speech. ...[I]t is literally the reason these soldier give everything they have."

Now, I am sure these are fine people who are well intentioned, but they are wrong in a rather spectacular way. The proof is easy to understand. Imagine that when 9/11 took place that the US government responded, not by waging war on Iraq which had nothing to do with 9/11, but with a world-wide hunt to capture the man who was responsible: bin Laden (No, I don't believe the 911 Truther bullshit and won't turn the comment section into a forum for that topic—so don't even try.)

Would freedom of speech be less secure had our government responded that way? No! Let us be clear, as far as I can tell, in at least the last 150 years, the American people never had their freedoms under threat by a foreign power that was actual able to deny them freedom. Not even the Soviets had the ability to strip Americans of freedom of speech. The only war of any significance that actually did end up protecting some rights, whether that was the purpose or not, was the Civil War. (No, I also don't buy the neo-confederate bullshit that comes out of some faux libertarian circles either and won't turn the comment section into a forum for that topic either.)

What has threatened American freedom has never been the enemies our government fought, often after creating them. What threatens American freedom is no on and nothing but the American government itself. They are the only entity able to smash constitutionally guaranteed rights in this country, and they are doing it with relish.

The war did not protect freedom. The war is the excuse by which government destroys freedom.

Remember the freedom guaranteed to be secure in your person and papers from warrantless searches. Gone. The government took it to fight terrorists. During World War I and II we had Americans incarcerated for opposing the war. The enemy didn't take away their freedom of speech, the government did. It wasn't Hitler who put American civilians in concentration camps—it was Roosevelt, the great saint of the American Left.

The Patriot Act, allegedly set up to defend freedom, has done more to destroy freedom than bin Laden could ever hope to do. It is not radical Islamists who strip Americans of their rights, it is the government that the American people put into power that does it.

The Soviet Union, at its height could not touch freedom in America. It couldn't put on show trials and force Americans to defend what they do or don't believe. That was Joseph McCarthy not Joseph Stalin. It was the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and I would certainly say they were an "unAmerican" committee, that forced Americans to testify about their beliefs.

War is not a means of protecting rights, not in reality, but an engine for the subtle, sometimes blatant, destruction of rights. Each of the "great" wars in our history left the American people with fewer rights and freedoms than they had when they went into the war. There is little question that the people we went to war against were unpleasant individuals, but as unpleasant as they were, none of them were actually able to strip us of guaranteed freedoms.

They might have been able to inflict some limited harm on some Americans in some places. But they could never make all of us less free, not even most of us. Bin Laden plotted and succeeded in taking the lives of a few thousand Americans. But he couldn't touch the Bill of Rights, for that he needed accomplices in the United States government. Bin Laden understood the paranoid political center well. He was explicit in saying that his attack on the United States would have small impact in destroying the America he hated. But he also said that the response that the US government would put into place would do that work for him.

He realized that the only way he could destroy American freedom is to get the United States government to do that job for him. In that sense he was a lot smarter than the president he faced down. George Bush did bin Laden's bidding, albeit unwittingly. Bush wasn't alone. The United States Congress lined up to almost unanimously strip away freedoms, in the name of protecting freedom.

It is not the enemies we face who threaten our rights or our freedoms. While we have foreign enemies they can't harm the freedom of the American people. It is the domestic threat fostered by war that does that. War is the health of the state, and a healthy state is always a formidable threat to freedom.

I would also like to close with a brief discussion of the Supreme Court ruling on the Westboro case.

Chief Justice Roberts said that speech can "inflict great pain" but that under the First Amendment "we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker" and thus we must protect "even hurtful speech." Roberts said that the Westboro morons at least highlight "the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our nation, homosexuality in the military and scandals involve the Catholic clergy," which are "matters of public import."

But, sexuality is also a matter of public import. It is also about morality. Yet, the Supreme Court would not afford sexual speech these same protections. Just as the First Amendment made no exceptions for hate speech or for offensive speech, neither did it make an exception for "obscene" speech.

If pain is not a sufficient reason for inhibiting speech then why is "disgust" a sufficient reason?

Roberts said that Westboro's actions are "certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible." Both are true. But erotica is similar in that it can certainly disgust some people and perhaps its contributions to discourse are negligible, but pornographers don't have the same rights at Westboro's nutters do. I can assure you that far more people would rather read a porn magazine than be subjected to Westboro hate.

Consider how the Supreme Court treats these two forms of speech so very differently. Under court rulings an erotic publican can be declared "obscene" with no objective definition, based on the undefined "community standards" of the location where it is possessed. A police thug in Florida can order a publication from California and then prosecute the California producer according the backwater values of the swamp people in his area of the country.

Westboro Baptist can violate community standards in every neighbor of every state with impunity, according to the Supreme Court. Speech that inflicts severe pain on people, says the Court, is absolutely protected but speech that gives a lot of people pleasure, may be banned and punished.

Yes, there can be some weird shit, and I mean that literally, in some forms of porn. But it isn't inflicted on unwilling participants the way Westboro does at funerals. Surely erotica ought to have the same protections that Westboro hate has. That it doesn't is itself enlightening. Apparently the Supreme Court is fine with inflicting pain but has problems with pleasure. And to me, that is very kinky indeed.

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