Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Red speech vs. blue speech

The distinguishing difference between liberalism and conservatism has always been the free and open discussion of ideas engendered by civility in the case of liberalism, and the closed-case censure of ideas backed by force in the case of conservatism. Two new documentaries tackle these contrasting approaches to contemporary problems.

Jesus' General is following the release of a new documentary which his "Inner Frenchman" says brilliantly contrasts the exclusionary demagoguery of the right (Sean Hannity) with the inclusive rhetoric of the left (Michael Moore). Jesus' General's Inner Frenchman gives the Steven Greenstreet documentary, This Divided State, a very strong recommendation, calling it "as good as anything done by Errol Morris or Michael Moore."

Meanwhile, I have my own recommendation for viewing. Ken Tomlinson should be required to watch this one. In its documentary series, Point of View, PBS is airing The Fire Next Time which profiles the hate-speech and intimidation by right-wing activists against environmentalists and anti-hate compaigners in a small Montana community. As difficult as it is to find a rational side to the right-wingers (who aren't interested in dialog, or even thought) that merits attention, the producer, Patrice O'Neill, gives equal time to all sides of the argument, including a conservative Republican Council District representative who was criticized for trying to be peacemaker.

The most disturbing character profiled is the "talk radio" host for KGEZ radio, John Stokes, who joked about the mysterious death of an environmentalist, and who frequently used his radio pulpit to incite his listeners to commit violent acts against citizens whose views he disagreed with. Notwithstanding the extremely flagrant violation of FCC law that such provocations should have triggered, the host was never cited for violations or fined (at least not revealed in the documentary).

Some of Stokes' friends burn a green swastika to protest environmental laws:

Among the abundance of resources related to the documentary and available on the PBS web site, is an abridged essay by David Foster Wallace, "The Rise of Talk Radio," which points to Ronald Reagan's elimination of the Fairness Doctrine as the precipitous event that gave rise to hate radio. (Again, I call on readers to sign the petition to restore the Fairness Doctrine). Also featured (buried in a citation) is an incredible, comprehensive overview, written by Paul McMasters for the First Amendment Center, of the debate to censor hate speech. He comes down in defense of free speech, but his argument is necessarily - and I'm afraid, hopelessly - dependent upon the restoration of tolerance and civility in American society. Here is McMaster's commentary, "Must a civil society be a censored society?," excerpted:

America, we like to feel, has room for everyone. It is a place of tolerance, equality, and justice. Hate is a singular affront to that vision, and the lengthening list of these atrocities haunts the national conscience and quickens the search for remedy.

It once seemed easier to ignore the haters among us. They held furtive meetings in out-of-the-way places, wrote racist screeds in the guise of bad novels, and when they appeared in public, they wore hoods to hide their faces. Now, they apply for admission to the bar, stand for elected office, appear on radio and television talk shows, and increasingly take their message to the mainstream by using the Internet. ...

Even if laws that the Supreme Court would abide could be crafted, however, there is another, more difficult, problem for the advocates of such laws: They don't stop hate. ...

Laws against hate speech would obviate the benefits of such speech — and there are benefits. Hate speech uncovers the haters. It exposes the ignorance, fear, and incoherence in their views. It warns, prepares, and galvanizes the targets. It provides the police with suspects and the prosecutors with evidence in the event of a crime. It enlivens the bystanders. It demands response. And it demonstrates the strength of our commitment to the tolerance of intolerance and the primacy of freedom of expression. ...

Punishing speech is not the same thing as curing hate. Ultimately, anti-hate speech laws would silence the voices they would help as well as those who would help them. They would be enacted with the best of intentions and executed with the worst of results. Rather than encouraging the assimilation of the words and work of those championing a more civil society, these laws would substitute one form of silencing for another. They would divert public dialogue from a focus on a fair society to a preoccupation with censorship. They would risk exacerbating hate rather than eliminating it. They would trivialize the debate by flailing at words and symbols rather than the causes of hate and discrimination. They would lay a veneer of civility over a community seething with tension. ...

All efforts must focus on affirming the American tradition that no problem — even hate — is so intractable that we must censor words, images, and ideas to address it. The challenge within that tradition is to achieve civility in discourse without imposing conformity in thought. The First Amendment imperative within that tradition is to defend bad words for good principles.

The Fire Next Time will be broadcast again this weekend:
WYES New Orleans, Channel 12
Sunday, July 17, 3:00 AM


At 7/14/2005 09:47:00 AM, Blogger oyster said...

Excellent recommendations-- I appreciate the heads-up, and look forward to seeing them.

At 7/14/2005 02:08:00 PM, Blogger Schroeder said...

The Fire Next Time is really excellent - I hope you can see it.


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