Saturday, June 04, 2016

gags should have punch lines

"Many speakers and writers across the world are terrified of offending Islamists. A satirical musical called The Book of Mormon is an international hit; no theatre would dare stage a similar treatment of the Koran."

I have made that same point several times -- in almost those words. Why is it that a satirical musical that takes on Mormon theology (and arguably, theism in general) can have a long run on Broadway and travel widely with road shows without theaters going up in smoke and theater-goers being reunited with their God through the intercession of gunmen and bombers?

That first line is from an article, in this week's The Economist, on the decline of free speech throughout the world. In just the last few years, free speech has been eroded or throttled in a series of countries. Bangladesh. France. Egypt. China. Germany.

And we should not leave out my new home -- Mexico. Even though the government is not currently guilty of massive speech repression (something that could not be said of most of its pre-2000 predecessors), journalism has taken a great hit. Mainly by the cartels who have intimidated and murdered journalists who have had the temerity to campaign against the power of the cartels. Even Mexpatriate has received low-grade threats about references to pirated CDs and DVDs.

What I find most worrisome, though, is what has happened to freedom of expression in The States -- both on campuses and politically.

During my undergraduate days at Portland State University studying history and political science, Dr. Smeltzer assigned us a text by Alexander Meiklejohn arguing the First Amendment's protection of speech was absolute -- the founders meant exactly what they said: "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech." "No law" meant "no law."

His argument was that democracy could not survive unless ideas were fully discussed amongst its citizens. Legal tests (such as "clear and present danger," "fighting words," "advocacy of action"), though well-meaning in their purpose, were just excuses for the government to restrict the free flow of ideas -- especially in the cause of national security or "supporting the war effort."

At the time, I considered his ideas too unrealistic.  Too idealistic. I was a Russel Kirk conservative then. Worshiping the adage that without security there could be no freedom.

Over time, I matured and became less fearful of opposing ideas. Without being exposed to new ideas in college (some of which I found abhorrent), I would not have felt secure enough to prefer speaking with people with whom I disagree.

I often think of Meiklejohn while reading stories in the news about students either shouting down their opponents (often invited speakers) simply because they disagree with the speaker's position. There is something vaguely fascist about the behavior. Barking like junkyard dogs out of fear is not an effective persuasion tool.

But, as anyone who has been watching the news knows, that behavior is not restricted to campuses. It is has spilled over into our political process this year. From the Sanders delegates at the Nevada Democrat state convention to the protestors who have turned into rioters outside of Trump rallies. What is so pathetic about their actions is that each riot simply buses additional voters over into the Trump camp.

I recently finished Karl Rove's The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters. I had put off reading the book because I had no expectation that a political guru could tell me anything of interest about the life of  Big Bill.

I was wrong. The book is well-written and filled with valuable information. Rove reminds his readers that American politics has always been a rough and tumble affair. The election of 1896 was no exception. At several state conventions, guns were pulled and opponents were pummeled. And, yet, the nation, and its political system, survived.

There may also be a lesson for this year's election. 1896, just like our current elections, contained a series of surprises. The early leader on the Republican side (McKiney) eventually obtained his party's nomination, in spite of not being the favored candidate of the establishment. He won because of organization and perseverance.

On the Democrat side, a man (William Jennings Bryan), who was not a professional politician, came out of nowhere with his unorthodox views (many of them contrary to prior Democrat policies), and, with his populist appeal, wrested the nomination from well-established candidates.

Rove meticulously describes that election and points out one of the primary reasons McKinley defeated Bryan.  McKinley ran as a unifier, adopting the language of national reconciliation. He emphasized that Americans have a common country with a common destiny and that everyone could succeed only if they were all in it together.

Bryan, on the other hand, consciously (and conscientiously) spoke his mind in pitting class against class and national section against national section. His attacks on anyone who disagreed with him became harsher as the campaign progressed.

Both of the probable nominees this year appear to have spent the year auditioning for the Bryan role. Of course, they merely reflect the mood of the voters who have chosen that pair to fight for their interests.

However, I am not quite certain this is what Meiklejohn intended. He would undoubtedly remind us, as he did: "To be afraid of ideas, any idea, is to be unfit for self government. Any such suppression of ideas about the common good, the First Amendment condemns with its absolute disapproval."

I wonder if he would have sponsored a satirical musical on the Koran?

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