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“Can Dish It Out, But Can’t Take It”: The Republican Delusion, Free Speech Includes The Right To Be Free From Criticism

The GOP is a “party of crybabies.” Or so says Jonathan Bernstein in yesterday’s Salon, reprieving one of my biggest pet peeves, which is the presumption by conservatives that freedom of speech entails freedom from criticism for one’s opinions – no matter how absurd or obscene those opinions might be.

The reason this matters is that one important measure of the health of a democracy is the quality of its public discourse and debate. Politics, after all, is the process by which unlike groups sort out their differences.

“I’m Okay, You’re Okay” sounds harmless enough. But inside the velvet glove of the right wing’s democratic-sounding assertion that we are all entitled to our own opinions and that all opinions should therefore be equally tolerated and respected is the iron fist of an authoritarian mindset that presumes when one group – typically theirs – seeks to demean or marginalize some other group there is not a damn thing the rest of us can do about it but grin and bear it.

On the contrary, the entire justification for freedom of speech in a liberal democracy, and why it is one of our cardinal political values – enshrined in the very First Amendment of our Constitution — is that free speech provides the foundation for open and robust debate, for a marketplace of ideas, for the sifting process of political give-and-take that sorts the wheat of what is true from the chaff of what is false.

Debate defines the mental habits and values — the character — at the core of what Walter Lippmann called the “traditions of civility” which separate Western democratic political institutions from all others that have existed throughout history.

Yet, we know that right wing conservatives do not believe in free and open debate or subscribe to Lippmann’s traditions of civility, or at the end of the day believe in free speech at all for any but themselves and likeminded true believers, because of their hysterical reaction to requirements like the long-dead Fairness Doctrine that do nothing more than guarantee opposing ideas equal time.

What right wing conservatives want in the end, says Bernstein, is not the freedom to speak and compete as participants in a democracy but the freedom to monopolize the means of communication, to proselytize without interruption, to propagandize without rebuttal, to transmit whatever angry, hateful, insulting and offensively anti-social messages they choose without censure.

In this way, conservatives hope the larger society will eventually conform, by a process of relentless repetition and attrition, to their reactionary notions of what a proper society ought to look like.

And so, says Bernstein, “it’s time to call out” Republicans for their belief that “democracy” means giving them “the supposed right to be free from criticism.”

Such “epistemic closure” might be popular inside the “faith-based community’s” closed-information loop, he says, “but it’s a nasty idea that sorts exceptionally badly with democratic politics.”

Thus, to right wing conservatives, it was far less offensive for immigration “expert” Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation to call blacks and Hispanics mentally deficient than it was for Richwine’s critics to call him a “racist.”

The mainstreaming of extremism begins with the absurd — and very unconservative assumption — that in some way all ideas are created equal, or that standards do not exist for identifying and ostracizing wrong or deeply offensive ones.

Thus, we are logically led to a conviction popular with conservatives these days that “the accusation of racism is one of the worst things that anyone can call you in public life,” as Richwine himself pleads, for “once that word is out there, it’s very difficult to recover from it, even when it is completely untrue.”

Yet, someone with more imagination than Richwine might imagine even worse things to be called than “racist,” counters Bernstein. “For example, someone could be called a member of an intellectually inferior race, genetically doomed to always be looking up to those races that have superior intelligence. But pointing that out would no doubt violate Richwine’s standards of civilized political discourse.”

The same goes for Christian fundamentalists. With them, calling homosexuality a crime against nature and a sin against God barely registers on their Outrage-o-Meter. What really stings is to call these anti-gay holy-rollers “bigots.” Indeed, it’s the liberal critics of religious anti-gay critics who are the real bigots, according to these right wing fundamentalists, because it’s liberals who are persecuting the devout for offenses no more sinful than defending their Judeo-Christian traditional family values.

Similarly, notes Bernstein, the Republican response to the Democratic rhetoric of a “war on women” wasn’t so much that the substance of Democratic charges was wrong, since Republicans made no effort to offer a point-by-point substantive rebuttal. It was, rather, as one Republican Congressman put it, that the criticism of conservatives itself was “repugnant.”

No wonder the perpetually put-upon Peggy Noonan is always shaking her well-coiffed head and sighing her by now-famous sigh and asking why do President Obama and the Democrats always seem to be picking so many disagreeable fights?

Even more telling, says Bernstein, was Mitch McConnell’s “epic” op-ed in the Washington Post this week, in which McConnell claimed the First Amendment was imperiled by the Obama campaign’s “explicit attacks on groups and other private citizens” in 2012.

How so? Because the Obama campaign published opposition research on big Mitt Romney donors on its website, says Bernstein. There were no claims from Republicans that the information on the website was false. One Romney big-money donor singled out did in fact pour millions of dollars into anti-gay rights crusades.  Neither were their claims that criticism of Republicans was linked in any way to their harassment at the hands of federal agencies in the same way Richard Nixon once ordered the IRS to target those on his “enemies list.”

No, for McConnell, the truly offensive thing about Democratic criticism was that it occurred at all.

For McConnell, such criticism is all part of “the left-wing playbook: Expose your opponents to public view, release the liberal thugs and hope the public pressure or unwanted attention scares them from supporting causes you oppose.”

What McConnell objects to, in short, is the possibility that billionaire businessmen who bankroll Republicans or other far right causes might face retaliation from their customers exercising their own First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly to organize boycotts of right wing businessmen whose politics or causes they oppose.

That’s what McConnell cannot abide: The idea that the plutocrats he supports — the upper crust, the ruling class, the New American Oligarchy — might in any way be inconvenienced or held accountable through the normal channels of democratic give-and-take for their exercise of political power.

McConnell and fellow plutocrats like Mitt Romney think members of their class ought to be able to pull strings anonymously, surreptitiously, “quietly behind closed doors,” without the public being any the wiser or able to retaliate in any way.

“The First Amendment was written to protect speech that was not popular,” said McConnell, cynically twisting the meaning of one of America’s fundamental democratic rights to suit his own self-serving   purpose, which is to revive a new Gilded Age Plutocracy. “The American people need to remain vigilant against any effort by the powerful to stifle speech.”

That means, as Bernstein points out, keeping speech as anonymous and immune from criticism as possible.

That idea is not only “nuts,” says Bernstein, it is also “deeply anti-democratic.” We should all be careful in democratic politics to avoid questioning other people’s motives, he says. But there is nothing wrong with taking note of whose interests are being served in politics or questioning who benefits from a particular policy.

“Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with the press using those donors as a shorthand way of informing citizens which interests are represented by the various candidates, or for those candidates to make a point of which interests finance their opponents,” he says.

Recent liberal complaints about conservative criticisms have been limited to legitimate concerns about their accuracy, as in the phony idea that 47% of the population is a parasitic class of “takers” who pay no taxes. Liberal complaints of conservative behavior have also focused on their decency, as when Sandra Fluke was slandered as a “slut” for offending right wing talk radio fat man Rush Limbaugh when she testified publicly for birth control benefits under the Affordable Care Act.

Free speech and democracy are inextricably linked, says Bernstein, and so “the Republican delusion” that free speech includes the right to be free from criticism is, therefore, “quite destructive.”

It’s destructive because right wing conservatives think they have the latitude to attack ethnic groups without the risk of being called out for their racist comments, says Bernstein, or to dominate campaigns financially without the risk anyone will notice who really runs the country.

Democracy and secrecy – or silence — don’t mix. But that is what Republicans think they are entitled to under their contorted definition of what “democracy” entails.

It’s long been said that if ever government of, by and for the people were to perish from this earth, it is likely to be done in from within – by those who had grown weary of its disciplines of liberality, disinterestedness and broad-mindedness or found that popular government did not serve their selfish, parochial interests.

That’s why this debate over free speech matters, and why it’s important we understand its meaning. With their dangerous assertion that criticism of conservative ideas imposes an intolerable contraction of their First Amendment rights, political reactionaries like Mitch McConnell have once again unfurled a rich liberal tapestry of individual freedoms, liberties and democratic rights as a cloak for autocracy and authoritarianism.


By: Ted Frier, Open Salon Blog, May 26, 2013

May 27, 2013 - Posted by | Democracy, Republicans | , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Reblogged this on Bell Book Candle.


    Comment by walthe310 | May 27, 2013 | Reply

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