Free Speech No Free Pass From Truth or Consequences
The flap embroiling Chick-fil-A that is causing feathers to fly between Christian conservatives and their liberal detractors over comments the fast food franchise's president made condemning gay marriage, would all be a hilarious distraction from the usual outrages of the day had not the company's vice president for public relations tragically succumbed to the stress of so much sudden and unwanted national attention.
Be that as it may, the controversy still has had its socially redeeming value in the renewed debate it has provoked over an issue central to a democracy like ours based on popular sovereignty and the consent of the governed, namely the nature, difference and function of "fact" and "opinion."
Conservatives argue that businesses should not be bullied by big city mayors like those in Boston and Chicago who do not want them in their towns just because the company's boss is a bigot auditioning for the part of a latter-day Cotton Mather.
Conspicuous among those who have stirred themselves into a hot lather of righteous indignation over this issue is former GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, who managed to get himself back in the news (and perhaps into the conversation about a possible Romney VP pick) by organizing a fast-food gorging bacchanalia on what he's calling "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" to be held later this August.
And conservatives are right. In the absence of demonstrated discrimination against gays in either service or employment, the personal views of business owners should have no bearing on whether their company is granted a business license or not.
Let's stipulate that. But conservatives go further - much further.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion conservatives say -- as a matter of constitutional right. But conservatives also seem to believe that everyone has a constitutional right to the free expression of those opinions without any negative consequences whatsoever, including criticism, ridicule, ostracism, or even rebuttal. That may explain the right wing's rigid, implacable opposition to the Fairness Doctrine.
"We're inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better as to what constitutes marriage," thundered Chick-fil-A's president, Dan Cathy, uttering the words that got this whole controversy rolling.
Yet, conservatives like Huckabee think the gay community has no grounds for shaking its fist back at Cathy in return for his insulting comments about them. Instead, Huckabee insists that it is Cathy who's the victim here, somehow the innocent target of what Huckabee calls "vicious hate speech and intolerant bigotry from the left" when liberals accuse Cathy (and other conservatives) of being "homophobic, fundamentalist, hate-mongers and intolerant" for what Huckabee calls standing up for "traditional values" as all devout Christians are expected to do.
Another good example was provided by Tom Minnery, Senior Vice President for Government and Public Policy at the Religious Right's flagship organization, Focus on the Family. Minnery sees all this talk of a nationwide boycott of Chick-fil-A by liberals and gays, as well as the high profile bluster of a few city mayors pandering to their constituents, as part of a concerted campaign to "silence" devout Christians "courageous" enough to stand up for biblical beliefs.
Apparently, Minnery doesn't see voluntary boycotts of fast food chicken restaurants run by people the boycotters consider to be bigots as being the sort of behavior the Founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment guranteeing the right of free assembly. This is strange, coming as it does from a representative of a conservative movement that equates the millions in untraceable campaign donations made by anonymous corporations as being nothing more than "free speech."
Minnery also coos soothingly about a country where people "can agree to disagree" on a hot topic like gay marriage, while he at the same time prays for God's intercession to "restore a level of civil discourse in our nation" before turning around suddenly and snarling about "those who seek to radically redefine the family" by means of "scorched-earth" tactics. I suppose it really does depend on whether you are a regular Fox News or MSNBC watcher if you see Minnery's comments as being common sense conventional wisdom or cynical, self-righteous bullshit.
The idea that all opinions are of equal value and therefore have an equal right to be equally expressed without consequences is a weird kind of moral and conceptual relativism to find among people whose biggest complaint against liberals is that they don't embrace the idea of "absolute truth."
But breaking down the distinction between fact and opinion is exactly the sort of behavior you'd expect from radicals who must temporarily suspend the whole basis of "truth" in order to have the freedom later on to impose their own truths on others -- in exactly the same way the Communist parties they deplore once created totalitarian super-states as the "transitional" phase toward that time when the state would eventually wither away.
The most ludicrous example of this bait-and-switch was when right wing dominatrix Ann Coulter claimed liberals were infringing on her "free speech rights" with their criticism of her outlandish suggestion that the editors of the New York Times ought to be shot for treason for exposing the Bush administration's shadowy system of rendition, secret prisons and torture.
Let that absurdity sink in. Here we have a right wing bomb-throwing bombshell seriously insisting that her free speech rights are violated by criticism of her proposal that the free press ought to be punished with extreme prejudice for exercising its constitutionally-protected right to publish.
And when conservatives did not immediately jump to Coulter's defense (after a college in Canada uninvited her as speaker for her threats against the press) they tried to pretend she was just joking.
The whole idea of a consequence-free right to free speech, which is now so prevalent on the right, is wrong. Certainly no real conservative could accept such a cavalier attitude toward truthfulness in public opinion, since conservatism properly understood is predicated on the application of universal and objective standards able to keep our own inner passions in check.
And no liberal could accept such a definition of speech either, since it does violence to the reason liberals value free speech in the first place, namely as a means for the discovery of a useable truth by privileging science over superstition, reason over faith and emotion, objectivity over subjectivity and impartiality over arbitrary and capricious whim.
Free speech does not give us the right to freely broadcast our prejudices, bigotries, biases and "opinions" and then expect them to all be equally and automatically treated with deferential respect. Instead, freedom of speech gives us nothing more than the right to put our opinions, however insane, to the test in a "marketplace of ideas" where truth competes with falsehood and the fate of our opinions rises or falls based on their merits -- not on the fact that we have them.
This idea that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, which are therefore impervious to challenge under terms of a ceasefire agreement in which everyone "agrees to disagree," is a recipe for the mainstreaming of political extremism through a process that exploits liberalism's own values of open-mindedness and tolerance against it.
But this, in the end, is why the radical right is so fond of this definition because it lets them accuse liberals of being intolerant for not being more respectful of right wing intolerance -- all of which sounds like some new diabolical trope conjured up by that Evil Republican Word Wizard, Frank Luntz, the same guy who gave us the idea that clear-cut logging is a "healthy forest" initiative or that efforts to lift restraints on air pollution are what count as the GOP's "clear skies" plan.
The importance of getting our head on straight about what is fact and what is opinion and what is free speech and how all three relate to our ability to govern ourselves democratically, was the subject of a point-counterpoint debate courtesy of the Boston Globe's editorial page this weekend.
Titled "Is that a Fact," the article's subhead which was inserted by the Globe's editors asserted that: "Both conservatives and liberals make opinion the new fact." But that is not true, not even remotely so, as the dueling columns themselves made clear.
First up for the liberal side was cultural historian Neal Gabler, author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.
Hundreds of years from now, says Gabler, learned historians will convene grave and solemn seminars to ponder how it could be that the most powerful nation on earth could possibly debate whether its president was a Muslim, a socialist and foreign born; or whether global warming was a hoax; or whether austerity policies that were a failure when first tried during the Great Depression should now be embraced 70 years later to address problems of another Great Recession.
Arguments are one thing. They are the stuff of democracies. But historians will puzzle, says Gabler, "over the vehement hostility to reason and the shameful ignorance of fact" as they are forced to conclude "that a large swath of America in the early 21st century was, to be blunt, delusional."
Gabler points the finger of blame at "the reverence for opinion above everything else" in a country where "opinion is the new fact."
Just as conspiracy theories were the unintended by-product of an Enlightenment that sought to locate human causes for the shaping of events in place of theologies that saw God's handiwork in the writing of history, Gabler says American fantasy-thinking gets its encouragement from the otherwise commendable egalitarian belief that all men are created equal.
"In a society that extols the individual's right to say or do whatever he or she wants, you can wind up democratizing solipsism: Every opinion, however puerile, uninformed and ludicrous is just as good as any other opinion," says Gabler.
That attitude, combined with the "opinion-generating machine" called the Internet, has produced a polarized political environment in which opinions simply overwhelm facts, producing heated debates on global warming, the location of Obama's birth and the veracity of evolution in which the preponderance of actual evidence is heavily weighted on one side.
A person who denies reality and believes whatever he thinks to be true "is certifiably ill and needs treatment," says Gabler. Yet, when entire populations deny reality "the illness turns into social dementia" and is unlikely to be treated since when so many have "gone mad" there are few who are willing to invite the hostility of the crowd by taking sides.
"So, we bump along in our collective madness, living in worlds of our own devising," says Gabler, where everyone is entitled to their own facts and where people believe (paraphrasing Descartes) "I think, therefore it is!"
Up next for the conservative side is Newsday columnist Cathy Young who begins by basically conceding the liberal side's point.
Young says she has no interest in defending the right from charges it is "uniquely infested by extremism, intolerance, fear-mongering and irrationality unparalleled on the left."
Neither does she wish to contest the charge that conservatives embrace some "deeply problematic attitudes," such as "hostility to science and conspiracy theory paranoia" -- all of which is "far more mainstream on the right than on the left."
All Young really has to offer in reply is that liberals have some "blind spots" of their own -- "sacred cows" and hot-button hobbyhorses where liberals allow their biases, prejudices and self-interest to get the better of them.
Take the issue of race and gender, says Young. Here she cites Rachel Maddow's claim that women get just 77 cents on the dollar as men for identical work. But that refers to "all work," says Young, so when factors like occupation, training and experience are taken into account the gap shrinks to just 5 cents on the dollar - cause for concern, perhaps, but not the Grand Canyon of discrimination Maddow made it out to be.
And then there are the statistics linking gun ownership to the murder rate in America that Young thinks is misleading since other gun-owning countries have low murder rates and Americans still kill more people with their bare hands than other countries do (creating what Young calls the "non-gun murder rate"), which adds support for the NRA's mantra that guns don't kill people, people do.
"Emotional reports" on hunger in the US also "wildly inflate" actual rates of hunger, says Young, because they combine those who are actually starving with those who simply worry about it.
And I leave it to you to judge whether Young's comparison of a New York Times columnist calling Justice Clarence Thomas "barking mad" for an anti-affirmative action ruling is the functional equivalent of Rush Limbaugh slandering a lone college student as a "slut" for standing up for a friend who needed birth control for a hormonal condition.
We call what Young is doing here with all her statistics "making an argument." And her points are well taken. It's also what we used to call "having a debate" until conservatives insisted on engaging in monologues without the threat of reply or the chance for rebuttal and then calling this soliloquy "democracy."
But having blind spots on sacred cows is a very different thing from a mentality that is impervious to fact and reason all together.
In the end, even Young seems to wave the white flag of surrender when she correctly puts her finger on the key difference between liberals and conservatives, namely that conservatives see themselves as part of a "movement" and thus are prone to "circle the wagons around politically useful falsehoods" while the worst thing you can say about liberals is that as individuals they sometimes "confuse their prejudices with objective fact."
But in theory, at least, Young concedes liberals are more willing than conservatives to reconsider their positions when presented with contradictory facts or compelling arguments -- attitudes that show up in polls where 66% of liberals say they want their leaders to compromise while a like percentage of conservatives demand their leaders "stick to principle" come what may.
It is what I have said before about the difference between liberal and conservative media: liberals see themselves as consumers of their media while conservatives see themselves as citizens of theirs.
Anyone reading this today will, I know, instantly label me a "liberal," perhaps a hopelessly "biased" one. But looking back over the past 30 years or so in which I have been thinking and writing about politics gives me an unnerving sense of deja-vu. That is because most of my criticisms of the right wing today sound eerily familiar to the ones I once made long ago in my previous life as a conservative writing about those "knee-jerk liberals" and their penchant for fabulous thinking unconnected from fact or the disciplines necessary for governing and politics that go with it.
How a population or political party thinks is more important than what it thinks. And so, just as opinion may be the new fact in this madhouse we call contemporary American politics, perhaps liberal is the new conservative - or at least that part of conservatism that once valued behavior rooted in reason and reality instead of the demons and desires which haunt our imaginations.