The Rodeo Clown Posse was led out of Tucson in a cloud of dust with a hay-burning frenzy by Arizona’s Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. Close in tow were hyper-boiling politicians and the usual lefty print and TV media cowboys such as Rep. James Clyburn, columnist Paul Krugman, TV antagonista Chris Matthews, and even our own Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. These tin-star constables couldn’t get on their donkeys fast enough to round up the usual outlaws. The leading perennial villain, of course, is overheated political rhetoric, the euphemism for any strongly held opinion that differs from the liberal narrative.
The arrest warrant, hastily drawn up by the shallow yet influential chatterers, derives from a persistent liberal theme that political adversaries should be disarmed and neutralized by eliminating their ability to speak freely in any forum in any style. Thus, any pretext, no matter how reprehensible or disingenuous, to wrap duct tape around the mouths of their enemies is justifiable to this herd of dubious deputies. Moreover, they would have us believe that their brand of gag rule makes for a more perfect utopian democratic ideal.
John Steele Gordon in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal documents the long history of political discourse — overheated, boiling, or even incendiary — as a trademark of American politics. Speechmaking and opinion-mongering have always been athletic pursuits, punctuated by the well-timed sarcastic jab or sweeping insult. Otherwise, what would be the point? Protecting political speech, by no accident, is found in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. If political speech were not poignant, direct, explicit, colorful, indeed overheated and frequently uncomfortable and unwelcome — short of libelous and directly life-threatening — it wouldn’t need to be protected, would it?
Political speech has content and a wrapper. Content is the idea; the wrapper is the means by which and from whom the idea is expressed. Often, competing ideas carry the identity of the speaker and with it, the good, bad and ugly. Personal attacks in print and speech, while generally unattractive if gratuitous, are often intertwined with retorts and rejoinders that can be both persuasive and amusing.
At least in the Anglo tradition, debaters have fun at others’ expense. As noted by Bernard Bailyn in his seminal work The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, there is actually a far lengthier history of astringent polemics in 18th-century Britain, where dissuading one’s political opponent wasn’t satisfaction enough — annihilation was the goal. The subtle dig and explicit name-calling have their place — one accepted as sophisticated repartee, the other denounced as unimaginative and immature ad hominem. Yet the latter is just as likely accompanied by laughing out loud, if only in private.
Speech of all types — political or otherwise — is protected because it forms the fundamental platform for sustaining the marketplace of ideas without which a democratic republic cannot survive. That’s not to say that all ideas are equally elegant or elegantly expressed, or even that they deserve to be heard. But most ideas, even if clumsily expressed or devoid of merit, whether asserted gently or forcefully, deferentially or in your face, form the nutrient-rich red blood cells of our great nation’s discourse.
Freedom of speech guarantees the formation of government by the people. The ballot box is where American political action happens. One of the more enduring but amazing features of America’s exceptional nature has been the orderly governance transition for well over two centuries from one political leaning to a different one in succeeding administrations without violence or dysfunctional discord. Even throughout the antebellum and Civil War period, despite significant numbers of Southern sympathizers in the North, the federal government and its foundational principles remained intact.
It is also noteworthy that assassins and would-be gunmen targeting the political governing class, from John Hinckley, Jr to Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth, while having a profound and tragic impact on the course of U.S. and indeed human history, have been infrequent. And these were not calculated eliminations by a political class or engineered by multiple co-conspirators. These were the acts of isolated psychopaths with whatever grievances provoking them derived from neurological demons instead of mainstream political sloganeering making them crazy.
Free speech is the currency for a marketplace of liberty, private pursuits, and economic choices; in America, it has been remarkably free from anarchy and violence. If speech is proscribed or in any way curtailed or restricted, the ballot box will no longer be the perfection of opinion.
Imagine instead an America where speech is stifled, controlled, circumscribed, or diminished, and the right to say whatever by whomever is curtailed. That would render the ballot box incomplete, untrustworthy, unperfected, and doubtful. With the promise of the accessible ballot box, knowing that speech preceding it is free and unencumbered, hopes and frustrations can be ventilated by the peaceful act of voting. Without the safety valve of free and unencumbered speech, how would the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances happen peacefully and non-violently?
The Rodeo Clown Posse, having neither a persuasive idea nor an attractive wrapper to express it, would like to whip up an indiscriminate and symbolic hanging instead of recognizing that more speech, however expressed, is better than speech suppressed. The rest of us must be vigilant to keep this pernicious posse from finding a rope.
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