Thursday, May 10, 2007


Sam Smith

IT'S hard enough defending the First Amendment against the right. But these days one is almost as often likely to find the foe a liberal who believes that free speech only belongs to the righteous, the appropriate and the responsible as defined by people like themselves.

In today's liberal climate it would be hard to get an ACLU off the ground because its potential organizers would be too busy being morally superior to lesser mortals.

The only way out of this trap seems to be to choose among the censors. Do you want liberals or conservatives telling you when to shut up? Those of us who share Walt Kelly's view that we must defend the basic right of all Americans to make damn fools of themselves are in a minority in both camps.

A case in point is the despicable Ann Coulter, who has called John Edwards a "faggot" and suggested that Al Qaeda wants Obama to win the White House.

John Edwards reaction: "Her outrageous comments are inexcusable and should not be tolerated in the public dialogue."

Would attorney Edwards care to enlighten us on what Coulter could have said that would have been tolerated? Would it have been all right to call Edwards a "wimp" or to claim that a President Obama might weaken our stand against Al Qaeda? And how does one discover when the line of inexcusability has been crossed?

The Democrats are also pressing for an expansion of hate crime legislation even though it is clearly constitutional to hate; it's just criminal to do anything about it that hurts someone or their property - matters already well covered by law.

There are other problems with such an approach. It helps to drive hate further underground. It makes it harder to deal with in its political and psychological manifestations and, above all, it helps let off the hook all those related issues such as cross-ethnic economic inequities. Far better, say, to guide angry lower income white frustrations away from blaming immigrants towards tackling the big white guys in charge than implying - as liberals increasingly do - that if they're just nice to people everything will be fine.

Unfortunately, liberals increasingly have become indifferent to the economic issues that a populist progressive would use to redirect misplaced anger. The liberal message has become one of propriety over progress and in the end you get neither.

Since Edwards presumably is trying to learn as much about populism as he has about hedge funds, here's a suggestion. Say that Coulter can utter any stupid and mean thing she wants but if she does it on radio or TV, under an Edwards presidency, there will be a revival of the broadcast fairness rule so that her victims can come right back at her on the same outlet. And talk about Coulter's ties with the big businesses that are ruining the lives and communities of so many Americans.

Broadcasting didn't used to be this nasty. But the robber barons of the RBCB era* worked their evil magic on the airwaves just as they did on everything else. They killed the fairness doctrine and fostered the rise of the repulsive right.

In the end, what we need is not less free speech but more of it.

* RBCB is the Progressive Review's neologism of the day, standing for the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush era