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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Free Speech and Demonstrations

This is not an essay on the righteousness of a particular health care plan. I am afraid that I must admit that the intricacies of public policy are rather beyond my expertise. (This puts me in dubious company, as I'm not sure how many of our representatives understand it either.)

Rather, I'd like to take the time to address the protests currently going on around the country. It being August, and congressmen apparently being only slightly better than schoolchildren, our representatives are using their summer vacation to pound the pavement in support or opposition to the President's agenda. At many of the town halls organized to discuss healthcare reform throngs of angry protesters have waved signs, shouted slogans and tried their best to disrupt the proceedings. Liberal members of the media and the blogosphere have done their best to discredit these demonstrators, highlighting their alleged corporate backing and their self-interest in ensuring that the status quo remains unchanged. These charges have been parried by conservatives cheering the protests as demonstrating free speech and every American's right to advocate for their position.

Both sides are, as usual, being disingenuous. Many of the liberals who are criticizing right-wingers for painting Hitler mustaches on Obama signs are the same people who never managed to summon the nerve to chastise their own for the repeated Bush-Hitler comparisons. Meanwhile, the Glenn Beck types at Fox et al are the same people who denounced college students for shouting down Ann Coulter and David Horowitz at scheduled lectures.

There's a million-dollar question at the heart of all this, and that's really the one that I want to ask, even though I don't know the answer, or even if there is an answer. Does free speech extend to the right to shout down somebody else?

Before you answer, take the current context out of it. If you want healthcare reform you probably don't like the protesters very much. If you think Obama is a reckless spender than you probably support them. But what if your pet cause was being shouted down by an angry throng? Or, what if something you thought was pure evil was being advocated in public?

A lot of people would say that it depends, which is a less honest way of saying they have no idea. Well, I have no idea.

One of my favorite scenes from any movie is the scene in which the patrons at Rick's Cafe Americain sing "Le Marseillaise" to drown out the Germans "Die Wacht am Rhein". It's a stirring moment where an oppressed group takes on evil fearlessly and wins.

But look at that painting above. If you don't recognize it, it's one of Norman Rockwell's famous Four Freedoms paintings, based on the speech by FDR. The title, of course, is freedom of speech. The man in the painting is rising at a town hall meeting to say his piece. From his body language it seems possible to infer that he has a strong opinion on the subject, and going further, that his opinion may be in the minority. But the people around him are sitting quietly and letting him have his say.

It may be that there are times which call for us to break the code of decorum and drown out evil with our voices. It may be that there are things worthy of such behavior, but surely they are few and far between. Can't we try, the rest of the time, to live up to the ideal expressed in that painting? As I said before I don't know much about the various healthcare plans that are being bandied about on Capitol Hill, but surely there is no deliberate malignancy in any of them.

If you don't like Obama's healthcare plan and want to express your opinion publicly, I applaud you for being engaged with the issues, but please, wait your turn, state your case, and then sit down and let the next person say theirs. It's the patriotic thing to do.

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