On the Other Foot
People have been asking me what I think of all these disruptive protests occurring recently at townhall meetings about health care. Some protests have been so rowdy that they sent members of congress fleeing in fear of their own constituents. Naturally seeing politicians being yelled at is always delightful, and one might argue compellingly that screaming at politicians is something we should have taken up years ago. I only wish our congress-critters Richie Neal and John Olver would hold town meetings so that we could go and yell at them, but they are considered royalty who are automatically returned to office and therefore needn't ever interact with the public so directly.
Yet despite the virtue these protests have of frightening politicians, I condemn anyone who goes to any meeting anywhere with the intention of preventing another person from speaking. I have written for years in condemnation of incidents at the University of Massachusetts, where instead of conservatives it is leftists who have repeatedly disrupted political gatherings.
Like the time they danced in drag in front of the podium.
Or the time they shut down the question and answer period.
Or the most recent incident, when former Boston Herald columnist Don Feder was driven from the room.
In each of these cases I was virtually the only one to give any coverage to these incidents, although the Valley Advocate did print an essay critical of the leftist protesters by Cathy Young of Reason magazine. It was quickly followed by a letter to the editor from someone named Marlena Fontes who jumped to the leftists defense:
Cathy Young's article "Intolerant of Dissent" [May 21, 2009; on the appearance of conservative columnist Don Feder at UMass] rests on the idea that all free speech should be protected and listened to politely. It seems she misunderstands the meaning of free speech, which is a protection from government intervention into that right rather than insulation from outspoken community dissent. Or rather she seems to understand that freedom of speech should be part of a large agreement, which is only kept by naive liberals, to listen politely and nicely to all people even if their speech is violence-inciting, hateful and racist. This is not say that Feder should not have been allowed to speak, but a community has the right to respond.
I can't wait to read Ms. Fontes' undoubtedly forthcoming letter to the Advocate in which she now defends with equal passion the disruptive conservatives "right to respond."
Some commentators have found the Left's sudden passion for uninterupted free speech more than a little hypocritical. When it was right-wingers being shouted down like at UMass, we heard phrases from the Left like "free speech is not absolute" or "the community has a right to respond." Now when it is non-leftists doing the shouting, it is denounced as un-American by President Obama and the protesters are compared to Nazis by House Speaker Pelosi. I guess one person's Nazi is another person's champion of social justice, depending upon whether a conservative or a liberal is doing the protesting.
This orgy of hypocracy probably has more to do with human nature than politics. Afterall, it is just plain easier to feel outraged when someone you agree with is silenced than it is when it is someone whose views you didn't like to begin with that are being suppressed. We like to think that people are above that kind of shallowness, but the truth is they often are not. Many people's understanding of the meaning of free speech is, "I get to say whatever I want, but anybody I disagree with should shut up." That is why it is necessary to be so vigilant in defending free speech, because it is never more than a minority of the public who fully understand that the speech we must most vigorously defend is the speech that we most passionately disagree with.
Democracy doesn't work unless everyone gets a chance to air their opinion. Once we've heard every side, only then can we determine what we want to do based on the best arguments. We cannot make an informed decision however, if anyone is being shouted down. That doesn't mean that you can't bring signs or otherwise peacefully and respectfully express your objections to the speaker. Protest yes, but censor no.
Stormclouds over Northampton by Bill Dwight.
Crosby and Nash gettin' down to Pink Floyd