Hate speech should not be free speech.

Police assault demonstrators in Graham, North Carolina, October 31, 2020. Photo Credit: Carli Brosseau

As I watched President Biden’s inauguration this morning I was torn between two disparate emotions, relief and apprehension. Relief that after four years of utter incompetence, blatant nepotism, and non-stop hateful rhetoric we now have a competent team taking over the executive branch of our federal government. Apprehension because only a child or a fool would believe that the swearing-in of a new president will change the hearts and minds of friends, neighbors, and family members who have spent the last four years showing us who they really are. As Maya Angelou once wrote, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

I am glad that Donald Trump is gone. He and those who enabled him over the past four years did nothing but divide this nation and give relevancy to ideas most of us thought had long ago been relegated to the dustbin of history. We all knew there were still pockets of bigotry and hate scattered across this nation, but until Mr. Trump and his sycophants came along four years ago, most of those people kept their backward thoughts to themselves.

In that respect Donald Trump has actually done our nation an invaluable service: he showed us exactly who many of our neighbors really are; people who are fine with white supremacy, anti-Semitism, homophobia, violence, and other deplorable ideas as long as their team is in charge. Yes, that is really what it boils down to.

President Biden has called for unity, and that’s a worthy goal I support, but for real unity that is sustainable long term, there must be reconciliation, not a ceasefire. Those who participated in the Capitol riot must be charged, tried, and upon conviction punished for their actions, but those people did not arrive at those ideas on their own.

Over the years we have witnessed white supremacist ideologies and unfounded conspiracy theories move from fringe websites and late-night AM radio to mainstream media where greater exposure to larger audiences allowed those often dangerous ideas to spread like an unchecked pandemic. Those among us who spread hate, unfounded conspiracy theories, and outright lies, inspiring others to act out in violent ways, must be held accountable for their rhetoric.

Free speech is included in the First Amendment to our constitution because it is one of the most essential and precious rights we possess, but it is not a blank check to spew hate or inspire violence wherever we please without consequence. Free speech is a grave responsibility, especially in this digital age where we all have the power to send our words to the far reaches of the earth in an instant.

Justifications for limiting free speech often include something called the harm principle, first proposed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, which suggests that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”  That means social disapproval or dislike for someone’s actions isn’t enough to justify intervention by the government unless there is a good chance those actions might harm someone else. For example, if you want to drink alcohol and you are a legal adult, you should be free to do so, but if you get behind the wheel of a car while under the influence, then you become a danger to your community and the government has a duty to infringe upon your rights to prevent you from harming others.

As an advocate for free speech I find myself torn today. Where do we draw the line in the sand on hate speech and symbols that reinforce ideas such as white supremacy? Our courts have determined that freedom of speech is not absolute. The American legal system generally sets limits on freedom of speech when it conflicts with other rights, such as in cases of libel, slander, obscenity, fighting words, or intellectual property. I believe it’s time for us to have an earnest conversation about hate speech and symbols in this country.

The Trump administration spent four years normalizing bigotry and white supremacy in America while the rest of the world looked on in horror. Trump made it seem acceptable to publicly mock people with disabilities and bragged about treating women as sexual playthings instead of persons fully equal to their male counterparts.

Worse, Donald Trump made it acceptable to use violence against Americans peacefully demonstrating against police brutality and murder, which, by the way, is also a right protected by the First Amendment. Following Trump’s lead law enforcement coast to coast escalated the use of force against peaceful protestors while Proud Boys, Boogaloos, and other white supremacist militias illegally carried guns to rallies without so much as a slap on the wrist.

If the mob on Capitol Hill two weeks ago had been predominantly people of color, you know as well as I do that Pennsylvania Avenue would have become a river of blood. This disparity is unacceptable and it must end now. For far too long we have allowed white supremacy to run unchecked in the United States of America, above and below the surface of our society.

Racist monuments to sedition and slavery, erected a century ago to oppress our Black brothers and sisters, must be removed from our public spaces and relegated to museums or the scrap yard. They are symbols of a failed insurrection based on white supremacy and the preservation of slavery and they have no place in twenty-first-century America as anything but teaching tools to show future generations how wrong their ancestors were. If real lasting unity is to be achieved this is a first step we must all take together.

Which side are you on?

Photo Credit: Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images

Today many of my fellow Americans are wondering how we got to this place. Less than two weeks ago a sitting president, with the apparent aid of some Republican members of Congress, summoned a mob of perhaps more than a thousand of his supporters to Washington. D.C. and by his words and actions inspired many of them to assault the Capitol Building in an attempt to overturn the lawful result of the most scrutinized election in our nation’s history.

Many Americans believe that blame for this act of sedition and much of the violence and unrest we’ve experienced over the last four years falls at the feet of Donald Trump, but that is a short-sighted conclusion. What we witnessed on January 6, 2021, was only the latest battle in a long civil war for the soul of America that has been going on for well over a century.

As Stephen Marche recently wrote in The Globe And Mail, “There is a strong hope among American liberals and a portion of American conservatives that the storming of the Capitol represents the moment the fever breaks, the moment the American political insanity, fully revealed, finally begins to ebb… Forty-five percent of Republican voters support the assault on Washington.” 

Rush Limbaugh and his peers in the right-wing media bear considerable responsibility for last week’s insurrection, as do those who made the Limbaughs of our world possible when they killed the Fairness Doctrine, a longstanding FCC policy that required broadcasters to fairly present both sides of any issue to their audiences. When the rule was overturned in 1987, during the Reagan administration, right-wing propagandists like Limbaugh began entering mainstream American media, presenting a distorted, one-sided narrative that appealed to conspiracy theorists and far-right fringe elements of society.

The roots of today’s right-wing extremism can be found in the post-World War II reaction to FDR’s New Deal. Republicans and many wealthy business leaders hated any regulation of capitalism and the higher taxes they were forced to pay to fund popular New Deal programs that benefited working-class Americans. Opponents insisted that the New Deal reforms of the 1930s undermined liberty by redistributing tax revenues from working men to lazy people eager for a handout, and would, they insisted, bring socialism to America.

The socialism that wealthy enemies of the New Deal despised was not government control of the means of production that traditional Marxists espouse, but simply public policies that benefited all Americans and required the very rich to pay higher taxes to fund them. These uber-wealthy Americans, equivalent to the billionaire class today, have been using the same red-baiting tactic to divide and conquer the working-class since the end of Reconstruction, almost 150 years ago, but it’s not the only tool in their toolbox.

Whenever the socialism dog whistle loses its effectiveness, conservatives have another favorite means of dividing working people against ourselves: race. After the Supreme Court declared racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional in 1954, conservatives capitalized on the ideology of white supremacy by claiming that the federal government was redistributing the hard-earned tax dollars of white men to “lazy” Black people.

By the 1980s so-called “Movement Conservatives” were beginning to dominate the Republican Party, slashing business regulations and cutting social safety nets while pouring more and more revenue into military spending and enacting fiscal policies that redistributed money upward from working-class people to the very wealthy. At the same time, conservative talk radio began to dominate the airwaves, dividing working people through a twisted form of identity politics based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion that branded anyone who questioned the narrative as enemies of capitalism, and by extension, enemies of America.

From there it’s a relatively easy task to draw an unbroken line from events like the Weaver standoff at Ruby Ridge in 1992, which became a rallying point for white nationalists and neo-Nazis, to the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, that inspired Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, and many other acts of right-wing terrorism over the years.

In 2014, Cliven Bundy, a Nevada cattle rancher, owed the federal government more than $1 million in fees for grazing his cattle on public land. Bundy refused to recognize federal authority and the government impounded his animals, but officials backed down when Bundy and his supporters showed up armed to the teeth. Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) called Bundy and his militia “patriots”, but Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), called them “domestic terrorists” and warned, “We can’t have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it.”

On January 6, 2021, right-wing domestic terrorists assaulted the seat of our democracy, the Capitol, imagining themselves as protectors of American individualism in the face of a socialist government takeover. They killed a police officer and assaulted others. They ransacked offices and desecrated both public areas and the legislative chambers. They came prepared to take hostages and, worse, to execute elected officials. The full picture of what these terrorists did and intended to do is slowly trickling out. The picture is grim and should alarm reasonable Americans of every political stripe.

Less than forty-eight hours after the mob stormed the citadel of our American democracy, Rush Limbaugh was on the air pouring gasoline on the fire. “There’s a lot of people out there calling for the end of violence,” Rush Limbaugh said on his broadcast the next day. “I am glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual tea party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord, didn’t feel that way.”

Make no mistake, the riot at the Capitol was not just the work of Donald J. Trump. He bears responsibility for setting off this particular event, but as he stated in a 2017 press conference: “I didn’t come along and divide this country. This country was seriously divided before I got here.” As much as it pains me to say it, on that point Donald Trump and I agree. This country has been divided for as long as it has existed, and with each passing generation the division seems to only grow wider, and that that is no accident.

I’ve been watching the far right in this country become more militant, authoritarian, and aligned with the goals of fascism and white supremacy for decades, and trying to warn anyone willing to listen. That’s not to say that all Republican voters or even conservatives are Klansmen and neo-Nazis, but those elements do exist, and over the last few decades they have managed to infiltrate mainstream conservative politics. Today they appear to be solidifying their control of the Republican Party at almost every level of American government.

We’ve heard many calls for unity since the riot at the Capitol, mostly from Republican elected officials who see the writing on the wall and fear for their political futures, but now is not the time for unity. Not yet.

We cannot sweep this under the rug and allow those responsible for creating the powder keg of fascist anarchy and rebellion over the last few decades to escape without paying a price. We’ve been doing that since the Reconstruction era and each time we only end up kicking the can down the road, leaving future generations to face even worse crises. The worst among us – those willing to hold on to power, which they perceive as a birthright, at any price – will always return, willing to do anything, including domestic terrorism, to stay in control. 

As Stephen Marche of The Globe And Mail concludes, “Mr. Biden’s victory speech claimed that it was “a time to heal.” We can only hope that was empty rhetoric. The Republican Party, and its wide base of national support, does not believe in democracy. They’ve proved it consistently. They’re continuing to prove it even after the physical safety of their own members came under threat. There is every evidence to suggest that the moment American conservatives come to any power again they will use it to subvert the workings of legitimate government. It is not the time to heal.”

The time has come to choose. Do you stand with those who believe that all Americans have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of race, gender, national origin, religion, disability, or any of the many other labels used to divide us? Or do you stand with those on the far right who believe in white supremacy and holding on to power by any means, including terrorism and murder? That is the choice we face today. Which side are you on?

Terror and treason on Capitol Hill.

I’ve avoided writing about state and national issues in this space until now, but the events in our nation’s capital this week demand a response.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

On Wednesday, January 6,  2021, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people descended on Washington, D.C. at the request of President Donald J. Trump, inspired and emboldened by the idea that our elections are somehow fraudulent and outcomes rigged. This theory, as well as that of widespread voter fraud, has been debunked over and over, yet many still believe these lies because the president and other public figures they respect have exploited widespread gullibility among their followers for years.

All four of our living presidents have spoken out against this blatant act of treason, but perhaps President Clinton summed things up best when he said, “The assault was fueled by more than four years of poison politics spreading deliberate misinformation, sowing distrust in our system, and pitting Americans against one another…. The match was lit by Donald Trump and his most ardent enablers, including many in Congress, to overturn the results of an election he lost. The election was free, the count was fair, the result was final.”

The insurrection on Capitol Hill marked the culmination, so far, of nearly a century’s worth of a slow fascist coup that a handful of extremely wealthy Americans have been trying to carry out and inching closer and closer to success each time they try. This conspiracy has existed since at least the 1930s, when a group of disgruntled business leaders tried to enlist retired Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, then the most highly decorated veteran in our history, to lead an army of mercenaries they intended to raise to assault Washington, D.C., overthrow President Franklin Roosevelt, and install a fascist dictator of their choosing. Butler refused and the coup never got off the ground then, but those behind it and their heirs have never ceased in working toward that goal.

In 1968, Richard Nixon ran a campaign based on a “Southern Strategy” designed to increase support among white voters in the South by appealing to racism against African Americans. This drove a wedge through the Democratic Party and began the process of siphoning most racist Democrats into the welcoming arms of the Republican Party. 

Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 cemented the partisan division that today threatens to blossom into open civil war, but that’s not the only thing that happened during the Reagan era to undermine our representative democracy. In 1987 the FCC board, composed of mostly Reagan appointees, voted to end something called the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. This opened the door to right-wing media like Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News Channel.

Right-wing propagandists planted the seeds of dissension and mistrust, but it was radical Republicans like Newt Gingrich and others, past and present, who cultivated extremism and bigotry directed at Democrats, especially Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; all of which paved the way for a would-be dictator to step in and reap the bitter harvest. By exploiting outdated prejudices and the pain of working people across this country, left behind by an economic system that favors the wealthiest at the expense of everyone else, that is exactly what Donald Trump did in 2016.

What made matters worse was the open manipulation of public opinion by foreign operatives using social media, which was either ignored or encouraged by far-right extremists in Trump’s inner circle and Republicans across the board willing to endorse anything including criminal behavior as long as it furthered their agendas.

The insurrection of January 6, 2021, was cultivated by Trump and his enablers in Congress, especially Senate Republicans under the leadership of Mitch McConnell. Trump told us this was going to happen. He would never agree to accept the outcome of the vote prior to the election and he technically still hasn’t acknowledged his defeat. Instead, he spent the last two months removing officials at the Pentagon and the Justice Department and replacing them with his own hand-picked stooges. This was planned, and when all is said and done a lot of people in the administration and many of those who followed Trump and Giuliani’s marching orders last Wednesday should be going to prison for a long time.

Responsibility for this act of domestic terrorism falls squarely on the shoulders of the Republican Party, especially those members of the Senate who refused, in the face of overwhelming evidence, to convict the impeached president when they had the duty to do so. Many of our fellow Americans would still be alive today if that had happened, including the five who lost their lives this week at the Capitol. This did not have to happen, and if you voted for the people who allowed it there’s blood on your hands as well.