Saturday, May 22, 2010

Freedom of Speech

The latest brouhaha in the blogosphere has been sparked by one John Stossel, a columnist for Fox News.  Mr. Stossel has expressed the opinion that a major section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should be repealed, to allow businesses serving the public to refuse service on the basis of race.  He may have thought this up himself, although we heard the proposal first from Rand Paul.  His position seems to be that, since "everybody" now knows that discriminating on the basis of race is wrong, businesses that do so will lose customers through the operation of the market.  Since it didn't work that way in the Jim Crow era, I don't know why he thinks it will work now, but he's entitled to make a public fool of himself if he chooses.

I learned of this through a FaceBook "share" of a petition, originating on,  entitled, Tell Fox:  "Fire John Stossel."  The petition is addressed to Rupert Murdoch, and asks him to fire Stossel to "show America that your media company has no place for the values Mr. Stossel espouses."

I agree with the petition originators that Mr. Stossel's (and Mr. Paul's) opinions are offensive.  I also believe they're wrong.  But I'm afraid they (the petitioners) display a total lack of understanding, first of the First Amendment to the Constitution, and secondly of Rupert Murdoch.

I feel quite strongly about the First Amendment.  Like Voltaire, I don't agree with a single word Messrs. Stossel and Paul say, but I will defend to the death their right to say it.  There've been a lot of arguments recently over what does and doesn't constitute protected political speech, but this case is practically the type specimen.  He thinks we should repeal part of a law.  He has every right to express that opinion.  It's a long, long journey from an opinion on a news broadcast and the actual repeal of part of the Civil Rights Act.

If you only allow free expression of opinions that you approve of, you don't support free speech.  Speech is only truly free when it's available to the opinions we despise.  What better way to refute these positions than to state them publicly and debate them openly?  Sunshine is a great disinfectant.

Then there's the petitioners' misunderstanding of Rupert Murdoch, which is quite spectacular.  Mr. Murdoch is a known quantity.  He's been around for a long time.  Fox News allows Mr. Stossel to express his opinions there because Fox, and Mr. Murdoch, understand that controversial opinions sell air-time; and selling air-time is what Fox and Mr. Murdoch are all about.  Are they exploiting the First Amendment for commercial gain?  Sure they are.  So are a lot of people.  And it's perfectly legal as long as all they state is opinion, and they don't try to present it as fact.  I don't know whether Rupert Murdoch personally agrees with John Stossel or not, but it doesn't matter.  Mr. Murdoch's personal opinions are irrelevant; the political slant of the Fox News organization is very clear, extremely consistent over time, and lined up  perfectly with Mr. Stossel's rabble-rousing opinions.

1 comment:

  1. For several decades, there was been a debate within the Republican Party, as to whether to sacrifice what once passed for intelligent politicking--designed to appeal to educated middle- and upper middle-class voters--or to go after the yahoos who once belonged to the Democratic Party.

    Republican strategists saw that there was a big segment of the country that would respond to hot-button issues like religious dogma and racial prejudice, gun rights and abortion, immigration and government regulation. So they set out, very deliberately and expediently, to exploit this constituency.

    And it worked. Beginning with Goldwater, continuing with Nixon and Reagan and Bush II, the Republican Party embraced the "side-issues" as a way of seducing the uninformed and "forgotten" voters. Turning Americans against their own government, they managed to convince people that government was "the problem," when in fact their real agenda was as it had traditionally always been: Protect the rich and the corporations, hold back the flood of social programs, keep the electorate in check. They hardly ever talked about how capital was exploiting people--that was just how the market worked, and business was what made America great. All the while harping about fetuses and gun rights and quotas and "elites" and Christian "val-yas". And middle- and lower-class Americans--god love'em--bought it hook, line and sinker. The upper classes liked it too--after all, they'd paid for the propaganda.

    There are perfectly rational reasons for wanting the things Republicans once advocated openly. Low taxes, limited government, conservative foreign policy; self-reliance, individual initiative, incentive-driven legislation. But these don't sell particularly well in Kentucky or Indiana or Arizona. It's much more effective to get people worked up over emotional issues, which have little or nothing to do with the real public policy issues that effect everyone. Get people ranting about abortion, and they forget that Hersey closed its local factory and sent 5000 jobs to Mexico last year. Whip up a good demonstration about those illegals stealing jobs from motel workers, and people will forget about that 800 billion we gave to Wall Street bankers to "save us" from another 1930's style depression.

    But people are stupid. You can get them to do anything, with a diverting little charming dog-and-pony show.