The Thrum and Chum of Marketplace Speech

DDI read and listen to a lot of historic voices. They gave me a long view of the ongoing conversation about how we as humans live in society. I listen to them to add their ideas to the contemporary conversation, the one about how we define ourselves, order the world, create economic value, dispense justice, feed the hungry, provide for the sick, teach our children, preserve our resources, and help our neighbors—the discussion of how we express our values. I listen to how we listen. And the special power of voices in American politics and in America’s communities is being lost.

Through most of history, voices were not intended to be produced, recorded, looped and repeated, printed and handed out as a daily list of talking points, published as headlines, or digitally repeated as sound to accompany a 90-second video, with a 15-second standup close-out. We now have an entire well paid industry devoted to pushing out the traditional use of the voice to create a work product that can be polled overnight and tested by focus groups to herd ideas and tell us what to think.

None of this work is tested against truth and common sense. Rarely does it involve any real evidence. It misses the subtle touches of the Dutch masters’ paintings or the art of Paris salons. It’s billboard stuff. Brazen. Brutal. And ugly. But commonplace.

For two weeks, I’ve been listening to the voices of the jubilee; my term for the formerly enslaved, whose voices were recorded in typed narrative reports between 1934-1936. I’ve been imagining how the stories would have differed with an entire social industry engaged in shaping their message and production—with unlimited amounts of money! I think about 90-year-old elders trying to remember the events of a war that only touched them in its final days, sitting on couches of late night talk shows.

Voices count. Even more, now that money is speech. Declared so by the Supreme Court! That decision has changed what voices say, how they are employed, what purposes, outcomes and accountability they seek. Yet the voice we hear—polished, milled, produced, tested, timed, repeated—sounds like a neighbor’s voice. Sure, the policies these voices suggest may differ, but the voice, the human connection, sounds the same. That sameness is increasingly an illusion to lead us away from common ground to battlegrounds.

Slavery was perhaps one of the first wide-scale national conversations where speech was crafted to serve an end in politics and society that benefited and served a broad, commercial marketplace with rigid social strictures. The enslaved not only generated tremendous value as labor in production, but added wealth as an active, open commodity trade, and as capital property that could be borrowed against (the use of the enslaved as collateral is understudied, but was an important function and source of expanding capital—the enslaved were mortgaged as property!).

The jubilee had wide points of view about their experiences, and at times in the narrative slavery sounded a little like Lake Woebegon, describing a time when no enslaved were hungry and all were well dressed. Behind their stories, their voices reflected a certain pride.

History’s conventions say they were intimidated by by the interviewers, usually white. It claims they were fearful, of an unequal relationship. So they painted a rosy picture. This view closes off the idea that the jubilee themselves had their own reasons to see themselves as well treated! Whether through fear, denial or pride, they assigned the role of victim to others.

Today, we reassign responsibility. We blame and deny. Continue reading The Thrum and Chum of Marketplace Speech

Speak Out About Free Speech

Last Sunday, in Alexandria, Virginia, the closing hymn at the Baptist church I attended with my daughter made a powerful point. “I promise my words will not harm you,” the choir and congregation sung. “I promise my words will do you no harm.”

There’s a huge push right now to value free speech above the words we use, to honor what some feel is a constitutional right that words have to inflict pain. But mainly, the battle over free speech is thought to be a side show, secondary and insignificant, overshadowed by the budget and program fights over safety net services, and by the distractions over education in the states, where unprecedented school closings and new standards, some which consider race, point to a looming fall crisis. Add reproductive rights for women, healthcare, food safety, global conflicts, and free speech seems an abstract issue, but it’s not.

Each of the issues of politics, and every political decision, is a transaction of speech. From the myth that ambulatory centers and government-mandated vaginal probes benefit women’s health, to the insults and shame Texas’ Rick Perry and others have used to silence and denigrate women, to the 30-second commercials pandering to the worst fears of the uninformed about health care, to the Supreme Court’s rulings on voting rights and same sex marriage benefits, to the Zimmerman trial about the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, every issue of politics and justice engages and touches free speech.

Free speech isn’t a stand-alone right like property ownership. It is a transactional right; one at the center of every decision and law. Through free speech, we put on display our values and actions, our personalities and beliefs, our best logic, our anger and comfort and intent.

I wish Maury Povich began his show with the Alfred Street Baptist Church anthem, “My words will do you no harm.” But more, I wish political leaders took the same pledge. Free speech is more central to democracy than taxes. In fact, the “no tax” pledge is an example of the effectiveness of speech!

But that pledge, and many others, broke the edict of no harm. Routinely, the moral imperative of “do no harm,” at the center of peace and prosperity, is ignored for greed and political gain. Continue reading Speak Out About Free Speech

Overwhelmed

Sometimes, good strategy is overwhelmed by circumstances. Last week, time stood still as events bobbled up and down, spinning by on a supernatural carousel.

My evidence: Radio show hosts in California, suspended for mocking the explosions at the Boston marathon, complained of bullying because of the public outcry. A Minnesota radio talker boasted if he met the Newtown families, he would tell them “go to hell.”

A Philadelphia doctor, on trial for the murder of a woman patient, performed abortions in a clinic that smelled like urine, his refrigerator filled with fetuses in plastic bags. He joked about aborting late term babies “big enough to walk him to the bus stop,” and severed spinal cords from the heads by “snipping.” He severed pairs of tiny feet and collected them in green-lidded, clear specimen jars. He saved them, he said, for their DNA.

A Texas fertilizer plant blew up. Houses fifty miles away shook. Its mushroom cloud unfolded and hovered like an angry jinn. Highly volatile ammonia gas, liquefied, stored under high pressure in tanks that regulators were told presented no danger—at worst a release of ammonia to vent pressure—proved fatal for the 16 people the blast killed.

In the midst of bloody words, bombs, bullets and dead babies dropped into our consciousness and politics, we see a distress deeper than grief. Last week, the Massachusetts governor put several suburban communities and the entire city of Boston on lockdown—the official term is “shelter-in-place.”

When a gun is sheltered at home, the chances of women being victims of gun violence increase sixfold. The Senate, with electronic scanners, guards and pat-downs, voted no to women’s safety—refused to pass into law background checks for gun purchases that 90% of Americans—and 85% of gun owners—approve.

All Photographs by Leslie Jones, Boston Herald photographer; from Boston Public Library Collection on Flickr.

The Boston lockdown was a consequence of two backpack bombs made from pressure cookers filled with metal bearings and small nails, triggered by kitchen timers that exploded within yards of the finish of America’s most famous marathon.

One bomb killed an 8-year-old. A photograph of him in school shows him with his fingertips holding high for the camera a poster he made after the Newtown tragedy. It says “NO MORE hurting people.” “PEACE.” On talk radio, a national talker accepted call-in jokes about banning pressure cookers the day the 8-year-old died.

Media strategy: walk the bomb story to the edge (terrorism trumped the 3 dead and 170 wounded—some lost feet, legs and arms); ignore the irascible jokes and voices walking through our pain; bury in a solemn complacency the wild surge of furies that seemed to knock on every door; ask over and over: Is there a global plot? (Broadly, yes.) Are the two brothers and the Boston incident tied to it? (Specifically, no.) And ask what my 97-year-old uncle calls “the stupid questions,” the ones obviously with or without answers: “Can he die from his wounds?” “Where did they get the pressure cookers?”

What is the strategy for dealing with the events and damages of the national insanity? Strategy targets maximizing the middle. What’s the strategy when living is moving over the edge? When we are overwhelmed?

Personal Coping

First, recognize the unusualness and the uniqueness; the incredible effects on all of us, how it will amplify our bewilderment and burdens.

Increase your spiritual practice. Media avoids acknowledging the deeper inner space that lies beyond our feelings, but that is where our most cherished beliefs find their foundation.

Violence is not only a physical danger. It splinters our emotional bedrock. But it reminds us there’s strength in the void. So listen to your inner voice. Look beyond first impressions. Let your inner feelings flow. In times like these, trust their source, follow its lead. It’s on your side.

Just breathe. Pray or dance, laugh, cry, close your eyes, open your heart. Beyond the smoke and blaze and wealth, build no bars; not pity, have courage and resolve. Stray not from the old 18th century word, the “gladsome.” Healing requires purging. It’s not getting worse (but worse is to come!); it’s actually getting better. Our vision is clearing.

For, in this unique moment in our history—on the “occasion,” as W.E.B. DuBois called it in his book, Darkwater, “beset by constant perils”—the dark voices have never been more menacing, rude or absurd. And dangerous; politicians are wrapping the flag around tyranny.

They claim, especially on radio, that collective action, taken in close quarters and in concert, undermines the Constitution’s liberty—as they collectively undermine and ignore the entire 2.5-million-year history of humanity: an extraordinary accumulated record, marked in stone, which shows from its beginnings on the African plains that humanity required teamwork, sharing, cooperation, peaceful settlement of differences, and mutual respect. Compassion, especially when the community suffered a loss, or when tragedy struck beyond its control. Silence, maybe song, when words were too much.

The bones of barefooted ancestors show they didn’t complain loudly about the abridgment of their rights when the time came for them to contribute to something beyond their own satisfaction. They rose up as one in feats of hunting, wisdom, healing and protection, laughter and silence—that set the foundation course of our civilization and society. They built communal fires for the soul.

From China to Chile to Kenya to England to Russia to Australia to the Solomons and Seychelles, to the Great Plains and the Mississippi, the long march of human time shows one constant: that every hero knew we shared one heart and one blood, and those with real courage sacrificed to protect others. Continue reading Overwhelmed

Free Speech and Those Rubbernecking Toilet Smells

The new Republican marketing plan is a reset; it says it is still okay to restrict the rights of women regarding their own bodies and their incomes, it is okay to stop accusing Hispanics of taking American jobs as long as they are not offered US citizenship any time soon, and it is okay to curse blacks long and loud since they now can’t be lynched or fired. (Remember, this is Republican thinking.)

The media continues to sidestep the GOP’s widening ideology of blame, especially the ideology’s populist use of speech as a hammer to forge negative action and ideas. Although heavily rooted in politics, blame is maintained primarily as a social media form. It’s adapted from hate radio (different from talk radio!), which develops and disperses its inverted ideas of denial and blame.

It develops among those whose priorities see the word as a weapon and put violence before peace. Its world view assumes those with whom its practitioners disagree have a hidden, winner-take-all agenda leading to a society regulated and controlled by occupation and door knocks. This world view equates restraint with control; its practitioners feel suffocated by any social responsibility. Its expressions give voice to the triggered temptations of wanna-be warriors to take down their perceived foes as they themselves fall. Having failed in defining progress and gaining power, or in protecting the status quo, the temptation to defile one and all is strong among them, and even defeats undeniable logic.

Their ideology of blame wears the mask of freedom (the idea of unconstrained freedom, free of responsibilities or constructive engagement) and uses the web, (Twitter, blogs and websites, YouTube) as its negative amplifier, looping and streaming its feedback. It behaves as hundreds of Peeping Toms, prowling digital windows for targets. Words are their stones.

Recently, a woman was fired for posting a picture online of two men engaged in inappropriate conversation about the First Lady; it continued after she reported it. Her employer, hit with a denial-of-service web attack, blamed her; it was the excuse for her firing.

Behind her firing was the ideology of blame. It found a sympathetic supporter in her employer. No longer about error, blame now implies and commands silence. It doesn’t mean limit your protest; it means limit yourself. Accept the great lie of because. Continue reading Free Speech and Those Rubbernecking Toilet Smells

What Do You Believe?

What do you believe? Who do you believe? And what is the foundation for your beliefs? Those questions were overwhelmed in the noise but were underlined by the rage in the public square this week, on issues from sequestration to the Onion’s infamous tweet during the Academy Awards.

Defended as free speech and satire, whose firestorm of response by many was evidence of its success, the Onion’s 140-character post was never covered by the cover it claimed, of being the occasional moment in a society that cherishes free speech, when a good intent to poke fun goes awry.

It was, instead, the perfect example of irresponsible speech, an imitated form of liar’s rage, a flawed imitation of the disdain that has marked the political language of Republicans, especially, and dominates the airwaves and the internet. This mock and real rage is often packed with lies, to avoid responsibility and to deny its purpose by claiming: look, it’s absurd. This liar’s rage is engaged in; denigrating the President and others, often not for their views, but simply because hate is seen as a constitutionally protected act. The Onion poster falls into using liar’s rage as a mock model. So it’s okay to call a nine-year old a sexually explicit name. No different than other daily online fare. As long as it’s just words, and they are not used to incite, the Bill of Rights says speech is free, and restrictions can’t be imposed.

The folk who make that argument miss the point: the outrage about the Onion post wasn’t over a narrow legal view of whether it violated free speech or whether it was misinterpreted, or as I suggest, it’s evidence of a cultural faux pas, or whether the rest of us didn’t get it. The reaction was a collective, strong-willed assertion that the comment was wrong. Not all free speech is right, and the right to speak or tweet freely doesn’t guarantee that what is said will have an equal place in the public square, which also has the right to shout it down.

The short tweet combined the worst of Rush Limbaugh and Mitt Romney with Donald Trump. It was uncomfortably sexually explicit without the redemption or condemnation found in the best satire. It applied a smear with the full force of scatological misogyny. My daughter tells me it’s a frat boy word. Mis-gauging its impact channels Romney, who repeatedly put forth a worldview that took away the humanity of others. Its crudeness and bullying attack was pure La Donald.

By closer reading, the poster was also a male. (Read it, you’ll agree.) As it was defended, it revealed a large subculture who skip the who and cite their belief in the what; in this case, free speech, its foundation in the constitution.

I agree that the post didn’t “cross the line.” It was wrong. Murder doesn’t “cross the line.” It’s wrong. A country can’t maintain a dual morality, one for crimes of property and persons, and another that says if legal penalties aren’t at stake, anything goes. Gun owners are now citing the right to “constitutional carry,” without restriction or concealment permits (repeal!). A constitutional right doesn’t guarantee approval of every position (guns or free speech) that attempts to be derived from that right. The constitution also guarantees the equal right to be wrong under its authority.

Long before appeals to law, a society decides in dynamic ways its limits and order, its boundaries of behavior, its conscience and sense of embarrassment and shame, its priorities and patterns of care. The Constitution should not be cited to excuse bad taste at best, to conceal honest error, or to be the enabling document for the erosion of the full humanity of others who are diverse and different.

I see the post as a thoughtless and harmful example of how the decency of words has degenerated into a culture that sets no limits on impropriety, including using a sexually explicit, denigrating word against a prepubescence girl in the harsh light on the internet’s public square. Retreating to free speech was something that even the Onion CEO didn’t do. He says in a Facebook the post was “crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.”

It should remind us that such an ill-advised attack is not by “rights” exempt from being wrong, and by its irresponsibility undermines the protections it cites.

It wasn’t that the rest of us “were afraid to say it.” We knew better. Continue reading What Do You Believe?

When A List Of Facts Don't Tell The Truth

With all the crazy things he says, if Mitt Romney were a student on any of America’s college campuses, he would be profiled on a watch list. His radical speech continually advocating the abolition of the federal government while attending classes with classmates with tuition paid for by federal student loans would register as a blind contradiction and personality disconnect (dissociative identity) that could easily cross the line from blame and denigration to violence. Instead, he is running for President of the United States as a candidate for the Republican Party and ducking questions about his claims, saying conversations about inequity should be held in quiet rooms where, promising to “do more” if he could to cut jobs, he rails against 47% of Americans whose incomes are so low they are exempt from income taxes.

He is not alone in the group home; group homes are normally places where people with special challenges are given love and support and encouraged to break through their veils. But Mitt does a Mitty; his advocacy network of irrational politics has the power to make his cruelest fantasies real and impose them on the rest of us, no matter our own dreams. He and his ilk are well funded by operators who see dollars in the vast disability that shadow hims and others: parts narcissism, delusion, paranoid, manic, a bundle of anti-social behaviors including the lack of empathy, guilt, or remorse for pathological lying, a grandeur that writes its own morality and rules of the game.

For instance, Michael Brown, the infamous “Brownie” who let New Orleans turn into Atlantis, publicly chided President Obama for reacting to hurricane Sandy too soon, claiming the President’s actions were “premature.” Brownie is also on record claiming Obama “wanted” the Gulf oil spill so he could suspend offshore drilling. Brown never saw a disaster he couldn’t make worse or find faults and conspiracies in the tragedy. And he once ran the nation’s emergency response.

Or take Romney’s television and radio commercial claiming GM and Chrysler both intend to send American production jobs to China. Both companies have taken the unusual step of calling the “car guy” a liar. A GM spokesperson cited galactic-length differences between the Romney ads and reality. The spokesperson went on: “no amount of campaign politics at its cynical worse will diminish our record of creating jobs.” Chrysler’s CEO, calling the ads, “inaccurate,” pointed out Chrysler has added 2,900 jobs at downtown Detroit’s Jefferson Avenue plant, which builds Jeep Cherokees. Ironically, Romney’s father built Jeeps in China in the 1980s, as CEO of American Motors. Chrysler will build there, too, for China’s market, the world’s largest.

Romney knows a list of facts don’t add up to truth. But America has frequently confused villains and heroes; the bad man is often the good guy. And the good guy often has fatal flaws. Barack Obama has shouldered the abuse and crises and carnage left by the former and potential residents of office, and his flaw seems to be a stoic good cheer for which he is mercilessly heckled. Many (some from both sides!) seem angry that they haven’t been able to seduce the President into a meltdown. Continue reading When A List Of Facts Don’t Tell The Truth