I 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
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?
I just finished my new ebook! Writing and editing it made me wonder, is the American eye reliable? Do we observe the telltale details that are flashes of epiphany, the discovery of meaning and insight lodged inside of the blinders of our own vision? Why is it so hard to put down old versions of reality and tuck them away? When’s the last time any of us had a breakthrough? When I look at the media, especially, everybody seems stuck. How can we be more creative and how can that creativity be made trustworthy and true?
That challenge is hidden in my posts each week. Writing is a creative frame that improves my aim. Affirming the past can introduce depth and perspective or leave an idea mired in original error. If I extract an idea, it should not be a misleading “gotcha;” it should illuminate insights.
No-tax-pledge king Grover Noquist demonstrated a “gotcha” error last week that was blind stupidity at its worst. In a Twitter post, he called for higher appreciation for the policy views of House Speaker John Boehner. His reason: Boehner was elected and Obama was a lame duck. This ballooning mockery diminishes our democracy. And finally blinds our own eye. We only see the jeering. The good is damned by dire warnings, threats, fears, demands intended to defeat hope.
No hope existed in hundreds of Twitter posts calling the President a “nigger” and expressing searing outrage that his appearance at Newtown’s memorial for the children and adults of the Sandy Hook school killings interfered with their watching the scheduled weekly NFL game, as the networks covered the memorial rather the rivalry. One post accused the President of making the grief worse, as many parents (and many at home) cried at his words. So blind was their hatred, the posters failed to be moved by this powerful collective moment in our nation’s monumental loss. The deaths of innocent children in a small town’s school was an event they knew—it was on their screens!—but football was king! The President, also the nation’s mourner-in-chief, was assailed with America’s oldest epithet of race—one with a long. demeaning, nasty history containing its own memory and events of violence. But the label blinded his comfort as he stood to speak to grieving families and a grieving nation, ending with a roll call of the names of the child and adults lost, intoned one by one. Continue reading The Void of Blind Comfort