College Crack-Up

There was rioting on the University of California campus at Berkeley earlier this week — the worst kind of rioting.

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-10-43-55-am-1024x682A protest was planned to try to stop a speech that was to be given by a conservative figure named Milo Yiannopoulos, and according to the University, “150 masked agitators” came onto campus to turn the protest into a riot.  During the ensuing melee, two UC Berkeley students who happened to be Republicans were attacked while giving an interview, a suit-wearing student was pepper-sprayed and beaten with a rod because a protester through he “looked like a Nazi,” the mob threw Molotov cocktails and commercial grade fireworks at police and smashed windows, and the riot ultimately caused $100,000 worth of damage to the campus.  Oh, yeah — the college cancelled the speech by Yiannopoulos and spirited him off campus “amid the violence and destruction of property and out of concern for public safety.”

So, the protest that turned into a riot achieved its ultimate goal of preventing a speech by a right-wing guy who consciously strives to be provocative and whose perspective many people find vile and hateful.  It’s not clear whether all of the protesters/rioters were there out of concern about Yiannopoulos’ views — UC administrators believe that some of the people who came to the protest from off campus were with a local anarchist group called “Black Bloc” that has been causing problems in Oakland for years and that may have just been looking for an excuse to pelt police and bust some glass — but the outcome is not a good one for those who believe in free speech, even if the speech is by someone whose views are appalling.  According to a piece written by a UC student, some of the students on campus are wondering whether the violence was justified because a peaceful protest would not have succeeded in preventing Yiannopoulos’ speech.   If that view is widespread, the Berkeley incident sends exactly the wrong message:  violence works if you are looking to prevent speech by someone you oppose.  That attitude should send a shudder through the administrative offices of colleges across the land.

I think UC-Berkeley botched this whole process.  It’s time for colleges to get back to being places that tolerate all kinds of speech and that recognize that the response to disagreeable speech — even the most vile, toxic, hateful speech — is not riots, but more speech in opposition.  Rather than breaking windows, how about “teach-ins” by professors who disagree with Yiannopoulos’ views and can respond to his remarks and his approach, after Yiannopoulos is allowed to say whatever he intends to say?  That’s what would have happened on the OSU campus when I was a student back in the ’70s.

Riots should never be tolerated, but riots that are a conscious effort to quash free speech are especially wrong.  Colleges need to stiffen their spines and make sure that the rights of all speakers are respected and protected.

Yard Sign Vandalism

A few days ago the Washington Post carried an interesting confession by a suburban Mom in Maine.  She admitted and she and two of her friends became so enraged by the presence of a bunch of Donald Trump signs on their street that they went out one night and tore them down.  Unfortunately for them, their act of vandalism was seen by the police, and the next day she received a summons to appear in court, because the owner of the property that displayed the yard signs — who just happened to be the chairman of a Maine PAC supporting Trump — was pressing charges.

trump_yard_signsWhy did the woman suddenly engage in an act of vandalism?  Because she hates Trump, and is angry about his crass comments about women, which remind her of her own experience with a crude boss who propositioned her for sex, and she thought that the number of yard signs supporting Trump were destroying the “equilibrium” of her neighborhood.  She writes that she and her friends “felt assaulted by the number of signs. The idea of “cleansing” our streets seemed like the fastest way to restore balance and alleviate our election stress.”  Now she regrets her conduct and recognizes that she momentarily snapped — and will have to face her day in court.

As the Post article notes, this election is raising temperatures nationwide, and the hard feelings are being acted out through Facebook rants, yard sign thefts, acts of vandalism — all the way up to tossing a bomb into a Trump campaign headquarters.  It’s sad to think that this wretched campaign might bust up friendships or family relationships, and it’s even sadder when suburban Moms decide — even if only momentarily — that they have the right to trample on a neighbor’s exercise of their rights to free speech.  Whatever you might think of Trump, you have to at least acknowledge that his supporters have the right to at least express their opinions, just as you have the right to vehemently disagree with those opinions — and if you don’t acknowledge that reality, then we’re really in the process of losing something fundamental and immensely valuable about America.

But here’s the saddest thing:  the Maine Mom hasn’t even met the man whose yard signs she stole.  She didn’t try to talk to him to tell him how she and her friends felt, and he didn’t try to talk to her before deciding to press charges.  You’d like to think that neighbors could at least talk to each other and try to bridge the gap, before resorting to stealing yard signs on one side and going to court on the other.  Maybe if they’d sat down face to face they might have realized that they were dealing with a human being, acquired an understanding of how the other person felt, and perhaps changed their mind on how to proceed.

But these days, it seems, no one talks anymore, and the first response is to escalate — which is how the courts in Maine are going to be hearing a case involving a suburban Mom who stupidly stole some yard signs because she thinks Donald Trump is a jerk.

Standing For The Anthem

In our sports-obsessed culture, when a professional athlete declines to stand for the National Anthem and says it is because he is protesting race relations and police brutality, it’s news.  In this instance, Colin Kaepernick’s actions have provoked some fans to burn his San Francisco 49ers jersey and generated reactions from all points on the political spectrum.

tsjcI don’t get the jersey-burning.  Of course, under the First Amendment, Kaepernick has a right to protest and advocate for his position on important issues of the day, period.  We all do.  Although some people increasingly seem hell-bent on punishing and eventually criminalizing free speech, through speech codes and “safe zones” and other contrivances designed to protect our delicate sensibilities from unpopular views — and, of course, quash the expression of those views in the first place — every American still has a right to peacefully express their views on topics like racism.  Kaepernick’s actions aren’t unAmerican; they’re quintessentially American.

And anybody who thinks sports figures should just take their big salaries and keep their mouths shut is kidding himself, too.  Sports have been politicized for as long as I can remember, since at least the 1968 Olympics when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists and bowed their heads during the playing of the National Anthem.  And the NFL itself has become increasingly involved in public issues, with events like breast cancer awareness weeks where the players wear garish pink towels and socks.  Breast cancer is a pretty safe public issue, but it’s a public issue nevertheless.  To the extent there ever was a line between sports and the real world, that line has long since been erased and crossed.

Kaepernick’s gesture shows the power of free speech — which is why the founding fathers were so interested in protecting it.  One player sits during the National Anthem, and it provokes a firestorm. Kaepernick obviously picked the National Anthem because he knows that every sports event starts with its playing and that it is a source of pride to Americans.  Showing disrespect for the Anthem is an effective way of drawing attention to your cause, just like burning a flag was during the campus protests in the 1960s.

Of course, we can wonder whether Kaepernick will just sit during the Anthem, or will go beyond exercising his free speech rights to actually do something to promote better race relations or address police actions.  The San Francisco police have invited him to come to the police academy to open lines of communication and learn about the challenges facing the thin blue line.  I hope he accepts that invitation, and uses the interest his one-man protest has generated to increase understanding and help improve things.  Sitting is one thing, taking meaningful action is quite another.

Is Porn A Public Health Crisis?

Utah’s state legislature has passed a resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis, and yesterday Utah’s governor signed it.

ip01091The resolution doesn’t ban pornography in Utah — with the volume of porn available on the internet and through various media outlets, it’s hard to see how that could be accomplished, anyway — but it does seek to highlight what it calls an epidemic.  The resolution says that porn “perpetuates a sexually toxic environment” and “is contributing to the hypersexualisation of teens, and even prepubescent children, in our society,” and speakers at yesterday’s signing ceremony argued that porn also undermines marriages and contributes to sexual aggression.

Utah, which is a majority Mormon state, has always long been one of the most socially conservative states in America, and an “adult entertainment” trade group called The Free Speech Coalition said that Utah’s declaration is an “old-fashioned” morals bill that ignores that porn watchers tend to have more progressive views on sexuality and women’s rights and that ready access to porn correlates with a decline in sex crimes.

It’s hard to see how anyone could plausibly argue that pornography is a public health crisis in the same way that, say, the Zika virus or Ebola are.  Porn isn’t randomly striking people down or causing microcephaly or other serious health conditions through mosquito bites, and if there is such a thing as “porn addiction” it sure isn’t as widespread or destructive as alcoholism or drug addiction.  Clearly, there are more serious targets of our public health spending than porn.  And there obviously are free speech concerns at issue, too, that the law has wrestled with since one Justice of the Supreme Court famously declared that he might not be able to craft a legal definition of pornography, but he knew it when he saw it.

Still, I think anyone who pooh-poohs the fact or significance of the increasing prevalence of porn — soft, hard, and even violent — in our society might be missing the point.  “Dirty books” and “dirty movies” have always been around, but they sure are a lot more accessible these days, available with a few clicks of a mouse or TV remote control unit.  Anybody who watched HBO, as we do, can’t help but notice how graphic the depiction of sexual activity and sexual situations has become, and broadcast TV isn’t far behind.

There’s a reason pornography is euphemistically called “adult entertainment.”  Parents have a legitimate interest in protecting their children from exposure to porn until the kids have a chance to learn about sex in a more neutral, less charged, less graphic way.   No one wants their kids to think that the scenarios presented in porn are a normal representation of sexual activity in a loving relationship.  That’s not old-fashioned, it’s common sense.

The Trump Campaign’s Chicago Shutdown

If you’ve watched the news this weekend, you’ve seen footage of protesters clashing with security forces and Donald Trump supporters at the site of a scheduled Trump rally in Chicago.  The Trump campaign ended up canceling the event due to security concerns.

The MSNBC website has an interesting story about how a bunch of activists — some from the Bernie Sanders campaign, some from other groups like Black Lives Matter and Fearless and Undocumented — organized a massive protest against the Trump event.  According to the story, a few key factors helped the protest gel.

kiro7dotcom-template_1457743926114_3192105_ver1-0_640_360The Trump event was on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus in the heart of the Windy City, where lots of Sanders supporters and activists are found.  Progressive groups were already well organized in Chicago, because they’ve been routinely protesting against Democrat Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his police policies for months, so communications networks among groups were already established.  And Trump’s message has so alienated many people that large groups were eager to join in the protest.  The protest organizers came up with a plan, got thousands of protesters to show up and get into the Trump rally, and then when fights broke out the protesters got what their “#SHUTITDOWN” Twitter hashtag suggested — the Trump campaign pulled the plug and Trump himself never appeared.

How to react to people ripping up signs, throwing punches at political rallies, and shutting down a campaign event?  My reactions are decidedly mixed.  There’s no doubt that a lot of Donald Trump’s rhetoric is inflammatory — intentionally so — and he and his supporters shouldn’t be surprised when his strong statements provoke equally strong reactions.  If Trump wants to lash out against immigrants, or Muslims, he’s got to expect that, in some quarters at least, he’s doing to be harshly criticized as a racist and a demagogue and he’s going to encounter lots of protests against his positions and statements.

At the same time, I hate to see violence erupt and political events canceled because of security concerns.  The protesters had every right to advocate against Trump’s message, but Trump and his supporters had every right to speak, too.  One comment in the MSNBC piece was a red flag for me:  a protest organizer said, “We wanted to show Trump that this is Chicago, and we run Chicago, and we’re not going to take this.”  Some other commentators have said that Trump was to blame for the clashes because his campaign dared to schedule an event on a college campus in an urban area.  Such comments suggest — very uncomfortably, in my view — that there are “safe” areas and “unsafe” areas for campaign events to be held, depending on the political views and party affiliation of the candidate.  That’s a dangerous, precarious viewpoint in a country where the Constitution guarantees free speech for all, even if the speech is deeply offensive to many.

One other interesting point about the Chicago clashes is that the Sanders campaign seems to have tapped into a strong vein of anti-establishment feeling on the left side of the political spectrum that cuts across racial lines.  If you are disaffected — whether you are African-American, Latino, Anglo, or other — you’re going to notice that it was members of the Bernie Brigade, and not Hillary Clinton supporters, who helped put together the anti-Trump protests.  It will be interesting to see whether this development, which could seriously cut into the support Clinton expects to get from African-Americans and Latinos, changes the political calculus as big states like Illinois, Ohio, and Florida vote on Tuesday.

 

Freedom Of Speech Under Attack

The brutal slayings in Paris of the contributors to the publication Charlie Hebdo, as well as several others, should resonate with all of us.

If we believe in free speech — and I fervently, passionately do — we should all speak out against any assault on free speech, much less an actual armed attack that leaves many people dead simply because they have expressed views that are inconsistent with one conception of Islam.

A quote typically attributed to Voltaire — whether he said it, or someone else did, is the subject of some debate — is:  “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  I agree with that sentiment.

Those of us who are advocates of free speech cannot stand idly by while cartoonists and editors who have the temerity to voice their views are gunned down by religious fanatics.  It is essential that we all stand up and make that point clear or else, inevitably, our own rights to free speech end up being eroded, either by law or by interest in self-preservation.

Stand up, people!  Don’t be cowed!  Now is the time.

Standing Up To Campus Intolerance

I’ve written before about the growing intolerance for free speech on campus, including from commencement speakers.  It’s a problem that seems to be getting worse, not better — and more people are starting to notice and push back.

Two recent articles address the issue and are worth reading.  One is a more straightforward evaluation of the issue by Tim Egan in the New York Times.  The other is a satirical treatment in the form of a mock commencement address by Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale University.  The Carter piece, especially, raises a compelling question:  since when have callow college students come to view themselves as such infallible know-it-alls — and what will it mean for their future?  If they aren’t willing to entertain competing viewpoints during their college years, what will they be like at age 40, or 50?

Fortunately, my view of the world and my role in it continued to change and evolve after I graduated from college, as I interacted with others, saw how things worked in practice, and added years of life experiences to my perspective.  I’d like to think that process made me a better, more mature, and more thoughtful person.  That’s why it’s sad, and also frightening, to think that closed-minded college students might be walling themselves off from views and information that would allow them to make the same kind of personal journey.  If these college students are so cocksure about the correctness of their politics now, how insufferable will they be later — and how much more willing to take steps to prevent even the presentation of competing views?