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Posted by on Sep 25, 2007 in Uncategorized | 14 comments

On Defining Dissent, Treason

This weekend, I noticed and posted at Central Sanity what I found to be an intriguing dichotomy: Two attempts to limit the free expression of opinions, one from the left (taking issue with planned protests of Ahmadinejad’s Columbia U. appearance) and one from the right (labeling war protestors as treasonous).

Yesterday, an anonymous commenter made several points on that post, concluding:

Does anyone truly believe freedom of speech should be unfettered? Are you willing to allow racists to use racial slurs on your blog? Some speech gives cause for people to use sticks and stones to break others’ bones. Reasonable limitations on speech helps keep our society civil.

Point taken. We can’t falsely scream “fire” in a crowded theater. But beyond that one precise hypothetical example, where else do we draw the line? Some would err on the side of limitation; they’d rather risk too many limits than allow too many “dangerous” words. Others (including me) would err on the side of openness; we’d rather risk too many “dangerous” words than wake up to find well-intentioned limits encroaching on our right to peaceably assemble and speak our minds.

Picking up and expanding on my questions of that anonymous CS commenter: How do we productively distinguish dissent from treason? What entity do we trust, and comprised of whom, to make these judgments? When considering those who argue against the current war in Iraq, how do we decide (or can we) that Chuck Hagel’s or Ron Paul’s speech is more legitimate than Nancy Pelosi’s or Harry Reid’s? If there’s no difference in their fundamental message, is it their word choice that makes the difference? If so, by what method do we determine the words that are acceptable vs. those that are not?

It’s a classic slippery slope, although I don’t think the answers are particularly complicated: Live and let live. Speak and let speak. Recognize that opinions never killed anyone and that what we say matters far less than how we individually and collectively act.

Go ahead, call me naïve.

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  • krit

    I think as much as possible, we need to err on the side of the First Amendment, even when it crosses the line. Unpopular speech still expresses a point of view that will not go away if suppressed, but may go underground. It is better to know what we face as a people, rather than to allow an image to be shaped by the perceptions of the media or of the governing body.

    We can see from yesterday, that Ahmadinejad, rather than being the boogey man from a country with a starring position on the Axis of Evil, came across as a rather foolish, petty, weak leader, whose speech was full of his own delusions. IMO, the light of day cuts a figure like Ahmadinejad , who has been previously built up to Hitler-like proportions by the press and our president, down to size. Once that is done, his hate-filled ideology becomes more manageable. It is vital that we, as a people, don’t buy into mass hysteria because of the myth surrounging him.

    Yes, he persecutes homosexuals, denies rights to women and would drive Israel into the sea if he could. What leader (who is not a US puppet) of a Middle East theocracy wouldn’t??? It is inconvenient for us to recognize that even Iraq is much closer to Iran’s ideology than to ours, yet that is the truth.

  • MarloweC

    Pete’s question – “How do we productively distinguish dissent from treason?” – concerns more relations within the American community than Ahmadinejad.

    I would argue this is a critically important question in these poisonously toxic times.

    What passes for dissent today would – a half-century ago – be likely labelled treason. I note yesterday’s ruling by Ms. Coyote, the person responsible for film in the city of San Francisco,
    that the US Marines are not allowed to film a commercial on the streets of San Francisco if the filming involved Marines in uniform (later she backtracked, and declared it a traffic issue, despite the fact San Fran regularly blocks traffic for protests of all sorts). Her colleague, in charge of the Golden Gate Bridge, reacted in fury at the thought of Marines filming on the bridge, she declaring: “Not on my bridge will you put your Marines.”

    The Marines were forced to film in Marin, over the bridge.

    A few decades ago, such open hostility to the US armed forces by civic leaders would have prompted outrage as being akin to treason (a note to Elrod and those who defended the MoveOn criticism of Petraeus – you cannot say the San Fran ruling is not criticism of senior policy making generals, as it is a transparent attack on the US Marines Corps and all those who wear the uniform).

    Much like Petraeus, there is not much the Marine Corps can do. San Francisco, ruled by Democrats as a Pelosi demense, despises the military while enjoying their protection. Would not Al Queda love to bomb the decadent libertines of the Castro (though it ain’t what it used to be)?

    I recall last year New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi saying on video – before students at a commencement address – how he admired Sen Schumer for his willingness to put “a bullet between the president’s eyes.”

    He apologized within hours…but what a thing to say. (Just a joke…says the Left…move on, move on…)

    Is anything “treason” these days? Or is everything allowed under the banner of dissent (for as long as GWB is in office)?

  • krit


    I think you are confusing the right to free speech with the wisdom of using destructively partisan rhetoric- which by the way- both sides freely engage in. Why mention your marine example yet fail to mention the arrest of an Atlanta couple for the “crime” of wearing an anti-Bush t-shirt to one of his rallies? Or the fact that the former surgeon general of the US had a speech rejected when it didn’t praise the Bush administration’s accomplishments at least three times per paragraph?

    The GOP under Bush have provided us with the epitome of stifling dissent in order to create the illusion of a unified and “positive” front.

  • C Stanley

    Recognize that opinions never killed anyone and that what we say matters far less than how we individually and collectively act.

    I’ve seen a lot of variations on this but I think it misses the point. It’s not a matter of thinking that words can “break bones” as sticks and stones can, it’s that a certain type of speech tends to poison the atmosphere.

    And here’s the worst part in domestic politics, IMO: generally what happens when a politician demonizes an opponent is that he rallies his own base, but he’s done so without taking responsibility for an actual policy position (it’s a cheap way to to buy voters, in other words, without actually having to deliver anything). Then the opposing politician spends time focusing attention on the mistreatment, which rallies his base. Again, note that politician #2 didn’t actually have to DO anything to motivate those people to support him/her. It’s divide and conquer, pure and simple. I think politicians of both parties have become masters of this and I just wish the American voters would wake up to it.

  • pacatrue

    As always, lots of issues. I originally wanted to comment on the “you don’t allow racist comments on your blog” argument. I still think there is a very basic difference between a private party choosing not to allow certain speech and that same speech not being allowed in the public domain. One can easily think that certain types of comments do not further honest debate and therefore disallow them in some private forum, while at the same time defending the rights of the idiots to say poisonous things in public and being free from LEGAL prosecution because of it (which is different from incurring no private punishments).

    Of course, the problem one will always have is whether or not some particular forum or institution is sufficiently public or private. A city park is clearly public and people have rights to say stupid, offensive things in one as part of a political protest. Someone’s home is clearly private. But, in between, things get wishy-washy. We don’t allow political censorship on the TV and radio (in theory) because, while privately owned, they operate as a public good in many ways, while a blog like TMV can freely censor as they please. But what happens if a blog were to be read by hundreds of thousands like a TV station is watched? Would censorship then become forbidden?

  • domajot

    A terrific question to ask and one that will never be fully resolved, in my estimation. Where limits are set will depend on how potential harm is estimated. and there are always ten different ways to estimate and to define potential harm,

    This seems to be much like the debate about the Patriot Act and how civil liberties and security are balanced. As much as possible, I come down on the side of civil liberties and free speech, but I recognize that some regulation is necessary.

    In determining the line between dissent and treason, I would look more at what action is proposed rinstead of focusing too much on the ‘potential’ in words. “End the war’ is clearly different thatn ‘blow up the Pentagon’. I think we’re safer when making the dissent side large (cover more ground) and the contents of the treason side limited. When ‘potential’ for treason becomes the equivalent of ‘actual’ treason, no one is safe,

    Be wary of drawing conclusions from indicidual examples. If one parolee commits a crime, does that justify denying parole to 1000 others?

    As much of the controversy as possible should be resolved by practical considerations. Wearing an anti-war T on a military base is different than wearing it elsewhere. Free speech does not need to be practised everywhete and at all times in order to be robustly enjoyed in a broad sense.

    Barring racial slurs from certain defined venues seems perfectly reasonable to me on the practical grounds of preserving peaceful debate and preventing verbal warfare fron drowning out all
    communication. It matters a lot that the restricted areas should be clearly defined and limited.,

    I think that it’s easier to negotiate a resoluton for specific instances than in broad terms. To deiscuss Ahmedinejad’s speech is easier (though clearly still difficult) than to discuss free speech granted to all foreigners with reprehensuble trauts,

    I would recomment starting wih a general approach favoring free speech and the right to dissent and then negotiate necessary regulations and restreiction, instead of starting with restricions to cover all worst case scenarios and then negotiate to allow liberties.

  • domajot

    “It’s not a matter of thinking that words can “break bones” as sticks and stones can, it’s that a certain type of speech tends to poison the atmosphere.”

    Almost everyone agrees about the poisoned atmosphere and the sad state of paritisan warfare.
    What we can’t seem to agree on is how to combat it.

    We all hate negative and smear campaign ads, but who would be willing to go so far as to cede victory to opponents for the sake of upholding high principle within one’s own camp? Those for whom the poisoned atmosphere works are not likely to change their ways; I see no signs of that have happened in the past..

    Here I agree with the person who observed that dirty Wahington politics is only a reflection of what the public responds to. Rove was admired (and hated) because he was successful, at his brand of polilics, not because he was a good boy scout.

    Those of us decrying the tacitcs of others should look in the mirror and ask: What would I be willing to LOSE in order to stick to principles?
    It’s funny how different the answer seems to be when the face in the mirror is on the viining vs the losing side, or prescribing for oneself vs the other side.

  • Somebody

    A great line from “Crimson Tide” could be used here.

    “We are here to defend Democracy…….Not practice it.” Captain of the boat Gene Hackman responding to Ships XO Denzel Washington.

    Bill Clinton defeated Bush by turning every argument into “Its the economy stupid.”

    He won reelection by turning every argument into “Its the economy stupid.”

    The democrats have taken that page once again and won the day with “Its the war stupid.”

    Beyond the war what do they have? No one knows and no one cares because….

    “Its the WAR stupid.”

    Is this anyway to run a country? No. But it works. Its proven time and time again. If the Republicans want a chance they must do the same thing. Turn our entire political debate into a one liner.

    Americans dont have time for anything else…..They are too busy with their own lives to give much thought to politics. The winner of the one liner will win the day……

  • MarloweC

    Krit said: “Why mention your marine example yet fail to mention the arrest of an Atlanta couple for the “crime” of wearing an anti-Bush t-shirt to one of his rallies? Or the fact that the former surgeon general of the US had a speech rejected when it didn’t praise the Bush administration’s accomplishments at least three times per paragraph?”

    Krit, I don’t mention this because it is confusing apples with planetary bodies. Every administration is bloody-minded about restricting the speech of officials to those reflecting the administration’s views. EVERY administration, without exception. As for the t-shirt controversy, their right to dissent was restricted by campaign agents. Did Bush or Cheney order this?

    There is a world of difference between these 2 events…and San Francisco public officials banning the Marine Corps of the United States – an organization whose members have given their lives defending the US – from being filmed in uniform anywhere in the City of San Francisco.

    The t-shirt dissenters can, and have (I believe), sued for recompense. Did they lay down their lives for their country? The Marine Corps cannot sue San Francisco. They can only swallow the repeated insults of its liberal officials without criticism.

    Krit, there is simply a world of difference between these events!

  • MarloweC

    I think Domajot makes a good point in his noting there seem to be 2 approaches to this dilemma: one, beginning with free speech, and then considering regulations; and the second, beginning with restrictions, and then considering when one can speak freely.

    As a veteran of the speech code wars in academia in the 1990s, I saw the latter in operation quite often (“appropriate” or “responsible speech” it was called), although its advocates would have declared themselves defenders of free speech (aren’t we all?).

    For the record: I have long been a believer in radical free speech…in which everyone has a right to say almost anything…except overt declarations of violence.

    But, as Peter asked in his question: At what point does dissent actually become treason? Do public officials in San Francisco have any responsibility, as US citizens, to support its institutions? If they publically attack its institutions – such as the Marine Corps, marines, and people in the uniform of the United States in general – is this treason?

    And who – in our toxic political climate – can define these limits?

  • Sam

    The idea of confusing treason with loudly proclaiming your dislike of an elected official or tactics used by the gov’t is just dumb. Are they espousing violent overthrow of the republic? Killing cops and officials for carrying out the law? Talking about doing it? Thats treason. Saying you think the president, a senator, a mayor, or even our military is a pack of idiots that are screwing things up is not treason, its expression.

    Saying we are going about the war on terror the wrong way is not treason. Saying its ok to bomb american cities is. Treason is the overthrow of the gov’t and ACTUALLY aiding the enemy, not merely saying things that might give them a warm fuzzy. Things they already know in every case I’ve heard it used.

  • domajot

    Marlowe –
    Your SF theme points to another dilemma we have, one concerning local ‘democracy’ vs broader regualtions by state or even federal government.

    I see this as a dilemma, and I cam see ;legitimate arguments on both sides. Local, homogenious communities are much more likely to trample on minority rights. IMO. The question becomes one of balancing the rights of local communities to realize their preferences via local governemtn and protecting minority rights within that community There is unrevocable tension between the two, and, frankly, I don’t see how it can always be resolved by a one rule fits all approach. For one thing, as long as the rights to oppose, protest and advocate for change are preserved, the minority are cut off at the argument pass, so to speak. In those cases, intervention by more powerful outside forces my be cataclismic as well as beneficial. Ending segregation in schools was a great thing, but a traumatic event, nonetheless. We have to weigh possible fixes with caution.

    As I read the debates on TMV and other sites, I’m struck by how many comments begin with ‘clearly,…”
    The word ‘clealy’ (along with the phrase ‘the American people want…”) have become the most nonsensical items in the English language. In fact, nothing is ever clear and simple, and the Ameican people don’t rationally examine what they want; they certainly don’t ask tthemselves what they’re willing to sacrifice to get it.

    As i just said elsewhete, we’d be better off ackowledgint the dilemmas and complexities and working our way to resolution that starting with a ‘clear’ outcome and then finding ways to justify it.

    That’s not to say, that we shouldn’t stay under a philosophical umbrella in examining an issue. My premise is to guard free speech first but to concede limited curtailments when necessary.

    In debate, however, it becomes necessary to recgnize that others simply have different perceptions. Individual perceptions (and how they impede arriving at the common ground resolutions we all give lip service to ) is the subject I would write a theme about, where I younger and more energetic.

  • domajot

    I have an answer to resolve all these problems, one that is clearly the right answer and what the American people want: When in dount, do what domajot says.

  • krit

    Marlowe- I honestly don’t think there is that much difference. Give me one example of another administration censuring speeches by its cabinet members- just one.

    As for the t-shirt incident, the policy was written by Karl Rove— so not Bush- Bush’s brain.

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