Tag Archives: nativism

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‘Incitement’ Should Not be Protected Speech


We expect Presidents to condemn hate speech, not contribute to it by inciting violent attacks.

Our political and legal institutions are lagging badly in dealing with twenty-first century communication forms that enable acts of violence against others.  The sources of this rhetoric of hate may be politicians of various kinds, nativist groups that have formed online communities, or others using live forums.  All are threats to the nation that we seem ill-prepared to handle.  To add to the challenge, bloodshed motivated by hate has been made worse by a President whose billigerence has placed him in the chain of causes that have led to violence.

No one wants to give ground on protections for Americans to speak and publish at will. The First Amendment is our birthright. Dissent is often a necessary source of influence for needed reforms. The rights of advocates should always have a presumptive position in any discussion that would alter their protections.  Even so, we are facing threats from especially from two quarters that should have the attention of law enforcement officials everywhere.

Incredibly, as we have noted, one source of the problem is the President himself.  We are in a period dominated by unprecedented presidential bullying that a reasonable listener could understand as sanctioning attacks on members of the press and opponents.  This week, when a person in a Trump rally suggested shooting border crossers, Trump simply smiled and laughed it off: further evidence of his stunning moral vacancy.

In 2018 Trump praised a member of the House of Representatives, Greg Gianforte, who assaulted a journalist and knocked him to the floor at his Bozeman Montana office. Trump applauded this aggression at another rally, noting  “any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy.” It’s part of a larger pattern of sneers and taunts often directed at national journalists who are often separated from a jeering MAGA crowd only by a rope line. Some news organizations have had little choice but to hire protection for their correspondents from mobs fired up by the President. That’s how bad it’s become.

In yet another recent rally Trump talked about reproductive health clinics as if they were in the business of murdering babies. His specific choice of words included “executing babies,” followed by a chopping gesture that we might see in a butcher shop. This kind of talk was apparently enough to motivate at least one man, Matthew Haviland, to threaten kill “every Democrat” and other pro-choice demons he imagined, triggering a rare response from the F.B.I’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.  We expect Presidents to condemn hate speech, not contribute to it by inciting attacks on other Americans.

The second source of this problem is even more ominous because it is also omnipresent. It is hate speech that is easily spread via extremist manifestos online.  Most terrorism experts have given up on the old law enforcement bromide of the “lone wolf” shooter: a characterization that might have once been used to explain gun attacks similar to those on American synagogues in San Diego and Pittsburgh. Now, the more common analysis is that individuals are connected by racist or anti-immigrant websites that still get First Amendment protections.  Apparently even haters have their chat groups.  John Earnest, the attacker in San Diego, was reportedly motivated by online rhetoric from the recent New Zealand mass murderer, who was trying to exterminate Muslims.

Our hands-off approach is producing increasingly dire results. 

Online manifestos functioning as calls to action against “alien” groups are all over the internet, sometimes taken down by individual platforms like Facebook, and sometimes allowed to stand.  Groups may be motivated by anti-semitism, racism, hostility to immigrants and others. The problem is enormous because one platform that might reject content can be replaced by another. There is always an internet server somewhere inside or outside the United States that will host poisonous content.

To be sure, an internet that has turned into what the New York Times has called a “sea of hate” is beyond the easy control of any one nation.  Like most digital media, content easily slips through political boundaries.  Even so, we could be doing more to curb homegrown threats.

Should we Protect Hate Speech that Targets Others?

For the most part, hate speech in the United States is protected.  A 1969 Supreme Court Case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, allows vitriol to exist unless it is likely to incite “imminent lawless action.”  But few federal judges then or now want to prosecute speech on this premise.  There is a long legal tradition to err in favor of the hothead expressing verbal hostility. But this hands-off approach is producing increasingly dire results.  While most Americans would accept the rights of even a Nazi group to march or a group of white supremacists to gather, others might question why incitement is so narrowly defined.  For example, English law allows charges to be brought against a person for “incitement to racial hatred.”  Would our admirable record of tolerance of free speech be significantly harmed by a similar prohibition suggesting a violent response?

Smarter minds than mine need to begin to sort all of this out.  But it appears that our laws and constitutional protections are far behind our technology and the coarsening of our rhetoric.  We now have robust networks for the dissemination of hatred, even while basic norms of civility have withered.

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Hopeful Signs in Pessimistic Times

 flickr                                                                        United Way

Right now it cuts against the grain to suggest that developments in American life offer reasons for hope.  But positive signs are around us. We just need to notice. 

Virtually every opinion poll suggests that Americans are in a funk. And most have good reasons.  Natural disasters have wreaked havoc in the southeast.  Young “Dreamers” may be forced to leave the only country most have known.  And the President is still in the thrall of a segment of voters motivated by the seemingly permanent  stains of dreary nativism and victimhood. Even so, here is a short list of thriving features of American life we can still celebrate.

The rot in the high canopy of national politics conceals an understorey of vibrant American mayors.

Politico has identified a large crop of effective city leaders good at finding the kinds of workarounds that a hapless member of the U.S. House might never grasp. They include  big city mayors like Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, Marty Walsh in Boston, and Jackie Biskupski in Salt Lake City.  “Blue city” majors are good at looking for progressive solutions for urban challenges. But even in “red”Utah a moderate Republican who happens to be a lesbian can win office and tackle difficult issues like homelessness. More journalists should follow Politico’s lead in identifying the posible sources of our salvation in municipal leaders.  If we are smart we will make use of their talents for a future and essential nation-rebuilding.

Our music is better than our politics.

The beacon of American democracy has surely been dimmed by it’s inward turn. There can be no surprise that international polls suggest that far fewer members of other societies want to emulate our politics. Not so our music, which remains as popular as ever in many corners of the globe. It’s wonderfully routine to hear jazz in Paris, big bands in Copenhagen, or country music in Spain; the singers and songs as are as safely as suggestive and universal as ever. American Ariana Grande was performing to thousands of fans in the English Midlands when a suicide bomber attacked the young crowd. Her international tour was following a well worn trail of transformative performers who have been accessible bridges to others. On recordings performers like Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Whitney Houston, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Paul Simon retain devotees everywhere.  American pop, jazz, R and B, and rap continue as models to young performers everywhere. Though it strikes me that we underestimate Latin American influences in American music, the powerhouse industry centered in Los Angeles, Nashville and New York remains an ambassador to other cultures in ways our politics cannot match.

The ideal of cultural inclusion that was envisioned but never seen by thought-leaders like Dr. King or Harvey Milk is now the norm for most younger Americans.

One of the pleasures of working with younger Americans is to see their easy acceptance of peers with different histories and backgrounds.  It’s surely an indicator that the racial and other resentments being fed by this administration will eventially yield to their better instincts. Women will hold more political offices. The monoculture of wealthy white males who now dominate two of the three branches of the federal government is going  to change, eventually reflecting our shifting demographics and a youth culture giving us hints of a post-racial world.

We have seen a resurgence of national political journalism.

Whatever the fate of the Trump administration, its unpopularity with better educated voters has fed a vibrant revival of the American news business. Online subscriptions at The Washington Post and the New York Times have increased dramatically. Opinion journals that were withering away a few years ago have suddenly become go-to sites.  Politico, The Atlantic, Slate, Vox, The Guardian, ProPublica and even the Wall Street Journal have taken on investigative assignments that make up in clout what they may lack in more conventional measures of audience size. Even CNN seems to have finally found its footing after shameless over-coverage of Trump appearances in 2016. Except for a core captured by fantasies of fake news, American investigative journalism is cool again.

The military has again emerged as a leader in human rights.

The services were the first large segment of American society to fully integrate racially. That was in 1948, at least 15 years ahead of universities and other institutions.  More recently it has become clear that full acceptance of women as well as gay and trans members has evolved into full tolerance and acceptance of all in uniform. It has been heartening to hear military leaders at the very top push back against Presidential statements that cast suspicion on individuals who may be Muslim or gay. For example, last month 56 retired generals and admirals signed a letter noting that a proposed ban by the Trump administration on transgender members of the services would “be disruptive and degrade military readiness.”  The current defense Secretary seems to agree, putting the question under review rather than simply implementing it.

These are all hopeful signs. It cuts against the grain right now to believe that developments in American life offer reasons for optimism. But the reasons are there.  We just need to look.