Saturday, July 2, 2011

This Troubles Me

By now, you have heard of MSNBC's decision to suspend commentator Mark Halperin for calling President Obama a "dick". I've been contemplating this and I'm troubled by something.

First of all, in the interests of full disclosure, I am a left-leaning moderate. I actually consider myself more of a pragmatist and have found the level of public discourse on topics that affect all of us to be anything but helpful, logical, considerate of another's position or pragmatic. I believe politics has descended to a "my way or the highway" mentality and if you are not 100% in my corner, you are worse than pond scum. We have decided there is no place for common ground on anything and have dug in our collective heels. I do not remember a time when the verbal landscape has had so many invectives and epithets around. I don't agree with you. Therefore, you are a "dick", or worse.

But that's not what troubles me most. What troubles me is the fact that Halperin was censured for expressing himself. I don't watch MSNBC as I don't have cable. I never knew Mark Halperin before this. I don't know if he has felt the President is right or wrong on issues. Has he expressed frustration before?

I think one of our most cherished rights as a U. S. citizen is "Freedom of Speech". Our founding fathers felt strongly enough about this that they made it the first amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In guaranteeing this, they expressly guaranteed the right of any citizen to call the President a "dick", or worse. I am fully within my rights to go to the White House, stand outside the gate, and hurl invectives at the chief executive officer. I have the right to show up at the Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago on the day former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich is sentenced and shout, "You are a first class asshole", which, truth be told, is exactly what I think of him. As long as I do not threaten either the President or Mr. Blagojevich with violence, I am within my rights to shout epithets at them. I do not have the right to stand in front of the White House with a tire iron, hurl invectives and threaten to "pound the daylights outta you." Threats of violence, whether hurled at the President or the neighbor down the street aren't tolerated.

There are gray areas, to be sure. If I post a sign in my yard calling a neighbor a horse's ass, he can petition to have the sign removed on the grounds that it is harassment. But I want to remind you of the Westboro Baptist Church and the Supreme Court's decision upholding their right to picket. Sane people consider them as far off the wacky meter as possible, but what they are doing is guaranteed under our Constitution. As much as we loathe them, they have the right to express their views. It's guaranteed. It's one of the reasons we are as strong as we are. Diversity of opinion is allowed in this country.

And that's what troubles me about this censure. I believe Mr. Halperin has a right to express exasperation with the President, whether I agree with him or not doesn't factor into this. Perhaps the right to call the President a "dick" does not extend to you when you are employed by a company such as MSNBC. Their statement regarding the censure contained the sentence, "We strive for a high level of discourse and comments like these have no place on our air." I would nominally agree with this, meaning that I would wish Mr. Halperin had not used the vernacular but had been creative with his invective. Instead of calling the President a "dick", I would have liked to see some higher use of language. Go back to Shakespeare, Mr. Halperin, and call someone, "Thou bawdy full-gorged bugbear!"

I think this censure also hinges on the fact that Mr. Halperin knew what he wanted to say was unacceptable and deserved the seven-second delay excising it. The trouble with that is, had the word been "bleeped", it still would have come out, within moments of him saying it. He would have been in trouble for the invective, regardless.

Still, I am worried that we have lost the ability to freely express ourselves. Would it have been any better had Mr. Halperin said, "Well, this is my personal opinion and I apologize to anyone who might be offended in advance of this. I feel it was a 'dick' move."? Probably not. There is a standard to which he is held by his employer and he crossed their line. Yet I am supportive of him calling the President a "dick". We are allowed to do that and it troubles me that, lately, there seems to be an erosion of that right.

Beverage:  Edinburgh's Finest tea


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