Friday, October 20, 2017

Hate speech and slander

While driving up to Dad’s house on Thursday I listened to the NPR program The 1A, hosted by Joshua Johnson. The topic was free speech, appropriate for a program named after the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. The topic was also timely, coming the morning before white supremacist Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida. I thought the program was well done and covered several aspects of the issue, so I’m sharing a summary with you. I wish I was able to take notes while I was listening, but … I was driving. So I listened to it again. The whole thing is 47 minutes.

In the studio with Johnson were Sanford Ungar, Director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, and Angus Johnston, professor and historian of American student activism and student life at City University of New York. Yes, this discussion features a Johnson and a Johnston. Throughout the show Johnson added comments from listeners. I’ve included some of them.

Johnson said the issue is appropriate because students are now shouting down speakers (usually conservative) they don’t like. In response some of these speakers have threatened violence (or worse, see Charlottesville) and there is now a public safety aspect to these events.

Johnson talked to Mitch Emerson over the phone. He is the co-organizer behind “No Nazis in UF.” His group planned a non-violent protest. He noted that when the protesters outnumbered the supremacists, everyone remained safe at the event and went home. When supremacists outnumbered protesters (such as at Charlottesville), there was violence. Ignoring them, letting them speak to empty rooms, isn’t working. Also, the student body at UF will be present, on campus, if not in the room, and is diverse. Some of the students will feel threatened by what Spencer says.

A commenter from Gainesville (where UF is located) noted Spencer’s followers intend to spread terror through the community. Their method of operation appears to be to incite violence then whine when the community responds.

Ungar noted that Spencer wasn’t invited by a student group. No one can say students invited him, let him speak. He invited himself. He is playing the system. The university saw no way of stopping him without opening a big can of legal issues.

Johnston noted that UF has a policy that anyone can rent college facilities. If UF didn’t have that policy they could deny Spencer as other universities have done. Johnston sees Spencer’s actions as a weaponization of the First Amendment, use the openness of the university to harm it. Universities will have to be careful of their policies.

Emerson said that lots of students are quite disappointed in UF arranging related events doing what my friend and debate partner says is countering bad free speech with more free speech. They’re also disappointed because UF charged Spencer $10,000, yet it (and the taxpayers) will have to pay a half million for extra security.

The show interleaved comments of two callers who had called earlier at the host’s request. One noted that when a speaker asserts dominance over others (such as people of color or LGBT), these people feel less safe and the ability to learn has been compromised. The other said the point of a college education is to equip students with the ability to refute ideas they disagree with. I note that Emerson said that UF was not doing this around Spencer’s visit.

Johnson talked to Danya Abdelhameid over the phone. She is a senior at the College of William and Mary and an activist with Black Lives Matter. She was part of a protest that shouted down a speaker from the ACLU. Their protest was because they felt the ACLU protects white supremacy. Their issue is that free speech protects hate speech. She is annoyed with liberals and their view that free speech is absolute, that everyone be allowed to speak. But doing so means supremacists have a platform. These supremacist views promote violence and deny the humanity of certain people. You are complicit if by supporting free speech you don’t consider the humanity of those targeted by supremacists.

Ungar responded that it is extremely difficult to determine which speech should be protected. Shouting down speakers only undermines free speech.

Danya said the issue isn’t debating ideas. She returned to her main point of speakers who have the intent of denying the humanity of marginalized people. Dialog isn’t worth having when it is about questioning the humanity of someone. She added that in the incident with the ACLU speaker the College of William and Mary did not use it as an opportunity to present opposing viewpoints. Also, when Black Lives Matter issues are presented to the college administration, they are dismissed.

A listener tweeted his opposition to the heckler’s veto. Instead, one should use reason or silence. Base your debate on facts, not feelings.

Johnston said that one problem of free speech is that the students feel they are not heard and the supremacists are. The 1st Amendment isn’t being applied equally. It is tilted towards the far right. He also said there are times when it is absolutely appropriate to disrupt speakers. That is also a core part of the 1st Amendment.

Johnson posed a question. Refusing to engage with the opponent, as is done when shouting down a speaker, seems like forfeiting a match. It isn’t a win. So how does disruption advance the cause?

Johnston noted that the ACLU shoutdown didn’t advance the debate at William and Mary but it did get Danya on this show with a national platform and it did prompt the ACLU to discuss within its leadership whether to take on free speech cases that have a violent component.

Ungar responded by saying the voice that shouts the loudest seems to prevail. That’s not a good way to resolve great issues. We don’t get dialog and we don’t get communal agreement.

A commenter noted there are better speakers to present ideas about racism and supremacy other than the ones who bring an element of violence. Universities should be liable for that violence.

Unger noted that if someone disagrees with Spencer, even with some pretty good arguments, Spencer isn’t going to change his views, neither are his followers. They just go underground. It is better to hear Spencer’s views and responding to them.

Johnson sees a troubling issue ahead. Universities don’t appear to be equipping students to take on the bad guys, to “stay in the ring” in a debate, rather than to shut down the power to the arena.

Johnston responded saying there is a difference between fighting the bad guys and debating the bad guys, which is what Johnson is really talking about. Debating the bad guys doesn’t work. If you disrupt the public presence of fascists, some of their supporters do fade away. This isn’t a 1st Amendment way, but it is an effective way of fighting the bad guys.

Johnson talked by phone to Naweed Tahmas, a senior at UC Berkeley, VP of Berkeley College Republicans. He has invited several prominent (and combative) conservative speakers to campus.

Tahmas started by saying it has been socially acceptable for conservative students on the Berkeley campus to be harassed by more liberal students. Tahmas has seen posters of himself described as a fascist. He decries that universities have backed away from hearing all viewpoints and have become a liberal echo chamber. He says he invites speakers because of their relevance and not their combativeness. He decries liberal groups for refusing to work with him. He offered to let them pose the first question to the speaker, but they wanted to protest instead.

Johnston noted there is a difference between free speech issues and policy issues. Ungar adds that with the well known conservative speakers it seems almost like a shadow play, in which nobody, including the speaker, expects to actually say anything. Better to invite some of the lesser-known speakers.

Johnson asked perhaps Spencer should broadcast his speech from a remote location. Johnston replied that Spencer wants the notoriety and the university’s seal of approval. He is rich enough he has a huge number of ways to get his message out other than exploiting campus policies.

Now for my thoughts and reactions.

I’ve heard my friend and debate partner say several times that the proper response to annoying speech is more free speech. It is disconcerting to see some universities are not embracing that concept. They aren’t teaching what free speech means, how to debate, how to hone an argument. They aren’t presenting other viewpoints. They aren’t helping students refute toxic messages.

I heard reports on NPR of what happened at Spencer’s appearance at UF. It was loud and he was combative, pulling many of the conservative tricks, such as telling the audience you don’t like free speech and opposing me proves it. I’ll let you do your own search for those stories.

So, yes, people like Spencer are weaponizing free speech. They aren’t after discourse. They are after exploitation. They are bullies. But don’t bullies deserve free speech too?

As Danya said, in a lot of speech that comes from conservatives these days, the goal isn’t about declaring ideas. The goal is to dehumanize the other person. When that is the case I believe that it falls into a category similar to libel and slander, which are not protected forms of speech. I looked them up: Libel is written or printed words (not spoken) that defame or maliciously or damagingly misrepresent. Slander is the same meaning for the spoken word rather than the written. Perhaps hate speech, which has the intent to dehumanize, should be classified as slander. It defames another person by claiming they are not human.

Bad joke

My sister, the one with a wife, is quite upset with the comment from the vice nasty guy saying he “wants to hang” all gay people.

The vice nasty guy does have a long history of opposing our rights – voting for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, voting against equal protection and hate crimes, voting against repeal of the ban of gays in the military, and promoting the dangerous and ineffective ex-gay conversion therapy. But the comment wasn’t from him. He’s enough of a politician to know not to say such a thing in public. It was from his boss the nasty guy joking that his veep wanted to kill us. This is funny?

That “joke” came close to the same time as a flier appeared around Cleveland State University at the time of the opening of its new LGBT community center. The flier shows a man with a noose around his neck, quotes suicide rates of LGBT people, and says “Follow your fellow faggots” – yes, urging us to kill ourselves.

The nasty guy by his comments and the vice nasty guy by his actions are encouraging these attacks on us. We do not see this as a joke.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Sick, dead, or destitute

Some big GOP donors, such as the Koch brothers, are going to be really annoyed if the GOP dominated Congress can’t pass a tax cut (for the rich).

I’m not sure if this means these super-rich dudes are going to close their wallets or will spend their hundreds of millions to back more conservative primary challengers (to the delight of Steve Bannon).

If it is the first case it might help Democrats (except for the 20 ways the GOP is stealing the vote). In the second it means Congress will likely end up with more extremists. Either way many of the existing GOP Congresscritters will be gone. The upheaval will mean both Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will be out of the leadership.

Commenter Snud responded first:
So if they don’t make the majority of Americans sick, dead, or destitute… they won’t be re-elected.

I doubt I need to spell it out, but I’ll do so anyway. The Koch brothers and their 1% or 0.1% colleagues are desperate for that tax cut so that the gov’t doesn’t have enough money to maintain the social safety net. This is all about ranking with those at the top saying we got ours and we’re going to make quite sure there is no way you can get yours.

Outed gay hero

The program Radiolab, heard on NPR, did an hour-long story on Oliver Sipple. Back in 1975 as President Ford left a hotel in San Francisco a woman shot at him. Sipple was able to grab a gun before she got off a second shot. He was declared a hero.

Over the next few days this hero was outed as gay. It destroyed his life. He had moved to San Francisco so that he could live as gay without his family back in Detroit finding out about it. Once this detail was in the news his parents were hounded by the press for comments. His mother hung up on him.

Sipple was outed so that the press could have a story about a heroic gay man in hopes of destroying the narrative that all gay men are perverts and predators. So in addition to telling Sipple’s story there is a discussion of privacy, freedom of the press, and when a trait, such as a gay orientation, is appropriate for a news story.

A lot less backlash

Yesterday I included a link to a cartoon of Jeff Sessions tossing out rolls of paper with the words “license to discriminate.” That cartoon is actually more appropriate today.

Back in February the nasty guy proposed a sweeping executive order that would “Respect Religious Freedom.” The backlash from progressives, LGBTQ and women’s rights leaders was swift and strong. The nasty guy backed away. Progressives breathed a sigh of relief.

But in the last couple months most of those items in the sweeping order have been included in individual orders. They include:

* Telling employers discrimination based on religious principles is just fine.

* Banning transgender people from the military (still under “study” by the military).

* Declaring transgender people are not protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

* Filing briefs in federal cases allowing for discrimination for LGBTQ people in employment and public accommodations.

* Reversing the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

And all this happened with a lot less backlash. And just in time for the nasty guy to crow about it at the Values Voter Summit.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Our society clearly prefers order to justice

Notes from the past week…

An appropriate cartoon from the LGBT newspaper Between the Lines.

In a series of tweets Julius Ghost has a few things to say about the abusive movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and the various bits of commentary swirling around the story.
What the last week of reactions to the Weinstein story have demonstrated is just how reflexive our societal victim-blaming instinct is. Victims coming forward are very disruptive if the existing order is abusive. And our society clearly prefers order to justice. … The key thing I’m trying to notice through the noise is, who are the people orientated toward recognizing and solving an obvious problem and who are the people oriented toward damage control. … But some of these attacks feel to me more like a firewall, like an attempt to make this a Harvey problem rather than a deep systemic one. … Listen to our arguments. The arguments will tell you. Reflexively we aim at the victims. The one group that should bear no responsibility. … The question that keeps coming up is, where will it all end? It will end with justice. The real question behind the question is, “but what will this cost me?” A perceptive question. It will probably cost something. But to decline the invitation costs something too. That price will be a society where women continue to be abused. That price is too high.

Facebook has said that 10 million people had read ads that Russia bought as part of their disinformation campaign. Social media analyst Jonathan Albright researched the issue and came up with data that suggested the audience was at least double that, perhaps much higher. Albright was not pleased to discover once his research was published, Facebook scrubbed the thousands of Facebook posts and related data that had made his work possible.

Josh Meyer of Politico reports on what is surely not a coincidence…
Twitter has deleted tweets and other user data of potentially irreplaceable value to investigators probing Russia's suspected manipulation of the social media platform during the 2016 election, according to current and former government cybersecurity officials.

Whose side are they on?

Melissa McEwan of Shakesville reports on some strange scenarios:

What if the nasty guy lunged for the nuclear football? Would General Kelly (Chief of Staff) and Secretary of Defense Mattis tackle him?

The person spinning this fantasy is a “very senior Republican.” McEwan says the purpose of this fantasy is to get everyone talking about it rather than demanding the GOP actually use the checks and balances the constitution says they have. She reminds us:

* It is not the job of Kelly and Mattis to overrule the president.

* The fantasy is a suggestion that the president be overruled by former military generals.

* Even though the nasty guy is terrible it is an abandonment of democratic principles to root for him to be thwarted.

* The GOP could draw up impeachment papers at any time. This fantasy of a military coup is a way for them to avoid actually doing anything.

Another scenario is described by David Frum. Various national security and military agencies are working to circumvent the nasty guy’s role as commander-in-chief. An example is reassuring potential adversaries that the nasty guy didn’t really mean that threat.

As much as I like this particular president to be thwarted and “contained” … Frum says, “Regencies and palace coups are not constitutional.” If you think the president is unfit, the 25th Amendment defines a removal process.

McEwan adds this is incompatible with a healthy democracy. Nobody voted for Kelly and Mattis.

We need strong libraries

I attended two documentary films last weekend. Yes, my week was so busy I couldn’t post before today.

The first was Ex Libris: New York Public Library. The goal of the film was to document the wide variety of things the NYPL system (and by extension, libraries across the country) do for their patrons. We see programs of various kinds – author lectures, discussions, concerts, dinners, book clubs, and such. We see library staff engaging kids after school. We see job training and job fairs. We’re in on staff meetings and board meetings for discussions on finance and staffing. We visit the branches, ones in poor neighborhoods, the one in Chinatown, the one devoted to braille and talking books (we even sit in on a session as a talking book is recorded). We meet the staff member who signs for deaf patrons. We see some of the special collections, such as for images and for race relations. The NYPL is a large system, covering Manhattan, Bronx, and Staten Island (Brooklyn and Queens have independent systems), so we go into the facility that brings in materials from the branches, sorts them, and sends them out to the proper branch.

As fascinating, informative, and wonderful as this was, I do have a few complaints about it.

First of all, it was long. It ran for 3:15.

Second, there was no narration or text to explain anything. When we saw speakers they were not identified unless they or their hosts did or said something. And a few of them didn’t. The speakers in staff meetings were not identified nor were we told what kind of staff meeting it was.

Third, when the film sat in on a program, lecture, or meeting, it did so for lengthy chunks. I didn’t actually time them, but would guess many were over five minutes. Each individual speaker was fascinating (and I noticed none spouted a conservative viewpoint), but after two hours I wondered could we just hear an excerpt?

The film demonstrates that a library and a library system provides a huge range of services vital to their patrons and vital to a democracy. We need strong libraries.

The second was Score: A Film Music Documentary. Through discussions with a long list of famous film composers (John Williams of Star Wars fame among them) we understand why film music is important – it tells us how to feel. The original King Kong movie was cheesy until the music was added. We get a bit on how the music gets composed, though each composer works in a different way. We see how composers interact with directors (sometimes over some now iconic tunes). We get a historical tour of great moments in film music. This includes jazz introduced with the James Bond movies, the central role of the guitar in Morricone’s spaghetti westerns, the resurgent of the big orchestra in Star Wars, and a few more.

What was most fascinating for me was the visits to the recording studios where the notes on the page are turned into sound. I’m used to watching a symphony orchestra conductor who has eye contact with the players. But film music conductors (when not the composer) have their heads down and eyes on the score. The difference is that when conducting a symphony the conductor gets the score well ahead of time and studies it in detail. The performers do too. But the film score conductor and all the session musicians get the music that morning. The prized skill, a big reason why they were hired, is the ability to sight-read.

On to a pair of books I finished recently. Both are set in the West of more than a century ago.

I most recently finished The Wistling Season by Ivan Doig. I had read another book by Doig and enjoyed it enough to look for another. The story is set in rural Montana in 1909. The narrator is Paul Milliron, then 13, his brothers Damon, 12, and Toby, 7. Their mother died the year before and they are being cared for by Father. He spots an advertisement of a recently widowed woman seeking a housekeeping position in Montana, though she is clear she does not cook. The family accepts her offer, though the boys are disappointed in that one stipulation – Father is not a good cook.

A major part of the story is the one-room schoolhouse where at least 35 kids in eight grades gather. Paul is glad he is in 7th grade because many in the current 8th grade seem to have gotten stuck there. The teacher is good at keeping all the kids busy, though there wasn’t much portrayal of the younger kids asking the older ones for help while the teacher was busy with another grade. I hadn’t realized that in a place like Montana most, perhaps all, of the students arrived on horseback. All three boys have their own horse and the author calls them the “Milliron calvary.”

I enjoyed the book for the interesting story, the insights to the situation the author inserts, and the author’s rich writing style.

The other book is Roughing It by Mark Twain. This has been on my book shelf perhaps a couple decades. In 1860 Twain’s brother is appointed to be secretary to the governor of the Nevada Territory and he goes too. He describes the three week stagecoach ride from St. Joseph, Missouri to Carson City. Once there he has a variety of adventures. Those include trying to mine silver and gold (he tells us how it is supposed to be done). He serves as a journalist in Virginia City and in San Francisco. He also grabs an opportunity to spend a year in the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawaii). Along the way he tells us about every eccentric character he meets and does it in the dry wit we expect from Twain.

One story Twain tells (alas, I can’t retype the whole thing) is during the stagecoach trip. A man named Bemis is on a horse and is chased by a bison bull. The saddle slips off and as it slides over the horse’s tail it give a mighty kick, sending Bemis sprawling and the saddle sailing. Bemis dashes for a tree and climbs it. The saddle lands in the same tree. The bull starts climbing the tree and he is able to use the saddle’s lariat to snare the bull’s tail, then he shoots the bull and leaves it hanging in the tree. Back with his comrades we get this exchange:
“Bemis, is all that true, just as you have stated it?”

“I wish I may rot in my tracks and die the death of a dog if it isn’t.”

“Well, we can refuse to believe it, and we don’t. But if there were some proofs–”

“Proofs! Did I bring back my lariat?”


“Did I bring back my horse?”


“Did you ever see the bull again?”


“Well then, what more do you want? I never saw anybody as particular as you are about a little thing like that.”

I made up my mind that if this man was not a liar he only missed it by the skin of his teeth.