Dangerous Speech

I had a “discussion” recently with a friend who describes himself as a “proud supporter of Donald Trump” concerning the NFL protests. Not wanting to have the conversation devolve into yet another experience of parallel conversations, I tried to keep it simple: the players have a 1st Amendment right to protest. The response was unexpected. Some of it was the usual diversionary blather about dishonoring the military, sacrifices of patriots, etc., etc.

I kept reminding him that the 1st Amendment applies, even then. Ultimately, he voiced what I believe is really behind the agenda of Trump in creating the controversy. He said “the 1st Amendment shouldn’t apply to the flag.” That was the first disappointment – the realization that this intelligent man, who had heroically served in the military, reflected a substantial number of Americans who define their patriotism in direct opposition to the values that have defined being American for centuries, not to mention the oath he swore to defend the Constitution. Trump clearly wants to attack the freedom of the critical press – of free speech – using Stalinist phrases to describe them as “the enemy of the people” and threatening to put them out of business. His ignorance or disrespect for the Constitution is being blindly mirrored by his followers who believe only their version of patriotism is true and acceptable. Then came the second disappointment.

Trump followers not only mirror his disrespect for the Constitution, they mirror his pathological and personal attacks on anyone who disagrees, or is critical. You cannot have a conversation with a Trump follower on the merits of the issue. If you present a logical challenge to their argument, it quickly becomes a personal attack. In this instance, my friend began cursing at me and said “if you hate America so much, why don’t you leave it?”. It genuinely surprised me. The only thing I had argued was that the Constitution guaranteed their right to protest. I think that because he had been deceived into believing that the protest was against the flag (the players’ protest is for criminal justice reform) and that if anyone protested the flag (or defended the rights of those protesters), then they must hate America. Defending free speech now means hating America? That is what they are saying to us. This is a fundamental socio-political change and a very disturbing one. The kind that leads to civil unrest.

There are two kinds of America’s evolving now, split apart by a divisive demagogue in the White House and mutating quickly apart. One America is the “love it my way or leave it” America. They shroud themselves with the symbols and ornaments of patriotism: the flag, solemn postures during the national anthem and standing ovations at ball games for veterans. They are the cult of the “America First.” Freedom has a cost – it must be the way they define it. It is an emotional patriotism devoid of substance and knowledge or appreciation of the Constitution. You must stand when they want you to stand, shut up when you disagree, never criticize Trump. Ironically, the same “America first” Americans are now beginning to suggest that colluding with the Russians to win an election is acceptable (e.g. Sean Hannity), further illustrating the schizophrenic nature of Trumpism. The other America is confused and reeling from that movement. Nearly all Americans (including NFL players) love America and are loyal. So, they find things like burning the flag or dishonoring the sacrifices of veterans disagreeable. Yet they are also Americans who believe in the principles of the Constitution and are faithful to them. We feel uncomfortable being on the side of defending acts that we would not do, or defending media that we find objectionable, but know that real loyalty… real patriotism is standing with the Constitution and not with a demagogue who happens to be President.

Perhaps the consolation is in knowing that defending the rights of people to free speech, even that speech which we deplore, is the true meaning of patriotism. Remember the phrase oft cited reflecting the intent of our Founding Fathers, the quote from Voltaire “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend with my life your right to say it.”


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