The Universal Notebook: Ground rules for a war of words

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About the only thing that all sides in this fractured society might agree on these days is that these are not normal times.

Those who put Donald Trump in power seem to want him to destroy the established order, democracy be damned.

Those of us horrified at his election believe Trump presents the greatest threat to American democracy in our lifetimes.

We are going to knock heads as long as Trump remains in office, so let’s get a few ground rules straight.

First, let’s agree that being open-minded does not mean you have to be open to sexism, racism, misogyny, xenophobia and fascism. Intolerance of intolerance is not a form of bigotry, it is a form of enlightenment.

Obscenity, fighting words, defamation, perjury, blackmail, incitement to lawlessness, threats, solicitations to commit a crime, treason and plagiarism are not forms of speech protected under the First Amendment, but hate speech is. So bigots have a constitutional right to say hateful things about people (as long as they do not incite violence against those people) and the rest of us have a constitutional right to call them bigots.

In the wake of the election, bigots have been emboldened to take their messages mainstream.

The University of California at Berkeley erupted in violence over the planned appearance of Brietbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, a man banned from Twitter for life because of his racist and sexist attacks. The university was prepared to allow Yiannopoulos to speak, but non-student rioters put an end to that.

A mini-controversy of the same order occurred at the University of Southern Maine when it was announced that a conservative student group had invited state Rep. Lawrence Lockman to speak. Lockman is about as extreme as elected Republicans get in Maine, and has said some terribly hateful things about women, immigrants and gay people.

A student group asked the university to prevent Lockman from speaking, but to its credit the university allowed Lockman’s appearance. Saying someone is wrong is not the same as saying they should not be allowed to speak.

Some 200 people showed up to demonstrate against Lockman and his anti-immigrant message, but there was no violence. Picket, protest, resist, but don’t try to silence the opposition.

The statement of principle, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” has become a bedrock of American free speech. This principle has led to some uncomfortable situations, such as the ACLU defending the right of the KKK to march, but these are words we must all agree to live by. If people I disagree with can be silenced, so can I.

And that is one of the great fears running through our society as the Trump administration seems determined to discredit the media, silence dissent and make up its own facts when the truth is embarrassing. That way lies tyranny, and you can hear the authoritarianism in the voices of Trump’s closest advisers.

“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” said Stephen Bannon, another Brietbart editor who is the president’s closest adviser. “I want you to quote this: the media here is the opposition party.”

The only thing the mainstream media got wrong during the election campaign was how gullible so many Americans could be.

And senior Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller issued his infamous dictatorial dictum when Trump’s travel ban met with massive resistance nationwide, proclaiming haughtily “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

Yes, son, they will be questioned. They must be. To question authority is the American way. Dissent is patriotic.

The most simplistic rhetorical device of the right is to accuse the media of everything they themselves are guilty of. “Fake news” is the invention of alt-right media. Now we have a president plastering that label all over the professional mainstream media because he doesn’t like the facts, he prefers the narcissistic universe of his own fantasies.

Charles Sykes, a disillusioned conservative talk show host, wrote a piece in The New York Times recently lamenting how successful the right has been in selling the public crazy conspiracy theories and “delegitimizing the media altogether.”

“We destroyed our own immunity to fake news,” Sykes wrote, “while empowering the worst and most reckless voices on the right.”

We now hear those voices not only in online comment sections, but also in guest editorials, university lecture halls, on the nightly news and, most alarmingly, coming from the White House.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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