Breathess stories about Muslims fighting extremism by promoting moderation in their home countries have become so commonplace, and so cheesy, that they’re a clichÃ©. It’s especially bad since they look like sellouts merely by being praised by Americans! What if Americans went on Arab television channels for analogous, equal ridiculous, self-promotional opportunities?
Originally published at Breaking Modern:
This week it came out that Samsung was warning users of its new smart televisions to not discuss personal information around their TVs because it could be transmitted to a third party.
Of Hicks, Duck Dynasty and Free Speech
“Don’t talk about politics or religion.” It’s boilerplate advice, especially this time of year when family members and friends with varying cultural outlooks gather to break (if you’re a California liberal, gluten-free) bread.
Keeping your opinions to yourself is smart if your priority is conflict avoidance. But keeping the peace makes for seriously boring holiday meals.
Aside from the tense tedium of forced blandness, all that self-censorship accomplishes is to paper over conflicts and differences everyone knows or suspects are there anyway. Nothing gets resolved.
To the contrary, self-censorship enables bad ideas. Unchallenged year after year, the stupid people at the table return to their stupid homes as confident as ever in their stupid opinions, no matter how indefensible.
We are seeing the no-politics dictum play itself out with increasing frequency on a national level, with dismaying implications for freedom of expression.
This week we’re talking about “Duck Dynasty,” a reality TV show I haven’t watched. Phil Robertson, the ZZ Top-bearded patriarch of a Louisiana clan who struck it rich with a gadget that calls ducks, is the show’s star. He’s also a hick. Like many other hicks, Robertson holds stupid opinions about gays and blacks, which he expressed in media interviews.
After people complained about Robertson’s stupid thoughts, A&E “suspended” Robertson. He may or may not come back to the show.
Right-wingers, including ferret-faced Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and intellectual beacon Sarah Palin, played to their bigoted Republican base, issuing strident electronic missives decrying Robertson’s maybe-firing on the grounds of free speech. MSNBC and other Democratic Party mouthpieces responded in kind with a talking point that many Americans remember conservatives using against lefties during the Bush years: the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee you the right not to be fired.
“Yes, everyone is entitled to express his or her views,” Jill Filipovic wrote in The Guardian. “Not everyone is entitled to keep their jobs, though, if they decide to express views that are entirely odious and potentially costly to their employer.”
We’re again witnessing an odious truism: Americans defend free speech they agree with and sign on to the suppression of that they dislike. What if, instead of filling GQ magazine in on his far-right bigotry, Phil Robertson had gotten himself maybe-fired over an interview in which he expressed views that put him to the left of “mainstream”? What if, for example, he’d said instead that all Republicans are racists and homophobes? It’s a safe bet that joints like MSNBC and The Guardian would have denounced A&E for censoring him, and that Rush Limbaugh et al. would be the ones trotting out the “you can say whatever you want but you don’t have a right to get paid for it” bromides.
These free speech battles inevitably break down along partisan lines — but it’s dumb and hypocritical and needs to stop.
Let’s dispense with this sophistry that prevents us from getting to the meat of the matter. Yes, obviously, the First Amendment doesn’t apply. There is no legal issue. Under the law, A&E can fire Robertson.
The question is: should he be fired/suspended?
Should any employer be able to fire you because they dislike what you say?
On that point, my answer is 100%, unequivocally, no way.
“The right to freely speak your mind without government interference is crucial,” allows Filipovic in her essay. “But few of us are permitted in the course of our employment to say whatever we want without consequence from our employer.”
Legally, that’s true. To which I ask: why the hell not?
Americans spend 54% of their waking hours at work. What good is a First Amendment that ends at the keycard door? (Maybe we should rename it the Half Amendment.)
As someone who has lost gigs because I said something that someone didn’t like — usually about politics or religion — I’ve spent a lot of time imagining an America in which workers could express themselves freely. Try as I might, I don’t see the world falling apart if — I’m going to go extreme here — the bald guy at the hardware store turns out to be a Nazi skinhead — after all, the dude was a Nazi all along, right? If anything, it would be good to see him wearing a Nazi badge because, assuming I have the guts to confront him, there would then be a chance that someone could argue him into a better political place.
If you can be fired for expressing yourself at work — or, as in Robertson’s case, not at work, in an interview, which means that for him, 100% of waking hours are an A&E censorship zone — then free speech is a meaningless abstraction that applies only to the tiny fraction of superrich Americans who don’t have to worry about getting fired.
“It sounds nice in theory to say, ‘Walk away, and look for another job,’ ” says Lewis Maltby of the National Workplace Institute. “But in practice, most people just can’t take that risk. They just put up with it.” Which is why the American workplace is a fascist state. “In Arizona, you can be fired for using birth control,” noted The Guardian in 2012. “If you live in any one of 29 states, you can be fired for being gay. You can be fired for being a fan of the Green Bay Packers if your boss roots for the Bears.” Many workers have gotten fired for off-the-cuff tweets.
Because it’s legal to fire louts like Robertson for mouthing off, it’s legal to fire you too, for saying just about anything, no matter innocuous. In his 2007 book “Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace,” Bruce Barry documents countless examples of people losing their jobs over banal political speech — for example, having a John Kerry bumpersticker on their car.
Any judgment about A&E’s action on “Duck Dynasty” has to consider the result.
What, exactly do the “social justice warriors” who led the charge against Robertson win if they succeed in getting him fired, or “Duck Dynasty” taken off the air?
I doubt they’ll change Robertson’s mind about gays or blacks. You can’t bully someone into political correctness. The cure to the illogic of bigotry is logical argument. Which requires more effort than organizing an Internet pile-on. All that PC bloggers get out of Robertson’s suspension is a “victory” that makes them feel good. But it diminishes society’s racism and homophobia not one iota.
Bigotry can also give way to experience — like the time a vanload of big black guys with gang tatts emerged from their vehicle, carrying tire irons, while my car was broken down in bad-old-1980s-days Bedford-Stuyvesant. They fixed me up and sent me on the way — after refusing a tip. Robertson obviously needs to spend some time with some LGBT people and people of color.
Getting someone fired, on the other hand, isn’t exactly a recipe for making new friends.
For Robertson and everyone else, the message is clear: keep your politics to yourself, and you’ll be OK. Unless, of course, your politics happen to coincide with whatever happens to be acceptable to whatever happens to be mainstream at a given time — which can, and eventually will, change — and bite you on the ass. So yeah, if you value your paycheck, shut up.
A society in which the workplace is a zero free speech zone is not free. A nation without the free exchange of ideas, where everyone can express themselves without fear of economic retribution, is not — cannot be — a democracy.
The First Amendment should be amended to include the workplace.
(Support independent journalism and political commentary. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL
Musings of a Wannabe Newspaper Warlord
Asked how they’d spend the $293.7 million they won in November’s record Powerball lottery, a Missouri couple told reporters they planned to buy a Camaro. They plan to travel to China. They might adopt a second daughter. They’ll up their grandkids’ college tuition. OK, so that leaves $293.6 million.
They obviously have absolutely no idea how much money $293.7 million is.
Mark and Cindy Hill seem like an average couple in their early 50s. Working class. Salt of the earth.
But man, what a waste of money to give all that loot to them! $200,000 would have been more than enough to change their lives. Not really knowing what to do with such a massive sum, the Hills will likely waste most of it on America’s self-perpetuating charity industry, which says that spending up to 35% of donor money on six-figure executive salaries and other luxuries is perfectly acceptable.
It is, of course, the Hills’ quarter-billion-plus to spend/squander. Not mine. I get it; I grew up under capitalism.
Let’s get something straight. I’m not jealous. I can’t envy the Hills because there is no way I could have won. This is because I don’t buy tickets. Whether I play or not, I figure the odds of winning are basically the same.
However, I do know how I’d spend their money.
Like the Hills, I’m a Midwest boy without fancy tastes. I’d pay off my mortgage and credit cards. My mom loves the beach; I’d buy her a house over the ocean. My car is eight years old; I’d buy one of those new Challengers.
Which would leave me $293.4 million.
Lottery winners always talk about helping their families. What about their friends? I have friends whose lives would be instantly transformed by $5 million checks. Brilliant cartoonists who could quit grueling day jobs and focus on developing their careers. Ailing writers who could finally get medical care for chronic conditions. Aspiring entrepreneurs who could capitalize their great ideas. People who are stressed out because work is scarce or nonexistent and are having trouble making ends meet. I have a couple dozen of friends like that. Helping them out would cost me about $100 million. Money well spent.
I want to help transform the media. That’s my big dream. Unfortunately, I will never realize it because I don’t have access to the kind of capital necessary.
The disintegration of print newspapers and the failure/refusal of digital media to deeply invest in serious journalism and smart commentary and satire is making Americans stupider, allowing evil corporations and corrupt, lazy politicians to thrive.
Warren Buffett is a smart man, picking up newspapers at rock-bottom prices. Personally, I’d buy The Los Angeles Times now that its parent, the Tribune Company, has emerged from bankruptcy. Experts guesstimate you could pick the Times for $185 million or less.
(Full disclosure: I draw cartoons for the Times.)
Aside from the fun of running a major metropolitan daily newspaper—12 pages of full-color comics! Hire a kick-ass investigative reporter to infiltrate government for a year or two and then cough up all the dirty secrets! Create an editorial page that runs no one to the right of Mao Tse-Tung!—I think the Times would be a fab investment.
People say newspapers are dying. Specific companies are hurting, many are dying, but the dead tree form is here to stay. They said radio was dead after TV came along, but radio is bigger today than ever. TV killed old-timey radio—plays, variety shows. New formats—album-oriented rock, news talk—emerged. Old-fashioned fat lazy newspapers basically minting money from gigantic office towers in the centers of major cities are on the ropes, but as long as print can do something that digital can’t, it will survive and thrive. TV can’t replace radio because you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) watch TV while you drive. Similarly, an iPad or a Kindle can’t replace a print newspaper’s awesome disposability, portability and—an advantage that people are just starting to become aware of—memory retention.
Print magazines and newspapers will get their groove back when they understand what they are for. The Internet is for short updates. The Web and apps tell you what happened and who won the game. Print is for long-form analysis. Print tells you why you should care about what happened, walks you through how the game was won and how the season is shaping up.
We need serious analysis. But no one wants to read 15,000 words on a smartphone.
These days, the clueless barons of print are screwing up big time; Tina Brown just closed Newsweek after using the glossy to try to out-Internet the Internet with full-page photographs, vacuous “charticles,” and more lists than you can shake a Daily Beast at. The publications that are doing okay are those that are embracing in-depth feature stories, like the Economist and Vanity Fair. Publishers are going to figure out that that the destiny of print is more, longer, smarter, edgier content.
The future of newspapers in the United States will look a lot like Europe, where nations have a few big national newspapers, each of which serves a particular political orientation or interest, like sports or finance, and individual communities are served by hyperlocal outlets and, possibly, regional ones that would go to, for example, people in the Southwest.
We already have a few big national newspapers. USA Today was first, but it lost its way before it found one. The New York Times is our big national paper of news and high culture. The Wall Street Journal, of course, is the national paper of finance. (Under Rupert Murdoch, the Journal is muscling in on the Times’s territory.) The Washington Post should be the big national political paper, but its management doesn’t get it, so there’s an opening there. Anyway, there should be a big national newspaper focused on entertainment—video games, film, music, I’d also include books—and the logical candidate is the Los Angeles Times. They have the contacts, the location, and the brand recognition to pull it off. What they need is for someone to point them in the right direction.
Imagine if it worked! Not only would you make a killing, you’d establish a template to revive American journalism. Don’t forget, over 90% of all news stories originate in newspapers.
Which would leave me with about $8 million. Call me the man who would be king minus the panache of Sean Connery, but the salary of a soldier in the Afghan national army is about $2000 a year. The Taliban pay closer to $4000. So I could hire 2000 badass Afghan mercenaries for a year for my spare Powerball change and take over a province or two after the U.S. pullout and the civil war heats up. I’m not exactly sure whom we’d fight. Maybe Turkmenistan because, well, why not? Perhaps we’d just sit in the Hindu Kush and shoot at pictures of Arianna Huffington while reading back issues of the Los Angeles Times. I’ve always wanted to test-fire an RPG.
I may never win a Pulitzer, but no one can ever take having been a cartoonist-columnist-newspaper-baron-warlord away from you.
COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL
I draw cartoons for The Los Angeles Times about issues related to California and the Southland (metro Los Angeles). This week: U.S. Border Patrol agents are asking Mexican and Central American TV stations to discourage illegal immigration. But simply reporting the news about the terrible US economy ought to do the trick.
Helicopter Shootdown Story Unmasks Bigoted Media
New York Times war correspondent Dexter Filkins couldn’t help liking the young American soldiers with whom he was embedded in U.S.-occupied Iraq. Recognizing that, Filkins tried to maintain some professional distance. “There wasn’t any point in sentimentalizing the kids; they were trained killers, after all. They could hit a guy at five hundred yards or cut his throat from ear-to-ear. They had faith, they did what they were told and they killed people,” he wrote in his book of war vignettes, “The Forever War.”
Alas, he was all but alone.
All wars demand contempt for The Other. But the leaders of a country waging a war of naked, unprovoked aggression are forced to rely on an even higher level of enemy dehumanization than average in order to maintain political support for the sacrifices they require. Your nation’s dead soldiers are glorious heroes fallen to protect hearth and home. Their dead soldiers are criminals and monsters. Their civilians are insects, unworthy of notice. So it is. So it always shall be in the endless battle over hearts and minds.
Even by these grotesque, inhuman rhetorical standards, the ten-year occupation of Afghanistan has been notable for the hyperbole relied upon by America’s compliant media as well as its brazen inconsistency.
U.S. and NATO officials overseeing the occupation of Afghanistan liken their mission to those of peacekeepers—they’re there to help. “Protecting the people is the mission,” reads the first line of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander’s Counterinsurgency Guidance statement. “The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy. ISAF will succeed when the [Karzai government] earns the support of the people.”
Of course, actions speak louder than words. Since 2001 ISAF has been doing precious little protecting of anything other than America’s geopolitical interests, using Afghanistan as a staging ground for thousands of drone attacks across the border in Pakistan. Protecting Afghanistan civilians has actually been a low ISAF priority, to say the least. They’ve been bombing civilians indiscriminately, then lying about it, sometimes paying off bereaved family members with token sums of blood money.
The verbiage deployed by American officials, dutifully transcribed by journo-stenographers at official press briefings, sends nearly as loud a message as a laser-guided Hellfire missile slamming into a wedding party: Afghan lives mean nothing.
The life of an American dog—literally, as we’ll see below—counts more than that of an Afghan man or woman.
In the worst single-day loss of life for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters shot down a Chinook CH-47 transport helicopter in eastern Wardak province with a rocket-propelled grenade on August 6th.
(I lifted that “worst single-day loss of life” phrase from numerous press accounts. The implication is obvious—the U.S. isn’t accustomed to taking losses. But tens of thousands of Afghans, possibly hundreds of thousands, have been killed in the war that began in 2001.)
Western media’s attitude toward the Afghans they are supposedly trying to “assist” was as plain as the headlines. “U.S. Troops, SEALs Killed in Afghanistan Copter Crash,” reported Time magazine. (SEALS are U.S. Navy commandos.) “31 Killed in Afghanistan Chopper Crash,” said the ABC television network. “31 Dead in Afghanistan Helicopter Crash,” shouted Canada’s National Post. (The number was later revised to 30.)
Eight Afghan government commandos died too. But dead Afghans don’t rate a headline—even when they’re working for your country’s puppet regime. As far as the American press is concerned, only 30 people—i.e., Americans—died.
An initial Associated Press wire service report noted that the dead included “22 SEALs, three Air Force air controllers, seven Afghan Army troops, a dog and his handler, and a civilian interpreter, plus the helicopter crew.”
The dog. They mentioned the dog.
And the dog’s handler.
After 9/11 American pundits debated the question: Why do they [radical Muslims] hate us [Americans] so much? This is why. It is official Pentagon policy not to count Afghan or Iraqi or Pakistani or Libyan or Yemeni or Somali dead, civilian or “enemy.” But “our” guys are sacred. We even count our dogs.
Lest you think that I’m exaggerating, that this was merely another example of a reporters larding his account with excessive detail, consider this maudlin missive by Michael Daly of the New York Daily News, one of the biggest newspapers in the United States:
“Among the SEALs were a dog handler and a dog that would remind outsiders of Cujo [a rabies-infected beast in one of Stephen King’s horror novels], but held a special place in the hearts of the squadron,” wrote Daly. “SEALs have a soft spot for their dogs, perhaps partly because a canine’s keen senses can alert them to danger and give them a critical edge. A dog also allows resolutely reticent warriors to express a little affection; you can pet a pooch, if not another SEAL.”
Get a grip, Mike. Lots of people like dogs.
“Many of the SEALs have a dog stateside,” continueth Daly. “To take one on a mission may be like bringing along something of home.”
Or maybe they just come in handy for Abu Ghraib-style interrogations.
Daly tortures and twists his cheesy prose into the kind of savage propaganda that prolongs a war the U.S. can’t win, that is killing Afghans and Americans for no reason, that most Americans prefer not to think about. Soon a group of elite commandos—members of Team Six, the same outfit that assassinated Osama bin Laden—become helpless victims of the all-seeing, all-powerful Taliban of Death. In Daly’s bizarre world, it is the Afghan resistance forces and their 1980s-vintage weapons that have all the advantages.
Note the infantile use of the phrase “bad guys.”
“The bad guys knew when the Chinook helicopter swooped down into an Afghan valley that it would have to rise once those aboard were done. All the Taliban needed to do was wait on a mountainside. The Chinook rose with a SEAL contingent that likely could have held off thousands of the enemy on the ground. The SEALs could do nothing in the air against an insurgent with a rocket.”
Helpless! One could almost forget whose country these Americans were in.
Or what they were in Wardak to do.
Early reports had the dead Navy SEALs on a noble “rescue mission” to “assist” beleaguered Army Rangers trapped under “insurgent” fire. Actually, Team Six was on an assassination assignment.
“The American commandos who died when their helicopter crashed in eastern Afghanistan were targeting a Taliban commander directly responsible for attacks on U.S. troops,” CNN television reported on August 7th. “Targeting” is mediaspeak for “killing.” According to some accounts they had just shot eight Talibs in a house in the village of Jaw-e-Mekh Zareen in the Tangi Valley. Hard to imagine, but U.S. soldiers used to try to capture enemy soldiers before killing them.
Within hours newspaper websites, radio and television outlets were choked with profiles of the dead assassins—er, heroes.
The AP described a dead SEAL from North Carolina as “physically slight but ever ready to take on a challenge.”
NBC News informed viewers that a SEAL from Connecticut had been “an accomplished mountaineer, skier, pilot and triathlete and wanted to return to graduate school and become an astronaut.”
What of the Afghans killed by those SEALs? What of their hopes and dreams? Americans will never know.
Two words kept coming up:
Tragedy (and tragic).
The usage was strange, outside of normal context, and revealing.
“Of the 30 Americans killed, 22 were members of an elite Navy SEAL team, something particularly poignant given it was Navy SEALS who succeeded so dramatically in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden,” said Renee Montaigne of National Public Radio, a center-right outlet that frequently draws fire from the far right for being too liberal.
Ironic, perhaps. But hardly poignant. Soldiers die by the sword. Ask them. They’ll tell you.
Even men of the cloth wallowed in the bloodthirsty militarism that has obsessed Americans since the September 11th attacks. Catholic News Service quoted Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, who called the Chinook downing a “reminder of the terrible tragedy of war and its toll on all people.”
“No person of good will is left unmoved by this loss,” said the archbishop.
The Taliban, their supporters, and not a few random Afghans, may perhaps disagree.
This is a war, after all. Is it too much to ask the media to acknowledge the simple fact that some citizens of a nation under military occupation often choose to resist? That Americans might take up arms if things were the other way around, with Afghan occupation forces bombing and killing and torturing willy-nilly? That one side’s “insurgents” and “guerillas” are another’s patriots and freedom fighters?
Don’t news consumers have the right to hear from the “other” side of the story? Or must we continue the childish pretense that the Taliban are all women-hating fanatics incapable of rational thought while the men (and dog) who died on that Chinook in Wardak were all benevolent and pure of heart?
During America’s war in Vietnam reporters derided the “five o’clock follies,” daily press briefings that increasingly focused on body counts. Evening news broadcasts featured business-report-style graphics of the North and South Vietnamese flags; indeed, they immediately followed the stock market summary. “The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 16 points in light trading,” Walter Cronkite would intone. “And in Vietnam today, 8 Americans were killed, 18 South Vietnamese, 43 Vietcong.”
Like the color-coded “threat assessment levels” issued by the Department of Homeland Security after 2001, the body counts became a national joke.
In many ways America’s next major conflict, the 1991 Gulf War, was a political reaction to the Vietnam experience. Conscription had been replaced by a professional army composed of de facto mercenaries recruited from the underclass. Overkill supplanted the war for hearts and minds that defined the late-Vietnam counterinsurgency strategy. And reporters who had enjoyed near total freedom in the 1960s were frozen out. Only a few trusted journos were allowed to travel with American forces in Kuwait and Iraq. They relied on the Pentagon to transmit their stories back home; one wire service reporter got back home to find that the military had blocked every single account he had filed.
Citing the five o’clock follies of Vietnam and declaring themselves incapable of counting civilian or enemy casualties, U.S. military officials said they would no longer bother to try. (Covertly, the bureaucracy continued to try to gather such data for internal use.)
Meanwhile, media organizations made excuses for not doing their jobs.
The UK Guardian, actually one of the better (i.e. not as bad) Western media outlets, summarized the mainstream view in August 2010: “While we are pretty good at providing detailed statistical breakdowns of coalition military casualties (and by we, I mean the media as a whole), we’ve not so good at providing any kind of breakdown of Afghan civilian casualties…Obviously, collecting accurate statistics in one of the most dangerous countries in the world is difficult. But the paucity of reliable data on this means that one of the key measures of the war has been missing from almost all reporting. You’ve noticed it too—asking us why we publish military deaths but not civilian casualties.”
No doubt, war zones are dangerous. According to Freedom Forum, 63 reporters lost their lives in Vietnam between 1955 and 1973—yet they strived to bring the war home to homes in the United States and other countries. And they didn’t just report military deaths.
There’s something more than a little twisted about media accounts that portray a helicopter shootdown as a “tragedy.”
A baby dies in a fire—that’s a tragedy. A young person struck down by some disease—that’s also a tragedy. Soldiers killed in war? Depending on your point of view, it can be sad. It can be unfortunate. It can suck. But it’s not tragic.
Alternately: If the United States’ losses in Afghanistan are “tragedies,” so are the Taliban’s. They can’t have it both ways.
“Tragedy Devastates Special Warfare Community,” blared a headline in USA Today. You’d almost have to laugh at the over-the-top cheesiness, the self-evident schmaltz, the crass appeal to vacuous emotionalism, in such ridiculous linguistic contortions. That is, if it didn’t describe something truly tragic—the death and mayhem that accompanies a pointless and illegal war.
On August 10th the U.S. military reported that they had killed the exact Talib who fired the RPG that brought down the Chinook. “Military officials said they tracked the insurgents after the attack, but wouldn’t clarify how they knew they had killed the man who had fired the fatal shot,” reported The Wall Street Journal.
“The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy.” But destroying the enemy is more fun.
COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL