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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Saturday, April 05, 2003 - 06:11 pm:   

"Freedom of speech," which until recently people in the US considered the right of every citizen, is now on trial throughout the United States. I am profoundly sobered by the realization that attacks on speech have become commonplace, from the brown-shirt type tactics resulting in beatings, vandalism, and even murder, to the censoring of musicians for criticizing the head of the government, to the extremist proposal of a bill in the Oregon legislature to make protesting the war an act of terrorism subject to automatic twenty-five-year jail sentences.

I am waiting to see whether the Federal Court will sentence three nuns to prison for thirty years for committing political speech acts in opposition to the Bush Administration's announcement that they were considering using nuclear weapons in their attack on Iraq. The nuns, Ardeth Platte, aged 66, Carol Gilbert, aged 55, and Jackie Hudson, aged 68, have already spent six months in jail. Last October 6, a date they chose as the first anniversary of the US's (continuing) war in Afghanistan, wearing jumpsuits blazoned with the letters CWIT (Citizens Weapon Inspection Team), they cut a chain-link fence and entered a Minuteman III missile site, where they used a ball-ping hammer to pound on the 110-ton blast door of concrete & reinforced steel of a missile silo & painted crosses with their own blood (which they carried in baby bottles) on the silo and railroad tracks. They then sang hymns & prayed. The entire action was symbolic, & the only damage was to the chain-link fence. & yet they are being charged with the extremely serious felony of "sabotage." The judge, Robert Blackburn, has narrowly circumscribed the possibilities for their defense & will not allow their highly symbolic acts to be understood as intended. The jury, which will resume deliberating the verdict on Monday, necessarily faces a moral dilemma. Whatever the government might say about this case, these women are a threat only to those who seek to mute criticism of the Bush Administration.

While the nuns' trial and the Oregon legislature's response to the infamous Senate Bill 742 are attempts to criminalize political speech, the treatment meted out to Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President of Costa Rica Oscar Arias last weekend at a fundraising event in Miami offers an example of disrespect and intolerance towards those who do not mouth the Bush party line on the subject of the war. A board member of the Children's World Blood Bank, Arias was invited to speak at the "Evening with World Leaders" fundraising banquet. When Arias delivered the same message in Palm Beach as he had at other recent speaking engagements, 150 guests marched from the room, "singing an impromptu chorus of _God Bless America_." (No doubt all these uncivil persons were wearing formal dinner clothes.) The rude guests included Rex Ford, an immigration judge, who told the _Miami Herald_ that it was simply the wrong forum for an antiwar speech. Would the judge have also walked out on a speaker making pro-war remarks, praising the Bush Administration for its boldness in arbitrarily invading a sovereign country? Obviously not. Which is to say that what the rude rich people who disrupted their guest's speech by singing _God Bless America_ found improper was not the *subject* of the war, but a particular point of view.

Maintaining the right to political speech does not merely hinge on action in the legal sphere. (We in the US have already begun to learn that the courts will not protect our constitutional rights, not even those intended to protect individuals from being seized and thrown into jail without charge or possibility of a trial.) It requires an attitude of respect for those one doesn't agree with and tolerance for dissent. Since Sept. 11, 2001 we have seen, in the US, a growing intolerance for dissent and increasingly aggressive displays of disrespect for difference. But since the day the US invaded Iraq, the attitude of disrespect has become widespread and flagrant. The infamous Senate Bill 742 may die in the Oregon legislature, but similar bills are being proposed in legislatures across the country (including one in my own state, Washington). Some legislatures will kill these bills, but it's easy to believe that some will not.

If the far right wing can get away with equating public protest against the war with terrorism (whether they are able to make protest a felony automatically punishable with 25 years in jail or not), the US is in serious trouble.

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Luís Rodrigues
Posted on Saturday, April 05, 2003 - 08:53 pm:   

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Posted on Sunday, April 06, 2003 - 12:17 pm:   

""Freedom of speech," which until recently people in the US considered the right of every citizen,"

I just want to point out that a lot of the civil liberties that so many people have been taking to granted in our generations were, for the majority of this nation's lifetime, not necessarily granted. I love freedom of speech, but it hasn't always been that you could say essentially whatever you want without consequences.
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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Sunday, April 06, 2003 - 07:21 pm:   

Anyone engaging in political speech that isn't merely an idle expression of opinion necessarily hopes that it has consequences-- & must be prepared to accept negative as well as positive consequences. Surely that goes without saying? What is changing in the US are the *conditions* of political speech: first, that it is being severely censored in the public sphere; & second, that those who express opinions-- particularly opinions of moral conscience-- are being slapped with incommensurably harsh sanctions of the sort that we are used to seeing in brutal dictatorships rather than in a country that has a constitution designed to protect such speech.

Consider, for instance, actions in the US in the 1980s in solidarity with Central American human rights & labor activists. I participated often in actions in the late 1980s in Seattle which had the direct, significant consequence of pressuring the Salvadoran military to stop torturing & refrain from killing specific individuals they had captured. After four Jesuit priests & their housekeeper were slaughtered by the Salvadoran military in Fall, 1989 as a part of a wide campaign of massacres directed against people of conscience living in El Salvador, many of us participating in street protests in the US saw a need to perform civil disobedience in order to stop the slaughter. In one action, we shut down I-5, Seattle's primary artery, during rush hour. The only person who stood trial after that action was the photographer the police beat up. (The police always, of course, charge anyone they beat up with assault; it's standard operating procedure for insuring that a case of straightforward police brutality will be turned into a Whose story will you believe? court case favoring the police.) In another action, in January, 1990, more than one hundred of us stood trial. Only the five deeply religious activists who refused to defend themselves spent any time in jail; their sentences were originally five days, but were reduced by the jail administration to three because there was so little space for accommodating them. In my own trial, I defended myself & found ways to work around the judge's strictures, such that I employed highly effective political speech that taught the jury things about US foreign policy they'd been in complete ignorance of. The judge, as a matter of fact, dismissed the charges against me before I had a chance to mount my defense simply in order to get me out of his courtroom. My use of political speech in that venue was highly effective.

If at the time of my arrest I had been charged under a law similar to the one the right wing now wants to pass, a law branding such activism "terrorism," I would now be in prison, rather than sitting here at my computer writing, & would have had to remain in prison until 2015. Is this the sort of consequence political speech-- particularly speech of conscience-- should entail? Obviously, under the circumstances, this is *not* a rhetorical question. Why is it that I don't hear anyone else asking it?

Should those three nuns, the youngest in her fifties, spend the rest of their lives in jail for painting crosses on a missile silo?

What was done to Former President of Costa Rica & Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias last weekend would have been previously unheard of in the US. It is the sort of scene one imagines as likely to have happened in Pinochet's Chile or in Argentina during the "Dirty War"-- the war the military made on its own citizens, torturing & murdering dissenters & their children with impunity. In both Pinochet's Chile & Dirty-War Argentina, military juntas (who, like Bush, were not elected) used harsh prison sentences & lethal, sickening violence to silence dissent. At the moment, most of the violence being used to attack political dissent in the US is non-lethal & is being deployed by vigilantes, some of them organized, some of them individuals being egged on by organizations (including at least one prominent media corporation). But if those nuns spend 30 years in prison for having exercised political speech that harmed no one, we will be just that much closer to 1970s Argentina & 1980s Chile. & if any state legislatures pass protest=terrorism laws, our level of government repression will certainly be a match for the state of government repression in the USSR during the Cold War. Is this what you mean, Mastadge, by "consequences"? Do you think people should have to be willing to spend the rest of their lives in jail to enjoy the "luxury" of speaking their consciences? Do you think such sanctioning of political speech is in any way, shape, or form "democratic"?

While many activists have had to pay a high price for their exercise of political speech throughout US history (& particularly during the Cold War), the circumstances we face now are new. In the past, at least, the courts honored the Constitution & a number of people in Congress defended it (as all federal holders are sworn to do). That is no longer true. & that is a significant difference, I assure you.

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Josh Lukin
Posted on Saturday, August 09, 2003 - 01:25 am:   

After their success in using the "liberal" label against Dukakis, the rightniks began to go into overdrive with respect to manipulation of language. In 1991 came the "politically correct" stigma (alluded to by Ellen Datlow in a conversation on Lucius Shepard's board below). In 1992, Bob Dole took the once-respectable "entitlement" and used it to mean "undeserved handout." But in 1990, I've only just learned, came Newt Gingrich's GOPAC communique on good and bad words. It ended thus:

Optimistic Positive Governing Words

Use the list below to help define your campaign and your vision of public service. These words can help give extra power to your message. In addition, these words help develop the positive side of the contrast you should create with your opponent, giving your community something to vote for!

common sense
eliminate good-time in prison
hard work
pro- (issue): flag, children, environment, reform

Contrasting Words

Often we search hard for words to define our opponents. Sometimes we are hesitant to use contrast. Remember that creating a difference helps you. These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.

abuse of power
anti- (issue): flag, family, child, jobs
"compassion" is not enough
criminal rights
failure (fail)
permissive attitude
punish (poor ...)
red tape
status quo
urgent (cy)

Note the eleventh word that "we" are to use against our opponents. Kinda fits in, incidentally, with Ashcroft's recent order that government lawyers must keep tabs on judges who issue unduly lenient sentences and appeal them in favor of harsh ones whenever possible. Did even Attorney General Palmer seek to exercise such totalitarian control over the courts? Heck, did any justice, even in the very dark days of the Vinson court, ever say "God endorses my view of the law, and any judge who disagrees with me ought to resign," as Bush's favorite Supreme Court member seems to have?

If Nathan is trying to say that there have been nasty violations of First Amendment rights in the past, I can't help agreeing. But vice payed tribute to virtue for most of our history --even when the government's goal seemed to be restraint of speech, they concealed it with trumped-up charges of violence, or violent intent, against those whom they sought to punish (or to make examples of). Now they don't even bother. As repugnant as both experiences are, there is a difference between the FBI paying you a visit and asking you whether you listen to musicians who supported Lefties like Henry Wallace (the Cold War) and the NYPD actually jailing you and interrogating you as to whether you'd have preferred a moderate like Al Gore to be president. Paul Robeson was for a few years denied permission to leave the U.S. on the grounds that he'd facilitate Red propaganda; Green party officials and peace activists are now forbidden to travel within the U.S. on the grounds that they might facilitate thought. Significant difference indeed.
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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Sunday, August 10, 2003 - 12:44 am:   

Very interesting lists, Josh. Our rulers' abuse of language to occlude the truth & prevent dialogue seems constant (if escalating). Consider the following instances, one dating from about two weeks ago, the other as recent as Thursday evening.

Federal District Judge Robert Blackburn has sentenced the nuns who smeared crosses on a missile silo with their own blood as an act of political speech to prison terms ranging from thirty to forty-one months. The nuns were charged with-- & actually *convicted* of-- "malicious destruction" and "interfering with national defense." Reuters reporter Keith Coffman quotes Blackburn as characterizing the nuns as "dangerously irresponsible." Since no one in their right mind could possibly imagine their purely symbolic act as having "interfered with national defense" (much less as having been motivated by malice), this characterization can only be disingenuous. Indeed, Blackburn admits that the nuns did "minimal damage" and "did not create a substantial risk of death or injury, or a threat to national security." For this reason, he says, he exercised his discretion to sentence them to less than the maximum term.

I'm fairly astonished to read in Coffman's report that the defense attorney of one of the nuns, Walter Gerash, declared himself "pleased" that the judge was "lenient" on his client. The Reuters report gives no clue as to why an attorney should be pleased to see his 68-year old client serve hard time for crimes the judge's language at sentencing suggests his client is not guilty of. Perhaps more telling is the response of the prosecuting attorney, John Suthers, who said that the sentences were "fair and reasonable." "Contrary to the contention of the defendants, their lawyers and their supporters," Coffman quotes Suthers as saying, "this case was never about suppression of opposition to US government policies, it was about upholding the law." When he talks about "upholding the law," one must wonder to what law, exactly, he could be referring. When Congress wrote the legislation for "malicious destruction" & "interfering with national defense," did they actually intend these laws to be applied to nonviolent persons dabbing their blood on a 110-ton reinforced concrete & steel missile silo? What actual "destruction" resulted from the nuns' symbolic speech act? How, exactly, did these three people "interfere" with national security? Was the case actually about "upholding the law"? I don't think so.

In light of Attorney General Ashcroft's crusade against "lenient" federal judges, it's interesting to note that Suthers seems perfectly satisfied with a less than maximum sentence. But perhaps all Suthers actually cared about was Robert Blackburn's acquiescence to a judicial travesty aimed at making the penalty for speech-acts of conscience draconian, while allowing Blackburn to preserve the illusory self-image of his being a decent fellow by not having imposed the maximum.

Consider, by contrast, the case of Katherine Harris, someone who has by many accounts done extreme & malicious damage to the US's democratic institutions & been rewarded rather than punished for it. An article by Donna Wright in the Bradenton Herald (Florida) published on August 8 describes Harris's treatment of constituents who turned out in huge numbers for a town hall because they were angry & upset at her support for a bill that is likely to lead to the privatization of Medicare, as well as her positions on a variety of issues, ranging from phosphate mining, funding for Head Start, veterans benefits, budget deficits, the daily cost of the Iraq War, environmental concerns, fiscal policies, health care reform, the medical malpractice crisis, and proposed prescription plans. Harris actually had her goons confiscate not only informational flyers being distributed by the AARP, but even notes her constituents had brought with them as aids to their memory when standing at the microphone asking their questions during the meeting. But at the same time as she confiscated any written material brought by her constituents, her staffers were busy distributing flyers full of propaganda about the wonderful results of Bush's "fiscal discipline" (which is surely as mendacious as Suthers' claiming that three nuns interfered with national security when they dabbed their blood on a hardened missile silo). The most Kafkaesque move Harris made was to claim that (although she herself distributed propaganda at the meeting), ethics laws make it "illegal" for people to distribute political information during a town hall meeting. To quote from Wright's article:

"We are not taking anything away," [Connie M.] McKee [a Harris staffer] said. "All of the material is still here and they can pick it up when they leave. They just can't take it into the hall. The ethics laws do not allow us to let them take it in. We have to be very, very careful that there are no laws broken with our member (of Congress)."

Larry Winawer, of the Alliance for Retired Americans, didn't buy McKee's reasons.

"What kind of ethic laws prevent people from having information in front of them so they can ask reasonable questions?" Winawer said "I have never heard of such a thing."


Harris also decided not to answer any of her constituents' questions until all of them (or rather all of those she intended to allow speak) had asked their questions. The result, of course, since she "had planned a quick town meeting," was that she ended up speaking on her own terms &-- significantly-- without having to engage in dialogue with anyone.

It's outrageous, but I can't say I'm surprised. This is the thuggish scorn for the few traces of democracy remaining that we've come to expect from Bush & his followers. Why would anyone expect someone who had done her best to prevent so many registered voters from casting ballots in the 2000 presidential elections to show any interest in or respect for her constituents' concerns? Her thuggish behavior demonstrates scorn for the very idea of political representation & suggests that she sees an institution like the traditional town hall as nothing more than a means for disseminating Republican propaganda & certainly not as a venue for allowing constituents to communicate with the person who in theory is supposed to "represent" them in Congress their own political opinions.

& so, anachronia: the state in which everything is reversed & upside down & claiming to upright & just as it has always been.

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Josh Lukin
Posted on Sunday, August 10, 2003 - 01:16 am:   

Yes, I learned from the blog of your Seattle compatriot David Neiwert about the Katherine Harris nonsense. Thank heaven the press is reporting the outrage with which she was greeted.

That's a pretty small thing to have to thank heaven for, innit? But we're dealing with people who have such a psychotic hatred of freedom that, by comparison with what we fear from them, sentences such as the sisters got are "lenient." Do you know, incidentally, how such sentences compare to the kind that Berrigan types were getting, say, fifteen years ago for such protests? My sense is that they're about twice as long.

To me, one of the things that the "upholding the law" language does is vindicate Proudhon: the purpose of the State really is to protect the property of those who have property, to the extent that the punishments meted out by that State are not proportionate to the amount of damage done but to the amount of property owned by the "victim." I'm reminded of the draconian sentence with which Mayor Koch threatened grafitti artists.

I'm focusing on the issue of excessive punishment for intentional property defacement ("malicious destruction") rather the characterization of innocuous political expression as "interfering with national defense" because the latter is just too scary.

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