Free at last

In the month since Gabby Giffords was shot in the head, and six others were shot dead around her, much has been said about speech: the power of it, the civility of it, the freedom of it. How strong is the thread between words and deeds? Can a culture of incivility really breed a spree of killing? Can a rhetoric of arms and insurrection really take no responsibility for violent deaths?

The conversation this event provoked was as heated and noisy as the one that preceded it, yielding an even more aggressive defense of the first amendment (the right to free speech) and the second (the right to bear arms), a defense that seemed at times to confuse the two. One Republican said that “those bearing firearms at Congressional town hall meetings and Obama events were no different from anti-Bush demonstrators ‘waving placards.’” Surely the difference is the same one America prizes between its own polity and that of, say, Iran. (I might also add, placards don't kill people, guns kill people.)

That story is told in this article on the Constitution, which points out among other things a discrepancy between a surge in interest and a plunge in knowledge about this fraying parchment. ‘Originalists’ insist, as one imagines Ben Franklin or James Madison would not, on an undeviating and literal interpretation of this founding document, while at the same time surveys reveal many of Americans’ most cherished Constitutional phrases don’t occur in the document at all.

When this new zeal for the Constitution led to a reading of ‘the whole thing’ at the opening of the 112th Congress in January, several of the Constitutional nasties – like the disenfranchisement of women, and the dehumanising of black people – were left out, silently expunged from the record, without exciting as much commentary as the replacement, in a new edition of Huckleberry Finn, of the word ‘nigger’ with the word ‘slave.’

For all kinds of reasons, these elisions and incisions in the written records are dangerous. On the surface they may seem both correct and caring. Yet changing the past to suit the present is (historically anyway) a diabolical thing to do. Is this what President Obama meant when, in his inaugural address, he urged Americans to ‘choose our better history’?

I don’t think so. I think he wanted Americans to choose the best examples to follow, to fulfill the best promises of the founders, of the fighters, of the freed. I think he wanted America, as he said in his speech at Tucson last month, to be as good as they imagined it.

Unfortunately, Obama’s words are often drowned. Torrential, irrational, mendacious rhetoric floods the thousand channels of communication in contemporary America; swelling when any moderate voice attempts to curb it. After all, “what king so strong / Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?” We might say of Obama, as Measure for Measure’s Duke says in soliloquy:

…millions of false eyes
Are stuck upon thee: volumes of report
Run with these false and most contrarious quests
Upon thy doings: thousand escapes of wit
Make thee the father of their idle dreams
And rack thee in their fancies.

This is what freedom of speech, and its armed defence, have come to mean. Speech free from obligation, free from restraint, free from liability. In the land of free speech, the double-tongued man is king.