I begin my posting by noting Mo’s physical shudder at the very notion that I post on this topic at all; followed by an earnest request that if I must, that I do so in the full blown Socratic method, so as to not say anything affirmative, or negative, in any direction, and thereby maintain whatever semblance of neutrality I have thus far conveyed. In the spirit of her suggestion, I have reviewed my prior postings and am convinced that I am open minded curmudgeon, but further from neutral than 6th gear is on a stick transmission. Accordingly, if an opinion or two should slip out, use the “Comments” option, that’s what it’s there for.
The provocative cause for today’s posting is a web-article, replete with photograph, about an attempted sponsorship of a mile of Georgia roadway, under the auspices of the nationally recognized “Adopt a Highway” program, by none other than the Ku Klux Klan. In terms of likely social acceptability, to those on the Klan’s B-List, I suspect this offer ranks with the notion of Adolf Hitler sending in a check to plant a tree in Israel. That having been said, the two notions are differentiable in my mind, primarily because I have no idea what the laws of Israel are pertaining to the subject, but whatever they are, I suspect that a non-citizen, such as Hitler would be, were he around to do so, wouldn’t be the beneficiary of same, leaving the State free to reject the offer, unconstrained by the strictures of the Israeli Constitution. Apparently, and with some federal precedent, the State of Georgia is not so free. If you think about what is at the root of the notion and what we Americans as a society proclaim to be at the heart of our Republic’s societal ethos, the offer, at its base, is merely an exercise of free speech. I know, “The Hell you say!” “Ascolti il Padrone,” I say. Let’s break it down.
If, as depicted, the sign literally, and only, says, “Adopt-A-Highway, 1.1 Mi Litter Control, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Realm of (fill in the blank)” the only arguably offensive speech in the sign is that of the identity of the sponsor, and that by reference to external sources on the identity and nature of the Klan, not by any actual content in the sign itself. The two major inferences I can draw from it are that the Georgia branch of the Klan, as earlier did its Missouri branch1, is, for whatever reason, in favor of clean roadways in its home State; and, that the ACLU would likely support the Klan’s right to sponsor the cleaning of the roadway as an expression of the Klan’s freedom of speech, just as they defended the Klan’s right to march through the largely holocaust survivor town of Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, in 1978. In the words of Russian emigree comedian, Yakov Smirnoff, “What a country!” — and it is. I take the Klan’s gesture as one calculated to enhance its image as a group of concerned citizens. As one of my friends in Rotary would say, it is a classic example of the notion, “I’ve upped my image, so up yours!”
Before proceeding further, I ask your indulgence on two points. First, I have done my homework and am certain my Sicilian roots are sufficient to perpetually deny me membership in the Klan, even if I had a wont to apply, and I don’t. Second, I usually don’t agree with the ACLU, and suffer no remorse from holding a differing opinion. I admit to some angst when we agree, but it is so infrequent, I attribute it to what is predicted will sometimes happen, by the laws of large numbers. I attribute our differences largely to my already posited preference for strict construction of our Constitution, as opposed to the ACLU’s preference for periodic judicial discovery of emanations and penumbra therein, that give rise to rights the Framers never knew to exist, chose to include if they did; or, imagined might ever be discovered.
And now my diatribe, in Big Bang lingo. Much in the nature of the way galaxies form, some conglomerations of quarks and leptons, presently presenting as humans of the vanilla human flavoring, intentionally (or, as is sometimes alleged, coincidentally), conglomerate to form larger structures, along philosophical or political lines that argue the superiority of vanilla over all other actual or possible human flavors. As I, personally, am of the pistachio flavor persuasion, I am in with the likes of the GEICO gecko and ET, but I digress.
As I write, we officially recognize the following flavors, based on relatively settled scientific criteria: vanilla (white); chocolate (brown); licorice (black); lemon (yellow); and strawberry (red), and any permutation and combination you can make from the “elemental” flavors. Make no mistake, my reference to flavoring pertains to skin color, not race — as the latter refers to a notion on which there is no presently apparent scientific agreement as to what it is, how to distinguish as between any alleged races; and, whether there is any actual significant biological differences as between any of the alleged races. As that notion is utterly irrelevant to this posting, I leave it to a future one, if ever it should materialize, to debate. Suffice it to say for our purposes here, the problem with the Klan is its member’s non-acceptance as equals of any of the other flavors.
Fundamental to the notions of freedom and liberty expressed in the Declaration of Independence, fought for, and won, by the essentially vanilla flavored conglomerations of quarks and leptons that brought about the ultimate mixing pot of human flavorings, that we call America, were the notions of freedom of assembly (a/k/a association) and freedom of speech, both of which were expressly iterated in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The former is a guarantor of the right of like minded conglomerations of quarks and leptons to have an assembly with an agenda, political convention, parade or any other peaceable expression of common accord that is arguably distinguishable from a mere mob. The latter is the right of any individual conglomeration of quarks and leptons to say to any other conglomeration whatever the hell it is on their mind, without fear of governmental recrimination. As you might expect, neither is completely unfettered.
Taken at its face value, like-minded conglomerations of quarks and leptons could, arguably, being dissatisfied with the way the country was being run; assemble and determine to withdraw from the “Union,” as we refer to ourselves, for a litany of sins similar to those iterated in the original Declaration. The Civil War (still known affectionately, by some of our progeny of the original would-be seceders, as the War of Northern Aggression) and its outcome suggests strongly to me that such meetings exceed what the Framers (or the Congress) will tolerate in the nature of free association. I will add to that the fact that the only crime actually defined in the Constitution itself is that of treason, which is said to be levying war against the United States or giving aid and comfort to their enemies. Accordingly, if you are assembling to do either, you are in trouble. Congress has legislated to criminalize other inappropriate gatherings, denominated as “conspiracies,” such as regular meetings of mafiosi, under the RICO statutes.
Similarly, the vaunted notion of “freedom of speech” is also not without limitation — although one must be careful to distinguish between actual suppression of your right to say something and the imposition of penalties after you’ve said it. As regards the latter notion, the entire body of law covered by the notion of defamation is an excellent example. You can shoot your mouth off, verbally, in print or on the internet; and, if it develops that what you said was defamatory of whom you spoke, you can be sued by them and subjected to a financial judgment for the privilege of having so spoken. The other two broad and inter-related “post-speaking” incursions on your right to say anything are the notions of “inciting to riot” and “fighting words,” both of which are criminalized by federal statute. There is also the ban on obscenity, if ever it can be found, and known when seen, even if incapable of actual definition, but I already commented on that too.
Suppression before you speak is much more suspect and is essentially what we call censorship; and, in this country, largely doesn’t exist — a bit of fortuity our denizens take largely for granted. Today, we can look at countries such as Syria, Iran and China as examples of where notions of free speech and censorship are at odds with the American model. If you are old enough to remember the USSR, Yakov Smirnoff’s comedy routine is illustrative, and more factual than younger readers might know. We here are simply not subjected to having government censors filter what we hear or see.
Very simply put, loathsome though you find the Klan to be as an ideological notion, our emphasis on the freedom of our denizens to associate and to speak about what it is that draws them together, trumps any intellectual distaste you might have for what they’re meeting and yapping for to begin with. To me, the price of freedom of speech is having it out there to be heard, which places the onus of listening to enough to be able to form an intelligent opinion about it on us, which is work.
I used the term government censors up there advisedly. The First Amendment restrains the federal government from infringing on these fundamental rights. By its judicial incorporation into the Fourteenth Amendment, the States and their political sub-divisions (cities and towns) are likewise restrained. None of the private sector is so restrained. Your corporate employer may lawfully, contractually, shut you up as regards corporate matters and should you shoot off your mouth anyway, they can get a judicial gag order to close your yap. They can also fire your ass if they catch you using their computers and internet access for your personal ravings or pursuits.
We seem, to me, as a society, on both sides of the political and social spectrum, to be growing increasingly intolerant of what is essentially expression of opinion by the other side. Debate is healthy and informative, if only to point out logical flaws, biases or other problems with a posited view. Suppression of debate, through summary characterization of a proposition as being racist, anti-gay, anti-woman or anti- any other currently socially protected conglomerations of quarks and leptons, undermines the deliberative process and eviscerates the very right to be heard. At its base, the notion of “political correctness” is a form of social censorship, calculated to suppress erstwhile governmentally protected free, but crude, unmannerly or otherwise deemed undesirable speech, through social ostracism, which the politically correct are free to dispense, because it too is free speech. I’ve noted in prior postings, the notion of suppression of dissident or contrarian views in the scientific community, which, to me, undercuts the whole premise for scientific inquiry — nevertheless, despite mammoth government support for the scientific community, its suppression of dissidents is apparently legal as free speech applies to governments, not private associations.
Parents, historically, used to be able to shut their children up, with or without good cause, but it appears the days of “Children should be seen, but not heard,” are gone, along with “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” In days within my personal memory, those notions were within the ambit of what would have been called “discipline.” Today, they would more likely be called “child abuse.” As there are no Constitutional Amendments that passed to change the underlying unalienable rights involved, it is safe to say the change in view is a result of the ever shifting judicial and societal balances struck between the ever tense rivalries amongst competing fundamental rights. In stark terms, your rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, have historically always trumped the rights of your fellow church-goers, to offer you as a human sacrifice in their exercise of their freedom of religion, regardless of how efficacious an offering you might otherwise make.
The rights of children have evolved more gradually, commencing with our adoption of the English common law view of them as personal property, the damage to which you could sue for loss of their services to you, as trespass to chattels. Of course, in the days when this notion was imported into our common law, children were apprenticed or indentured to some employer and turned their paychecks into their parents. Things have changed, mostly, but, in my opinion, not entirely, for the good. As we are still figuring out what grown-up rights prevail over others, I suspect we will have to wait a while to figure out what should be what regarding children’s rights.
While we’re waiting, it appears likely a stretch of road in Georgia will be kept clean courtesy of the KKK. When that is the largest problem we face as a society, we will have made much progress. Until then, I believe the proper antidote, if one is needed, is a Georgia Chapter of the NACCP sponsored mile in the Missouri roadways wherever the sponsoring branch of the Klan is from and call it a draw.
1. There are Court rulings and there is the will of the people. The same day the Klan’s sign was posted, after the Supreme Court refused, without opinion, to overturn a lower court ruling to the effect they had a right to do so, it was torn down. It was replaced and torn down again, never to be resurrected.