Friday, January 14, 2011

Political Civility and the 1990 David Duke Race

Mercator has an excellent article here at Constitutional violence?

The whole thing is worth a read but I want to focus on the last part of this piece. The BOLDING IN MINE.

That such ideologically-motivated assassinations have been so few and far between speaks volumes not only about the values and character of the American people, but also about the robustness with which American political institutions channel passions into constructive outlets for ideological disagreements. Foremost among these institutions are the fair and frequent elections that allow citizens to remove officeholders non-violently. But even between elections, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Americans enjoy the ability to speak their minds freely, to engage in the most rigorous political debates, and to express opinions in nearly whatever terms they desire, without fear of retribution from the government. (Commonsensical limits such as fighting words, libel, and shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre are among the only restrictions.) A citizenry which can channel its ideological passions and differences into the constructive outlet of unrestricted debate does not murder its elected representatives.

And yet this feature of the American experiment is exactly what some are now proposing to limit. Over the weekend, Democratic Congressman Robert Brady of Pennsylvania said he plans to introduce legislation prohibiting “language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a federal official or member of Congress.” It is of course already illegal to threaten or incite violence against any person. What makes Brady’s proposal potentially so insidious is the highly subjective ─ and highly elastic ─ standard of “could be perceived as”. Which authority will be charged with doing the perceiving? How will a potential speaker know in advance the prism through which that authority will perceive his words? How many potential speakers will conclude it is safer to remain silent than to risk criminal penalties for being “misperceived”?

The brilliance of the First Amendment is precisely that it enables citizens to be as critical as we wish of our elected representatives, and as ardent as we wish in our political speech. Because Americans are allowed to express our political opinions fervently, we have a non-violent outlet for our passions. We can air our grievances without fear of being arrested for using “language or symbols” that an arbitrary authority perceives as “threatening.”

Although Brady’s legislation purports to stem violence against federal officials, its real effect is to perpetrate violence against the Constitution. With free speech guarantees ─ and the outlet for passionate political views they provide ─ eviscerated, there would be far fewer alternatives to more destructive behaviours. And the ultimate result would likely be more violent attacks against federal officials, not fewer.

Beyond the legal ramification there is also the social taboo aspect. The latter might be the bigger the problem.

The first political race I got involved in was a person running for local office that compromised three parishes in rural north Louisiana. Much to everyone chagrin that was running at that time it occurred when David Duke was running for U.S. Senate.

What a minefield. As a very young man I seem to recall David Duke came out of now where. His election in a House Seat in the New Orleans area seemed to be a fluke. Then he decided to run against Senator J. Bennett Johnston, Jr..

Now let me make it clear I am not saying anyone in the debates we have had the past year are like David Duke. However I use that race because it was a personal experience to me of seeing the average citizen engaged big time with each other on many controversial subjects.

It was nasty!! It was not so much that Duke's or Bennett's rhetoric was that violent at all. In fact Duke went out of his way at times to conduct the charade of he being Mr Smith goes to the Washington. I can recall him asking black people in the audience to please forgive him and ask them not to hate him. It was truly something too see.

However what was apparent was this. With both blacks and whites there were issues that had not been resolved from the past two decades. Also once you got beyond the political personalities it became clear that actually each side had some legitimate gripes. Truly.

Blacks complained about legitimate racism. Whites were complaining that the welfare system seemed to be producing nothing but single families and crime. It had to be discussed. It could not be bottled up anymore. It perhaps needed to be discussed without worrying about offending anybody and hiding one's true feelings and fears.

Also there were other factors. There was an anti incumbent mood in the air and one could tell that we were on the verge of some political change.

The Duke race became the very HEATED battlefield where that was discussed in all sort of forums formal and most importantly informal. I walked straight into this and spent most of my time trying to avoid the topic so not to alienate anyone for the person I was supporting.

However the rest of the State was far less interested in my local concerns and were engaged in one rip roaring blunt, un pc, bombastic political debate over these issues.

It was not pleasant. It was not civil!!

Duke Lost. In a bizarre perfect storm one later he managed somehow to make the runoff against all people Edwin Edwards. He lost again. Duke tried to run in other races but his support got less and less

In weird sort of way he had served actually some purpose. Those real emotions that both blacks and whites had were there. People were able to channel those emotions into non violent political debate. Yes there were death threats. Both Duke and Bennett were wearing bulletproof jackets at the end.

There was the typical petty vandalism one sees.

However I cannot recall any violence or if it occurred it was very minor. Afterwards people saluted the flag and Louisiana was better off for it. Louisiana did not turn into a mecca of hate groups. People did not flock to join the Klan or other related groups.

The Duke race reminds me again of that last paragraph. in the link I post above. I am not sure how you balance this and there is no easy answer. But at times you got to be careful of trying to smother either legally or informally the heated rhetoric we saw in the Duke race. What propels that does not go away simply because you try to remove it from the public sphere totally.

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