Under The Sun

Monday, April 14, 2003

Conservatives on witch-hunts. The OxBloggers are busily decrying a remark made on the House floor by Representative Barbara Cubin (R-WY). Their crusade is misguided on several levels.

First, Rep. Cubin's remarks may or may not have actually been "racist"; we'll never know, because she was interrupted (by Rep. Mel Watt) before she could finish her sentence. What she actually said was: "One amendment today said we could not sell guns to anybody under drug treatment. So does that mean if you go into a black community, you cannot sell a gun to any black person, or does that mean because my--". This can be read as a suggestion that all blacks are drug users. It can also be read as an attempt (rather infelicitous, but she was speaking extemporaneously) to draw an analogy between laws that target 'all people in drug treatment' and laws that target 'all blacks'. It seems plain to me from the evidence cited in the post linked above that the latter was at least much closer to Rep. Cubin's intent. But the crusade to censure Cubin doesn't merely disagree with that interpretation; it simply ignores it. David Adesnik writes: "From what I can tell, this is not a sophisticated argument about the nature of causation, but rather a crude suggestion that drug addiction is a black problem." Well, David, from what I can tell, you're wrong. A wiser, cooler head might infer from this that there's a reasonable disagreement here, not merely a sandbagging operation by a bunch of racists in defense of their own.

But quite apart from the merits or demerits of this particular case, the rush to condemn Rep. Cubin's mal mot is nothing more than a politically-correct witch-hunt. For neoconservatives in particular, it is a descent to the level of the opponent. "The principle that citizens should be punished for improper speech is the first step on a short road to hell"[*]--regardless of whether the offending speech was accidental, stupid, or even honest. If Rep. Cubin offended anyone, it would be polite for her to apologize; on the other hand, if Rep. Watt, for example, turned out to have attacked Cubin for something she did not actually say/mean, it would be polite for him to apologize. But apology is a courtesy; atonement--as prescribed by, in this case, retributive justice--is something else entirely. And to require atonement for mere speech is a colossally bad idea.

What about Trent Lott? This requires atonement--from me and anyone who agrees with me who failed to defend Sen. Lott's right to speak. Hairs can be split in an attempt to distinguish his case from Rep. Cubin's, but that's just sophistry; the fact is that we--everyone who called for Lott's ouster--were just plain wrong. The legal right to free speech only protects the speaker from legal consequences, but the moral right to free speech should--must--protect more. Clearly there is a line to be drawn somewhere: if you believes that Rep. Cubin or Sen. Lott is a racist, you have every right to vote against her or him in the next election. But it seems to me that the line must be drawn between past and future: an effect on future decisions is (merely) a consequence, but an effect on decisions already made is a punishment. Those who intend to speak publically must always consider their future, but they should never have to fear for their past. Or, I think, for their present: 'if you say that we will censure you' is little different in principle from 'if you say that we will jail you'. We may consider what has been said, but we may act only on our considerations, not on the speech itself.

I can see that this is a hard line to draw; the distinctions I'm trying to make are not obvious. But they are crucial if speech is to really be free.

[*: I have no idea who said this; I saw it quoted without attribution. In any case, it's true.]

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