The concept of freedom of speech is held as an inalienable right in every free society on Earth, and in societies steeped in capitalism the concept of economically disciplining someone for exercising their right to speak freely is held in the higher esteem than freedom of speech, particularly among conservatives. Conservatives love punishing any human being that dares to hold, or express, an opinion contrary to their ideology, and it calls into question their advocacy for the right to speak freely; particularly when it involves religion or politics. It is true that consumers have the right to punish entertainers, journalists, or businesses that take a position or speak their mind they feel crosses an ideological line regardless political or religious bent, but conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, scream bloody murder if one of their own is a recipient of economic discipline.
The idea of economic discipline among American religious conservatives reared its ugly head in the 1960s when Beatle John Lennon told a reporter privately that his band’s popularity among young people in England made it more popular than Jesus Christ. When the news reached American shores months later, conservative Christians went berserk and held rallies to burn Beatle records, started a nation-wide ban on playing their music on radio, and prompted the Ku Klux Klan to make overt death threats prior to the group’s concerts across the South. It was what religious conservatives said at the time was their right to punish the band for exercising their freedom of speech.
Nearly forty years later, an American entertainer expressed her right to speak freely during a concert in England regarding George W. Bush’s pre-emptive war to overthrow Iraq’s government made her embarrassed to be from the same state as warmonger Bush. The backlash against the Dixie Chicks, particularly Natalie Maines, in conservative circles was swift and brutal replete with record burnings, death threats, canceled concerts, and bans on playing the country-and-western groups’ music on radio stations across America. For those old enough to remember the demonization of John Lennon and his band, it was a sad reminder that among a certain demographic nothing had changed and that free speech in America is never free; especially if it goes contrary to conservative’s political and religious ideology. The conservative and religious right’s message was clear that while they claim to adhere strictly to the Constitution, the 1st Amendment’s freedom of speech is reserved for people espousing their ideology exclusively.
The idea of economic discipline against the Dixie Chicks for, as Bush said, being “free to speak their mind” was the price of “saying what they want to say, but they shouldn’t have their feelings hurt because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out; because freedom is a two-way street.” According to Bush, Fox News, and neo-cons pushing to invade Iraq any American has the freedom to speak their mind, but they will face economic discipline if they say anything contrary to conservative ideology. In 2001, comedian Bill Maher made a statement that prompted Bush press secretary Ari Fischer to denounce Maher and warn him that “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.” Maher apologized, but advertisers withdrew their support and some network affiliates stopped airing the show and the show was canceled the following June.
Less than a month ago, Martin Bashir was fired by MSNBC after he committed the double cardinal sins of one; speaking negatively against a conservative god (Sarah Palin) and two; errantly thinking Americans can exercise their right of freedom of speech without facing economic discipline from conservatives. Bashir followed the examples of John Lennon, the Dixie Chicks, and Bill Maher who all apologized for exercising their freedom of speech, were contrite and remorseful, and suffered economic discipline at the hands of conservatives. After 50 years of using economic discipline to punish expressions of free speech, religious conservatives demonstrated their rank hypocrisy over the past week when they railed against a private entertainment network for exercising their right to impose a milder, kinder version of economic discipline when they suspended a racist homophobe for making comments that are unpopular amongst the majority of the population.
What is particularly offensive to we who have been the recipients of sanctions, rape threats, suspensions, death threats, and termination for expressing fact-based opinions is the incessant accusations of conservatives that freedom of speech cannot be abridged by private individuals exercising their right of economic discipline. Indeed, Business Insider writer Josh Barro reported the preponderance of hate mail from religious conservatives centered around his right of free speech for an opinion piece about racist and homophobic comments by an entertainer. No doubt, the people who sent Barro hate mail failed to see their own hypocrisy in lashing out because he exercised free speech, and it is probably what the conservatives defending Robertson are depending on.
There appears to be much more than conservative hypocrisy and outrage about Phil Robertson’s free speech at play since A&E exercised its freedom to use economic discipline for its employee’s unpopular comments. Conservatives, especially religious right conservatives, seem to have found what they think is a long-lasting and potentially powerful wedge issue to garner support among its older, whiter, and evangelical voters they plan to carry over into the next election. There was nothing in Robertson’s comments that are debatable or acceptable, or that conservatives can defend with any pretense of reason or validity, and that may be why the likes of Palin, Bobby Jindal, and Fox News have parroted the “free speech” meme with such intensity, and why they have been loath to defend what the dirty homophobe actually said; just that he was punished for exercising his right of free speech. They could hardly argue the veracity of Robertson’s hateful language about homosexual acts or racism even though they welcomed his assurance to bigots and racists that their beliefs are “typical” and “founded in the bible” that all good Christians read and carry close to their bosoms.
Conservatives have little left to offer their supporters except to assail the “liberal media and government” for abridging a good Christian conservative’s right to freedom of speech by economically disciplining him. It is likely the same conservative Christians who economically disciplined the Beatles, Dixie Chicks, Bill Maher, and Martin Bashir are unaware of the hypocrisy in defending Robertson’s free speech they believe should be free of repercussions and it is what conservatives like Palin, Cruz, and Fox News are counting on. However, for Americans with half-a-brain, the conservative hypocrisy is as glaring as the subjects conservatives are certain their older, whiter, and religiously-inclined voters embrace, and if they can assail A&E, a liberal bastion of government tyranny in the process, for abridging Robertson’s freedom of speech it is a hypocritically winning ploy they will hardly abandon anytime soon.
Audio engineer and instructor for SAE. Writes op/ed commentary supporting Secular Humanist causes, and exposing suppression of women, the poor, and minorities. An advocate for freedom of religion and particularly, freedom of NO religion.
Born in the South, raised in the Mid-West and California for a well-rounded view of America; it doesn’t look good.
Former minister, lifelong musician, Mahayana Zen-Buddhist.