Two bits of speech, and contrasting attitudes about them. The first, Michael Moore’s despicable criticism of snipers, in response to the recent (and hugely popular) movie “American Sniper.” He tweeted: “We were taught snipers were cowards. . . . Snipers aren’t heroes. . . .”
The second, an art display: ku klux klan vestments constructed from prints of newspaper articles about incidents of racial violence, installed by an artist named Serhat Tanyolacar on the campus of the University of Iowa.
Here’s one set of attitudes about the first amendment. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Navy Seal Rorke Denver wrote about Moore’s comments in his piece The United States of ‘American Sniper’: “When Michael Moore and Seth Rogen exercise this [First Amendment] right, it is a tribute to those who serve. While I am revolted by their whiny, ill-informed opinions about Chris Kyle and ‘American Sniper,’ I delight in the knowledge that the man they decry was a defender of their liberty to do so.”
Denver understands freedom of speech, and understands it well enough to put his life on the line for the ideals among which it stands. Note well: he defends the freedom to speak, not the content of what is said. The speech itself can be “revolt[ing], whiny, ill-informed.” But that doesn’t mean the freedom to say it evaporates. Denver’s own opinion of the speech does not motivate him to want to squelch it.
Now the contrast. The artist, Tanyolacar, intended to make a statement about racial violence. Some thought it made the wrong statement about racial violence. Upon complaint, the University of Iowa backed down immediately. The art display was removed within hours. The reaction was to the content of the speech, regardless whether the message was as intended by the artist, or as understood by viewers. None of the craven administrators considered the artist’s freedom of speech—only the content of the speech. Exactly the opposite approach taken by Commander Denver.
There’s a rich irony in the University of Iowa episode. It turned out that some of those offended by the art display were not offended because it supported racism. They actually understood that it did the opposite: it decried racism. How do we know? Because some of the outrage was directed not at the ostensibly racist message, but at the fact that it was not delivered by an approved messenger. As reported by Franklin Einspruch on January 23rd in City Journal, one Tanya Wheeler, a grad student, begged “Please do not let this man [the artist] turn our pain into profit.” Later, she complained that he was getting credit for starting a dialogue about race with his sculpture. “To give him credit for Black women’s work is not only silencing, but it is a form of VIOLENCE.”
Ah, now it’s clear. You don’t have the right to free speech; only the right to speak that which is pre-approved. And you don’t even have that right if you’re not among those who assert an exclusive right to speak it.
We need more backbone and less squishy solipsism. We need more Rorke Denver.