Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Stanley Fish on American Exceptionalism & The First Amendment

Mr. Stanley Fish, a writer for the Opinionator blog in The New York Times, made an interesting argument about a recent Supreme Court decision affecting free speech in today’s New York Times.

Back in January, he also reviewed Sarah Palin’s book on American Exceptionalism in an admiring fashion, which is certainly his prerogative. Ms. Palin, who has not yet announced her candidacy for president for 2012, is the pretty face of the Tea Party and its heavy hitting fundraiser. His admiration for her book (which I presume is not ghostwritten, which would of course make the book's words not her words—Mr. Fish knows the difference when he marks tests) compares her philosophy to that of Frank Capra movies. Here he analyzes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington:

The book opens with a celebration of Frank Capra’s Jefferson Smith, the hero of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart) is an accidental senator who finds his idealism mocked and blocked by corrupt politicians, greedy industrialists and propagandistic newspapers. The climax of the movie is Smith’s filibuster, in the course of which he cites the Declaration of Independence, written by his namesake, Thomas Jefferson. At this moment Smith embodies Capra’s typical hero — a man who draws his strength from an internal reservoir of virtue, a man who refuses to deed his integrity to some impersonal structure of government or business, a man who is, above all, free.

But what if, for the sake of argument, she isn’t exactly who her media image presents her to be? What if she is actually functioning on behalf of an impersonal corporate structure or an invisible PAC? Is it possible that Mr. Fish could be misled?

It is such men who in Capra’s films at once represent and inspire grass-roots movements in which decent, average people come together not at the behest of a charismatic leader or a corporation, but at the behest of an idea. For Smith that idea is to love thy neighbor…

He is presenting the Tea Party movement as a grass roots, spontaneous coming-together of like-minded people who abhor the encroachment of government upon their liberties. I didn’t see any of these people around when W et al were crafting the Patriot Act, an act which enabled almost any "security" agency to surveill any citizen on any pretext without judicial consent.

In each of these films the forces of statism, corporatism and mercantilism are routed by the spontaneous uprising of ordinary men who defeat the sophisticated machinations of their opponents by declaring, living and fighting for a simple basic creed of individualism, self-help, independence and freedom.

Begging your pardon, Mr. Fish, but Capra’s films are a favorite of mine. Not because they present liberty over the fascist state, but because they show how corporate authoritarianism creates and uses mass movements (Meet John Doe) to control and crush the people.

Whom does she quote in her book, and whom does she remind him of:

· Martin Luther King
· De Touqueville
· Crevecouer
· John Winthrop
· Frederick Jackson Turner

[And] she might also have cited Emerson, Woodrow Wilson and the many Puritans who proclaimed that they were building a “New Jerusalem” on the American shores.

I am a person of faith, the Jewish faith, who was filled with the spirit when I found out I was diagnosed with possibly cancerous ovarian masses back in California in September 2010. I am a patriot also, concerned with the vox populi, the hoi polloi, or whichever Latin or Greek phrase you wish to use.

Not only have I worked for wages, I have also worked as a volunteer many, many times in my life for the vulnerable: teaching the illiterate and/or non-English speaking person to read, write and converse; teaching computer skills to people who had no other place to go, working not for money but for the sole purpose of helping people in need. And that was before I was struck down.

I don’t look for fame or fortune (and it hasn’t found me).

But when I went to a temple last Saturday, I was almost turned away at the door.

He goes on to praise Ms. Palin’s vision further:

In her view, we are free and equal because as children of God we have an inherent dignity that is inviolate: “We are free as a consequence of being made in the image of God.”

I wish I could take as much comfort in his vision, but that has not been my experience these last 4 months. Last Friday I found out I was precancerous. Everyone means well, saying such things as, "Oh, that's no big deal. Quit yer bitchin'!"

He strikes a different tone in his discussion of the recent Supreme Court decision Snyder v. Phelps, in which the Roberts Court found that scurrilous, hateful speech was protected by the First amendment. He asks a very good question for a non-lawyer:

Was the pain caused incidental to the production of speech — was the primary purpose to communicate an idea that just happened to be hurtful to some potential hearers — or was it the very point of the speech to bring the pain about?

The singling out of expression as a category worthy of special — even categorical — protection makes sense only if the work speech does is different from the work done by physical acts, if for example the effects of speech are limited to changing minds or increasing the store of information or enlarging the number of viewpoints in the marketplace of ideas, and do not include bodily harms.

I have been a New Yorker my entire life, and I’ve never experienced such active hostility (words spoken by strangers and familiars to my face) and great fear before. There were unfortunate rumors and pictures circulated about me and it has caused me bodily harm:

I have been locked up against my will, deterred from pursuing medical treatment, followed and badgered, forced to flee from my home because my computer was hacked with fake emails that caused me to blurt out knowledge that I never would have done in a million years if I weren’t under continuous harassment, and many other insults, most of which have nothing to do with free speech but may well extend from those “protections”. People who were to care for me were told false information and understandably acted on that knowledge.

My experience of the last four months has not shaken my faith entirely. I am not a political fundraiser or someone with any supporters, but I try to keep my head down and not despair.

These may be bright times for the New Jerusalem, but they are dark times indeed for me.

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