The Paradox of the American Right

9:07 PM / Posted by Harry McEvansoneya /

The United States of America, by and large, is a deeply conservative country by European standards, even in the areas branded by the media as “liberal”. The nation tends to be inward looking, steeped in history and proud of its culture, proud of its success on the world stage and most of all, proud of the freedoms and liberties that are the founding principles of the nation. This is no bad thing in and of itself, but it has led to the creation of an unfortunate political dialogue within the United States, whereby one achieves victory not through rationality, but through using these principles as a weapon, trying to out-blindly-adhere to them more than your opponent without considering why or what they are.


This has become co-opted as the weapon of choice of the political right in America. Since, as I have said, American political discourse tends towards the conservative in general, I should clarify what I mean by “political right”. This is the reactionary, generically anti-government movement, once on the fringes of the Republican Party, that has in recent times been pushing itself to the fore through several different movements. This would include, for example, the extreme libertarian, anti-state but pro-business, religiously minded and essentially nationalist Tea Party and its poster girls Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, or the followers of the conspiracy-pushing, radically anti-liberal media demagogues Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. This by no means representative of the Republican Party as a whole, but groups with increasing influence in it, who are in a position to hold sway over the leadership.


The attitudes of these organisations and individuals should be simple – a return to basics, to the freedom, justice and equality they claim to be upholding, to the most basic ideals enshrined in the US Constitution. However, on a number of issues, their attempts to achieve this have taken an utterly paradoxical path, whereby in striking for what they claim to believe in, they are in fact taking retrograde steps, a fact that brings into question whether or not their motives are as pure, noble and representative of the true “will of the people” as they claim them to be.


Let us being with the issue of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Lest we forget, this basic founding principle of America states that:


“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or 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.”


There was a very recent incident where a book discussing teenage homosexuality was banned from a school library following a campaign by an organisation of Glenn Beck supporters,[1] on the basis that it was “obscene and inappropriate”, presumably due to the fact that it invited frank, potentially positive discussion of homosexuality and was thus did not suit their moral outlook.


Yet these groups are among the first people to cry foul and wave around the First Amendment as sacrosanct the moment something comes along that poses a threat to their own capacity to air their moral or political viewpoints – hence the opposition of these groups to the proposals to re-institute the Fairness Doctrine, or the attempts to create campaign finance reform that could potentially limit the potential of candidates to get their voices heard.


Indeed, the Tea Party organisation, and similar, rest their entire ability to do what they do – assemble in what is for the vast majority a peaceful protest, and air their grievances, legitimate or not – on the integrity of this Amendment. Yet they try to cling to their rock while at the same time trying to fling those with differing political opinions off of it.


Not only is this morally hypocritical, it is also a legally incorrect stance – an odd thing to say if these people truly were acting as defenders of the Constitution rather than of their own private morality. The Miller Test, which is used to define whether or not something is legally “obscene” and thus not subject to first amendment protection. To be “obscene”, the subject matter has to meet three requirements:


1. Whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,


2. Whether the work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law,


3. Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.


The book in question, quite frankly, fulfills none of these criteria, so the campaign is wholly without merit in terms of the protection of the the Constitution from erosion – indeed, it is in and of itself and attempt to undermine the freedoms enjoyed by others under it.


To qoute Justice William Brennan’s judgement on the 1989 flag-burning trial, “if there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable.” This is doubtlessly a better idea than the message being sent with campaigns such as the one against this book, which is “it is obscene because I don’t like it”. The political right’s attempts to make the latter true, but only from their own perspective, is a disgraceful double-standard that betrays the paradoxical agenda at the heart of their movement.


This is not something that can be taken in isolation, either – it is symptomatic of a broader problem of double standards within the movement as regards general equality and rights. Whether it be the attempts at re-writing history in schools in Texas to promote and perpetuate a certain worldview, the shouting down of any opposition on populist talk-shows, or even the anti-Obama smear campaign based on his past association with left-leaning intellectuals, there is an increasing attitude that only certain ideas, ones that fall within the range of acceptable to this minority group, should be tolerated in society – which goes against the very core of the principles America is founded upon.


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[1] Thanks to Paddy Rooney (http://twitter.com/paddykr) for drawing my attention to this. Follow him on Twitter, he’s excellent.


3 comments:

Comment by Automatic Writing on May 12, 2010 at 10:18 PM

Much of this is equally true of Democrats. While they might support free speech when it comes to books promoting homosexuality, or whatever, they're perfectly happy to trample all over the 1st Amendment with hate speech laws.

Comment by freemarketeer on May 13, 2010 at 3:22 PM

I think there's a clear distinction between the freedoms that they are defending and the protection that they're demanding. Maybe it's not as hypocritical as you think..

Liberty is about being free to do what you want without state interference - especially in private - and not being forced to do something against your will by a government. Freedom of speech is pretty important in that regard. But this includes choosing the kind of education that your children receive, and ideally not having a government decide what they should be taught without your input.

So I think it's relatively consistent to say that you want freedom of speech for yourself, but that you don't think anything should be taught to your children that you object to. They're not silencing authors, just exercising the freedom to decide what they want their children exposed to in the private sphere (an ill-defined freedom, granted). If there is an inconsistency there, it's about freedom for children and the power exercised by parents.

Comment by Harry McEvansoneya on May 13, 2010 at 4:12 PM

@automatic writing

While everyone interprets laws their own way, I don't think the other side (or even moderate Republicans) engage in this kind of naked claim to be the sole protectors and upholders of the very thing they are trampling on.

@freemarketeer

That would all be well and good providing that (a) a school library is the "private sphere", which it isn't (b) you weren't potentially preventing other people's children from recieving information (c) that the state or even broader society has no role in deciding what the individual child should be taught in school, which they obviously do and (d) that they had a legal leg to stand on, which they don't.

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