To Insure Domestic Tranquility
Newt Gingrich taught the right to talk trash—and he's still at it. We need to revisit rules in government, and across all media, on responsible speech.
As a writer, I do my best to find the right words. Words, as they say, matter.
The late grammarian Richard Mitchell, in his book Less than Words Can Say, noted how easily well-chosen words can incite people to fervor:
"…skill in language does provide a better hope of survival; it even wins wars, for struggle on the field of battle is a dramatic version of strife in the minds of men. Long before the first trigger was pulled, Hitler fired off a shattering salvo of words. He pounded his fist and shouted: 'Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!' Don't make the mistake of thinking that his listeners muttered back an uncertain 'Ach so, gewiss, gewiss.' They shouted back, 'Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!'
The cannonade roared across the Channel and shook the cliffs of England. Fortunately for us all, England, although unarmed, was not unready. The answering barrage rings in our ears still: ‘Blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ Battle was joined. Hitler's words sent the Wehrmacht crashing to the outskirts of Dunkirk, but Churchill's words sent schoolboys and accountants and retired fishmongers down to the sea in their little boats and over the water to the beaches of Dunkirk."
Even meandering, seemingly incoherent speech can incite listeners to action if it is delivered by a cult leader and punctuated with lies and provocations. Mobsters, for example, understand how to let their wishes be known without actually saying anything the District Attorney could pin on them. ("It would be a shame if your fair little election was to find itself overturned…")
And in the case of the words that inspired the insurrection and deaths at the nation's Capitol on January 6, we should bear in mind they were not only the words spoken on the day—a person in the right position can bring followers slowly, over the course of months, to a fever pitch of anger and resentment. As noted by Merriam-Webster, incite "stresses a stirring up and urging on and may or may not imply active prompting."
We should also remember that it was not only the words spoken by Donald "Stop the Steal" Trump but also those spoken by Rudy "Trial by Combat" Giuliani and by Lindsey Graham and Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz and others who pressured state attorneys general to change votes or refused to certify a fair election based on bald-faced lies in an attempt to defraud 80 million voters and carry out their fratboys' putsch to end democracy in America before, you know, democracy gets out of hand and we allow people of color to vote unimpeded and begin to address trivial matters like the existential threat of climate change.
And, yes, invoking the name of Hitler is never something one should do casually, but in the case of inciting the passions of a mob to obedience and violence, it seems more than appropriate here, even if Trump did his utmost to mimic the chin-up strongman visage of a guy named Benito, earning himself the nickname "Mussolini-face."
All of which leads me, unhappily, to Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, who, in a recent appearance on "Hannity" on Fox News, claimed Democrats are "radicals" who want to exterminate Republicans:
"I think you are seeing the hysteria of the Biden system. Because it's not really about Biden himself. It's this entire team around him who are radicals who believe if they could exterminate the Republicans that would be one way to get to unity."
Given that much of what Trump and other Republicans claim about the opposition appears to be psychological projection, it's likely his statement is an expression of his own twisted dreams. For those too young to remember, while he was a leader in Congress in the 1990s, Gingrich evangelized to his fellow Republicans to, let's say, comport themselves with a decided lack of civility. By which I mean to say, without language like that at all. As House Majority Leader, he instructed Republican House members to use words like betray, destroy, pathetic, steal, and traitor when referring to their Democratic colleagues—so exterminate, I suppose, is not a reach for him.
Gingrich is the Republican party’s godfather of uncivil language and general bad behavior.
But should anyone be able to say such a thing on a purported news network? Does the First Amendment right to political free speech really cover an inflammatory and absurd claim that Democrats want to exterminate Republicans? Even if he would make the claim he is speaking figuratively, it comes across as an statement with horrific connotations. And Gingrich knows that.
As most people know, the freedom of speech is all about ensuring a free exchange of ideas, without governmental intervention, but this freedom has numerous limitations—it does not cover, for example, libel, sedition, incitement to violence, or use of so-called fighting words.
Gingrich's over-the-top inflammatory statement is characteristic and only an example of why we should seriously rethink our rules around the limitations of free speech, particularly for political leaders and the media.
For decades, Rush Limbaugh has been poisoning political comity across the nation with his 3-hour bloviations, 5 days a week on AM radio. Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and others at Fox News are not acting as journalists, or even as the entertainers some of them claim to be; they're well-paid rabble-rousers. And the rabble is both insensate and insatiable: give it what it wants, and it always wants more—thus, Newsmax and One America News Network step up to take us all further down into a dystopian confusion of disinformation and conspiracy mongering, until even the likes of a QAnon is not enough.
Reporting the news professionally and in good faith can get you fired on a major "news" network, as we saw most recently with veteran political reporter Chris Stirewalt, who accurately called Arizona for Biden and was subsequently fired by Fox.
And conspiracy theories are pushed online and talked up by cable news-like programs. It doesn't take a constitutional textualist to know that the founders stressed that a well-informed populace is necessary to defend democracy. They believed in a free press, not a pretend press. We need to work hard to curtail what does our democratic republic serious harm. The "marketplace of ideas" obviously cannot decide for us. The Republican party itself may no longer be serious, but we need to be.
Former Fox news anchor Shep Smith recently told Christiane Amanpour on her CNN program about his decision to leave that network:
"Opine all you like, but if you're going to opine, begin with the truth and opine from there. When people begin with a false premise and lead people astray, that's injurious to society and it's the antithesis of what we should be doing: Those of us who are so honored and grateful to have a platform of public influence have to use it for the public good."
As President Biden said in his inaugural address:
"There is truth, and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders—leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation—to defend the truth and to defeat the lies."
The Atlantic recently ran an excellent series, "Shadowland," on conspiracy theories in the history of the United States:
…conspiracism here and around the world has destroyed great institutions, eradicated knowledge, endangered democracy, and ended lives. Now—fueled by the internet, partisan media, and the 45th president of the United States—paranoid thinking is more powerful, and more dangerous, than ever, threatening not just individual facts, but the idea that empirical truth exists at all.
Do your free speech rights allow you to shout maskless in the faces of others during a pandemic? As we are now learning, many of the police and National Guard who protected the Capitol against the President's mob have since tested positive for the coronavirus. The same continues to happen to other essential workers all across the country because the former President and his party politicized a simple public health measure in the midst of a global pandemic.
Speaking of the police, we now learn that number were grievously injured by the Trumpist rioters. In the aftermath, two have committed suicide. Nearly all the Republicans in Congress seem to be comfortable with this—at least enough to not speak out or support the impeachment.
In a democracy, we rely on some level of responsible political discourse, which does not include claims that members of one party want to "exterminate" the members of another party or—even in this land of "the paranoid style in politics," as historian Richard Hofstadter famously put it—the pushing of conspiracy theories.
We need a new Fairness and Accuracy Doctrine, one that addresses the importance of both civility and factualness in political discourse.
Free speech rights in artistic expression would not change, and if that leads to such fare as "QAnon: The Musical!" or "Broadway Presents ‘The Limbaugh Diatribes’" we can live with that. Opinion pieces, like this, would always allow a healthy dose of satire.
In the Biden Oval Office, the portrait of Andrew Jackson has been replaced by one of Benjamin Franklin. As Franklin famously remarked, democracies are not easy to keep. Political speech is protected, but politicians must strive to be collegial, respectful, and polite, especially when they disagree with each other. They have a responsibility to set the tone for the nation. News organizations need to stop disseminating false information and inciteful speech. Companies providing social media platforms have rightly begun to hold political leaders to a higher, not a lower, standard than average citizens, given that politicians have many other avenues for speech.
We desperately need to de-Gringichize the speech of the nation. (And even that's an unpleasant mouthful.) The oath of office could stand an addendum: "To insure domestic tranquility, to lead, not mislead, the citizens of our nation."