St. Louis Oracle

St. Louis-based political forecasting plus commentary on politics and events from a grassroots veteran with a mature, progressive anti-establishment perspective.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Need for civility: a dissenting view

Much has been said since the Tuscon shooting involving Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) about the need for civility in our discussion of political issues and people. From the President on down, both left and right, politicians are falling over themselves trying to look good by taking this “high road,” no matter how hypocritical it may be in the context of the speaker's own rhetorical past.

The most passionate voices of both the right and the left have come under fire for their rhetoric on subjects unrelated to Giffords or her shooting. Keith Olbermann, the most inspiring, uncompromising voice of the left, was canned by left-leaning MSNBC (though ostensibly for reasons unrelated to his rhetoric). That move led many progressives (e.g., Democrat strategist Mo Elleithee and State Rep. Rich DiPentima (D-NH) in Politico's discussion in The Arena) to press right-leaning Fox News to shed rhetorical flamethrowers Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and even opinionated moderate Bill O'Reilly, and for individual stations to disconnect the Rush Limbaugh radio program.

I respectfully dissent.

I'm a big-time First Amendment guy. I view all attempts to stifle free expression of ideas with great suspicion. While courts have extended First Amendment protection to such things as sexually explicit artwork, it is undeniable that speech on political topics is at the very heart of the amendment's protection. It is also undeniable that physical violence is not a protected expression of free speech.

Many politicians and media personalities have seized on the Arizona tragedy to suggest that the incident was the result of predictable reaction to heated political discussion. That's nonsense. And even if it were true, the occasional tragic response of an irrational sociopath to controversial expression is a small, necessary price to pay for our broader fundamental freedoms. After all, traffic accidents cause thousands of deaths every year, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be allowed to drive automobiles.

The fact is, the most virulent expressions of opinion are often the most effective. Displaying photographs of coffins of dead soldiers, though offensive and insensitive to some, is a legitimate, effective way to promote ending war. And I must admit that Sarah Palin's characterization of the Federal Coordinating Council for Comparative Effectiveness Research as “death panels,” though offensive and insensitive, is legitimate and effective in promoting the arguments of health care reform opponents. Those who seek to stifle so-called “toxic” speech are really seeking to suppress the effective, persuasive communication of ideas that they oppose.

Certainly responses to disagreeable expressions of ideas are equally protected and encouraged. Outrageous expressions should not go unchallenged, lest acquiescence be inferred from the silence. Unfortunately, today's society prefers suppression of ideas they don't like over vigorous, reasoned debate, as illustrated by popular culture's favorite retort, STFU. Censorship is wrong, unless there is a clear and present danger to national security. While the First Amendment only limits the government from interfering with free speech and does not prohibit private citizens from doing so, bullying speakers into submission with orchestrated public outcry is just plain wrong.

We don't need to monitor our “tone.” We need more ideas, not fewer. We need to return to the richness of their unintimidated expression. Self-imposed "civility" won't get us there.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Koster should return Comcast contribution

Jake Wagman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that cable giant Comcast Financial Agency Corporation contributed $2,500 to the reelection campaign of Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster (D, former R) on Wednesday of this week, one day after Koster (on behalf of the state) joined in a settlement that allows Comcast to merge with over-the-air television network NBC.

The FCC approved the merger shortly after the settlement was reached. This dispenses with anti-trust concerns about the resulting creation of an entertainment conglomerate.

The contribution came to light so quickly because new Missouri ethics rules require immediate disclosure of large donations made during the legislative session. Comcast's donation was more than double what had been allowed under Missouri's former contribution limits.

Wagman quoted a spokesperson for Koster's office trying to explain away the apparent conflict of interest by distancing Koster from the negotiations' heavy lifting. But Wagman, ordinarily an apologist for establishment Democrats like Koster, observed insightfully, "So, in other words, it must be a coincidence that an out of state company with limited operations in Missouri gave Koster a campaign contribution the day after he signed an agreement pivotal to their [sic] future growth."

Since Missouri law allows campaigns not to report contributions which the campaign rejects within 10 business days after receipt, Koster's reporting of the contribution means his campaign accepted it.

This sure smells like "pay to play." At minimum, the contribution represented a reward for playing along. In addition, the ethical rules that apply to Koster's conduct as an attorney require him to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Koster should cleanse himself as best he can and return Comcast's contribution as soon as possible.