25 February 2011

Pin the Tail on the Leader: From Benghazi to Georgia

Laid up with a stomach virus the other day, I spent an evening watching the world news. CNN had gotten a crew into Benghazi, the metropolis of "free" Libya and a tumult of suddenly free expression. Everywhere there were posters and effigies of Col. Khadafi, who had been made into a one-man menagerie, here drawn as a monkey, there as a donkey. At every opportunity people counted vicarious coups by striking these effigies and caricatures with fists, sticks and shoes. There was a charm to their exuberance, but I couldn't help wondering how Americans would react today if anyone took to the streets with a cartoon portraying the President of the United States or any of our leading politicians, of either major party, as an animal -- and then started hitting it. "Hate speech," I'm sure, if not "incitement to violence." But wouldn't those be appropriate judgments? You can't compare an elected leader or an elected representative, especially one who remains subject to re-election, with a bloodstained tyrant of forty years' reign, can you? I don't know if you can't, but I'm not. The subject isn't the leaders, but the expressions of dissent. Everyone would probably agree that all the caricatures of Khadafi are justified by circumstances; they represent the deserved hate of his people. But if they're appropriate now, was there a time when they wouldn't have been? Was there a line Khadafi had to cross, by a degree of violence or duration in power, before such caricatures could not be dismissed as "hate speech?" Bear in mind that we're not talking about violence or even express incitement to violence, but mere invective, here in symbolic form. I ask because there seems to be a trend toward zero tolerance of such essentially nonviolent invective in the U.S. on the ground that it nevertheless expresses "hate." The last two Presidents have been constantly portrayed as monkeys, and the supporters of each have taken any such caricature or Photoshop product as a grave insult. But the gravity of the insult is relative. Incidents like last night's episode in Georgia, when a Republican congressman was asked during a town hall meeting, "Who's going to shoot Obama?" should put the subject of everyday invective in appropriate perspective. While the representative didn't reprimand the speaker on the spot, preferring to ignore the question, he reports now that he contacted "the appropriate authorities" afterward. It wouldn't surprise me if some Americans have felt emboldened to ask such questions by the heroic scenes shown them from Egypt and Libya and Tunis and elsewhere lately. With little sense of historical proportion, they feel as menaced by tyranny as they imagine those who've labored under Khadafi's yoke to feel, and as entitled to resist. It should be possible to affirm objectively that there is no cause today for an armed insurrection or an assassination in the United States, and a congressman should not feel afraid to give a cranky oldster the tongue-lashing he deserves for saying otherwise. But what if you just think the President is stupid, or even asinine?

Maybe if more Libyans could have gotten away with mocking Khadafi in the past the way they do now, he wouldn't be such a problem for them today. I'm not suggesting that if Americans can't mock their leaders those leaders will turn into Khadafis...but maybe I am. I suppose I am saying that part of Khadafi's lifelong problem is that he's regarded any such mockery of himself as "hate speech" that impended his violent overthrow, and I suppose I do worry a little that more Americans start to feel that way about the way their heroes are treated by their opponents. With each fresh turn in power, it seems, each of the major parties grows less tolerant of mockery, assuming a slippery slope from crude caricature to "who's going to shoot...?" Partisanship may have something to do with it, since mockery tends to mark the mocker as one of the Other Party, the Enemy. There doesn't seem to be an objective, nonpartisan basis for mockery, and that throws the objectivity of any mocker into question. In Libya, by comparison, I doubt whether anyone, even in those parts of the country still controlled by Khadafi, believes his notion that all his opponents are drugged dupes of Osama bin Laden. Outside his zone of control, there seems to be nonpartisan agreement that Khadafi has run his country into the ground. But in America, half the people, possibly, will reject automatically the premise that any given leader is running the country into the ground, and many of that fraction will assume that anyone making the charge is some kind of subversive conspirator against freedom or the common good. So where is there more freedom today?

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