The Corner

Mr. President, Please Clarify the Rules

The evolving rules governing acceptable public discourse require serious explanation.

Earlier this year, during the memorial services for the victims of the Arizona shooter’s rampage, the president admonished that political debate needed to become more civil and should be conducted in a way that “heals” rather than “blames.” Of course, since then the president has been blaming everything and everyone (but mainly Republicans) for the country’s current predicament.

Two days ago, CNSNews unearthed a video that captured a July 3, 2008 campaign speech by then-candidate Obama. In it, he said:

The problem is, is that the way Bush has done it over the last eight years is to take out a credit card from the Bank of China in the name of our children, driving up our national debt from 5 trillion for the first 42 presidents–number 43 added 4 trillion dollars by his lonesome, so that we now have a 9 trillion dollar debt that we are going to have to pay back–$30,000 for every man, woman, and child. That’s irresponsible. That’s unpatriotic.

Liberals are free to throw around the word “unpatriotic” with near impunity: Witness the fact that the Democratic nominee for president could call the sitting president “unpatriotic” and it didn’t even register as a fleeting blip on the media’s radar screen; whereas Rick Perry’s comments about a sitting Fed Chairman provoked several days of media indignation and a reprimand from President Obama. The civil discourse rules seem to apply almost exclusively to conservatives.

Mark Steyn has a piece in the current issue of National Review examining how, in much of the West, the right of free speech is becoming a function of the speaker’s identity and membership in a particular class — a kind of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Grievants. Blacks can say things whites cannot, Muslims can say things Catholics cannot, etc. The greater the perceived victimhood status of the speaker, the more latitude he gets.

Of course, victimhood status isn’t static. It shifts with time and political imperatives. What’s permissible for a Hispanic Rastafarian female to say today may be trumped by the sensibilities of an Asian Mennonite male tomorrow.

Accordingly, some clear, bright-line parameters would be helpful. And given that President Obama has already anointed himself the general arbiter by demonstrating that he can call a president unpatriotic without repercussion yet chastise Governor Perry for infelicitous remarks about Ben Bernanke, he should be the one to provide more definitive standards for what constitutes permissible political speech. For example, the following needs explanation:

Is it merely irresponsible to say American troops are just “air-raiding villages and killing civilians,” or is it unpatriotic?

Is it unpatriotic to compare U.S. troops in Guantanamo with Nazis and Pol Pot, or is it irresponsible?

Is it irresponsible to call Tea Party members terrorists, or is it unpatriotic?

Is it unpatriotic to spend $814 billion on non-existent “shovel-ready” jobs, or is it irresponsible?

Is it irresponsible to smuggle thousands of weapons to Mexican drug cartels, or is it simply galactically stupid?

We, the great unwashed, anxiously await guidance.

Peter Kirsanow — Peter N. Kirsanow is an attorney and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

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