Friday, February 13, 2015

Let's Talk About Speech

A version of this piece appeared in The Virginian-Pilot, on Sunday, April 5. under the title, "The Price of Free Speech." The only substantial difference between both pieces is this version illustrates what three billion dollars worth of 30-second political ads look like.

There’s speech, and there’s free speech, and then there’s really expensive speech—speech only money can buy.

In its 2002 Citizens United ruling, the Supreme Court essentially upheld the idea that corporations are people—people entitled to free speech. They got around the obvious problem of corporations lacking vocal cords by falling back on the age old premise that money talks.

The only question then became how far would corporations/people run with this idea? Current estimates seem to indicate pretty far.

The Koch brothers, who are in and of themselves two people and happen to own numerous corporations, making them a whole bunch of people, have elected to allow their corporation’s money to speak for them. They plan to speak—no shout—almost a billion dollars into the 2016 election cycle, much of it in the form of miss-quoted and taken out of context sound bites.

For those of you who might have difficulty comprehending a billions dollars’ worth of 30-second ads, picture a pile of horse dung stretching from the earth to the moon and back again. Now picture that stack pouring out of your wide-screen HD TV into your family room.

The money the Koch brothers intend to spend is equivalent to a five dollar donation by every registered voter in the country. We have all experienced situations where a single shouting individual in confined quarters is able to drown out everyone else. It’s frustrating, unfair and generally unproductive. But two brothers drowning out 200 million voters is ridiculous—only because we have made it so.
On face value, it is easy to see why the courts have compared corporations to people and their money to speech. It's called representation. And it is easy to understand how corporations have abused their right to free speech at everyone else's expense. It's called, "Whataya gonna do about it?"

What is harder to understand is why we let them get away with this travesty.

I’m currently reading two books. The historical biography, With Malice Toward None, The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates, depicts one of our most revered presidents being mercilessly ridiculed and portrayed as an imbecile by the opposition party when he was in office.

The other, That’s Not What They Meant by Michael Austin is a political rebuttal to what Austin sees as the misrepresentation of the Founding Fathers by the political right wing.

But what struck me most in both books was the role speech has played in our history—back when it was just speech.

In the 1780s, there was a heated debate regarding states’ rights versus a strong central government. The opposing sides spoke directly to their opponent’s arguments by publishing and circulating their own positions in pamphlets and newspapers for everyone to read.

Approximately three score and give or take a few years later, as Lincoln would say, the nation was still deeply divided over this question of states’ rights. While campaigning at a political rally in Chicago, Stephen Douglas, a powerful political voice in a country, was taunted relentlessly but rather than give in or drop out he decided to take his message to the people. He crisscrossed the state speaking anywhere and everywhere to get his message out.

His opponent, Abraham Lincoln, decided to follow him and address the same people with his own message. Neither man spoke only to friendly audiences or forced anyone to listen to them. But the people came and they did listen. Their face-offs became known as the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.

A 30-second ad is nothing more than a tidbit of banality crammed alongside several other tasty but otherwise nasty ads, all randomly tossed between mindless sitcoms like a juicy portabella mushroom-bacon-cheeseburger sandwiched between two deep-fried chicken breasts. It differs from an actual exchange of ideas because with discourse, you actually have to say something.

True, a speech can also contain a lot of jibber-jabber but that’s because jibber-jabber is also an inalienable right. Still the simple act of writing something down on paper or saying something that can be transcribed on paper forces people on both sides of the issue, as well as those reading the arguments to be a little more reflective.

The question is not, why do we let the Koch brothers spend millions and soon billions on effective yet expensive, senseless TV ads? The question is why do we make these ads worth their money?

Maybe money is the same as speech. If so, our country is suffering through a period of speech inflation right now. Speech has gotten way too expensive, to the point where 30 seconds is all anyone can afford—and only billionaires can afford that.

But if money is speech and speech is money, so also, time is money. There's no reason why the voter's time can't be money better spent. Voters make a serious mistake if they put any stock into any 30-second ad promoting any politician or policy, without first investing a little of his own time to learn the facts that might lead to a better understanding of the issues. Voters are also the only ones who can turn the investment in that ad into a serious mistake by the big spender who thought it was a good thing to put his money where his mouth should have been.
Meaningless car ads might be the best way to get us into a showroom but they shouldn’t be what gets us into a voting booth nor be the basis for what we do in a voting booth.

Electing leaders and choosing policy is too important. It should take more effort and cost less money, because free speech ain’t worth nothing unless it’s free.   




Friday, February 6, 2015

Eastward Ho!

This story was written in 1977, shortly after Kath and I arrived in Kill Devil Hills, NC. Since then we have both made numerous more trips, together and separately, by plane and by car. But this particular journey was the biggest one of all—the one that changed everything.
This trip took place in February 1977. Married just two months and unable to find work in Long Beach we had packed all our belonging—a sofa, a table, a desk and a lot of other stuff, and headed east.


   In 1804, President Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore and create a trail to the West Coast through the newly purchased Louisiana Territory.  In 1806, some 28 months after they had left civilization behind, they completed their journey.

   Settlers traveling in wagon trains later used the trail they created.  They made the same journey—under favorable conditions—in a matter of just months.  Later, the railroads would cut the time even more.  But even as the length of time was shortened, one factor remained the same.  The country still had to be crossed.  It had to be seen, felt, endured, and finally conquered.

   Such is not always the case today.  Such was not the case in 1972 when I took my last cross-country jet flight.  Under the auspices of the United States Army, I was flying at half fare.  Everything in the military is either half-rate, half-mast, or double time, but that is another story.  The point is that with the Army paying and American Airlines flying, I was afforded the opportunity to cross the country in nearly five hours.  Lewis and Clark spent more time feeding their horses—the first day.

   That is how it is today.  Businessmen joke about leaving a Holiday Inn in New York and flying to Los Angeles where they stay in another Holiday Inn.  They don’t miss a meal and they don’t lose any sleep.  And never once do they see a road sign, stoplight, or detour.  It’s like going to the opening day baseball game and then six months later reading in the paper the final standings and missing all that happened in between.

   It was for this reason that my wife and I looked upon our upcoming journey with particular excitement.  We were moving from Long Beach, California to Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.  Possibly no one else in the history of mankind had done such a thing.  But more important than the destination or the fact that it was a cross-country trip, was that we were doing it cross-country.

   Like a Depression era documentary being shown in reverse, we were loading our treasures into a trailer and crossing the country to what we hoped would be a better future.