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Glenn Beck, still twirling his baton in the vanguard of the wing-nut parade, while busily calling all people who disagree with his, ah, “imaginative” interpretations of U.S. History and the U.S. Constitution (which includes, I would wager, somewhere north of 99.99% of all American Historians and Constitutional Law scholars) “idiots,” demonstrated for us what a non-idiot such as himself understands: That slavery was fine until the federal government stepped in to regulate it (http://www.examiner.com/political-buzz-in-national/glenn-beck-claims-slavery-was-not-really-bad-until-government-got-involved). It’s difficult to select which aspects of this absurdity to comment on, but I’ll choose one that is not completely obvious, but is most relevant to the ideology that Beck represents: Defense of the institution of slavery (and, after abolition, of systematic institutionalized discrimination) was tightly intertwined with states rights advocacy throughout the history of this nation until at least the 1960s, when the federal government, in the culmination of a national-history-spanning evolution prioritizing the protection of individual civil liberties over states’ and private rights to violate them, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Beck got it exactly backwards: It was federal government intervention that had always both threatened to end, and eventually, against the most violent opposition yet against it, actually succeeded in ending, slavery, and ending government sponsored discrimination against African Americans. And it was this precise role of the federal government, regarding this precise topic, that always was at the heart of states’ rights advocacy, and anti-federal government fervor. Whether the Tea Party is a predominantly or implicitly racist movement today (a hotly debated topic), it is certainly heir to the anti-federal government ideology that racists depended on throughout our history to protect and perpetuate their right to institute and enforce their racism in law. Defining themselves by reference to slavery (which their ideological forebears defended and perpetuated) is just not a smart move.

Susan Greene of the Denver Post, with whom I generally agree, was, I think, slightly off mark today in her overzealous definition of how broad a range of speech is, or should be, protected by the First Amendment (http://www.denverpost.com/greene). The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether Kansas pastor Fred Phelps has the right to mar the funerals of fallen soldiers by holding demonstrations within sight of them holding placards with such endearing phrases as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Without trying to decide the case on the legal merits, I will definitively state that I think it would be good public policy to outlaw such speech in such a context, nor would doing so be a clear violation of the First Amendment (the Supreme Court will decide whether it is a violation at all, by exploring the nuances of the issue).

Free Speech protections have always been limited in certain ways to protect other rights or public interests that might be violated by speech (e.g., laws against libel and inciting violence, and diminished protection of student speech in public schools). Time, place, and manner restrictions have always applied (you can’t disrupt any event or meeting in any way you please); the kind of “forum” involved, even when a government forum, affects how much freedom of speech others have. Private forums are that much more protected. Obviously, if the funeral were in an enclosed private space, Phelps would have no right whatsoever to violate that space. The lack of walls blocking the view from a cemetery is hardly a major legal distinction. Given the ways in which we have delimited freedom of speech in the past, I think that protecting mourners from the harassment of such speech at the time and place of mourning is well within the range of a reasonable exception to free speech protections.

Research suggests that people who believe in God tend to conceptualize God in one of four ways: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical, or Distant (http://abcnews.go.com/WN/book-religion-examines-ways-americans-perceive-god/story?id=11825319). Unsurprisingly, which view of God we adhere to correlates to gender, race, socio-economic status, and educational-level, and to particular social and political orientations. The irony, of course, is that right-wingers, who claim to be the defenders of liberty, tend to believe in an authoritative God who, by divine right, sharply circumscribes what liberty we should allow ourselves and others to enjoy, whereas progressives tend to believe in a more remote God, who leaves us with the responsibility of creating our own destiny.

Freedom, once again, has less to do with how free we are from our own democratically elected government than with how free we are from our own lack of imagination (or surplus of self-shackling imagination). Freedom is not a function of crippling the primary vehicle we have developed for exercising our wills in cooperative and coordinated ways (i.e., government, at all levels, including federal), but rather a function of how able we are to imagine that we are indeed free, charged with the responsibility of wisely and compassionately confronting the challenges and opportunities that we face here on Earth.

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