The line between speech and threat is always a fine one. One
of my favorite explanations about free expression is that your right to be
angry stops in the fraction of an inch between your fist and the other guy’s
nose.In the case of a Wisconsin bar, it apparently stops somewhere south of
the 834th Cuervo shot.
Yester Years Pub made national news when a group of
inebriated patrons decided toburn a plastic bust of President Barack Obama.
Adding fuel (pardon the pun) to the uproar about this was what appeared to be a
duct tape noose around the neck of the statute.
This hit the fan last weekend when I was in Milwaukee and it
was easier to get away from the O.J. Bronco Chase in June 1994 than it was to
get away from this. WTMJ, the local NBC affiliate, managed to get its hands on
the video, which ran in heavy rotation throughout the day, night and my dreams.
It played so often that I’m waiting for Kanye to do a remix.
The local NAACP chapter announced that it wants an investigation, arguing
that this was not only a threat but a racist act. It’s unclear how far the
group or the federal government will go in digging into this, but the fire
clearly hit a nerve.
Two things immediately came to mind about this:
First, when you have the first of anything, there will be
concerns of how that individual will be treated. And for centuries, this
country has treated black folks like crap.
The noose has always represented something evil and during
lynching time, black men were not only hung, but often stripped naked and set
on fire. The degree to which the people at the “Bladder Buster” party were
thinking about this when they lit up the statue is hard to determine. However,
it’s got to be a gut punch to the African-American community.
But this is more about being first and being first has its problems. As a Cleveland Indians fan, I
read a ton of what Frank Robinson went through as the first black manager in
major-league baseball. One of the more telling statements he made was that he
couldn’t wait for the first set of road trips to be over. Once that was done
and everyone in every city wrote the “hey, look at the black manager” story, he
could just be another manager.
Obama is in a similar situation. When we were all pissed off
at President Potatohead, we could burn shit or pee on shit or do whatever we
wanted and we were basically considered to unpatriotic by the wingnuts, but
hey, he was a white guy. Our displeasure had a pretty much a single layer to
it: he sucks. Since we don’t have another black president to compare to, every
bit of displeasure will have a racial component to it.
Second, the ability to express yourself is a guaranteed right in this country. Sure, we put limits on things (“fire” in a crowded theater
etc.) but we don’t just protect stuff we like.
The country was in an uproar a number of years ago when the government
considered whether to add a constitutional amendment that would ban flag
burning. Liberals hated it, conservatives loved it.
I remember a news program on WTMJ during that controversy
where they had a Vietnam Vet on the show. The moderator asked if he would mind
if someone started a flag on fire on his lawn. The vet replied calmly, “Sure.
They can burn a flag on my lawn. But I guarantee you this: they’ll never burn
(Side note: WTMJ is the best TV news station in Milwaukee. For
some reason, we always watch it at my folks house and I actually learn a little
here and there. Granted, this is like saying a child is the fastest kid in the
Kindergarten Olympics: best in class, but not going to beat Usain Bolt. Still, compared to its peers, WTMJ is rocking it out.)
the end, our right to light Old Glory up
In looking at this statue burning, you’ll notice no voices
in the video were screaming, “Yeah, let’s go burn his ass next” or dropping
n-bombs all over the place. This was not a terrorist threat. This was not a racist act, despite the repeated notations that country music was playing in the bar during all of this. These people were pissed at the president and if the guy was red, white or blue, they’d still be pissed. It’s more
liberal/conservative than black/white. The last thing I want to see is the
liberal wing of America doing exactly what it pissed and moaned about the
conservatives doing before. In other words, don’t tell your fellow citizens now
that peopleshould shut up, stop hating America and suck on your tofu dog.
For me, fire is a crappy form of expression. It’s like when
kids break their toys because they’re angry and can’t express themselves any
better. Instead of seeing what can get roasted next, maybe we need to turn off
the talk radio, stop seeking cute little acronyms for displeasure and start
thinking for ourselves.
Then, we can engage in speech that matters and in a way that
might actually get us somewhere.