Conservatives Now OK With Dissent Because They're Doing It

Oy. Here’s Glenn Beck on yesterday’s radio show (audio here, at Media Matters):

I was somebody that during the Clinton administration said, Can we please stop saying that the president is killing people in our national parks? Can we please stop saying that? You know, because what I said at the time was, if we believe that then we are farther down this road than you even imagine. You can’t have a president offing people in the national parks and think, well, but he’s good with the dot com thing. You can’t have it.

I’m a guy who has always believed that we’ve had good presidents and bad presidents, but not presidents who want to destroy the United States of America, and that may remain true. They may not think they’re destroying the United States of America, but I have come to a more adult conclusion after I have stopped just chanting USA, USA, USA, and stopped just waving the flag because it’s the flag and this is America, and we’re always great.

No, we’re not always great. Sometimes we really suck beyond imagination, and we have had out and out evil presidents. Woodrow Wilson is one of them. Andrew Jackson is another one. Barack Obama may be the worst of all of them, and Barack Obama is a guy that fundamentally – and you don’t have to, you don’t have to say: “well, it’s evil!” He really, I believe I think he’s doing the right thing, and in fact, with his idea of collective salvation, he thinks he’s doing the moral thing, and he wants to fundamentally transform America, which means more regulation and telling people how to live their lives, and this would be a perfect opportunity.

I excerpted the entire quote because I found these three quick paragraphs fascinating in light of the previous eight years (and arguably, everything since the end of World War II). In the first two paragraphs, Beck actually sounds quite rational. In fact, up through the beginning of his third paragraph, it sounds like something I could have said myself. I may even have said some version of this very thing, especially during the Bush years, while engaged in a debate with wingnuts.

Obviously, I disagree substantively with Beck’s opinion of Barack Obama…but that’s not what made this bit of audio stick in my mind. Instead, it was the simple fact that this was a true teaparty/wingnut icon saying these things, and saying them not just in the green room at FOX to like-minded fellow wingnuts, but saying them out loud, over the air of his very popular radio show, for anyone to hear.

Why is that noteworthy? Because Beck is one of the leaders of a movement of resurgent wingnuts who spent the entire Bush years (after 9/11, anyway) excoriating liberals for far milder sentiments of protest than the ones Beck just expressed. Back then, it was “love it or leave it” time in America, according to conservatives. In the Bush years, you were either (as the C-in-C himself once famously quipped): “either with us or with the terrorists.” Admittedly, Bush was talking about other countries in that speech, and it was only ten days after the 9/11 attack. But Bush’s words helped set the tone, at least among the wingnuts, for what became the controlling animus behind their template about those they began increasingly to refer to as “domestic enemies.”

And it wasn’t simply the outer reaches of the Internet, wingnut email-chains and the like who were pushing the meme that dissent = treason during the Bush years. It was some of the very same conservative media figures that still occupy places of prominence and credibility within “mainstream” conservative/Republican thought (if indeed “mainstream conservative thought” is not in itself an oxymoron) today. Many of them even still share the same home (FOX) as Beck himself.

Here’s Bill O’Reilly, who – since Beck’s ascendance at FOX – has been positioning himself increasingly as the “older voice of reason” at FOX News – in 2005, flatly stating that “Air America hosts” (he doesn’t specify, so we must assume he’s painting them all with the same brush: Randi Rhodes, Rachel Maddow, (now Senator) Al Franken, all of them) should be “immediately incarcerated” and “put in chains” for “treason”:

…you must know the difference between dissent from the Iraq war and the war on terror and undermining it. And any American that undermines that war, with our soldiers in the field, or undermines the war on terror, with 3,000 dead on 9-11, is a traitor.

Everybody got it? Dissent, fine; undermining, you’re a traitor. Got it? So, all those clowns over at the liberal radio network, we could incarcerate them immediately. Will you have that done, please? Send over the FBI and just put them in chains, because they, you know, they’re undermining everything and they don’t care, couldn’t care less.

O’Reilly is at least careful enough to admit that there is in fact a difference between dissent and treason…but as the rest of the quote makes clear, his reason for making that distinction is more to keep himself from looking like an unhinged loon than because he supports genuine dissent. Like many things having to do with the frontiers of citizenship in America, supporting the right to dissent is often much easier to do in theory than it is to do in practice. When it comes to the first amendment, far more people will tell you they support it fully – if you ask them – than will fully and without reservation or hedge support the unqualified right to speak of someone whose views they loathe. The ACLU does this all the time; they understand the first amendment thoroughly.

Guys like O’Reilly? Not so much. What’s my evidence? The fact that O’Reilly files the on-air words of Air America hosts under “treasonous” rather than “dissenting.” Honestly, if I were of a treasonous mindset, I can’t think of too many worse places to actually behave treasonously than over the public airwaves. Thousands hear it live, and certainly multiple organizations and individuals record every minute of every show. If the Department of Justice under George Bush had genuinely concluded that the public statements of any of the Air America hosts matched the definition of treason, they would not have waited for Bill O’Reilly – or anyone else – to tell them how to proceed.

Can you even imagine the exact shade of purple O’Reilly’s face would have turned, had the above Glenn Beck quote been spoken in public by anyone O’Reilly considered a liberal? Say, Al Franken – whom O’Reilly loathes on a personal level – or perhaps Janeane Garofalo or Alec Baldwin? Maybe Rachel Maddow? Just substitute Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon for Beck’s notion of “evil Presidents” (Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Jackson in the above quote), and leave in all the rest about how America often sucks, replacing Obama as the “most evil” President of all with Dubya. Can you even imagine the kind of wall-to-wall coverage such a statement, literally word-for-word (just changed to paint Republicans as evil instead of Democrats) would have garnered on all of FOX News, not just on O’Reilly?

And it wasn’t even limited to just FOX News, either. Here’s long-time MSNBC host, former Republican congressman from Florida and alleged moderate, Joe Scarborough, interviewing then-fellow MSNBC host Michael Savage (before Savage was fired for telling a gay caller to “get AIDS and die, you pig”): “I wonder, will Martin Sheen apologize now for providing aid and comfort to the Baghdad beast by working day and night against his immediate removal?” Scarborough remains generally regarded as a moderate because he’s intelligent (and sleazy) enough to temper the outright bile and shield his quite-conservative views in far more innocuous-sounding words than many of his fellow-travelers on the right. But make no mistake about the above quote; Scarborough’s use of the phrase “providing aid and comfort” to Hussein, to describe the actions of actor Martin Sheen was quite deliberate. If such somewhat quaint-sounding language sounds oddly familiar to you, that’s because it is the word-for-word definition in the United States Constitution of what constitutes treason: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” Neither Scarborough nor anyone else could reasonably argue that Sheen had actually “levied war” against the United States — because he hadn’t, obviously — so Scarborough quite consciously uses the other exact definition of treason from the founding document of the U.S.

This is the exact same mentality which allowed for the endless investigations and subpoenas and hearings of the GOP-controlled congress against the Clinton administration in the 1990s. It is borne of an obliviousness so complete that I doubt any of the people, whether famous or obscure, influential or not, even realize how ludicrous they appear to anyone who actually understands the definition and scope of the word “treason,” when they throw the word around so casually to people whose words they simply disagree with.

Not all conservatives were so ignorant and wrongheaded in their approach, either today or during the Bush years. Here’s Steve Den Beste, one of the original “warbloggers” (as they were called then; men – for it was nearly exclusively men – who pushed for war with Iraq, Afghanistan, and lots of other countries), eloquently schooling his fellow conservatives back in 2004 about what treason actually is, and what it quite clearly is not:

The reason that the Constitution contains a definition of treason is to make sure charges of treason would not get used in the US by any given administration to silence or destroy opponents, critics, and dissenters the way treason charges were being used in Europe at the time…

“Aid and comfort” is much more than just rhetoric and moral support. It refers to things like giving significant amounts of money or military equipment to an enemy, or engaging in espionage on an enemy’s behalf, or providing safe houses for enemy agents. Expressing opinions strongly critical of government policy, and advocating the idea that said policy is wrong and should be changed, is and must be protected political speech, not treason.

It would be highly dangerous to our system to try to claim that anyone who dissents against war is committing treason. That’s exactly what the Founders were trying to prevent in Article III and with the First Amendment. We cannot and should not think of dissent as treasonous.

Exactly. I’m quite aware that there is intelligent life at the other end of the political spectrum. I just wish that more of it was in high-profile places such as major cable news outlets, instead of buried deep in the bowels of the internets like the above. It may well be that the reason most of FOX News’ pundits seem so hypocritical today about conservative/tea party dissent, given their past stances on lefty/anti-war dissent, is not that they don’t understand what treason is versus what dissent is, but because they simply have chosen sides and are trying to win, regardless of how hypocritical it makes them look. Certainly people like Ann Coulter, who titled an entire book of hers regarding liberals “Treason,” but who as a lawyer knows very well what the actual difference is, would fall into this category.

In the end, however, it matters very little whether conservatives who are so quick to label dissent with which they disagree substantively as “treason” are doing it cynically, with full understanding of the difference between protected dissent and genuine treason (as Coulter and many others do), or out of an ignorant confusion (as Scarborough sounds like he does). The effect is – or can be – the same, especially when such mis-labeling comes from pundits and authors with national audiences. Namely, if the popular understanding of what constitutes treason becomes “dissent with which I disagree,” what’s to stop some exceptionally harmful laws from being passed on that basis? Only the courts…with whom the conservatives also disagree when they rule against conservative ideas and goals, labeling jurists “activist judges.” We can start down a very dangerous road when we return to the old-European notion that treason is speaking out against the state – which, in effect, merely means speaking out against the ruling party or movement.

That’s why I’d urge my conservative brothers and sisters to reflect a moment on the following idea: if you find nothing out-of-place or “treasonous” about Glenn Beck’s three-paragraph rant that began this post, but you are one of the people who either did find or would find similar speech by figures you despise (Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan, etc.) treasonous, can you explain the difference? If you can’t, then consider this: unless you’re fully prepared to begin a crusade toward military empire both within and without our borders, you have to acknowledge that you won’t always be in power. Heck, you’re not in power NOW. And if the popular understanding on both sides of the political aisle becomes: dissent = treason, imagine what that might mean for you personally the next time you find yourself in the minority? C’mon: you guys claim to be great lovers of the constitution and the wisdom of the founding fathers. OK, then: listen to it/them on one of the subjects about which they had the most personal knowledge: what it’s like to live under repressive government which does not provide freedom of speech nor tolerate dissenting voices. Those guys knew what they were talking about. That’s why they wrote the definition of treason the way they did.