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Free Speechified
November 6, 2003
By Michael Arvey

"Come to the edge," he said.
They said, "We are afraid."
"Come to the edge," he said.
They came.
He pushed them...
And they flew.
- Peter McWilliams

In a free trade (a euphemistic catch phrase for something far less sweet sounding) speech he gave to Australia's Parliament on October 23, President George Bush replied to a Green Senator's's angry heckles by retorting, "I love free speech." Perhaps as much as he loves free trade?

To listen to the president of the U.S. has become a grating trial in the art of patience, an ineluctable life lesson in credibility and discernment. Not long ago the war in Iraq brought us warnings regarding the words we employ, which were delivered by Donald Rumsfeld, Ari Fleischer and John Ashcroft. Be careful what you say. Be afraid. The enemy seeks to destroy our freedoms. Conquer abroad, repress at home.

Now George Bush has personally joined the free speech fray, admonishing Sen. Edward Kennedy for criticizing Bush's Iraqi debacle. In a September 21 interview with Fox News anchorman Brit Hume, Bush said, "I don't mind people trying to pick apart my policies, and that's fine and that's fair game. But you know, I don't think we're serving our nation well by allowing the discourse to become so uncivil that people say - use words that they shouldn't be using." Bush further indicated he doesn't get news from the news media, but from his "objective" staff. Hoo hah.

From the outset of the Iraq war, the Bush administration has tried to freeze free speech. But if impending war and post-war criticism aren't pressing and appropriate times for a free allowance of speech, then when and in what circumstance would it be? Should a citizenry feign patriotic zeal and support a president and policies that are clearly and disingenuously deceptive and wrong?

George Bush loves free speech so much that he allowed, on his watch, students at Ohio State University to be warned against protesting during Bush's June 14, 2002 commencement address. According to the Columbus Dispatch (6/15/02), "Graduates had been warned during rehearsal on Thursday that they faced arrest if - as was rumored - some stood up and turned their backs on Bush during his speech." On the day of the commencement, an announcer told the graduates that "anyone demonstrating or heckling would be subject to expulsion and arrest. The announcer urged that Bush be greeted with a 'thunderous' ovation." (AP 6/14/02) Geesh, talk about putting thunder in your mouth.

One of Bush's ludicrous but finest deceptions is described by former U.S. attorney-general Ramsey Clark: "Why did the White House object to the interview with President Saddam Hussein by Dan Rather, seek to interject rebuttal and rebuke at different points in the interview, and then complain that a person who lies should not be allowed in the media?" Carefully survey the concluding question; give an ear to the roaring bell.

The Bush administration has masterminded a climate of fear designed to squelch even purely imagistic dissent and opposition. One of the most disturbing free speech episodes surrounding the Iraq war protests was the arrest of a 60-year-old lawyer at an Albany, New York mall. His crime? He wore a T-shirt that on one side read, "Give Peace a Chance" and on the other side, "Peace on Earth." Told to either leave the mall or to remove the T-shirt, he refused. Hence, his imminent arrest. Apparently the Christmas holidays are now the only time to advocate peace?

What's the difference between Bush's speeches to the folks back home and to the Australian Federal Parliament? In Australia, he and his entourage didn't have the leeway or means to silence dissent, or to establish a free speech zone outside of the Parliament building as we have witnessed them do in the U.S. Out of sight, out of mind, behind cordoned-off barriers. Free speech is of little use if no one can hear it. As others have noted, including Congressman Barney Frank, the entire landmass of this country is supposed to be a free speech zone. When the Senator yelled out at Bush, Bush had no choice but to swoon with a loquacious "I love free speech" statement.

As commentator Jennifer Van Gergen in a Truthout article (10/15/02) correctly points out, "The silencing of dissent under the PATRIOT Act and such related measures as First Amendment Zones are anathema to free speech and assembly." Bush's utterance is just another instance on a long boat ride up a sludgy river of doublespeak. Ah, what the heckling: if President Bush wants to know what's up in the land of the free, he may speak to this unsanctioned dissenter's backside on any subject he cares to - I'll even keep it a secret. Promise.

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