Smile Politely

Bananas about Obama

It happens almost every Sunday. Actually, it happens almost daily when I read the editorial page of The News-Gazette: I feel disconcerted. I am lonely.

Last Sunday was even worse. “Death of Free Speech” read the prominent headline on the front of the Commentary section over a splashy syndicated column by John W. Whitehead, a constitutional lawyer with “roots in the millenarian Christian right.”

Whitehead was incensed by the uproar caused over the New York Post‘s cartoon about a chimpanzee

tagged as the author of the stimulus plan who was shot dead. The focus of the Whitehead’s outrage was the cries of racism that seemed to emerge as a result of the cartoon.

But racism wasn’t really at issue here. It wouldn’t matter much to show Obama as a chimpanzee, since it was certainly done to George W. Bush often enough. That’s because, in fact, Bush often did resemble a primate. There are multiple websites devoted to this phenomenon, like “Bush or Chimp?” photos and the political blog “The Smirking Chimp” (devoted to “the worst president in U.S. history”).

The real problem with the cartoon was that the chimp, the author of the stimulus plan, was assassinated, shot down in the street. This is not amusing.

The last I checked, it was against the law to joke about killing the President of the United States, who was in fact the author of the stimulus package. In fact, it’s not such a good idea to make jokes or cartoons about killing anyone, even monkeys.

We have already suffered through Sarah Palin mob events when shouts to kill Obama were heard and replayed repeatedly on YouTube. And, out of necessity, the security measures taken to protect Obama have been unprecedented. So yet another snarky allusion to shooting the president? Unacceptable in so many ways.

Yet, the assassination aspect of the cartoon was not mentioned in conservative Whitehead’s furious demand for “free speech.”

Before the election, I was in Schnuck’s shopping for, I don’t know, peanut butter ice cream, most likely. Some guy was talking loudly on his cell phone, actually sitting on a display in the middle of an aisle, and laughing about the terrorist pals of “Barack Hussein Obama,” disparagingly. Although sorely tempted to take his cell phone and throw it into the tank of live lobsters, I told him to take his political commentary (although the word may have been a little more harsh than commentary) somewhere else.

“Oh, now the liberals are coming out,” he said, laughing into the phone.

Later I ran into him (near the lobster tank as it turned out) and he said, defiant and proud, “We’re just not free any more, are we?”

“On the contrary,” I said. “You are free to say whatever you like. You’re free to walk up and down the aisles with a sign that says ‘Obama yo mama’ if you want. But and this is the important part

I can say whatever I like, too. And I’m free to say you are an idiot.”

The people pointing their fingers and shouting “censorship” are simply trying to shut up people who contradict them. They are the censors.

Free speech wasn’t stifled in the cartoon case. Free speech was exactly what was expressed by the people protesting the obnoxious cartoon.

Whitehead reminds me of Nate Hentoff, neither a conservative nor a liberal, but someone who champions certain key issues with vigor. As a “constitutional attorney,” Whitehead above all should have known his premise was wrong, but it was a convenient opportunity to parade his cause out again, and the column got wide play.

I resisted the impulse to add yet another angry letter to The News-Gazette‘s letters section. A week has passed. I’m over it. Really, I am.

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