Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Emperor's Stunning Clothes: Free Speech as Lifeblood of Democracy

Are my new clothes not stunning? Say yes, or say goodbye to your head.

What is it with the proliferation of claims these days that authority figures in democratic societies are somehow untouchable? That authority figures cannot be criticized? That we who seek to build a participatory democracy do not benefit from open, free discussion of the possible pitfalls of those who lead us?

In my posting last Friday, I noted that the McCain campaign is stating that its vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin must be treated with “respect and deference,” or she will not be accessible to the media” (http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/09/god-told-me-extreme-danger-of-rule-by.html). After Tina Fey portrayed Sarah Palin in a “Saturday Night Live” skit this weekend, McCain spokesperson Carly Fiorina informed the media that Ms. Fey’s skit had been “disrespectful” to Sarah Palin.

Respect and deference? Disrespectful? A candidate for office? Someone who actually holds office? A leader? In a democracy?

Have we suddenly time-warped back to Franco’s Spain, and no one has told me about the time warping?

And, at the same time that I’m reading about how we must all treat our candidates with respect and deference, if we expect them to answer questions and deign to give interviews, I read that an Italian comic is being threatened with a lawsuit for joking about Pope Benedict XVI (http://clericalwhispers.blogspot.com/2008/09/joking-about-pope-is-wholly-appropriate.html). Sabina Guzzanti, whose comedic targets routinely include politicians and prelates, recently made the mistake of joking about the pope.

She has now been informed by Italian prosecutors that the Justice Ministry may charge her under a 1929 Lateran treaty which states that the person of the pope is “sacred and inviolable” and thus not susceptible to satire (www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/sep/12/italy.catholicism?gusrc=rss&feed=worldnews). Ms. Guzzanti could potentially end up in prison for five years.

The pope is a particular hot potato these days, it seems. Clerical Whispers blog reports today that a German Lutheran pastor, Clemens Bittlinger, has been placed under police protection after receiving threats of violence when he wrote and published a song expressing his desire to walk with Pope Benedict and discuss theological issues (http://clericalwhispers.blogspot.com/2008/09/german-priest-gets-police-protection.html).

The Clerical Whispers report links to the song, which is, in my view, theologically and politically irreproachable. In the song, Bittlinger simply talks to the pope as if the pope had, indeed, permitted Bittlinger to approach his sacred person. He notes that Benedict is the shepherd of one of the churches Christendom, but some of what he does and states seems not to represent Christ—like his unwillingness to permit condom use in Africa, where it’s clear that condoms would prevent the spread of HIV and thus the deaths of African babies that the church does not hesitate to baptize.

Because of his theologically provocative (and yet totally justifiable) lyrics, Bittlinger has received letters informing him that he is a “dirty Protestant pig” on whom the writer s---s.

In my view, it’s no accident that these you-will-respect-me-or-else imperatives are being hurled around by embattled authority figures everywhere now. Though miles and culture gaps separate Sarah Palin and Pope Benedict XVI, the two do have something in common: they are authority figures whose allies want (illicitly, I would maintain) to tell us that they are beyond criticism, since they stand in place of God, somehow. They represent God to us. They speak for God.

In American culture, the claim that the president somehow represents God, is chosen by God, is placed in power by God—and is, therefore, beyond criticism—has been growing in recent years. This claim has everything to do with the rise of the religious right to power in the latter decades of the 20th century. The religious right has virtually deified the president (that is, any president elected with its support), and has sought in every way possible to thwart criticism of its presidents, on the grounds that such criticism is akin to sacrilege.

This way of thinking links very easily to the currents of fascism that, as I have maintained in other postings, are never really far from the surface in Catholicism. The attempt to curb the free speech of Pastor Bittlinger and comedian Guzzanti is nothing short of fascist, pure and simple. It is no accident that the 1929 Lateran accord declaring the person of the pope “sacred and inviolable” was made when Mussolini was prime minister in Italy. This was a Fascist agreement, one the Catholic church made with the Fascist government of Italy.

The attempt to declare authority figures off-limits, and to use draconian legal maneuvers to silence criticism and free speech that in any way questions the pretensions and foibles of authority figures, is rooted in fascism. The use of violence and threats (“You dirty Protestant pig, I s--t on you and your dirty songs”; you may be jailed for five years for laughing at the pope) is a fascist tactic, a time-honored one: when all else fails, when every other attempt to silence dissent within democratic strictures falls short, take off the gloves and use coercion.

I can only keep saying it like a siren blaring its annoying alarm over and over in the wilderness: elect those given to such fascist suppression of free speech, and we’re in trouble. Free speech is the lifeblood of healthy democracies. Take it away, and you have a democracy on life-support, one whose plug will inevitably have to be pulled.

Remove free speech—and, yes, impertinent questions and disrespectful comedic send-ups of authority figures—from our society and its institutions, and we permit those who rule us to do whatever they please, whenever they please. Behind the veil. Under cover of darkness.

And all the while, using God as their warrant for being untouchable, unapproachable, unquestionable.

Is this where we really want to go? It’s definitely where we’re headed. And you and I are the only ones who can do something about it. Those at the top—the untouchable, unapproachable, unquestionable, divinely sanctioned ones—they aren’t going to change things, except to make it harder for us to approach and question.

As an aside, please see a disclaimer I added to this blog on 4 June this year (http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/06/dream-one-table-for-all-all-at-table.html). Please permit this notice to serve as a reminder that this disclaimer remains in effect for anything I publish on this blog.

Disclaimer: In writing in this blog about either white or black persons, males or females, black males or white males, black females or white females, churches and church institutions, it is not my intention to embarrass, harass, adversely affect, or work either directly or indirectly to the detriment of any unnamed person, whether black, white, male, or female, or unnamed institution. I write solely as a theologian and scholar seeking continued dialogue about issues of importance to church and society, as my blog profile states. This disclaimer remains in effect for any future postings I may write on this blog.