Roger’s Rules

John McCain, enemy of free speech

My friend Andrew McCarthy has an important and admonitory article over at National Review on the McCain/Feingold so-called “campaign finance reform” act. Actually, it should be called the “McCain/Feingold anti-political speech act.” John McCain, supposed conservative from Arizona, and Russ Feingold, ostentatious liberal from Wisconsin, may seem like an odd couple. But both have a passion to undermine the First Amendment by curtailing free speech in the political arena. Andrew explains:

McCain believes political speech is bad for democracy – as long, of course, as there is an exemption for mainstream media speech that swoons over “mavericks” who break with conservatives over immigration, global warming, the Bush tax cuts, etc. The Senator, however, is astute enough to know his assault on the First Amendment is wildly unpopular with the people whose nomination he seeks. So, to put their minds at ease, he told National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru last year that he was satisfied by President Bush’s 2002 decision to sign McCain/Feingold into law. He would, he assured, seek no further “legislation” to ban political speech.

Turns out the captain of the “Straight-Talk Express” left out one itsy-bitsy detail. Even as he spoke those words, he was – as an influential senator – exhorting the United States Supreme Court to tack a sweeping judicial ban onto the already extensive McCain/Feingold restrictions.

The target was Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL). This pro-life group well understood that when it comes to abortion, the action is in the federal courts. In 2004, the president was working to put his pro-life stamp on those courts by appointing conservative judges. He was being blocked by Democrats, who, though in the minority, were capitalizing on the chamber’s procedural rules to filibuster nominees for the all-important federal appellate courts. One of those Democrats was none other than Sen. Feingold. So WRTL decided to run issue ads, urging Feingold to do his constitutional duty and give the Bush nominees an up-or-down vote.

Feingold, however, was up for reelection. In the Alice in Wonderland world of McCain/Feingold, that meant it was ostensibly against the law for an interest group in our democracy to utter his name in “electioneering statements” on a matter of vital public policy 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election – that is, in the 90 days when public attention is at its height and political speech matters most. As the First Amendment ensures that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,” WRTL had this crazy notion that McCain/Feingold violated its fundamental rights.

Obviously, McCain is all for “straight talk” as long as it is he – or the New York Times – doing the talking

We have all become inured to assaults on free speech from the Left. After all, that’s a large part of what political correctness is all about: free speech for me, but not for thee. It’s so blatant that the phrase “political correctness” is often accompanied by a smile–it’s an an uneasy smile, to be sure, but it is a smile nonetheless. “Politically correct” describes some exaggerated bit of left-wing moralism–so exaggerated that it is hard to take seriously. We smile when we read about an elite American college that has enrolled the sin of “lookism“–that is, the unacceptable belief that some people are more attractive than others–into its catalogue of punishable offenses. We laugh when hearing that a British academic has condemned Frosty the Snowman as a white “male icon” that helps “to substantiate an ideology upholding a gendered spatial/social system,” whatever that is. We scoff when we hear about the University of Michigan professor who complains that J. K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter books “conventionally repeat much of the same sexist and white patriarchal biases of classical fairy tales.” We smile, we laugh, we scoff. But most of us do so uneasily.

Why the uneasiness? There are several reasons. In the first place we know that such strictures, though preposterous, are not without consequence. Indeed, the phenomenon of political correctness is a great teacher of the often overlooked lesson that the preposterous and the malign can cohabit happily. Just because something is preposterous does not mean it is not dangerous.

There is also the fact that the odor of malignity, of thuggishness, is never far from the lairs of political correctness. The student accused of lookism can be severely penalized for the offense, as can the student accused of racism, “homophobia,” or “mis-directed laughter.” In some cases, the academic thought police even attempt to regulate what is not said, as when an editor of a student newspaper was removed from his post because he had given “insufficient coverage” to minority events. We laugh when we read about poor Frosty, but the laughter dies when we consider that the professor who would have us melt Frosty is also someone responsible for the education of students. It is amusingly ludicrous to burden Mrs. Rowling’s entertainments with feminist rhetoric, but then we remember that books can be banned or slighted for less.

It is worth bearing this in mind as we contemplate the implications of the McCain-Feingold act. As I say, we’re used to such things on college campuses and, increasingly, in the workplace. But it is dispiriting, to say the least, to see such an assault on free speech in its most originary form–argument and the expression of opinion about basic political controversies and candidates–under attack by a man who advertises himself as a conservative and champion of individual liberty.