As Jason noted, the right wing crazies are in high dudgeon these days.  And who can blame them?  There’s so much to be outraged by–an illegal immigrant in the White House, government bureaucrats preparing to off grandma, a terrorist sympathizer poised to join the Supreme Court.  

We’re living in a time of extreme right wing rhetoric (and I didn’t even get into the tea parties or anti-abortion leaders who call abortion murder, even as doctors who provide abortions are themselves murdered). I think Jason asks the right question: Is the extreme rhetoric we’re seeing from the right dangerous?  Raising this question doesn’t mean we should aim to suppress this speech, but it certainly means that the media and elected officials have a responsibility to call this craziness what it is – wild, kooky accusations that have no business in mainstream politics.

This can be a hard point to convey. Some people seem to think free speech means that criticizing someone else’s point of view is as bad as censoring them.  Not at all.  As Oliver Wendell Holmes observed nearly a century ago (though he didn’t always fully vindicate this idea in his opinions), the best response to speech we find despicable is, not censorship, but more speech–counterspeech aimed at exposing dangerous ideas.  Holmes suggested that the marketplace of ideas would weed out the extreme ones–but his theory depends on people stepping up to criticize loony ideas that have no place in mainstream debate.

As I said, some people, including elected officials, don’t seem to get this.  On Hardball last night, Seb. Bob Corker (R-TN) said that, although he doesn’t personally agree with the birthers, he suggested it’s great that they’re opening a dialogue by accusing the president of being an illegal alien.  Sen. Corker suggested that the birthers might educate us.

Sen. Corker is abdicating his responsibility to call out extremism for what it is.  Free speech doesn’t mean we have to praise kooky nuts who don’t believe President Obama’s election was legitimate.  Free speech, especially for elected officials like Sen. Corker (and the media) means not censoring, but exposing the extremists.  Sen. Corker might have said "the birthers have every right to make outrageous claims designed to undermine the legitimacy of the first black man elected president, and I have every right to point out how outrageous and dangerous these baseless claims are."

Of course, imagining Corker saying something like that is itself wacky.  But, to his credit, Chris Matthews, who spoke with Corker today on Hardball, seems to understand his responsibility here–he has been cutting the birthers down to size, and calling them out (unfortunately, he’s falling well short of the mark when it comes to the people Rachel Maddow refers to as "deathers").

Sen. Corker says he doesn’t agree with the birthers.  He and other Republican elected officials have the opportunity–I’d say, the responsibility– to put their money where their mouth is (at least, those of them who aren’t actively enabling the birthers) by recognizing their responsibility to call out extremism.  The marketplace of ideas doesn’t work by itself–it’s up to the media and elected officials to do their part.

Chris Edelson

Chris Edelson

Chris is a lawyer and professor at American University who writes frequently about current political and media issues. His writing has also been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Metroland (Albany, NY), and at commondreams.org

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