Patti Wenzel

Free speech isn’t always smart speech

By - May 23rd, 2010 04:00 am
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Still capture from video courtesy of Today’s TMJ4

I’m a ‘Stallis girl through and through and lately my hometown has gotten some bad press. Last week, a bunch of knuckleheads decided to exercise their right of free speech by torching a small bust of President Barack Obama around bar time at a local watering hole and now everyone is up in arms. However, the West Allis Police and the Secret Service have determined no laws have been broken and charges will not be filed.

I’ve heard comments that this behavior is typical in West Allis, that burning Obama in effigy is racist and this is something that has never happened before.

Reality check here: No, No, and No.

First, this is not typical behavior for the residents of ‘Stallis. This was a ‘Stallis bar, but that doesn’t mean any of the patrons or bartenders hail from my hometown. There are bad eggs everywhere, but most Westallians are decent, hard working people whose only concern about their neighbor is if they are the also decent and hard working and  maybe what kind of beer they drink. Saying this incident is indicative of what you will encounter when interacting with a Westallian is like saying everyone who lives in Riverwest is a gun-wielding criminal because there has been some crime in that neighborhood.

Second, burning Obama’s bust was not a racist act, but it is a stupid act meant to elicit a base, raw emotional response. People have burned flags or hung presidents, kings and generals in effigy since the beginning of time. It’s an act of political speech, a grandstanding action to attract the town crier, newspaper reporter, television cameras and now, bloggers to the perceived offense.

This only became a racist issue after members of the media ran to the NAACP and asked them if it was. I saw it as stupid, they see it as racist. Unfortunately, I think some people are looking for racism in everything, and when you do, you can find it.

Finally, Obama is not the first, and will not be the last, president to be burned in effigy in our country. On President Obama’s inauguration day, protestors in Washington gave George W. Bush a warm sendoff by burning a replica of him in the streets. Other political figures in U.S. history, from King George to Hillary Clinton have all been vilified, defaced and offered up in flames by some group unhappy with their policies. Plus, this wasn’t even the first time Obama’s bust has been subjected to fire.

Liu Bolin, “Burning Man Obama”, 2009, Bronze and pyrotechnics, Courtesy Eli Klein Fine Art

Burning a flag or the likeness of a political leader is an act of desperation, a way to get attention when the establishment isn’t paying attention. Some people have come forward since the Obama burning incident and said those involved were mad about the president’s fiscal policies, a topic that is ripe for protest.

Do I agree with the method these people chose to express their displeasure with Obama’s presidency? No, but not because it is illegal or racist. I disagree with their method because it defines the argument in a narrow, angry tirade, not a reasonable exchange of ideas. If you want to express displeasure with an idea or ideology, stand up and make your case. Don’t hide behind a match and emotion.

Categories: Commentary, News

0 thoughts on “Free speech isn’t always smart speech”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Were these ‘knuckleheads’ racists? I don’t know them personally so it’s impossible to say without more information, but if one had to bet, the safer money would be on “YES”. The racial attitudes of the virulent anti-Obama types have been analyzed and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that our first black President has opponents who are more likely than not (gasp) racists.

    10% of these people avow that the very fact Obama is black is reason enough to oppose him. 10% would not a safe bet make – quite the opposite – but by margins that exceed 50% their attitudes towards blacks, immigrants, and gays definitely fall into the ‘BIGOT’ category.

    We live in a segregated city in a segregated society whose founding beliefs included the idea that blacks are sub-human. Every study conducted shows that racism is still prevalent whether it be in housing, employment, loan applications, etc. To deny it exists just perpetuates the problem.

    Maybe these clowns were just ill-informed morons who spend too much time listening to (and believing) the crap that Limbaugh, Beck, and Hannity spew forth everyday … but the odds are that racism played a role in lighting the match.

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