Two related scenarios involving principles behind the First and Second Amendments unfolded in the week of the Navy Yard massacre. While the knee-jerk mainstream media's “both sides do it” narrative would handily treat them as mirror images, they actually represent opposite sides of a long-running political drama: The attempted silencing of an NRA critic is a commonplace example of McCarthyism, while the firing of a profanity-spouting small-town police chief is an all-too-rare example of an out-of-control would-be McCarthyite being called to account.
Comparing these two cases, we see the NRA side eagerly embracing a double-standard: absolute free speech protections for those on their side, but outraged condemnations — even death threats — for those who oppose them. But the actual facts support an opposite conclusion: NRA “speech” is embedded in a campaign of intimidation that is designed to make everyone else shut up, not to promote the free flow of ideas.
Here are the basics: In Eastern Pennsylvania, Mark Kessler, a profanity-spouting “Second Amendment hero,” was suspended as police chief of Gilberton (population 700), with final termination pending his right to a public hearing, as a dozen armed supporters rallied outside. Half a continent away, on the other side of the gun debate, Kansas University journalism professor David Guth was swiftly suspended from teaching for the hotly-debated content of a single angry tweet: “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”
If that's all you know of these two cases, then the “both sides do it” narrative might seem plausible — but it ignores almost everything else about them. Kessler has been in hot water for months now, and his supporters have shown up with guns to intimidate his critics on two separate occasions. “When it came time to open the small borough building for the public meeting, these armed men blocked the doors and prevented people from going inside,” a local reporter noted on July 31. Kessler first achieved notoriety with a series of profanity-laced viral videos complete with automatic gun fire, including one in which he calls out Secretary of State John Kerry by name, daring him to come take his guns away. The reasons for his termination, however, primarily revolved around misuse of public property involved in making the videos. He is yet another out-of-control law enforcement officer whom elected civilian officials have failed to discipline early on — think J. Edgar Hoover, Daryl Gates or Joe Arpaio — but his latest antics have lost him the support of others like him, including the Oath Keepers.
On the other hand, Guth has no such colorful history, no long public trail of outrageous comments. He's just a potential victim of the latest wrinkle on old-school McCarthyism, or even its post-World War I predecessor, the original Red Scare, where J. Edgar first made his bones. Erik Loomis, at "Lawyers, Guns and Money," called it “The Gun Scare,” and he should know: he was almost fired for a single angry anti-NRA tweet in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, but was saved by an impressive show of online support, centered at Crooked Timber.
Three main points distinguish these two cases: First, the vastly different roles and responsibilities of police officers and professors. Second, the prolonged pattern of antagonistic behavior on Kessler's side versus a single speech act by Guth. Third, the violent extremism of Kessler's politics versus the moderation of Guth's. Let's consider them in turn.
First, as a police chief, the purpose of Kessler's job is to protect the peace and security of the community he serves — not to endanger it. Restricting his speech is just part of the job. Police officers are routinely restricted in commenting to the public when doing so might endanger public safety — a well-known fact for any fan of police procedurals. Of course such restrictions need to make sense, but no one doubts their importance for the job.
The exact opposite is true of college professors, as is recognized in KU’s Code of Faculty Rights, Responsibilities and Conduct: “Freedom of inquiry, expression, and assembly are guaranteed to all faculty members.” This was reinforced by by Guth's colleagues in the KU journalism department, who issued a statement saying, “[W]e support his right to express his ideas, just as we support the rights of others to express their own opinions about his comments. Promoting freedom of expression has always been a core value of our school.” Tenure entails a free speech protection that's conceptually similar to the First Amendment, but is legally more robust, and protects faculty at private institutions as well. That's because academia thrives on the conflict of ideas — not on stifling them.
Second, Kessler was disciplined for a prolonged pattern of deliberately provocative behavior. What he said is only one small part of the picture. The ultimate decision to fire him hinges primarily on his misuse of public property in creating the videos that gained him notoriety. He also stoked public fear, anger and distrust by rallying a mass of armed supporters to surround the meeting where his initial temporary suspension was being voted on. While not implicated as a reason for his firing, it clearly showed that protecting public safety — what he was being paid to do — was not his highest priority.
Again, in sharp contrast, Guth is being threatened for a single, spontaneous and ambiguous tweet. The idea that it represents a threat would never stand up in court: there is no specific person being targetted, and there's no statement of intent to do harm. Not only has Guth disavowed that interpretation, he's got written evidence supporting him. On the same day as the tweet, he wrote something very similar on his blog, but without the 140-character limit, Guth made it quite clear that he didn't wish anyone any harm:
I don't wish what happened today on anyone. But if it does happen again — and it likely will — may it happen to those misguided miscreants who suggest that today's death toll at the Navy Yard would have been lower if the employees there were allowed to pack heat.
Third, Kessler advocates an extremist agenda, while Guth advocates balance. This may not be evident from tip-of-the-iceberg quotations, but it is an accurate picture of where the two men are coming from, and as such it directly refutes the “both sides do it” narrative.
As Nick Wing reported for Huffington Post, “In a separate video, Kessler takes aim at Kerry and the Obama administration for their support of a UN arms trade treaty. The agreement, designed to stem the trafficking of illicit weapons to terrorists, warlords, organized crime figures and human rights violators, has emerged as a popular bugbear for gun rights activists who claim that it will be used to confiscate guns domestically.”
This paranoid misrepresentation is just another example of how gun extremists refuse to take any meaningful steps to prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands. They are extremists because they will not recognize any balancing requirements, any legitimate purpose for restricting guns — even from terrorists and criminals. In this, they are far to the right of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. They are objectively extreme.
In sharp contrast, in the sentences immediately before the blog passage cited above, Guth wrote:
Do our citizens have a right to bear arms? Certainly, that's what the Constitution says. But as it is with every other right enumerated in the Bill of Rights, there are limits. A person's right to go about his or her job at the Navy Yard — or for that matter to attend an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut — trumps any individual's right to stockpile weapons of mass destruction in the name of personal freedom.
Whether or not you agree with Guth about the particulars, this is the very definition of a balanced view. Guth's controversial statement appears in the context of this broader view and stands out as an expression of despair that such a balanced view apparently counts for nothing in American politics today. Guth's blog also includes recent posts critical of President Obama and Hillary Clinton. The notion that Guth somehow represents a political mirror image of Kessler would be utterly laughable if it weren't so tragic.
With these three crucial differences in mind, we're ready to return to the Gun Scare framing. Loomis began his post:
We know of the Red Scare. On campus, anticommunism during World War I and after World War II led to fired faculty and silenced opposition.
Today we live in the Gun Scare. If professors speak out against the NRA, they are drummed out of their jobs. The website Campus Reform is their McCarthyite shock troops. I of course experienced this last December. Luckily I survived...
This is a bit oversimplified, since it leaves out the harrowing way in which on-campus McCarthyism made a huge comeback in the years following 9/11. I wrote a story about that in 2007, in which I interviewed historian Ellen Schrecker, author of several books on McCarthyism."What we're seeing is an attack on whole disciplines, on Middle East studies and ethnic studies," Schrecker told me. "That will have a chilling effect on how these are dealt with in the academy."
Schrecker said something similar in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, writing about the related, Orwellian "Academic Bill of Rights" campaign organized by former-Communist-turned-rightwinger David Horowitz:
Today's assault on the academy is more serious. Unlike that of the McCarthy era, it reaches directly into the classroom. In the name of establishing intellectual diversity, Horowitz and his allies want to impose outside political controls over core educational functions like personnel decisions, curricula, and teaching methods. Such an intrusion not only endangers the faculty autonomy that traditionally protects academic freedom, but it also threatens the integrity of American higher education.
The post-9/11 dominance of right-wing hysteria has worn off, but as Loomis rightly notes, the neo-McCarthyites haven't stopped, they've only adapted. To succeed nowadays they have to be able to fool the mainstream into confusing the David Guths of this world with the Mark Kesslers. In the current political environment, the fallacious “both sides do it” narrative is the most potent ally that the neo-McCarthyites have.
One final note. The tweet that almost got Loomis fired was: “I was heartbroken in the first 20 mass murders. Now I want Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick.” In contrast to the charge that this was a bloodthirsty call for murder, the Crooked Timber support petition noted the following definition of "head on a stick" from the Urban Dictionary:
A metaphor describing retaliation or punishment for another’s wrongdoing, or public outrage against an individual or group for the same reason.
The petition also noted that one of those attacking Loomis, right-wing blogger Glenn Reynolds, had previously responded to Benghazi by demanding, “Can we see some heads roll?” but was now accusing Loomis of using “eliminationist rhetoric.”
David Neiwert, who literally wrote the book on the subject, "The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right," helpfully weighed in:
As I explain in the book, the term describes not just ordinary violent rhetoric, but rather involves the "positing of elimination as the solution to political disagreement. Rather than engaging in a dialogue over political and cultural issues, one side simply dehumanizes its opponents and suggests, and at times demands, their excision."
The demands for Guth to be fired for a single tweet are far milder than the death threats that have been made against him. But the calls to cut university funding are more broadly chilling. And there's more than a whiff of eliminationism about them as well.
This takes us to the very heart of the matter. When professors like Loomis or Guth are accused of “eliminationist rhetoric” in attempts to fire them from their jobs, what we're really seeing is not the mirror image of the NRA's violent rhetoric, but the projection of that eliminationist impulse onto those who too passionately oppose it.