Not Just a Joke: Reflections on Free Speech, Violence and Mislabeled Heroism

Many years ago, when discussing the issue of hate speech and how it should be addressed on college campuses, my friend Paul Gallegos at Evergreen State College smiled and said, “Ya know, just because speech is free, doesn’t mean that it has to be worthless.” It’s a concept and a phrasing that has stuck with me for years. His deft appropriation of the double-meaning of “free” (both as liberty but also as a statement of non-existent value) was a stroke of genius, and one that has informed my understanding of these issues ever since. I am thinking about it again in the wake of recent events in France.

Following the horrific killings of journalists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, much has been said by pundits and prolific purveyors of tweet: about fanatical interpretations of Islam, about free speech, about the importance of satire, and about religious profiling and the notion of collective blame. Some of this commentary has been helpful and instructive, while other iterations of it have been incendiary and useless. But through it all, and although I am most horrified by those right-wing voices who seek to use the tragedy as a way to stoke their well-cultivated Islamaphobia, I am also troubled by what seems to be a prominent if not dominant narrative among many a liberal. It is a narrative that posits the victims of this grotesque crime as high-minded truth-seekers worthy of praise and emulation, and even as heroes, perhaps martyrs for the cause of freedom and liberty.

It strikes me that we should be able to roundly condemn the senseless and barbaric murders of journalists while still managing to have a rational conversation about free speech, in which empty platitudes about heroism need play no part. For instance, I believe it is possible to agree that free speech is an essential value, and that journalists should have the right to say what they want—even to offend others—without then proceeding to act as though every utterance (just because people have a right to it) is therefore worth defending as to its substance, and that free speech protects one from being critiqued for the things one says. Read the rest of this entry »


A Serious Question About Free Speech, “Heroism” and Violence


James Baldwin: “I Can’t Afford Despair” (and Neither Can We…Organize!)

Starting off the new year with a reminder from the incomparable James Baldwin that we haven’t the time for despair. There is too much work to be done…May 2015 bring justice to those denied it for so long.


Of Makers and Takers Revisited: The Right’s Latest Lies About Dependence on Government

On the one hand, I get it. Census Bureau reports can be pretty dry and a bit vague. They tend to be heavy on facts but pretty open-ended as to how one might interpret those facts. Census researchers aren’t paid to explain what the numbers suggest in most cases; rather, they are charged with compiling data and leaving it to social scientists to ascribe meaning to the numbers they divulge.

Sadly, there are no social scientists at FOX News, and so rather than cautious analysis in the face of official government data, we are treated to histrionic and transparently disingenuous deception in the furtherance of a right-wing narrative.

To wit, the recent alarm bells set off at Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda mill over a report indicating that sixty-five percent of American children now live in a household that receives some form of public assistance during the course of a year. The report, which was released this month, notes that among other indicators of child well-being, roughly two-thirds of the nation’s youth live in homes where benefits from SNAP (food stamps), TANF (cash welfare), Medicaid, WIC (nutritional aid for certain infants, toddlers and their moms) and/or the school lunch program are received. To FOX commentator and longtime actress Stacey Dash (whose most memorable role was, appropriately enough, in the film “Clueless”), such facts prove that government aid is “the new version of slavery.” Of course it is, because if you receive an EBT card or state-subsidized asthma medication it’s exactly like being whipped, raped, and stripped of all legal rights. Exactly. The. Same.

In any event, and putting aside Dash’s predictable and tired slavery analogy (which we hadn’t heard in at least a week from Ben Carson or Allen West), the entire reaction to the Census report in question indicates why you should never rely on anyone who gets their check from Roger Ailes to interpret social reality for you. Numbers and their meaning are simply above these folks’ pay grade.

Read the rest of this entry »


Of Matriarchs and Misinformation: Fact-Checking Conservative Lies About Black Women

In the wake of recent police killings of young black men — John Crawford, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice most prominently — there has been much discussion about the way in which large numbers of white Americans, and especially white police, view African American males. The criminalization of the black male body has rarely been as apparent as in the past few months. Regarding Mike Brown, we are told — and are expected to believe — that black men are “hulks” and “demons,” so irrational as to attack police without provocation, and then after being shot, throw caution to the wind and seek to run through a hail of bullets, as if possessed of superhuman strength. Because apparently it is easier to believe that than to believe a white officer with a history of belligerence, acting out of over-amped fear, prejudice or an authority jones would have killed a black man for talking back to him.

Regarding Eric Garner, we are told — and are expected to believe — that black men only die at the hands of police because of a stubborn refusal to submit to proper authority, to do what they are told, and to stop struggling, even if said struggle is only one that seeks to remove an officer’s arm from around one’s throat and end the compression of one’s jugular vein, which compression threatens to immediately shorten one’s life span. Because apparently it is easier to believe that than to accept the possibility that a member of the NYPD with a history of violating the rights of black men might actually kill one without cause, no matter the department’s own penchant for doing just that, and quite often.

We are told in the case of Tamir Rice — and are expected to believe — that even at the age of twelve, black males appear to be twenty and that in the cases of both Rice and Crawford, even when they didn’t point their toy guns or air rifles at anyone, they actually did — and we are to believe the police who tell us this, even when video evidence clearly demonstrates no such thing. We are to trust the claims of the officers that Rice and Crawford posed “imminent threats,” even as the videotapes in both cases prove the cops to be vile and unrepentant liars, who are willing to blame (in the case of Rice) a child for his own death at their hands, and to defend the actions of his killer, even as that killer cop was previously found to be emotionally unfit for the job. Because apparently, for some at least, it is easier to believe that than one’s own lying eyes.

The black male body has been popularly pathologized as a source of criminal danger, and the mere fact that black male crime rates are higher than those for whites is used as a justification for treating any and all black males as potential criminals: to be stopped, searched, frisked, detained, beaten, and even killed if an officer feels threatened by them. Or if a pathetic wanna-be like George Zimmerman does. The rhetoric about black men on talk radio and TV is almost uniformly condemnatory. A steady diet of “pull up your pants,” and “stop glorifying thugs,” and “stop killing each other” has been the complete menu of conservative commentary as of late, and the default position of much of white America, beholden to their racialized images.

Less discussed, however, but just as important, is the way in which black women too are being pathologized and demeaned, dissed by the same sources as those who have so continually sought to demonize their male counterparts. Read the rest of this entry »


Tim Wise on Racism and Policing: From “Cracking the Codes” (2012)

A brief clip from Shakti Butler’s powerful film, “Cracking the Codes” (World Trust Films, 2012). In this clip (filmed back in 2010 but clearly as relevant as ever), I briefly recount my experiences with law enforcement officials, and an experiment I do with them at the outset of our conversation, which demonstrates how automatic racial biases can be, and why it matters…


Tim Wise on the Rock Newman Show – Race and Racism in America 12/10/14

Tim Wise on the Rock Newman Show (Washington DC, WHUT/PBS), December 10, 2014


Tim Wise on CNN 11/26/14 -Racism, Ferguson and White Denial (w/Chris Cuomo and Charles Blow)

My appearance on CNN with Chris Cuomo and Charles Blow, 11/26/14 discussing the post-Ferguson rebellion and white denial regarding racism and law enforcement


Tim Wise on Movement Building and the Importance of Youth Activism – Lexington, KY, December, 2014

From the Q&A from my keynote in Lexington, KY, December, 2014, (MOSAIIC Conference) discussing the history of movement building and the importance of youth activism


Tim Wise on Whiteness and the Historical Trick of Racial Privilege

My response to a question from my December, 2014 talk at the Lyric Theatre, Lexington, KY…