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Defending Free Speech By Screaming Your Head Off

Defending your First Amendment Right of Free Speech
By Screaming Your Fool Head Off

By Mark W. Bradley

During the past four years, that portion of the American public not suffering from self-induced voluntary lobotomies (variously estimated at between one-third and one-half of the adult population) has witnessed one of the most macabre displays of Machiavellian mendacity ever foisted off on a nominally civilized nation. Act One of this Opus Diabolus began with Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, et al, snuffling around in the dark, dank corners of 20th Century history, painstakingly gathering up all the rancid kernels of European fascism they could lay their grubby little fingers on and repackaging them into star-spangled, red, white and blue Mylar seed packets. These they put into the hands of a simple (but not-so-plain-spoken) farmer named George, who, along with his adoring hordes of synaptically challenged followers, sowed them deep in the furrows of the American landscape.

Yesterday evening, just a few blocks from my house, I was treated to a close-up view of a manure-laced field in which those seeds are now germinating with impressive fecundity.

For several days now, I have been hearing on the local "Air America" station about a couple named Stephen and Virginia Pearcy and their controversial efforts to draw attention to the atrocities resulting from the United States invasion and occupation of the once sovereign nation of Iraq. Their protest took the form of a controversial display suspended from the crest of their roof. It consisted of combat soldier's uniform with a noose around its neck and a sign pinned to it that read "Your Tax Dollars At Work."

Now, to a normal person operating at above a sub-moronic level of intelligence, the intended message should have been crystal clear, to wit, "As a taxpayer, you should be mad as hell that your hard earned tax dollars are being used to fund a war of conquest that enriches corporate contracting firms even as it robs brave young men and women of their lives and limbs."

Nevertheless, there are those for whom the threshold of critical thinking necessary to accurately interpret the above message remains hopelessly out of reach. Two such unfortunate individuals made separate assaults on the Pearcy anti-war monument in the span of a week. One fell, but was not seriously injured. No matter. I'm still laying odds against him making it to the deep end of the gene pool.

On Tuesday, I received several e-mails from fellow progressives informing me that an organization known as "Move America Forward" was planning a candlelight vigil across the street from the Pearcys, protesting their display as "shameful" and "unpatriotic." One of these e-mails was from a friend and fellow writer, Mark Drolette. He had recently met the Pearcys (we all happen to live within one square mile of each other), and told me what decent people they seemed to be. He said he had contacted them about the vigil, and had offered to mitigate their personal upheaval by providing them with dinner following their grueling commute from the Bay Area. Drolette asked me if I wanted to go along, and I said I would welcome the opportunity to demonstrate my solidarity with their cause.

As the two of us arrived on the scene with our family-sized combination pizza, we were forced to park several blocks away from the Pearcys' house. Slogging our way through the rain soaked streets beneath a steady drizzle, we noticed local media vans stationed on every corner like self-appointed sentinels, each exuding miles of electrical cord that snaked its way under, around and through a dichotomous parade of parked vehicles: staid green Volvos nudged up against muscular red Cameros, fuel-sipping Honda hybrids cheek-by-jowl with octane-chugging Ram 4x4's. The normally quiet Land Park neighborhood echoed with what sounded like a low budget reenactment of the Storming of the Bastille. As we drew closer to the vortex of the commotion, we could see the tableau illuminated by flickering candles and blinding floodlights. My inner-child thrilled to the sight. The Circus was in town.

Two small armies of demonstrators, each numbering between 150 and 200 people, stood glaring at each other from positions maybe ten yards apart, separated only by a handful of Sacramento's finest in their black hats and slickers. [Allow me to say here that these officers are to be commended for doing an admirable job amidst the exuberant acrimony displayed on both sides of the street. They performed their duties in a professional manner and kept all parties out of harm's way, even as they strove to allow as wide a berth of expression as possible for all concerned. They acted like cops should act in a democratic republic, and I can think of no higher compliment to pay them.]

Taking up our positions on Stephen and Virginia's front porch, Monsieur Drolette and I surveyed the scene. On our side of the street were the usual suspects: free speech advocates, college professors, Vietnam Veterans for Peace, students, union activists, writers. There was laughter, joking, bantering, folk singing, and, of course, milling around on the lawn. Mark mused that the Pearcys' little patch of grass must have suffered more inadvertent vandalism that night at the hands (or rather the feet) of their friends and supporters than by either of the mischievous attempts to dismantle the offending displays.

On the other side of the street, the tone was markedly different: grim-faced fundamentalist women bearing crosses, elderly men in uniforms holding oversized American flags and military banners, staggering skinheads of doubtful sobriety waving banners reading "Shame on You!" A few were praying, most were braying, spewing out venomous shouts of "Osama loves you", and "Go back to Berkeley." One of the more hypo-cerebral hyper-patriots was arrested on suspicion of public drunkenness. Up until he was cuffed, he seemed to be having a particularly jolly time yelling "shame on you" into our faces. I'm sure the irony of the moment sailed over his head like a helium balloon.

We, of course, obliged by shouting back things like "Where is Osama, anyway?" and "Go back to Nuremberg". By the time the Pearcys arrived and were busy being mobbed by reporters representing every news outlet from the Associated Press to a local high school newspaper, the whole event had settled into a kind of ritual - a dueling chorus of self-righteous indignation.

I wish I could report that the whole thing was mutually edifying, that large numbers of people on both sides of the street made conscious efforts to open their hearts and minds to the reasoned opinions of their political adversaries. I'd love to tell you that we earnestly endeavored to find common ground, that we met and mingled pleasantly in the middle of the street, striking up impromptu baseball games, trading cigarettes for chocolate bars, showing each other pictures of our wives and sweethearts back home.

But hey, don't expect anything as amiable as World War I trench warfare. You're in Bush's America now, so forget all that sentimental crap. Fuck the other guy.

We left once the Pearcys had retired for the evening. By the time I got home, the 10:00 local news was covering the remnant of the "event" live as its lead story. Of course, by then the once burgeoning crowds had dwindled to a handful of dedicated die-hards catapulting insults at each other across the narrow river of asphalt like a couple of petulant (but lethargic) methadone addicts. The rest of us went home to try and get a bit of sleep before trudging off to our jobs in the morning. We'll make arrangements to come back and yell at each other again real soon...

"When it all comes down to trust, I will help you if I must, I will kill you if I can..." - Leonard Cohen


Mark W. Bradley is a history teacher and political satirist in Sacramento, California. He can be contacted at

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