Mike Gallagher is the sixth most popular radio host in America. Frankly, I had never heard of Mike Gallagher until about a month ago, when I was driving up to Maine and hit a stretch of I-95 that was beyond the reach of NPR. Gallagher was bloviating into the empty airspace with a long lament against Lowe’s home- improvement stores. Whilst wandering the aisles of said emporium, he found his sensibilities assaulted by a product promotion that was broadcast on the public address system in both English and Spanish. He was outraged. “What’s next, Chinese?” he demanded. The insult seemed to reside in the mere sound of a language of which he did not approve. “This is America!”
The English Only movement notwithstanding, this was the first time I’d heard someone demanding that a private business actually narrow its voluntary accommodation of a demographically diverse purchasing public. He wanted his audience to call Lowe’s en masse to complain, protest or boycott the chain until all vestiges of the Spanish language were ousted, renounced and securely walled off. To Mike Gallagher, it was a matter of “American sovereignty.”
Gallagher lives in the gloriously multilingual, fractious cosmopolis of New York City, as it turns out–a city where the public school population encompasses native speakers of 140 different languages; where every bike messenger speaks at least six; and where the upper classes pay $300 an hour for tutors who can cram enough Swedish, Arabic and Latin into their kids’ noggins to give them a fighting chance at a slot in kindergarten. So pardon my French, but whence the resentment of even the sound of “foreign” languages–never mind one so ubiquitous and accessible as Spanish–that you would want to boycott every last random utterance as blasphemy within our borders?
Rocket forward one month to the time of this writing. Mike Gallagher has suddenly burst into the national blogosphere as a heroic defender of free speech because he gave the Westboro Baptist Church an hour of unrestricted airtime in exchange for the church’s promise not to picket the funerals of the six murdered Amish schoolgirls. Westboro Church, unfortunately, is probably more notorious than Gallagher himself–its members are the inbred clan of madmen and -women who believe that everything from Hurricane Katrina to the deaths of soldiers in Iraq is God’s retribution against America for its moral failings. They are surely prejudiced in the broadest sense–Catholics are “the most hateful people on earth,” Billy Graham is “hell bound,” Mohammed was a “whoremonger,” the Book of Mormon is “hokey” and “Jews are the real Nazis.” But what drives them totally cuckoo is homosexuality: “Fag-Jew Nazis are worse than ordinary Nazis.” “Vampire” priests and “dyke nuns” have replaced the bread and wine with “sodomite feces and semen.” “Indeed, God Hates Fags” is the name of their website.
Now as a post-World War II, post-civil rights era baby boomer progressive optimist, I am used to thinking of the greatest free speech heroes as those who face loss of their livelihood, like John Peter Zenger, or who face risk of imprisonment or execution, like Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered while investigating a story about Russian soldiers selling Chechen corpses to the families of the deceased, who were desperate to accord them proper Muslim funerals. But in today’s America, freedom of expression is too commonly tested by rowdy frat boys spewing racist epithets, drunken actors mouthing off and randy politicians pressing the Send button on an e-mail before their brains catch up with their bodies. Not that these test cases are always without merit–I lean toward broad protections of speech–but neither am I an absolutist. We Americans seem so willing to ditch habeas corpus, yet we fight tooth and nail for the rights of raving lunatics whose tongues are hitched to the flywheels of hate. There’s an odd disconnect between the power of the President to “disappear” any of us on his say-so alone and my inalienable right to a reality show if I scream entertainingly enough at your funeral.
What is bothersome, too, about the deal between Mike Gallagher and the Westboro Church is that it was a commercial contract. “In consideration of” Westboro’s not picketing the Amish “whores,” Gallagher would “sacrifice” an hour of his show. If Westboro breached, they agreed to pay $500,000. It has a whiff of the extortionate about it, like children who declare that they will stop screaming only if the woebedraggled parents let them have that candy bar NOW! Or I’ll blow! This framing suggests that what’s at stake is the protection less of expression-no-matter-how-offensive than of plain old-fashioned Bullying (just as there’s an ingredient of lower-case bullying in Gallagher’s English-Only-Or-Else attitude toward Lowe’s). Moreover, it is bullying shot through with an element of entertainment. Whew, did that show get everyone’s juices jumping. It was better than a fistfight on Jerry Springer. It was even better than any of the multiple times the Westboro Church has appeared on Howard Stern’s show–Stern just adores their shock value. In other words, what gave this particular appearance a frisson of delicious despicability was that Gallagher aspired to Higher Political Purpose. But if there was a political point, it was surely much too easy. Jerry Falwell thinks the Westboro Church’s leader is a “certified nut.” I agree with Jerry Falwell. See? Too easy. Westboro Church has an oddly unifying power, a little like September 11. It’s so awful we can all shake our heads in dismay. As a baseline for political dissent, therefore, Westboro allows us to forget the degree to which the First Amendment anticipates a kind of political dissent that is more deeply challenging, a test not only of individual conscience but also of the majority’s commitment to the democratic ideal of suffering disagreement.
A greater and more interesting question for Mike Gallagher might be whether he would have invited the members of the Westboro Church onto his program, at any price, if they had been speaking Spanish.