Dr. Charles Tiller (left) and Stephen Johns (above). Would they still be alive if we clamped down on hate groups?

I’m so far to the political left that Barack Obama couldn’t find me with a GPS. That said I’m taking liberals to the woodshed. For years liberals have called for restrictive readings of the Second Amendment, but they’ve been like a mule with cement overshoes in refusing to tinker with the First. The recent murders of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas and security guard Stephen Johns at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC lead me to conclude that liberals need to reconsider the parameters of free speech.

Unfettered free speech has long been a liberal article of faith. The argument runs that unless one supports the right to say or represent anything, no matter how morally repugnant, free speech will be endangered for all causes. In a moment that I hope now gives him pause, Noam Chomsky once wrote the forward to a Holocaust denier’s book in the name of free speech. Chomsky vigorously denounced the author’s ideas, but argued that banning the book was more dangerous than making distasteful views public. Chomsky was wrong, and so are others who take an absolutist’s perspective on free speech. They confuse liberty with libertinism.

Let’s dispel a myth: speech is not and never has been 100% free of constraint. The classic example of not being able to yell “Fire!” in a crowded auditorium is a public safety/common sense restriction, but it’s not the only one. You cannot legally slander another person, use words to sexually harass, display certain words or images in places where they would cause public alarm, or make utterances that make someone fear for their safety. This leads me to wonder why Scott Roeder and James von Brunn—the murderers of Tiller and Johns—were able to cruise so many hate-filled, violence-inducing Websites. Google Tiller and you can come up with various “Tiller the Killer” sites. Some are busily taking down pages that incited violence, but quite a few remain unrepentant and celebrate Tiller’s murder. As for von Brunn, convince me that the neo-Nazi, white supremacist Websites he frequented were warm, fuzzy, and harmless and I’ll reconsider this statement: It’s time to regulate the Web and all other hate group utterances; a civil society should not hid behind abstract free speech principles in the face of concrete examples of harm done. If a group advocates violent law-breaking or denying the rights of others, take down their Websites, ban their literature, put them on terrorist watch lists, and let Homeland Security monitor their actions.

“Isn’t that what the Nazis did?” liberals ask. “If we ban hate groups, don’t we quash everyone’s right to dissent?” Wrong on both scores. All we need to do is apply existing public safety standards. There’s a world of difference between an anti-choice group holding a public rally or pray-in and one that advocates violence. We can disagree with the anti-choice position, but still defend the right to hold it as long as violence is not incited and dissenting viewpoints are not suppressed, threatened, or harassed.

In 1977 I stopped making donations to the American Civil Liberties Union when it filed suit to allow American Nazis to hold a parade in Skokie, Illinois. The ACLU cried “Free speech!” but I was (and remain) unmoved. Why on earth should free speech be respected for any group, which if successful, would curtail that very right? Liberals who support the ACLU’s position on Skokie—or the rights of current hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or Operation Rescue—elevate individual rights over public safety and civil society. No matter how many noble platitudes about freedom are uttered, the recipe is one for social chaos. The real danger of unregulated speech is more likely to induce fascism than slapping down dangerous libertines. If public discourse has no limits on what behaviors it is allowed to entice, the logical result is a society in which might defines right, not those principles that ought to be higher than free speech: life, liberty, and choice. Let the anti-choice or anti-Semitic groups take power and then tell me how much free speech is allowed.

Why do we lack the guts to say it? There are things that ought not to be tolerated: coerced belief, gay-bashing, anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism, incitement to violence… How horrible would it be if anti-choice groups weren’t allowed to call for the murder of abortion providers, Nazis were denied an audience, and Barnes and Noble had to take Holocaust denial books off the shelf? I can live with that. More to the point, maybe George Tiller and Stephen Johns could have. With more prudence regarding the First Amendment, liberals wouldn’t have as much recourse to argue about the Second.-LV



Flatpicking Grass
FGM Records 128
What a concept! Collect a dozen tracks from some of the finest guitar flatpickers and vocalists in contemporary bluegrass music, slap them on a CD and let the fun begin. What could go wrong on an album featuring luminaries such as Brad Davis, Tim May, Jim Nunally, Tim Stafford, and Jeff White—artists who have been hailed as the heirs of Norman Blake, Tony Rice and Doc Watson? Especially when the tracks were chosen by Flatpicking Guitar Magazine? Somewhere along High Concept Road somebody forgot to consider something every performer considers basic: the set list. The result is a dozen high-quality tracks that are, for the most part, so interchangeable that it’s often hard to differentiate one performer from another. Bright splashy performances are wasted on a musical canvas that’s analogous to what would have happened if Monet had decided to paint the gardens of Giverny entirely in yellow


SIGNS of the Times--June 10

This unassuming "Signs Mean Business" message has double relevance for me...Not only did I spy it on the day I began collecting signs to share with you all, but it also reminds me of a great sign of which i didn't get a photo. That one was advertising an upcoming concert and was in the famous typeface and colors of the overnight delivery company, but this one advertised the performer: FredEx!

On the other hand, some signs mean no business...like this one from Downtown Northampton, MA. Apparently, no new knowledge was welcome that day.

And finally, here's a creative psychological appeal for tips from a coffee shop in Brattleboro, VT. It reads: "Fear Change? Leave Yours Here"

(The type is obscured because I was so excited about the impending start of the "Strolling of the Heifers" parade that i couldn't keep the camera still)

Stay tuned for more signs of the times, or share yours through the comment function of this blog.—P.B.



How many times have you begun an evening conversation with the phrase, “I had a bad day at work today…?” In a recent conversation with members of The Tannahill Weavers, I asked them to reflect on the weird things that have happened to them on the road. Given that the “Tannies,” as they’re affectionately called, have been touring since 1968, they have quite a repertoire from which to draw. Here’s a sample from a feature that appeared in SingOut! Magazine issue #52:4.
See a YouTube clip of the Tannies on stage. (Quality is mixed.)

Roy Guillane: We once played in a salt mine in [the former East] Germany that was over two thousand feet underground.

Les Wilson : The audience had to go down in an elevator a few at a time and got down there were few bars and a concert hall carved out of salt.

Roy: We did another odd gig in Germany where we got in early and there was no one about. So we unloaded our gear, set up in a big square and did a sound check. Eventually some guy came by on his bicycle and said, “There’s no sound check; we’re having a sort of medieval fair. And you’ll be the minstrels—just standing there playing away.” So we did and people kept throwing money into our guitar cases. We’d say “No, no; we’re getting paid,” but people kept doing it. We ended up making a lot of money. It turns out this region was also famous for asparagus and we ate bunches of gorgeous asparagus. We didn’t even spend the extra money that was thrown in the guitar case because we’d go into a restaurant and they’d heap asparagus on our plates.


Les: We did a weird concert in a dodgy part of Chicago. The cops stopped us and asked if we were carrying guns! We pulled up in front of the venue to unload the gear and a cop yelled “Move it!” We said we were just taking gear in and he just repeated, “Move it!” The stage backed up against the El and the windows were all broken out, so every time a train went by it nullified the music. You had to wait for the train to rumble off into the distance before the music came back.


Phil Smillie: We also played at a science fiction wedding! It was a Star Trek theme and there were Klingons dressed in kilts! They got us to play because the bride and groom were big fans of sci-fi fantasy Highlander. The wedding was done in two bits. First the priest did it in Klingon, then they did the entire ceremony again in mock Scots—“Does this wee lass take this wee laddie?” Then we went off to the reception where they had Klingon worms made out of Jello!

Les: Another time we played at a signing booth at a sci-fi festival. There was a booth to the film “From Dusk till Dawn” on one side of us, and the Science Fiction Porno Queen was on the other. She was quite nice looking too!


Roy: I remember a concert in Winnipeg at a festival. It was the first time we had come over to North America and no one had ever heard of us. But the audience started jumping up and down and we could feel the vibrations coming up from the ground up on the stage.

Phil: There was a show in the late 70s when the floor gave way in Dordrecht. The audience was jumping up and down and all of a sudden they just disappeared! They had to have workers come in and work all night because the [Dutch] queen was scheduled to talk there the next day. Right through the floor they went!