As proven by NFL players and Samantha Bee, free speech only counts when you're on the right in Trump's America

What is notable about both cases is how the right used the form of dissent, either Bee’s language or the NFL players protesting the anthem, as a way to shift the terms of debate

James Moore
Thursday 07 June 2018 16:53 BST
Trump appears to forget the lyrics to 'God Bless America'

There is a deeper connection between Donald Trump’s rescinding of the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles’ invitation to the White House and late night talk show host Samantha Bee apologising again for calling first daughter Ivanka Trump a “feckless c***” than just the name Trump.

It goes beyond the way both stories highlight conservative double standards when it comes to the issue of free speech, although I’ll touch on that in a brief summary of the two.

First to the Eagles. Trump replaced the NFL champions’ visit with a nationalistic stunt that saw him stumbling over the words to God Bless America after it became clear that most of the players weren’t going to turn up anyway.

Even though none of them took a knee when the US national anthem was played before games last season (although some raised their fists) the decision soon became linked to the ongoing flashpoint between the Donald and NFL players.

Speaking to reporters, press secretary Sarah Sanders, for example, said her boss did not believe the protests were “an issue simply of free speech”.

“He thinks it’s about respecting the men and women of our military,” she said.

This is despite a number of veterans pointing out that part of the reason they fought was to preserve the rights guaranteed by a text that I wish applied to those of us living in the UK, where punitive libel laws that Trump is disturbingly fond of often serve to curtail it.

When those same veterans were blatantly and very obviously disrespected by racists flying the flags of those their forefathers fought and died to defeat – the Nazis and Confederate banners flown at Charlottesville – the reaction was very different. The violence that erupted in the wake of a counter-protest led to him opining that there were “good people on both sides”. Riiight.

Bee, meanwhile, used the C word in an angry monologue protesting against an American policy that has led to the separation of the children of asylum seekers from their parents. The comedian was particularly irked by a picture posted on Twitter by Ivanka, showing her hugging her two-year-old son. Bee suggested that rather than posing for snaps, the first daughter, as a member of the Trump administration, might like to raise the issue of other parents being prevented from even seeing their kids.

The right immediately jumped on her, drawing a false equivalence between her potty mouth and Trump supporter Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets that led to the cancellation of her hit ABC show.

The right seemed to have forgotten that the Donald has used similarly offensive language about other people’s daughters, and the extending of an invitation to actor Scott Baio to the Republican National Convention after having called Hilary Clinton a c***.

Samantha Bee calls Ivanka Trump a 'feckless c***' on Full Frontal

What is also notable about both cases is how the right used the form of dissent, either Bee’s language or the NFL players protesting during the anthem, as a way to shift the terms of debate.

The NFL players’ attempt to highlight racial injustice and police violence against African Americans morphed into a discussion about patriotism and respect for the military. Bee’s attempt to draw attention to the appalling cruelty being meted out to people fleeing horror – the poor huddled masses seeking to escape death and violence that is partly the result of US foreign policy – turned into a debate about civility and the language used in public discourse.

In both situations the right has sought, with some success, to hold liberals to standards it cheerfully ignores, while trying to duck debates it can’t win any other way. It could not have done this without at least some level of complicity by the US media, and particularly its broadcast media, which too easily swallows its talking points.

I’m not trying to throw stones from a glass house here. It’s happens on this side of the pond too, particularly in relation to the Brexit debate which has seen opponents branded as traitors, quislings or enemies of the people when they seek to highlight the increasingly bad and undemocratic behaviour of our government.

Bee was basically railroaded into apologising for her language and she shouldn’t have. Nor should NFL players cease to use the anthem as a means of protest, although the league is trying to force them to through its new Trump-approved anthem policy.

You can’t get your point heard simply by saying something like “terribly sorry old chap but could you find a way of being a bit less racist and a bit more friendly towards people turning up at the border, thanks awfully”. It doesn’t work.

But anything much more than that and your methods are almost certainly going to come under attack from Fox News, and the Daily Mail, and the rest of their thuggish fellow travellers.

Liberals should stop apologising and worrying about their reaction. They should stick to their guns, and be prepared to ram their points home. Their opponents long ago abandoned any pretence of civility.

So screw ’em.

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