Sunday, November 05, 2006

The George Allen Heckler Incident, Take 2

Much of this comes down to the question "Did George Allen, in fact, spit on his wife?"

Ah, the grandeur of American politics...

If Allen did spit on his wife, then he probably doesn't have a (moral) right to object to someone asking him/harassing him about it.

On the other hand, if he didn't, then he has a moral (though perhaps not a legal) right to punch the guy in the nose.

So not knowing the facts, we don't know which it is.

On the other hand, since the Allen campaign has turned so dirty, it's kind of hard for them to object to being asked what may in some sense be a legitimate question about Allen's past actions.

The issue is complicated by the fact that he Republican goon squad would probably have tackled anybody who said anything confrontational or critical, but I don't feel like opening that can of worms.

And my ability to judge here is compromised by the fact that, although I've seen the tape and read the comments, I've never heard the tone of the guy's voice when he made the comment. Every time I've watched the tape I've done so on JQ's computer (where I am now, unfortunately), which has some sound problem I can't figure out. Tone matters.

It's also complicated by the fact that the lefty blogger was hitting Allen on a personal issue rather than a political one. So we don't know for sure what would have happened if he had instead asked, e.g., "Senator Allen, why is your campaign launching false and scurrilous attacks against Jim Webb?"

Anyway, this whole incident has some slight tendency to confirm my low opinion of both the right and the left. I fear that this might be American politics in microcosm. A certain segment of the right fields a moronic candidate who poses as a good old boy with big "family values", but who is, in fact, a spoiled rich bully slimebag. A certain segment of the left puts its worst foot forward, lowering itself to personal attacks--though, it should be said, partially in response to personal attacks launched by the righties aforementioned. The righties respond by ganging up on the guy, putting him in a headlock and slamming him to the floor. The lefty has to take it because he's obviously never been in a fight in his life. He gets roughed up by a couple of pudgy middle-aged guys in suits, then pushed to the floor by like a sixty-year-old guy. He looks like he's about to cry, or to call his mommy on his Blackberry.

The righties in question seem to be idiotic thugs and bullies. The lefty in question looks mean and pathetic. Me, my response is "God in heaven, don't let these be my options." But, of course, if I have to choose I'll side with the pathetic guy over the bullies pretty much every time.

But n.b.: my guess is that most people who do feel like they have to make this choice...they'll often side with an underdog...but not an underdog that looks pathetic.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your analysis is essentially correct, although I'd add a bit.

Since we are unable to determine who is morally in the right, it makes sense to base our judgement on who is legally in the right.

Laws exist in part, after all, to cut through the morass of moral confusion.

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dude, the pathetic lefty is a former Marine.

Not fighting back is a choice, and often a wise one.

This "need to kick ass" mentality is what gets us into stupid wars, and it is usually voiced most loudly by, uh, cheerleades, both figuratively and literally (Bush, Lott, etc.).

It's stupid, and it gets people killed. So does fighting in general when there is no point to be proven.

2:08 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, A-funk, when you're right you're right. He did *look* scared and wimpy, though, you've gotta admit. But looks can obviously be deceiving...

I think it would have been o.k. for him to at least refuse to be pushed to the ground. That doesn't seem to be an excessive use of force by any sane reckoning.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...


Liberal Blogger Taken Into Custody
Nov 04 9:04 PM US/Eastern

Associated Press Writer


A liberal blogger who was manhandled by supporters of Sen. George Allen this week was handcuffed by authorities and escorted from another rally Saturday after an Allen backer claimed the man pushed him to the ground.
Mike Stark told The Associated Press that sheriff's deputies detained and released him. He was not charged.

"I'll own this town," Stark, a first-year University of Virginia law student, was overheard telling sheriff's deputies as he was led away from the rally at Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport.

Stark said that he was attending the event as a reporter for the Air America Radio network's "The Young Turks" show and that he wanted to ask Allen about his arrest record and why he didn't do more to stop his supporters from wrestling him to the ground at a campaign event on Tuesday.

On Saturday, Allen supporters formed a human wall to block Stark's access to the senator, who is in a tight election race with Democrat Jim Webb. As Stark tried to sidestep the wall, he brushed the side of a supporter, who fell. A deputy sheriff grabbed Stark, put his arm behind his back and led him away to the cheers of about 100 Allen supporters.

Stark said that he had little contact with the man and that he overheard him tell another supporter that he planned to "take a dive."

The supporter who fell refused to give his name or talk about the incident.

Senatorial aide Dan Allen said his boss was concerned by Stark's presence because his daughter, a student at nearby James Madison University, was at the event and "he wanted to make sure she was safe."

"He's hoping authorities can handle it, and he's not going to allow incidents like these to distract him from discussing the issues that matter most to him," the aide said.

Webb campaign spokeswoman Kristin Denny Todd said Saturday that Webb would have no comment.

"There's nothing for Jim to say _ this guy is not affiliated with our campaign," she said.

On Tuesday, Stark was put in a chokehold and slammed to the floor by three Allen supporters in Charlottesville in an incident captured on video. Witnesses said Stark approached Allen, loudly asking, "Why did you spit at your first wife, George?" in an attempt to ask Allen about his legal history.

Albemarle County records show Allen received two summonses in 1974, but supporting documents were destroyed long ago. Allen has said the offenses were for fishing without a license and unpaid parking tickets.

Allen's ex-wife, Anne Waddell, later issued a statement calling Stark's question "a baseless, cheap shot."

4:26 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Um, the guy who took the dive? Or Stark? Or Allen?

Me, I can't tell...

Maybe all of the above.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Jim said...


The question that Mike Stark asked, which prompted Allen's staff to assault Stark, was " Senator, the Democrats have tried to make this election about accountability. You can shut them up by telling us why you were arrested in Charlottesville back in the 1970s." The question asking if Allen spat on his wife came *after* Stark was assaulted.

You can see this in the interview with Stark by a reporter who was there. In the clip you see Stark watching himself on a video monitor. On the montor he is being hustled away by Allen supports as Stark asks the question about Allen spitting on his wife.

So, the question "Did George Allen, in fact, spit on his wife?" is, in fact, not relevant. The issue is, is telling a sitting US Senator "Democrats have tried to make this election about accountability. You can shut them up by telling us why you were arrested in Charlottesville back in the 1970s." sufficient grounds to assault the speaker?

My answer is an unequivicable no. What do others think?

10:35 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

You've changed my mind, Jim.

I think somebody should trail Ted Kennedy every election time and disrupt whatever conversation he's having yelling, "Chappaquiddick! Why did you let that girl die, Senator?"

Screw civility. Takin' it to the streets...

4:53 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

I'm pleased that I was able to change TVD's mind. Presumably he now believes that Sen. Allen's staff was not justified in assaulting Mr. Stark.

As to the new topic he raised, any one who wishes to do so is free to trail Ted Kennedy and shout questions about Chappaquiddick. I suspect that Kennedy's staff would not assault the person, but I also suspect that after the second or third incident:

1) Where appropriate, the staff of the facility Kennedy was to appear in would be asked to prevent that person from entering, and

2) Kennedy's staff would seek a restraining order to prevent the person from behaving in a disruptive manner.

I suspect these things would happen even if the person in question were (like Mr. Stark) representing a broadcast network.

I understand that this approach does not have the visceral satisfaction found in beating up other people. It is however, the essence of civilized behavior.

(After all, the remedy to free speech is, of course, more free speech, not assault.)

8:26 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Nice work, Jim. But forgive me if I find it sophistic. The proper term for Mr. Stark's behavior is "harrassment," not "free speech."

If you are permitted to substitute your own (inaccurate) terms, your argument is of course unassailable. But since you selected your terms to suit your argument, not the reality, it could scarcely be otherwise.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Mike Russo said...

But who decides that the behavior is "harrassment," rather than "free speech"? Jim gave you the answer -- a judge, or the police. This is pretty basic rule-of-law stuff; you're not allowed to be a judge in your own case, and only in very specific circumstances are you allowed to engage in self-help. Tackling somebody because you think they're engaged in harrassment is not a defense to an assault charge except in *very* limited circumstances (this is the severely discredited "fighting words" doctrine).

I don't mean to be making a positivistic argument, e.g. this is the law, so shut up. But this is I think one place where the law does accurately track societal norms. You just don't punch somebody because of what he or she is saying; "but he was *really* an asshole!" is a non-sequitor. I don't mean to suggest that some people don't derive a cathartic thrill from seeing people they think are assholes get punched. But to quote John Locke, when we joined together in society, we gave the state a monopoly on asshole-punching.

10:29 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

a) Nobody got punched.

b) Mr. Stark's conduct had nothing remotely to do with the constitutional concept of free speech.

11:26 PM  
Blogger Mike Russo said...

a) sure, but there are very few relevant differences between being tackled and being punched (amount of damages you can recover is about the only variable I can think of). And "punching" is, if you'll forgive me, punchier.

b) well, depends on who you ask. James Madison wholeheartedly disagrees with you, for example: the "right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication thereon... has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right." [From the Virginia Report] "Animadversions" on the characters of public officials, on Madison's view, are precisely what the freedom of speech is about -- and knowing something about the level of discourse in late-18th century American newspapers, he was certainly aware that the absolute freedom he was arguing for would encompass questions like "did you spit on your wife?"

Now, if you're saying that the First Amendment only applies against the government, not people who want to tackle you, that's inarguably true. But theories of the freedom of speech are routinely applied outside of these contexts. Sometimes this is incredibly sloppy and silly -- as when people cry censorship over a television station's decision not to run a particular program -- but sometimes it isn't -- I certainly experience campus speech codes as problematic on much the same grounds as government speech regulation.

Inasmuch as our theories of the First Amendment are in large part motivated by our views on society as a whole, we talk about these ideas even when it's not the government acting, as a way of deciding what speech has value and when it may be regulated. Free speech, I think it's fair to say, is a norm that isn't exclusively reducible to its constitutional incarnation.

12:11 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Perhaps TVD can explain why saying, in public, to one's Senator:
"the Democrats have tried to make this election about accountability. You can shut them up by telling us why you were arrested in Charlottesville back in the 1970s."
has nothing to do with the constitutional concept of free speech.

12:14 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:45 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Dang. Mizpelt "harassment" again there. It was embarrassing enough the first time. Couldn't live with it.

Apologies, and onto business:

If you yell and are disruptive, Jim.

Mr. Stark was no doubt cordially welcome to hold his own press conference in the same building, indeed in the same hallway as Sen. Allen's.

They didn't even throw him out of the building in the first unfortunate incident, although he deserved to be kicked to the curb.

But Mr. Stark is an insect, and nobody gives a shit what he thinks. He gave a party, but nobody came, so he crashed somebody else's.

No, Mr. Russo, there are no relevant differences from shouting "Chappaquiddick!" at Ted Kennedy.

It is boorish, if not savage. There is a constitutional right to speak, but not to be heard. If anyone were the least bit interested in Mr. Stark's slimy charges, they could have spoken to him privately, disturbing no one else's peace and quiet enjoyment of a public place.

I'm afraid we still at loggerheads here as to what is "harassment" and what is free speech.

If I concede what I consider a rhetorical misrepresentation of the reality of the situation, then I concede the argument. He who controls the terms controls the debate---Debating 101---and I must also protest that I am too old for sophistry and debate as amusement for the brain. I am not amused, and I must admit that lately I've come to try out my arguments here not for truth, but to keep my words, not thoughts, sharp against the sophists. Which disappoints me, because I am sometimes wrong about things.

This is not a question of free speech, by any conception or definition. Mr. Stark has the right to say whatever he wants---it is his conduct that has crossed the line. Twice, now.

If you wish to restate your central argument yet again, Jim, I will yield the last word and trust in the discernment of our readers, if there are any left.

Peace, I'm out unless there is a new and substantive counterargument. I've had my say and thank those here gathered for lending an ear.

(I'm not dismissing anyone or copping out. I value our discussions. I often find myself in the position of either being seen as ducking a legitimate counterargument or arrogating the last word for myself, like a troll. I have great affection and respect for our host and my foil the Philosoraptor, so I hope you can appreciate the delicacy of my predicament. And I do sign my real name to things to boot.)

(And for what it's worth, if some right-winger started yelling "Chappaquiddick!" at Ted Kennedy and I were in attendance, I meself would help muzzle his rudeness as judiciously as I could, and not precluding physical intervention. Although I seriously suspect Teddy seriously screwed up that night, in my view, nobody should have to put up with such shit [read "harassment"].)

(And there is a big difference between "tackled" and "punched," Mike, sorry. One is restraint, the other is attack. I wouldn't punch anyone who yelled "Chappaquidick!," but as a citizen of the Republic, I would deflect him and tackle him if necessary [as gently as possible, like Sen. Allen's old fart], and apparently so would Al Franken [not so gently, not exactly a deflection as much as a takedown].)

2:54 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

We know (from examining the video record) that Stark was assaulted before he asked the "spitting on wife" question.

I repeat this because WS's posting above asserts that whether or not Sen. Allen spat upon his wife is relevant in assessing the justification for the assault on Mr. Stark. I presume WS's belief is based on the mistaken assumption that the "spitting on wife" comment initiated the assault. I hoped to learn if, given the fact that the assault began before the "spitting on wife" question, WS (and others) considers the truth of the allegation germane to whether or not the assault was justified.

However, to date, no else one in this thread has considered the cause of the assault to be worthy of consideration. (Perhaps there is a doctrine of "pre-emptive assault that I am unaware of ;-)

Let me attempt to directly address TVDs point: He (and, it seems, WS as well) believes there is a distinction between "free speech" and "harassment" that permits one to assault another who is engaged in the latter but not the former. So, for the sake of this discussion, let us grant that Mr. Stark was yelling and disruptive -- that Mr. Stark was harassing the Senator. That is certainly uncivil behavior.

Now, TVD tells us that he considers "civility" to be important. However, his faith in civility is extraordinarily weak -- for when party A commits an uncivil act (yelling and disruption), TVD believes that party B can utterly abandon civility and, in fact, escalate from words to violence, attempting to cause bodily harm to party A, even though party B is uninjured, and was never threatened with injury.

In contrast, I believe that the true test of civility is how one responds to this non-violent, yet uncivil behavior. The civilized response is not to resort to assault but to:
1) Use words to undercut the disruptor
2) Use words to rally public support against the disruptor
3) Use words to persuade those in charge of the venue to tell the disruptor to cease the disruptive behavior or leave. (If the disruptor does neither, then limited force is justified in ejecting them from the venue.)
4) Use words to enlist the law enforcement and judicial apparatus of our civilization to prevent further disruption from party A.

So, even if we grant TVDs assertion that Stark's behavior constituted harassment rather than free speech, the response of Allen's staff (assaulting Stark) was not only uncivil, but an unwarranted escalation of incivility into violence. I believe that if one values civility, then one must also value civil responses to non-violent incivility.

Civility is not a weak and fragile thing, to be abandoned when we are insulted. It is to be embraced, even when one is provoked to abandon civility for violence.

11:17 AM  

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