Walk toward the fire

The following column was published on March 25, 2017.

The only memories I have of my mother, other than two or three personal impressions, derive from a few home videos and many stories told by my maternal grandmother. The most indelible one of the latter is an anecdote from when I was three years old.

A few older children in the playground had been bullying me, my grandmother would recall, prompting me to end every evening in tears. But one day, instead of consoling me as she usually did, my mom ordered me to go back and defend myself.

“And after that day,” Grandma would conclude, “You never came home crying again.”

I love to think that my mom sowed the seeds of courage that have enabled me to walk toward the fire since then. It certainly informs the writing of this center-right political column in Bernie Sanders’ Vermont.

Unlike in European and Asian democracies where various discriminatory codes and libel laws limit the freedom of expression, our Constitution affords a uniquely comprehensive right to free speech. Further, the US Supreme Court has ruled (1942, 1969, 1992, and 2011) that there is no hate or offensive speech exception to the First Amendment.

Sadly, as the Democratic Party’s most radical factions have taken its helm, it has forsaken what was once a hallmark of liberalism. Today, the left regards free speech like a sickness that must be managed by rampant political correctness, quarantined away from safe spaces, and eliminated if found to be “hateful.”

An undaunted spirit has thus become indispensible to our present cultural moment, in which we are facing incremental and unprecedented assaults on the freedom of speech. Indeed, it is impossible to participate in civil discourse today without finding oneself on the receiving end of condemnation. The objective of such public ridicule is to create a chilling effect on dissent.

Conservative media critic Andrew Breitbart (whose namesake website swerved to click-bait journalism after his passing in 2012) was convinced that we must brave the left’s efforts to control speech and thought.

“Don’t worry about what they call you. All those things are said against you because they want to stop you in your tracks,” Breitbart stressed, “If you keep going, you’re sending a message to people who are rooting for you, who are agreeing with you. The message is that they can do it too.”

The most effective way to reject attempts at character assassination is by retaining control of your own story. Consider the examples of President George W. Bush and Mitt Romney who held their peace, while an influential class of comedian-political commentators destroyed their reputations one smear at a time.

Don’t make the same mistake. Tell the world who you really are — share your secrets, shame, and pain — so that the left cannot distort public perception with false and malicious tales. I recognize that this is not an easy prescription for it is incredibly difficult to divulge private matters on a public platform. However, I have also learned that willingness to embrace vulnerability is a sign of strength, not weakness.

In Vermont, where the far-left dominates the political class and the local media, the difficulty for conservatives to speak truth to power is multiplied by several-fold. By habitually criticizing mainstream right-of-center views as inflammatory and extremist, the elites promote the notion that only “moderate”(i.e. left-leaning) Republicans can achieve political success and relevance. Unfortunately, too many on the right have bought into this narrative.

No wonder, then, that the Scott Administration has shied away from denouncing the recent, flagrant violation of free speech at Middlebury College. It is worth noting that the aggressive protest marked a tipping point in the disturbing anti-speech movement on college campuses nationwide, as it resulted in a serious head injury to a professor (NYT: “Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury That Gave Me a Concussion;” March 13).

Moreover, the Governor’s staff and surrogates appear to have adopted the left’s aversion to the First Amendment. Over the past weeks, they employed soft intimidation and shaming tactics to check conservative objection to the sanctuary jurisdiction policies championed by the governor (Vermont Watchdog: “Governor’s office sought to silence critic of sanctuary-styled immigration policy;” March 21).

In truth, if center-right Vermonters wish to have a fighting chance in a state that has undergone a decades-long transformation into a laboratory for progressive experimentation, then we cannot become a watered-down version of the left. We must engage with opposition fearlessly, and embrace constructive criticism to build a sturdy political foundation — one that could actually support lofty aspirations. We must walk toward the fire.
Meg Hansen is a syndicated columnist from Windsor, Vermont. The Vermont House Republican Caucus consults with her communications firm. All views expressed are those of the author alone.

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