Some rodeo clown wore an Obama mask. This is a good demonstration of freedom of expression. However, the reactions of politicians and media on the left and right are pushing for just the opposite.
The rodeo stunt, in which a man donned the president's likeness and was chased around by a bull, elicited outrage and indignation. The Kansas City Star describes the act as “shameful” and unacceptable. Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R-MO) tweeted, “I condemn the actions disrespectful to POTUS the other night. We are better than this.” Officials from the Missouri State Fair, where the event took place, reiterated the sentiment. They called the performance “inappropriate and disrespectful” and imposed a life-ban on the performer. Some even think it warrants a federal investigation.
I agree that the performance was not respectful. Certainly, it was a crude work of art.
However, I cannot accept the leap that because it was base, it ought to be banned or submitted to the scrutiny and harassment of federal agents. These public figures are shaming an individual who engaged in completely legal behavior. By creating this atmosphere of shame, the politicians and the media cost a man his job. This is nothing but bullying. Worse, it is bullying people into avoiding political discourse and self-expression.
All of this is being lost on the tit-for-tat squabbling of the Democrats and Republicans. The Right is now faux-indignant, because apparently that same rodeo once displayed a dummy of George H.W. Bush. The left whines that it is not as bad as mocking Obama. I can go through a litany of presidential parodies. Billie Joe Armstrong used to perform while wearing a George W. Bush mask with “IDIOT” written in thick black letters across the forehead. Nixon masks are perennial favorite for the ghoulishly inclined on Halloween.
Is there something unacceptable about any of this? Is the president somehow too sacred to endure a joke, jab, parody, or — as the Los Angeles Times describes the rodeo stunt — a "provocative bit of satire?"
No. Nothing about politics should be off-limits. People must be able to convey their views freely and frankly. To impose restrictions on the crude would be arbitrary and unjust. Sometimes free speech will offend, but it is a necessary tool to maintain a healthy and open dialogue about the government.
America is lucky to have the explicit right to free speech. The nation is far from threats of censorship seen in places like North Korea. However, it is still a slippery slope. If masked clowns are to be publicly shamed and banned, how much more secure is free speech in the U.S. than it was for a Frenchman who was fined for the trivial crime of insulting the head of state.
I applaud the rodeo clowns, the musicians, the trick-or-treaters and all others who perform, create art, or make simple statements that shatter cults-of-personality and remind me to think critically about elected officials, regardless of party, lest I lose sight of the value of free expression.