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William Rivers Pitt | In Defense of Raised Voices

William Rivers Pitt: Hecklers have been loud in the news of late. It is because of hecklers that I know I am free.

Whenever a media organization or group of historians sets out to order American presidents in terms of greatness (an event we can look forward to enduring again in 2016), Abraham Lincoln invariably appears at or near the top of the list, and justly so.

Fifteen decades hence, Lincoln’s legacy is a towering thing: The Great Emancipator, savior of the Union, creator of this American nation out of the ashes of the Civil War. Before Lincoln, there was no nation to speak of, but only a motley collection of “united” states and a few nascent territories. After Lincoln, and to this day, is the United States of America.

Abraham Lincoln made the future we live in now…a future that would be far different still but for a disgruntled actor’s bullet, but that is a topic for another day. His monument in Washington DC is rightly Brobdingnagian. He is a mighty, titanic figure in history…

…who was called “the original gorilla” and “Honest Ape” in his time, who was insulted and reviled not only by broad swaths of the populace (Union and Confederate alike), not only by the news media of his day, but by a fair majority of the members of his own party. Lincoln was slated to join the One-Term President Club until Sherman razed Atlanta to the ground, something to consider for those who find modern politics too “brutal.”

On the night before Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address – a speech that has rung through the ages and made battalions of presidential speechwriters writhe in envy – he was required to deal with a crowd seeking a speech. Claiming he was unprepared to make a statement, Lincoln told the crowd, “In my position, it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish thing.”

A loud voice from the crowd: “If you can help it.”


Which brings us to the topic of hecklers.

Hecklers have been loud in the news of late, which is somewhat charming in a way. In this age of instant online howling via Twitter and Facebook, someone heckling a speaker in person seems almost analog, a quaint throwback, and yet the act still has impact. Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK – a woman I am honored to call a friend, one of my most deeply-loved personal heroes, whose towering efforts deserve their own Brobdingnagian monument – managed to discombobulate President Obama’s I-hate-drones-but-we’re-gonna-keep-using-drones-probably-more-than-ever speech at the National Defense University by heckling him about the plight of the prisoners at Guantanamo.

More recently, Ellen Sturtz of the LGBT rights group GetEQUAL shouted down Michelle Obama, demanding that her husband draft and sign an executive order barring sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination by federal contractors. Sturtz did this at a DNC fundraising event, which means, presumably, she paid $500 for the ability to hoot this at the First Lady during her speech before getting shuffled out the door.

For anyone who has ever spoken in public, having a heckler is like having someone put a live electrical wire to your leg in mid-sentence. You’re there under the lights, you’re already geeked up because you’re speaking to a crowd, but you know your speech and you’re in your cadence and you’re doing fine, and then…gah, what? Where? Why? I was doing so well, and now I have to think on my feet?

Yup. Exactly.

Sure, one can argue that being disruptive does nothing to serve your cause. Sure, one can argue that a president’s wife is not an elected official, and so should be off limits to the raised voices of dissidents in the crowd.

To which I would reply:

1. In this depleted age of canned speeches, by-rote debates, processed news and “approved” information, one raised voice in some politician’s polite parlor informs the millions who hear it that they are, in fact, not crazy, and not alone in the belief that it is time to start yelling about what is wrong. As a man wisely said, big clouds condense around small particles;

2. No one, but no one, is immune to the First Amendment, especially someone who headlines cash-happy campaign fundraising events. If you speak at events to raise money for a political party or campaign, if you actively campaign, you lose the right to hide behind the argument that you should be above and beyond such petty things as politics. You are politics.

And finally, this: in America, those in power who speak from on high are not untouchable, above and beyond the petty annoyances of those they rule. Abraham Lincoln spent most of his White House time glad-handing office-seekers and folks who just wanted to meet him. Those quaint days are long lost, but this is still America. If you’re going to step to a microphone or stand upon a stage to espouse a position, you’d better be prepared to hear from the people, whether you want to or not.

Because Medea Benjamin, and Ellen Sturtz, and every heckler on down to Lincoln’s nettle the night before his Gettysburg Address was able to shout their mind for all to hear, I know that freedom in America, though bruised and battered, still lives on.

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