America has developed a fetish, and it isn’t one of the fun ones your wife secretly wants you to bring up because she read about it in 50 Shades of Grey. This particular fetish is problematic, has been developing for quite some time, and transcends political lines (although it does take different forms for different groups). As a nation and as a people, Americans have a First Amendment fetish, and many not only don’t care who knows about it, they demand you have it, too.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines fetish as an “excessive and irrational devotion or commitment to a particular thing.” It’s important to note that the fetishizing is not of the actual legal limits and/or ramifications of Constitutional law: not many people are out there citing Ward v. Rock Against Racism. Instead, Americans fetishize the popular definition of the First Amendment, which largely boils down to “where views I deem to be political (religion, race, any of the various and sundry-isms) are concerned, my freedom of speech (which also cover actions I believe to be protests) shall not be abridged by anyone.” Most people know logically that NFL team owners would probably be on solid legal ground in the cutting of a player for violating team rules by not standing for the National Anthem, but the people who agree with the reasons for the protest reflexively use the First Amendment argument in support of the player. This reflex is just as easily found when a private business (a hotel, for example) refuses to allow a speaker or convention group whose political views or affiliations it views as distasteful enough to be bad for business, nevermind that everyone complaining knows the Constitution expressly states that “CONGRESS shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech.”
The OED also describes a fetish as “an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.” The popularized version of the First Amendment has become like some magical incantation the supplicants chant to protect themselves from the pyres their fellow villagers have built for them. Unfortunately for them, “Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Speech” bewitches them to the point that they forget that ultimately the incantation only protects them if the local Ealdorman and his shire reeve are lighting the fires. So they chant louder and louder in the hope that the torches will extinguish, and sometimes they do, but in the meantime the King seized their land and sold off their kids into slavery.
There a few troubling things about this development. For one thing, it undermines the idea that men and women have to make choices and accept responsibilities in a free society: the belief that your private sector boss doesn’t have the right to expect you not to say certain things means you may never have to make a choice between your political beliefs and the job. The fetishizing also weakens the First Amendment: applying the idea of freedom of speech constantly to things you just happen to approve or disapprove of lessens the esteem in which we should hold the actual meaning of the First Amendment. Probably the most disturbing thing about the fetishizing of the First Amendment is that it’s an invitation for the federal government to insert itself even more into every aspect of American life: ask yourself what you really, truly think the odds are of the next generation of SCOTUS justices not applying “freedom of speech” to private businesses.
In a better world, presidents wouldn’t insert themselves into or comment on most of the things that recent presidents insert themselves into and comment on, for whatever reasons. But ultimately in our political system the impetus for change lies with the citizenry. All of us, of all political stripes, would be well served to realize that the divisions we face now are largely a result of just how intrusive the federal government has become in our lives, which leads to the need for our “side” to control it. One way to begin to combat the current rifts in this country is to begin to lessen the need for them, and one necessary step in doing that is to stop our “excessive and irrational devotion” to the First Amendment in instances when it is not truly applicable. Love the Constitution, admire the genius of it, extol its many virtues...but stop applying it to aspects of your life beyond its just and rightful scope. Let’s keep our fetishes where they belong: close to home.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.