**Quick update: since no footage has emerged showing John Lewis or Barney Frank enduring this alleged abuse, many online debates about this topic center on whether it actually happened. Although I'll take Frank's or Lewis's word over that of an angry mob, this objection can't just be dismissed. However, I'd like to point out that Nunes's comments (below) don't speculate as to the veracity of his colleagues' claims, but instead simply defend the foaming at the mouth of raging crowds. So, just for the sake of argument, let's suppose that this particular incident didn't happen as claimed. There is still plenty of documented evidence of these protesters employing xenophobic speech acts which--when perpetrated by angry mobs--would constitute a serious threat to their chosen targets. And that is what Devin Nunes defends in this interview.**
I've never written to a member of Congress, but this morning I saw this and damn near lost my mind.
So, fully expecting to be ignored by the honorable representative from California, I've decided to make this an open letter. For all five of you.
Dear Congressman Nunes,
I write you today as a fellow Portuguese-American resident of California to address your recent appearance on C-SPAN, in which you defended the aggressive actions of some Tea Party protesters toward your own colleagues as an expression of free speech and a reaction to "totalitarian tactics." Putting aside for a moment the fact that these two sorts of action are mutually exclusive—rendering your defense incoherent—I would like to point out that your stated position on this matter contained some glaring inaccuracies and baffling inconsistencies, and carries with it some dangerous implications.
The first problem is your generous interpretation of the First Amendment. One might assume that a man in your position would be familiar with the limitations of our freedom of speech, often illustrated by the cliché that nobody has the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. The point, of course, is that nobody has the right to speech which puts others at risk of physical harm. Now, I don’t dispute anyone’s right to an unfortunate vocabulary, but there is quite a difference between friendly conversation amongst bigots and a hostile crowd yelling “Nigger!” and “Faggot!” at vastly outnumbered targets. Furthermore, no stretch of the imagination would lead to the conclusion that the First Amendment extends its protections to spitting on anyone.
Perhaps you're right that the actions of a few overzealous demonstrators should not color our view of 20,000 angry tea drinkers (and such generalizations being null, we can also discard as nonsense your broad comments about the strategies of “the left”), but it is well within living memory that those same words were commonly hurled by angry mobs at people who ended up at the ends of ropes. Just as yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater would create an unsafe environment for the theater’s inhabitants, it is entirely fair for an African-American and a homosexual to feel seriously threatened by even a handful of people yelling the terms that you seem to think are protected under the First Amendment just because 20,000 people didn't chant them in unison.
If I may expand a bit on the issue of nonexistent theater fires, it's interesting to note that there is more to that example than the practical issue of causing panic. It's generally assumed that yelling “Fire!” in a theater which is actually on fire would be constitutionally protected, even though it's just as likely to cause panic. There is, then, a second component at work, which we might consider a moral component: panic is not the issue per se, but rather unwarranted panic based on a false alarm, which puts people at undue risk of physical injury.
This brings me to the other statement you made with which I take issue: that this exercise of free speech was a reaction to “totalitarian tactics.” Again, let me reiterate my desire to steer clear of the laughably dissonant image of 20,000 people exercising free speech on the Capitol steps of a nation in the grip of a totalitarian regime. That will not be the topic of this letter, so I'll refrain from commenting on how ridiculous it is. I do, however, wonder what exactly you mean by “totalitarian tactics.” I can understand opposition to the health care reform bill, and I would be willing to listen to anyone with legitimate arguments as to why it constitutes bad policy, but I have a difficult time understanding how exactly any of this is being carried out through the modus operandi of totalitarian regimes. I have heard folks describe reconciliation as overreaching, and I can see how it might cause frustration for people who disagree with the measures it enacts, but surely it's no more “totalitarian” now than it was the three times it was used during the Bush administration. So as I pick through my limited knowledge of the proceedings in Washington, I can't help wondering whether your accusation of totalitarianism amounts to much more than that dangerous and dishonest alarm sounded to cause panic among theater-goers.
You see, Congressman, when I think of “totalitarian tactics,” I think of the stuff my parents and grandparents left behind in Salazar’s Portugal: secret police, intimidation of dissenters, rampant censorship, secret interrogations, unaccountable torture, invasion of privacy—some of which, come to think of it, resemble tactics that you supported when you voted for an extension of the PATRIOT Act or against Congressman Holt’s Amendment to HR 2647. So I would like to know how you reconcile these baseless accusations with your own actions in the legislature.
As mentioned before, I write to you as a Portuguese-American. If the disingenuous statements of politicians always prompted me to write letters, I would never get anything else done; and your words matter to me primarily because you're a person representing the interests of my community in a district in which I have many friends and family members. I am an avowed member of that “left” which you so glibly wrote off as some silly fringe group, but I have supported Republican candidates in my hometown. I have also worked closely with them for shared goals (political and otherwise), and although we agree on precious little, I think you would be hard-pressed to find one of them who would deny my dedication to the community or my passion in pursuing a more just and functioning democracy.
It is as a Portuguese-American that I would like to express my disappointment with your C-SPAN interview. Rather than denouncing the actions of extremists you defended them based on an incorrect, selective, and dangerous interpretation of one of our nation’s most cherished liberties. You deceptively implied that acts which threaten the safety of individuals are excusable so long as they're only carried out by a small group of people. You deliberately mischaracterized the actions of your own colleagues in an attempt to incite panic over a threat that does not exist, just to pander to the heightened rhetoric of the most insane factions of your party. As an American, I'm concerned—but that's nothing new. As a Portuguese-American, I'm embarrassed and ashamed, and I hope that in the future you will word your opposition with a little more nuance and a lot more prudence.