Knopf: Free speech taking a backseat at Breckenridge Backstage? (column) | SummitDaily.com

Knopf: Free speech taking a backseat at Breckenridge Backstage? (column)

Susan Knopf
Guest column

What ever happened to civil discourse? What has happened to our sense of humor? The Breckenridge Backstage Theatre executive director resigned amidst controversy over a skit. Yep, a skit. The next thing you know they'll be expelling kids from summer camp.

Apparently the skit featured a Trump-style character, a hotelier, who wants to run the kingdom of Camelot, Nevada. Apparently, for the most part, only things President Trump actually has said were spoken by the character in the skit. The skit was part of a fundraiser for the theater and a few of the patrons were not amused. It appears some were downright offended. One such patron wrote a letter to the editor of this paper, and apparently she is so patriotic that she has no grasp of the Constitution, apparently she lacks a sense of humor and she has no clue as to the value of satire in our national discourse.

You know what this all reminds me of? Remember the cola wars? It used to be that folks would be so loyal to their brand of cola that they would only eat at certain hamburger or pizza joints that served their cola brand, as if there was nothing else one could drink at the restaurant! Then there was a cigarette campaign, back in the day when cigarettes were advertised on television, and people with "black eyes" would proclaim, "I would rather fight than switch!" Loyalty is great, but you can't let it supersede facts, logic or the Constitution.

We made that mistake before. The McCarthy era saw us jailing patriotic citizens because they approached our economy differently. They didn't advocate overthrowing the government, but they did advocate for workers' rights. They were jailed; careers and families were devastated. The people accused weren't the criminals. The prosecutors were the criminals. The Constitution protects freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. These victims of Joe McCarthy broke no laws and their freedoms were abridged by angry fearful people who turned our country upside down. We are at risk of the same thing happening today.

One angry man loudly admonished a couple friends at the rec center that they may no longer discuss politics in his presence. Maybe he should be more patriotic and support freedom of speech, even if the views expressed differ from his. By the way, he was not a part of the conversation. He objected to the friends speaking privately in earshot. Such behavior is chilling to our American dialogue.

I asked a couple in one of our local eateries what they thought of the president's performance in Helsinki. Instead of answering, they said they were more interested in what the president does and not so much in what the media reports. Now there's a scary thought. The president has been so successful in his campaign to undermine the press that otherwise educated people only believe their brand of media. Interestingly, these people readily admitted they think the trade wars are a mistake that will hurt the country. Isn't that something the president did? They touted the president's tax reform, and I asked if they actually benefitted from the changes. They did not seem to think so. I can tell you my tax preparer and I think we will be hurt by the changes. I will pay more taxes.

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A busboy in the restaurant remarked, "These folks just can't admit they were wrong."

Brand loyalty can take on some pretty strange forms. It appears Republicans, hawkish Republicans, would rather defend what is obviously questionable presidential behavior than consider the possibility they have put the wrong man in the office. They'd "rather fight than switch."

The fight continues at the Backstage Theatre, local restaurants and even in gyms. The danger is, it is chilling authentic national discourse about important topics. It's also robbing us of our sense of humor. Let's start with the latter. Presidents have been satirized since colonial times. You can not pick up a newspaper from any presidential term and not find someone poking fun at Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I and II and certainly Clinton and Obama. The standard that these so called "patriots" wish to apply resembles more closely the policies of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jung Un, who dispatch their critics, usually permanently. We are protected by the Constitution and have freedom of speech! I would really like to see some Republican patriots defend the rights of their fellow citizens to satirize and criticize our president. That would be very patriotic indeed.

Let's talk about the risk of repressing speech and demonizing the press. So many scholars, more erudite than me, have written eloquently on the subject for more than 200 years. I feel downright embarrassed to poke a toe in the water. So let me just use a quote from a founder of the Constitution.

"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Judge John Tyler, June 28, 1804.)

We can disagree. We can share our points of view with civility. And we can agree to disagree, without anger or resentment. That's what makes America truly great.

Susan Knopf is a Summit County resident, and a contributor to the Summit Daily. Susan has won awards from the Associated Press and United Press International for her news reporting.