Freedom Of Speech In The Age Of Elon Musk

Many of my readers come from the age of basic common sense where those unseen guardrails on human interactions with one another are now just second nature. That does mean we are old but just seasoned with layers of respect for how the transactions of society take place. We, in many ways, resemble the charming patina that occurs on copper statues.

The majority of us would not cut in line at the grocery store any more than we would rashly make an unfounded charge, and as my folks might have said, then ‘run it up the flag pole’. Most folks would not distort election returns or argue that space lasers caused forest fires.

As a boy, the party line was (at times) the way local events became known in our rural Wisconsin home. My mom frowned on finding me listening quietly to conversations from others connected, but would then concede to ask what was the news. I never once thought that anything heard in those listening sessions was not true.

Nor do I ever recall a tirade or bombastic blowout.

The means of communication these days is a far cry from placing one hand over the mouthpiece and listening for information on the metal phone hung on the dining room wall. With today’s social media, communication has far less to do with listening, and far more to do with poking and riling others.

The discussions over the past days about Elon Musk, who bought Twitter earlier this week, have created many observers to wonder what that social media landscape will resemble when Musk allows for ‘free speech’ to reign on the platform.

Neil Steinberg a Chicago Sun-Times columnist wrote ” “Free speech” is now the equivalent of being free from the consequences of your malicious, deceptive, and toxic ramblings, the First Amendment a shield to hide behind. It’s like the worst nuisance on the beach buying a private swim club so he can freely kick sand in weaklings’ faces.”

Given what passes for ‘conversations’ in too many cases with social media across the nation it is hard to think Steinberg to be wrong. Reading many of the comments on Twitter about heavy topics of the day makes it painfully clear that not only is the nation needing some lessons on logic, but also about how to navigate in polite society.

I do find it most telling, however, when it comes to those in the nation who talk loudest about ‘free speech’, that what is really desired is the ability to anonymously spread harmful lies, conspiracy theories, and outright bogus slime. Which runs counter to the folks who know this grand freedom of speaking freely comes with the responsibility to speak responsibly.

As they did on the party line of my youth.

And so it goes.

Kyiv Not Kiev, And Why It Matters

Ukraine’s biggest flag flies above Kyiv 

As a news junkie, I have watched over the decades as the spelling of Libya’s former strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi morphed about with spelling changes. From “Gathafi,” “Kadafi,” and “Gadafy,” the newspapers and magazines seemed to have variations on the spelling.

Over the decades the pronunciation of Qatar has bounced about and different news operations will place an emphasis on different parts of the word. Some people say “kuh-TAR,” others say “KUH-tar” or “cutter” or even “gutter.”

As a fan of Russian history, I have long read about Kiev, a Ukrainian city that is rooted in the rich narrative of Russia. Today, Ukraine is a sovereign nation and must be treated as such.

As I type that last paragraph my spell checker has flagged the word Kiev. It wants me to switch the spelling to Kyiv. Over the past number of years, newspapers and online resources have made the change in spelling of this large European city almost universal.

The reason for this has to do with Ukraine’s rejection of the Soviet Union’s heavy-handedness during the time globes would have USSR mapped out. After Ukraine’s 1991 independence, their government introduced what can be summed up best as the Latinization of geographic locations in the nation. So Kiev, as my professor husband of languages would say, was “romanized” to now sound and spell as Kyiv. There was a concerted effort to promote the use of official Ukrainian spellings in place of Soviet-era spellings and pronunciations.

I applaud the post-colonial name changes, wherever they occur. I grew up as a child with Bombay often in news headlines and stories. Today we know the city as Mumbai. The list of such names changes and updates is a long one.

But there is more to all this than just a name change. Russian leaders have fought and argued for generations to have Ukraine be part of the Russian nation. While there are, historically speaking, very deep and similar cultural experiences between the peoples, there is also a vital Ukrainian identity that must be respected. Too often it was not.

Russification at the expense of Ukrainian independence plays out in books and maps, with a tragic narrative. The Russian military build-up now underway which is aimed at threatening sovereign Ukraine underscores why national efforts were made starting in the 1990s to reclaim their identity.

The world now stands with Kyiv and the people of Ukraine.

And so it goes.

MMSD’s Carlton Jenkins Wrong About “Bullies”, Undermines Students Being Bullied

Words matter.

It was truly troubling to read that Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Carlton Jenkins cheaply used the word “bullies” to describe critics of the local education system. This is at a time when some students at our public schools are truly being bullied and striving to make it through each day.

This matter was brought to light in The Capital Times.

Jenkins said he welcomes critical feedback on that and other subjects, which he said can provide a chance to reflect on decisions and think about how to better communicate the reasoning behind them — though he added that “bullies will not move MMSD,” citing a difference between constructive criticism and mean-spirited feedback.

There is no need for me to inform readers that bullying is a constant problem on school campuses and the impact it has on some students is most profound. To be singled out with verbal assaults or physical blows is a real bullying occurrence for some students.

So to then have the district superintendent use the word “bullies” to describe citizens giving feedback and perspective on the policies of the board is almost stunning. It is not fair to the ones offering legitimate opinions to the school district and most harmful to students who are bullied and need not have the word marginalized.

I write about this matter from a personal perspective.  My best friend and I were victims of bullies throughout our school years, with high school in the late 1970s being the most intensely troubling.  Three months after graduation the county sheriff arrived at my home to tell me of the suicide of the person who I had known better than anyone else since I was nine years old. 

I offer that insight for the sole reason of making it clear I know what is at stake when it comes to youth who are bullied.  I know what the term “bullies” means. Reacting in opposition to a school policy about classes being resumed or speaking out about lawlessness in the classroom are not reasons to label people as “bullies”.

How can a school district adopt plans to curb actual bullies, and the bullying of students, if the superintendent willfully misuses the word so to make him and the district look like the victims over policy disputes?

Words matter. And when they are misapplied it can cheapen that word and cause additional harm.

Students who are bullied need our collective attention and care. If you are aware of a situation where it is occurring please step up and demand action. Thank you.

And so it goes.

Denny Hamlin Cursed, With ‘F’ Word, On NBC Sports Sunday

The use, and misuse, of our public airwaves is a many decades interest of mine. Simply put I believe in standards of good taste. Such a bottom line is not political or old-fashioned. It is not about censorship. It is simply about a firm belief in what should be regarded as an accepted way of behaving in polite society.

I seek that in my everyday conversations and absolutely expect it when listening to programming from our public airwaves. I suspect many others desire the same thing.

Until today I was not even aware there was a Denny Hamlin who races cars for a profession. I wish I could forget him, and what he said on national television. Other than his cursing he does seem utterly forgettable.

With the DVR set to record local news Sunday evening on NBC, and with the sports program running long, meant I heard Hamlin using his fourth-grade mouth to answer questions from a sports reporter. There was apparently some dust-up with another driver that prevented Hamlin from bringing his adult side to the interview.

So Hamlin first called another competitor a “hack” and from there cursed twice with the final verbal assault being the ‘F’ word. With pure red-neck eliding, though I am certain Hamlin is not aware of the term, he even left the ‘g’ off so as to better connect with his base of fans.

Hamlin cursing on national television was a pathetic moment. If one cannot converse in appropriate ways with an interviewer perhaps getting a tutor in language skills would be a place for him to focus this week. Between his giving the finger to another driver, and then his lack of a broader vocabulary so as to express himself, it is clear Hamlin’s lack of driving skills is not all that limits his upward reach.

And so it goes.

COVID Chatter In Fourth Wave Of Pandemic All Over The Map

I have been struck over the past few days about the tone of conversations by the way we communicate concerning COVID. I even came across a new term in online discourse.


It means, according to the back and forth tweets, the joy felt when the unvaccinated get COVID-19. The consensus was that we all have felt it, and most are probably inwardly ashamed of that sentiment.

Following the UW-Madison Badger football game on Saturday many people were commenting on what they saw play out in the stadium stands as news reports alerted the nation it took only 6 six days for the number of infected citizens to climb from 39 million to 40 million.

There were some who felt this was a sure sign of hypocrisy front and center as the county mandates mask-wearing and the UW sends messages about how to be safe from getting the virus. Many others suggested since the student population is 90% vaccinated on our campus, and after missing the season last year, why not allow for some honest frivolity?

This morning it was reported that one of the most uptight conservatives felt there was just too much concern for safety measures on campus. State Senator Steve Nass officially asked the Legislature’s Republican leaders to sue the University of Wisconsin System after they refused to submit their COVID-19 protocols to his committee for approval.

No matter where we turn there are varying views of safety measures, the degree to which the virus is either able to be stemmed or if it now is something we will need to live with, akin to the flu.

We now hear from national health leaders that perhaps even the way we view success over the virus will morph, too. Success very well might be that very few people are in the hospital from COVID and very few dying. Or to be more blunt what are we willing to accept in terms of deaths and filled hospitals?

Most Americans, are doing a wide array of activities each day, and for school-age parents, those tasks have multiplied this week. So it is easy to see how the wide array of media images and headlines make for widely disparate conclusions about what the actual state of the virus is, and how best to bring it under control.

I have followed the views and perspectives over the past year of a local friend who is an epidemiologist. James and I hew close to the medically prescribed guidelines. But I have been told, again and again in our conversations, how out-of-step with effective communications the CDC has been from the start of this crisis.

That was made clear from a poll released this week.

“Just 32% of people agreed that the CDC has communicated a clear plan of action in response to Covid-19,” while 41% disagreed.”

Granted, the CDC relies on data and not perceptions or the whims of the public when making statements and findings. The use of masks and how to proceed early on in the pandemic was the first huge blunder from the CDC. As such, at times, it might seem as the CDC is disagreeing with itself. If there was, however, a more artful approach to communicating those areas where new data means a new approach to be taken with this pandemic we all would be better off.

Many of us are following the data and register on the side of sanity and concern for the greater good. A Facebook friend made that point to me this week.

My sister is the head of mental health for Texas health resources. It’s one of the larger hospital systems here in our state. She told me the other day if we don’t get a handle on what’s going on now that (the next variant) will be the one that will make people realize they should’ve listened. All we can do is keep spreading the truth.

There are times in the recent days the chatter about the virus reminds me of the blind men describing a huge elephant. It seems most dispiriting to think that our great nation has discarded facts, reason, and logic so as to allow the most base in the nation to feel good about themselves for being stupid.

And so it goes.

Dad, Taxi Drivers, And The Fourth of July

At this time I wish to recall a most uplifting series of conversations with taxi drivers while spending a 10-day vacation in Washington DC. Throughout my life, I saw dad (Royce Humphrey) always strike up a conversation with those he met whether it was at a mall, restaurant, or service station. Like him, I too have much the same attitude when it comes to talking with others as it provides insight into the world around me and seems like a polite way to proceed through life.

So, while in our nation’s Capital I did my own small survey of the roughly dozen taxicab drivers who took us to places around the city.  I always started by asking how their day or night was going and then proceeded to ask how long they had been living in the D.C. area.  From there I asked where they grew up.

I was heartened that each of the men driving cabs was chatty and open about their life and experiences in this nation.   From Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Morocco, Sudan, and Sierra Leone each had strong feelings and all, but one, had language skills that made it easy to convey them.  The vast majority were of the Islamic faith and, were as proud to talk about it as anyone would be about their religion.  One soft-spoken man from Ethiopia seemed so humble and sincere about his life and outlook that upon leaving the cab I turned and offered the Islamic greeting of “peace be upon you”.

All the men had come to this country to make a better way in life.  Most had been here for about 15 years, a couple arrived only about 7 years ago.  Some had traveled with family and others came alone.  A man who came from India to get an education started his own restaurant.  An Ethiopian driver was surprised we knew of some foods from his native land such as Injera and Doro Wat.   We told him that in Madison we live close to a restaurant that makes these foods.  He smiled and told us that in his land Dor Wat is reserved for special days as it takes lots of ingredients and time to make.

Each of the drivers had made a bold choice of leaving the place of their birth to seek a better life.  It required in each case learning a new language, culture, currency, and adapting to the weather.  It meant at times, as with the driver from India, leaving every member of his family behind and seeking something different.  It is a phenomenal undertaking to make such a journey.

And they work hard.  They are not slackers.  Most lived in Maryland where rental properties were more affordable.   One driver spoke of the rent increases over the past decade where his two-bedroom apartment now costs over $2,000 per month.   Other drivers told of their small children.  In one case a driver wanted his son to learn his native language at home while also speaking English at school.   My husband, James, as a professor of languages, heartily agreed and offered some tips on how to make that process work.

I saw America at its best during the rides past the city sites I so love while conversing with truly inspiring and uplifting reasons why this nation is special.

As dad well knew a person can learn a lot when you take the time to talk to others.

Vicki McKenna And The ‘F’ Word

I stumbled onto conservative radio host Vicki McKenna’s Twitter account after someone retweeted her undemocratic views regarding our supreme court and the recent election. I have not thought about her for years, but what I soon discovered is that she likes to toss around the ‘F’ bomb. In fact, she lobbed it again today.

But at least today she used it only once as opposed to December 10th where in the allocated space of 280 characters she got it in print twice. We all have a skill, I guess.

I call this out not as one who wishes to censor language. But I do feel it is a duty of ‘the rank and file’ to call out activity that undermines our society. She has a professional job as a radio show host and with that comes a responsibility to behave as others are always paying attention. Because of that, I left the following comments for her.

We can disagree on the topic at hand, but your word usage is one we all can agree not to be professional. If wrong when used by a segment of the UW-Madison student section during Saturday football games in past, then wrong here, too.

No doubt level of vulgar speech and ease which it is dispensed has increased over decades. No one can lay claim to living in perfect times where cursing was never heard, but no one can honestly state that our discourse has not become harsher, more profane.

I grew up watching each Sunday afternoon Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.; without doubt one of the nation’s most erudite conservative political writers and thinkers of the 20th century. I recall being in awe that someone could have such a rich and diverse vocabulary.  He was unlike anyone else on television. With the way he used his words an ordinary sentence was almost poetry.  While listening to his program I would try to learn new words for my own usage.  Never once did I hear him curse or use profanities. But then he was not an insecure person.  

What I found very concerning about the word choice of McKenna is that conservatives often, and correctly, call out the coarsening of our society. Part of that comes with the nasty tweets, the bluster, and bombast that so many of them claim not to be in line with their values. And yet…….

Just two months ago I read a book by Simon Winchester about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. As of November 2005, it contained approximately 301,100 main entries. In other words, there are scores of ways to convey our sentiments about every topic we encounter. We can choose to show self-respect, or we can take the opposite path.

For the record, this blog has called out John “Sly” Sylvestor, Congressman Mark Pocan, and others for cursing in ‘the public square’. I just firmly believe that the grain of good taste and decency needs to be planted by those who have chosen careers that place them as public people.

And so it goes.

Madison Alder Used Vile Cursing During Council Meeting, Totally Unacceptable


When it comes to cursing in the public square I come from a very different point of view from many who now toss about any word that comes to mind.  Like this week when Madison Alderman Paul Skidmore used the most despicable four-letter word that can be used on a woman.   I have been a politico for decades and do not recall an elected official ever having used this word publically, and certainly not against a woman who was to testify and offer thoughts on the issue up for discussion.

This evening on Facebook I read the following about this incident and was truly rocked back in my desk chair.  It was the first I learned of what had occurred.

Last night in the wee hours of the morning, my daughter was about to testify at the Common Council, when alderperson Paul Skidmore called her the most despicable name a woman can be called. He should apologize to her and resign immediately. Clear standards of conduct are obviously needed.

Readers to this blog know where I stand on the word choices that we make every day.  I have called out newspapers and even The Economist for the lack of professionalism when allowing the lowest common denominator to rule.  I take this stand as a former radio broadcaster and one who has worked in the state assembly.  I know there must be standards of conduct.

And when they lapse we see the results and are angry about them.

Granted, I grew up 50 years ago when social norms were far different.  Radio did not have crude shock jocks, cable television was not yet a factor, and there were still some rules of the road for what passed as public communication.

I can recall mom hearing an elected official use either the word “damn’ or “hell” and commenting that it was not appropriate, as those placed into office should have a higher sense of self-respect.  I have never forgotten those moments and lessons.

I have commented before on the use of cursing in our culture, and have always reached back to years of childhood when radio was a constant source of news and entertainment in our home.  The respect announcers showed for their audiences has never left me.  That decorum, that professional touch, that mature quality is not only how I presented myself in work environments, but also in my personal life.

Coming from a broadcasting background where words matter, and working in a legislator’s office where conduct was always viewed or heard by someone, means perhaps I see this issue as more prescribed than others in society.  But it really should not be so.  We all should care about the use of language by elected officials.

I contend it should not be hard to conduct ourselves in society with word choices given we have the entire dictionary from which to use when making a point.  I suspect throughout the entire city council meeting every other elected official acted as if they were sitting in front of the entire council with many constituents gathered about in chairs.  What Skidmore seems not to appreciate is that words have weight, and if we are to live in a society where the hope of coming together is to exist at all, we need to be aware of the impact of the words we use.

I use to speak before groups of constituents when working in the statehouse and was always aware of the audience I was in front of to push the right message by using the right words.  I used words many hours at a time when working in radio and never felt the need to resort to ones that were laced with vulgarity.

Or as we heard last night, words that were vile and mean.

The use of words is key to everything we do.  Being an adult is knowing how to employ the best use of words.   Elected officials are always walking a line on how to frame issues and respond to all sorts of inquiries so word usage to them is as basic as washing hands before dinner.  So one has to assume that just acting meanly was intended when the four-letter word was uttered by Skidmore.

It is not the first time I very much question those who wish to have a leadership role in either our city or nation when their word choice includes trash talk, cursing, and vulgarities.  It shows a lack of respect for an audience and a public body they wish to influence.

I know it sounds truly old-fashioned to mention Paul Harvey, a radio broadcaster I always listened to as a boy because of how he enunciated every syllable of each word.  I enjoyed his broadcasts until he died in 2009.  But here is the message I want to end this post with about what Skidmore must ponder.

Harvey would wear a shirt and tie for a radio broadcast, as it was a sign of respect for the audience he wanted to spend some time with over the airwaves.  Think about that consideration he gave to his listeners.  That was the world I grew up in.  Surely Paul Skidmore grew up in a very similar time.

And so it goes.