George Graham

Rush, Bachmann and Beck, and the Fatal Folly of Free Speech

There’s a Jamaican saying that “words are wind,” but that’s not always true. Sometimes words have consequences. And sometimes the consequences can be fatal. The thought came to mind today as I read an Associated Press report about a census worker in Kentucky who was found hanged with the word “Fed” scrawled on his chest. Bill Sparkman (photo below), a part-time Census field worker and substitute teacher, was found in a remote patch of the Daniel Boone National Forest in rural southeast Kentucky. A Boy Scout leader and cancer survivor, he had worked for the Census Bureau for several years.

sparkmanFederal and local investigators are taking pains to avoid calling the hanging a hate crime – yet. There is even a suggestion that it could be a suicide, although I doubt this 51-year-old single father interrupted his door-to-door canvassing to scrawl “Fed” on his chest and hang himself from a tree. The Census Bureau obviously doesn’t believe it is a suicide. Door-to-door interviews have been suspended in rural Clay County, where the body was found, pending the outcome of the investigation.

And according to the AP report, Gilbert Acciardo, a retired Kentucky state trooper who directs an after-school program at the elementary school where Sparkman was a substitute teacher, said he had warned Sparkman to be careful. Here’s Acciardo’s quote from the AP story:

I told him on more than one occasion, based on my years in the state police, “Mr. Sparkman, when you go into those counties, be careful because people are going to perceive you different than they do elsewhere.” Even though he was with the Census Bureau, sometimes people can view someone with any government agency as “the government.” I just was afraid that he might meet the wrong character along the way up there.

Naturally, some people are wondering whether Sparkman’s death might be an indirect result of the hate mongering that pervades American right-wing media, and especially the campaign against the Census by Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, which is being vigorously promoted by Fox News loudmouth Glenn Beck.

beckBeck made the cover of Time magazine last week by inciting a “conservative” mob that marched on Washington waving inflammatory, and even racist, signs. To me, Time’s decision was the worst journalistic gaffe of the century, and I imagine Henry Luce is turning over in his grave. But I guess in these hard times “ya gottta do what ya gotta do” to sell magazines.

Bachmann has become notorious for her mindless McCarthyism and unrestrained chatter about “revolution.” She is now right up there with Beck and talk radio’s leviathan Rush Limbaugh when it comes to twisting – and even inventing – facts to stir up hatred and fear among stupid people.

Meanwhile, there is a frightening rise in the popularity of weapons among Americans. So much so that there’s a shortage of bullets. A news report today reveals that ammunition makers are working around the clock, seven days a week, and still can’t keep up with the demand. According to the Associated Press:

Shooting ranges, gun dealers and bullet manufacturers say they have never seen such shortages. Bullets, especially for handguns, have been scarce for months because gun enthusiasts are stocking up on ammo, in part because they fear President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress will pass antigun legislation — even though nothing specific has been proposed and the president last month signed a law allowing people to carry loaded guns in national parks.

Gun sales spiked when it became clear Obama would be elected a year ago and purchases continued to rise in his first few months of office. The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System reported that 6.1 million background checks for gun sales were issued from January to May, an increase of 25.6 percent from the same period the year before.

I think that rabble-rousers like Limbaugh, Beck and Bachmann must share the blame for much of the prevailing climate of violence. Limbaugh and Beck have excused their excesses by saying they are entertainers not newscasters. Beck has even called himself “a rodeo clown.” But their Neanderthal followers take them seriously. And that’s very, very dangerous. By spewing hate against President Obama and “the government,” they attract a wide audience among disgruntled citizens – and make a lot of money from it. But the price America must pay may be too great. Perhaps the first amendment protection of “free speech” wasn’t such a good idea after all.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for