MINOT, N.D. — When Heidi Heitkamp campaigned for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2018, she did so while posturing as a moderate lawmaker. She even did her best to paint herself as somewhat Trump-friendly.
It was a front.
Since losing, and after failing to get a gig in President Joe Biden's administration, Heitkamp has morphed into just another bomb-throwing talking head on television.
She's not very good at that, either.
Heitkamp was recently on an episode of "Real Time with Bill Maher," and beclowned herself with what was supposed to be an attack on actress Gina Carano.
Carano was, until recently, a star of Disney's Star Wars streaming hit "The Mandalorian." She was fired for posting some provocative and right-of-center thoughts on social media.
Left-wing celebrities seemingly perpetrate obnoxious left-of-center politicking with impunity, but anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders isn't likely to be tolerated long by the entertainment industry.
The straw that broke the camel's back for Carano and Disney was a post on Instagram in which she argued that the Nazis were able to build political power by inspiring average citizens to despise Jews. “Because history is edited, most people today don’t realize that to get to the point where Nazi soldiers could easily round up thousands of Jews, the government first made their own neighbors hate them simply for being Jews,” she wrote. “How is that any different from hating someone for their political views?”
It's a debatable point, sure, but should a person be fired for that sort of thing?
On his show, Maher wondered that very thing. “I don’t want to talk about cancel culture and this nonsense every week, but I just don’t think people understand how much this is a tsunami, and how fast the goalposts change, almost on a weekly basis," he said.
Why have I not seen anyone talking about this? A former US Senator called @ginacarano some of the most heinous things while on Real Time with Bill Maher. How is this not slander? pic.twitter.com/34iFt1STCR— Yeticast (@Yeticast) March 29, 2021
When the topic turned to Carano, specifically, Heitkamp went on the attack.
“She was a Nazi," Heitkamp said.
Reason editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie was also on the show and questioned Heitkamp's reasoning. “She called other people Nazis, so she’s the Nazi,” he said.
Which prompted Heitkamp to double-down. “She does hang with white supremacists,” Heitkamp said.
“She does? Hangs with white supremacists?” Maher, baffled at this point, asked, to which Heitkamp confirmed, “Yes.”
Heitkamp seemed to realize, though, that she may have dug herself a hole.
“I suppose I’m now subject to defamation now […] but we have to be really careful. There’s two things the Republicans think they’re going to get Biden on: cancel culture and this whole Dr. Seuss stuff that’s going on, where they’re reading 'Green Eggs and Ham,' proving that some of these senators can actually read, and immigration," Heitkamp said.
The one-time senator, during her political career, was fond of touting her legal acumen. Which makes this spontaneous admission of defamation all the more puzzling.
Carano, writing on Twitter, certainly seems to feel slandered.
Here we have more of the dehumanizing phase of cancel culture.— Gina Carano 🕯 (@ginacarano) March 29, 2021
-Repeat lies over and over until the population takes them as “truth”.
False, disturbing & disgusting language coming from a former US Senator. @HeidiHeitkamp
You knew as soon as you said it you were liable. https://t.co/O4AiHVMYFH
First Amendment protections for even the ugliest forms of political speech are very broad, particularly when the subject of the speech is a public figure like Carano, but even given that, stating — as a fact — that someone hangs out with white supremacists may not enjoy those protections.
It will be interesting to see if Carano takes legal action, especially in light of Heitkamp's seeming admission of defamatory speech.
I'll leave that to the lawyers.
What sticks out to me is Heitkamp's insistence that there's no cancel culture even as she joins the cancel mob that came for Carano.
I know it's not fashionable anymore, but if we care about free speech, the most important time to protect it is when the speech in question is controversial. When it makes us feel angry or insulted.
We don't need the First Amendment to protect conversations about the weather. We need it to protect speech that might prompt some to try to silence it.
And yes, I know, Disney is a private company, and the First Amendment as a law doesn't apply.
Except, if our society is truly invested in the idea of free speech, the First Amendment has to be more than just a law. It has to be a philosophy we live by.
People like Heitkamp don't understand that, which makes them part of the problem.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.