Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2003 / 5 Tishrei, 5764

Michael Graham

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Don't call us… | Consider the modern American. His nation towers as a colossus on the globe, its military power beyond challenge. His is the world's greatest economic engine, the envy of the world.

At home his children are safe from diseases that once ravaged each new generation. He can access more information in five minutes at a keyboard than his grandfather encountered in a lifetime.

What can stop the mighty American? What force can bring him to his knees?

A fat chick in a Florida phone bank selling timeshares.

When President Bush signed the "Do-Not-Call-List" legislation, it was already a constitutional D.O.A. But from the political reaction one would think he had signed into law a balanced budget, the end of terrorism and the sale of California to France in a single stroke.

The call list law is frequently called "common-sense legislation," but it is no such thing. A more apt title would be "legislation for those with no common sense," or "clubbing the First Amendment for fun but no discernable profit."

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Avoiding the complicated story of FTC regulations vs. FCC requirements and skipping to the juicy bits, what the "Phone Calls at Dinnertime Make Me Cranky" Act of 2003 does is ban telemarketing calls to a government-administered list of Americans who don't like them. However — and here's where that crazy Constitution kicks in — the government doesn't ban ALL solicitations, only the solicitors who talk business.

Churches, politicians and pollsters get a pass from the feds if they want to call "No Call List" numbers, but sellers, hucksters and purveyors of fine vinyl siding products are prohibited under pain of a $120,000 fine. Per call.

$120k just for one annoying phone call? Who came up with that — the jury that awarded Granny $10 million for spilling her hot McDonald's coffee?

Which brings us back to "And what's the point?"

I know we all hate telemarketers, that they are Satan's spawn, that they only call as you are about to put a bite of Momma Luigi's award-winning penne pasta in your mouth and that they never, ever call you with anything you want to buy…despite the fact that it's a multi-billion-dollar business. OK, fine, I hate them, too.

But what is it about a phone call that sends you running in horror into the arms of the freedom-limiting government? So you get a phone call you don't want, do you really want to make a federal case out of it? Why don't you — oh, I don't want to get too crazy here — HANG UP THE STINKIN' PHONE?

In the era of call screening, call waiting, call forwarding and (eventually) call folding, starching and ironing, do we need a federal law to protect us from the terror of a ringing telephone?

What is the problem a hard-working telemarketing represents that can't be solved by an even harder working piece of Radio Shack technology? You don't want calls during dinner? Then don't answer the phone. Does the ringing phone bother you? Take it off the hook. Don't want to miss calls? Caller I.D. And if you're still unhappy, for just a few bucks you can get the "Tele-Zapper," which automatically forwards telemarketing calls to the homes of Jehovah's Witnesses.

After 48 hours, your phone will never ring again.

If there were ever any need of absolute proof that we are the most spoiled, self-indulgent American generation ever, this is it. My grandmother had to fight off snakes, rats and the occasional drunken field hand, and she never needed anything more than a sharpened hoe. We've got some guy calling us to talk about magazine subscriptions, and we send in the federal agents.

What bothers me most is how little thought my fellow Americans give the severe kicking we're giving the First Amendment. The new law President Bush just signed says, essentially, "If the government likes what you're talking about, you can make the phone call. If not — you're goin' down." How much more direct government control of speech do you want?

Yes, criminalizing telemarketing is a convenient way to keep the phone from ringing. Yes, forcing me to glance at a caller I.D. screen is a slight hassle. Yes, life would immediately improve if all telemarketers were swallowed up by whatever force claimed the dinosaur, or Matthew McConaughey's acting career.

However, I happen to think the inconvenience of freedom is more than worth the benefit. It doesn't strike me as overly burdensome to allow telemarketers to call and answerers to swear and hang up.

Perhaps I ask too much of my fellow citizens. They are, after all, merely Americans.

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JWR contributor Michael Graham is a talk show host and author of the highly acclaimed "Redneck Nation: How the South Really Won the War." To comment, please click here.


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© 2003, Michael Graham