Freedom of (Hate) Speech

When I was in journalism grad school at Chicago’s Northwestern University in 1977, thirty members of the American Nazi Party wanted to march in Skokie – a nearby town of 70,000 in which more than half were Jewish and approximately 5,000 were Holocaust survivors.

There was a big to do and some years later, through court cases and a lot of soul searching among liberals and the ACLU, they did get to hold their march. But most everyone knew what the Nazis were up to. They wanted to hold a group of people they hated as hostages of the first amendment – challenging them to turn their backs on the equality and freedoms they espoused by not allowing their tormenters to taunt and goosestep right before them in their backyards.

This kind of childish bull crap happens every so often when hate-speaking racists get frustrated or empowered enough with their own irrelevance and see a road through which they can satisfy their own rotting inner core by spewing their venom outwards into the crowd that they believe are somehow suppressing their rarefied ways of life.

An important asterisk

In a nutshell, this is what’s going on right now with best-selling right wing author, lawyer, media personality and full-time liberal hater Ann Coulter and her campaign to speak – or perhaps not to speak but to raise hell about it – at the American university in the country best known for championing these freedoms since the turbulent 1960s – UC Berkeley.

Bill Maher recently excoriated the administrators at Berkeley for inviting, then disinviting, and then re-inviting Ms. Coulter to campus amid massive protests from students on both sides of the political spectrum espousing either outcome. So did any number of right wing politicians and wags on Twitter – calling the kids on campus the kind of names you hear from bullies in grade school. I won’t repeat them here but they bring to mind every dumb, desperate insult you’ve ever heard about any group. Instead, I will repeat the phrase ex Law and Order actor and stand up comic Richard Belzer once used to describe Ms. Coulter to Mr. Maher when he also excoriated her on Mr. Maher’s own show years before for airing her rancid rants in the segment just before his – A fascist party doll.

Prepare for the avalanche #brrrrr

You see, I have the freedom to do this without retribution here because this is MY BLOG. Just as the students and administrators of Berkeley have the right to ban Ms. Coulter or anyone else they like since the school is THEIR CAMPUS.

Since it is not public property, like the streets of Skokie, Berkeley is not subject to the same rules of public assembly as a village or town is.   In essence, they can invite and/or disinvite anyone they like. Much like me – a gay, Jew – could be banned from the Eagle Scout meetings Attorney General Jeff Sessions used to attend in Alabama in 1964 when he was 18 and that sort of stuff wouldn’t have even been questioned. You can’t tell an Eagle or Boy Scout what to do. They’re part of a private organization. You can only publicly shame them and force them to accept you.

Cue “All By Myself”

This is, in essence, what is going on now. I can’t claim a portal into Ms. Coulter’s brain – thank her Lord, however you imagine HER/HIM/IT to be – but if past is prologue she has ZERO interest in any sort of give and take intellectual discourse a college campus tries to foster. She is a renowned bomb thrower who delights primarily in provoking the other side by racist generalities and fiery, and very personal, bon mot bombs aimed at any sort of liberal hero, particularly those who have publicly come out against her.

A different kind of “Regan” #couldnthelpmyself

Exactly the same thing can be said of younger and renowned Twitter-banned alt right “pundit” Milo Yiannopoulos – who tried the same thing at Berkeley some months prior, with similar controversial results.

Now if I had my way I’d just let the two of them speak their heads off and picket them. After all, this is so far still the kind of America where we honor dissent – no matter how hateful, nasty and misguided.

On the other hand, if I were just angry enough, I might support the argument that if their intent is to just put on a hate show that just incites violence they are the equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theatre.

A more accurate representation of my feelings

There are a myriad of public speakers one can get to “perform” at an institution of higher learning for educational purposes and if we truly want to view extreme right wing viewpoints maybe going after Rupert Murdoch or one of his two sons co-running the 21st Century Fox (Note: A misnomer for a 21st century liberal like me if I’ve ever heard one) empire might be a better first, second or third choice.

Still, it’s up to right wing student groups to get who they like so I might be convinced – or trade Coulter with, let’s say, hmmmm – is there an ultra Liberal Ann or Milo? I can’t think of one off the top of my head. Maher is not quite categorical enough and even liberal provocateur Michael Moore reaches out to the other side. Heck, his last film – Michael Moore in Trumpland – was entirely about that.

We don’t exactly have a 2017 Hanoi Jane.. do we?

And that is the point.

Do not masquerade immature name-calling and hate speak and insulting generalizations about whole swaths of the population as some post modern performance art that will show the truth about hypocritical liberals, lazy thinking millenials and their one-sided institutions of higher learning.   You can’t claim you’re the pretend Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central when the mood hits you and in the same breath appear on cable news shows as a serious purveyor of facts.

A talk that exists primarily to garner yourself publicity and verbally assault various minority ethnic groups in the name of free speech is not what I wish for my students or their intellectual futures. Though certainly they’re free to indulge in it. Like they occasionally do with the Kardashians, Top Ramen and Pizza Hut.

I’m Rubber, You’re Glue

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I was listening to talk radio this week and heard Ann Coulter referring to Pres. Obama as a monkey three times in 3 minutes.  Then I heard Rush Limbaugh calling the Obama policy in Syria Operation Shuck and Jive twice in just one minute.

Normally I don’t pay attention to this kind of stuff or these kinds of people (that’s hate-speakers, not conservatives) because, well, I’ve learned over the years we have a limited time on Earth and really should pick and choose who and what we spend our time on.

But to not pay attention to this sort of thing is also absolving your responsibility as a thinking member of society.   That’s not right and it’s insidious.  And the more you ignore the more it becomes a kind of allowable “norm” people can get away with.

George Carlin famously talked of the seven dirtiest words you can’t say on television, all of which you can now say on cable and some of which you can periodically get away with on the networks. (They are: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits – all of which you can say in a blog!).  Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and a long list of many others also challenged us with language that could be deemed offensive.

Don Rickles, the last of the old school Rat Pack-related comedians from the bygone Vegas era of entertainers, pioneered a variation of this kind of thing in the most mainstream way in the sixties when he evoked racial epithets for pretty much any ethnic group you can think of.   But part of his success was being an equal opportunity offender – no group, including his own, was safe.   Andrew Dice Clay tried another brand of this humor two decades later in the eighties by personifying the most chauvinistic black-leathered jacketed working class asshole from the boroughs or Jersey or anywhere else you can think of.  But he quickly faded away, mostly because he almost solely went after women in a very ugly way and partly because he committed the cardinal sin – he wasn’t nearly as funny as his predecessors (Note: ADC portrays a defanged version of this character in Woody Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine, a performance that probably works a lot better for those who don’t remember the Diceman’s original act).

What do you do with all this?   Are words, in themselves, offensive?  Why could Richard Pryor (and now Chris Rock) say the “N” word but when I say it, it takes on another meaning.

It’s all about context.  And intention.

I shudder to even post this image.

I shudder to even post this image.

Moreover, why do Windbag Rush and Annie the Terrible purposely use their offensive terminology in order to provoke favor with like-minded thinkers and non-thinkers alike who are salivating for some new form of socially acceptable hate speak?

It’s all about changing the Norms of Context.  And it’s very, very, very intentional.

Also this week, Soviet president Vladimir Putin chastised the US in a NY Times op-ed piece for daring to talk about American “exceptionalism,” concluding with this thought:  We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.  Well, that sounds good but some months ago Putin began strictly enforcing new laws that allow his government to exorbitantly fine and arrest anyone who engages in homosexual activity, or even publicly approves of any sort of pro-gay activities.  Gays can’t marry, adopt or, if they’re vocal about it, teach (Note to Self: Cancel my trip to Russia).  So there goes his written plea for equality for all of God’s creations– right out the Kremlin window and right behind anyone listening to a Bette Midler album.  This also begs the question of what he plans to do with Atheists – who don’t ask the Lord for any sort of blessings because they don’t believe a God created anyone.  One shudders to even consider the punishment for that.

Forget about context and intention.  You now can add truth and hypocrisy to the list.

There are ways to think about our differences and there are ways to exploit them.  More importantly, there are many ways to express them.  Not all, but many people who are in the public eye are smart enough to know exactly what they are saying.  Certainly there is the occasional gaffe and arguably there is nowadays a whole class of speakers who just wander into the spotlight and are uninformed.  But you and I usually know who they are.  And we certainly know that’s not who we’re speaking about here.

Ya'll talkin' bout me?

Ya’ll talkin’ bout me?

When Putin, Coulter, Limbaugh, Carlin, Clay and all the others speak they know EXACTLY what they’re saying and why.  They choose their words for particular reasons because it is their living to do so.  They get (or got) paid handsomely for it.  And as such, they’ve earned an answer when they go over the line.  This is also the case for people in your life, or those within earshot adjacent to your life.  They’re not getting paid but they’re occupying your space and opening their mouths.  At last check, the US (not Russia) was essentially a freedom-of-speech-loving country where you not only get to say anything but get to be answered back within the confines of the law.  Hate speakers don’t get to have a one-sided conversation as they call you out for being too politically correct while they hide behind the mantle of free speech.  The latter cuts both ways.  If they have the right to speak as they do (and they do), we all have the obligation to call them out when we believe their heinous words and thoughts are polluting the environment in which we must live – both literally and figuratively.

That’s why comedian Richard Belzer was totally justified to call Ann Coulter a fascist party doll in 2006 when he threatened to walk off of Real Time with Bill Maher as Maher began to introduce her.  He was reacting to a myriad of Coulter statements that came before this appearance, stuff like My only regret is that Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) didn’t go into the NY Times building or that the 9-11 widows are reveling in their status as celebrities…I have never seen people enjoying their husband’s deaths so much.

Of course, all of those were said several years before we had our first Black president so Ms. Coulter, a best-selling author in the tens of millions, has had to up her game.  How do you answer an educated person who knowingly likens the most famous Black Man in America (nee the WORLD) to a phrase that was commonly used and drawn in the antebellum South to describe the Simian nature of their former slaves???

An American artifact from 1900.

An American artifact from 1900. That would be 113 years ago…

The correct answer is not:  she doesn’t deserve an answer.  The correct answer is to tell the Ann Coulter in your life, or the one you overhear, exactly what you think – in a word, or phrase, or something longer (and perhaps, preferably, with something sharper).

Don’t take this for a second to mean that we’re letting Mr. Limbaugh off scot-free.  If these are truly our public airwaves, what do you now say to someone who uses the term “shuck and jive” to describe a Black president’s policies?  As Mr. Limbaugh understands, that’s a phrase that came into being when black slaves sang and shouted gleefully during corn-shucking season and evolved in common usage as way to indicate Black people who were clowning and lying.

Obama’s a sla-ave, Obama’s a sla-ave, O- ba-ma’s the N word, O-ba-ma’s the N word…,

you can hear Limbaugh taunting.

Well, you can now see why current Senator Al Franken had no other choice than to write:

Rush Limbaugh’s a big fat idiot, Rush Limbaugh’s a big fat idiot!

But that book was almost 10 years ago and Rushbo has gone into entirely new territory here.  What do we, or anyone, say back to him now?

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I’m waiting….

No – the correct answer is not to ignore him.  Not for this.  Not in this case.

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Certainly, we all make our own choices in these situations.  In 1993, the only African American female Senator in the history of the US Congress was Carol Moseley Braun.  (Note: Ms. Moseley Braun served as a senator from Illinois, a seat Barack Obama would 10 years later be elected to).  This week, The Rachel Maddow Show reported on a much repeated story of what happened in the Senate elevator at that time when ultra conservative and virulent racial separatist, North Carolina’s five term (that’s 30 years) senator, Jesse Helms, found himself riding up in the elevator with Sen. Moseley Braun.  This very white senator from the South looked this very Black senator from the North straight in the eye and began singing “Dixie” (Oh, I wish I were in the land of cotton…)” in the elevator, turning to Utah Sen. Orin Hatch and saying “I’m gong to make her cry.  I’m going to keep singing Dixie until I make her cry.”

Yes, this is a true story and it took place in the nineties.  And no, it is not about Mr. Helms being a product of another time and place.   It is about a particular type of viciousness that needs to be addressed in the moment – or after – not by turning your cheek but by turning into the punch and retorting in some way that you see fit.  In the case of CMB, she decided to respond by looking straight back at him, saying: ‘Sen. Helms, your singing would make me cry if you sang ‘Rock of Ages.”

You go, Carol.

You go, Carol.

Incidentally, this encounter was supposedly prompted by Sen. Moseley Braun successfully leading a fight on the Senate floor the previous month to defeat an amendment by Helms that would allow the renewal of the patent on the Confederate flag insignia by a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Get the point, yet?

Have times changed in 2013 when a person thought to be a minority (Pres. Obama) chooses to live or govern in a way that a particularly vocally virulent person in the public eye thought to be in the majority (Mr. Limbaugh? Ms. Coulter?) doesn’t want them to live or govern?  Clearly not.  And what about then Senator Moseley Braun’s response?  I, for one don’t think it went nearly far enough.  But the deafening silence to Coulter and Limbaugh’s remarks seems to indicate we’ve backtracked from there to a strategy of no answer necessary.

It would be nice to think this is because we’ve come far since then and incidents like these are fading into the woodwork.  But I don’t think so.  In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite.

For years I had my own response to people like Sen. Helms, who all through his terms (which only ended in 2001) refused to fund AIDS research and was virulently anti-gay  (e.g. homosexuals are “weak, morally sick wretches”).  As I watched him trying to defund gay artists of any kind from the National Endowment of the Arts (and the entire NEA itself) at a time when I was also watching many gay friends and acquaintances die left and right from AIDS, I signed petitions against him, wrote letters and gave money.

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And — in my bathroom for years hung this famous Robbie Conal poster that read ART OFFICIAL with Helm’s hideous image drawn below it.  It served as a reminder to me and everyone who ever stepped in front of, on, or near my toilet that Sen. Helms was totally full of shit.

Hey, we all do what we can.

Note:  I’ve purposely left out of the conversation Sarah Palin, who has used monkey, shuck and jive and many other terms to describe the first Black president.  This is because Cruella (as Aaron Sorkin so aptly labeled her several years ago) has a dwindling audience and now falls into the don’t waste your limited time on Earth category. Well, unless it allows us to bring back Tina…

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