It seems so long ago, on Valentine’s Day 1989, that Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salmon Rushdie for blasphemy against Muhammad in the novel “The Satanic Verses”. Rushdie’s logorrhea offended me less mortally by failing my trusty five-page test.
Despite my thumbs down, I will defend to the death Rushdie’s right to write, as well as expose themselves as supermodels – a great tradition since Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe.
Rushdie was right about one thing: “What is freedom of speech? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist. From Texas to Montana to Florida to Louisiana, librarians are paying the price for complacent governors and over-caffeinated school boards that attack “critical race theory” – even locating it in math textbooks – as well as the excision of gender identity and whatever else can be thrown into a stew of Scopes Monkey Trial-style gibberish. CRT joins LSD and LGBTQ on a list of acronyms targeted to obsess idle minds.
It is an old story that is constantly told.
Historian William Manchester, as a short-time reporter, covered the 1951 libel suit brought by art teacher Luella Mundel in Fairmont, Virginia, at the height of the Joe McCarthy hysteria. Stripped of her position, Mundel found herself and her views on trial for crimes such as the showing of Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 masterpiece of modern art, “Nu Descending a Staircase, ° 2”.
In collaboration with ABC News producer Helen Whitney, we revisited Fairmont with Manchester. My conversations with the townspeople would not have been out of place 30 years earlier. Manchester and I shared Jack Daniels from my flask as we studied the courtroom. How far were we really?
The state of our union’s discourse
Like many blades, the sword of complacency cuts both ways. I like to think of myself as a fairly enlightened person, but the PC police are prone to disagree, as evidenced by the beatings I receive from time to time from the more evolved and pedantic younger generation. Although I have never been convicted, I am ashamed to admit that I can apparently still cloud the minds of young people.
Like any spiritual seeker, I have miles to cover before reaching the top of the mountain. While we’re busy at the top, much of what we get from the ‘woke’ crowd smells like death on the road. I’m not in the mood to announce by introducing myself what my pronouns are, but I’m so glad to know yours. “They” are free to be you and me, while English grammar struggles with a plural person.
When we’re up against Will Smith leaning into macho intolerance with his happy Oscar moment, and that other wacko whacking Dave Chappelle, it’s no longer safe to take the stage in stand-up comedy.
It had been a long time since Lenny Bruce had been arrested, and George Carlin and his “7 Words You Can’t Say on TV” also seemed dead and buried, but no.
On the other hand, there’s the sad specter of Elon Musk warning coastal elites that Trump’s mogul will be back on Twitter while he decides on the art of the deal. What should a guy be thinking: freedom of speech, fighting words or shouting fire in the theatre? Perhaps we should emulate the Trappist monks and close our lips for a decade or two, tuning in to the simple Simon in Paul’s evocation of “The Sound of Silence.”
In the culture wars between progressives and the Fahrenheit 451 mob lighting fires under librarians, one begins to wish the plague on both of their homes. If you don’t want someone telling you what to do, return this favor in kind. We’ve lived through the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst, and Rupert Murdoch and his thunder from below shut down civil discourse. If you haven’t heard the whistle of racism from the Fox News bloggers, you just haven’t been listening. The “great replacement” theory is prime time on Fox.
Words can make you stop in Russia and China, while here we are lost between freedom and absurdity. Hate speech is one thing. Murdoch rakes it in as we navigate the Scylla of the self-righteous enlightened ones and the Charybdis of latter-day book burners.
We have lost sight of what needs to be preserved in a country worth fighting for. A purist, Thomas Jefferson advised “I would rather be exposed to the disadvantages of too much freedom than those of too little.”
We freely draw the wrong lines. It’s OK to moderate false tweets, Elon. Open the books and disable information about pirated cables that you cannot use. Send Murdoch packing.
So leave me my words, and I’ll turn a deaf ear to yours.
Sticks and stones. Reset matter bones.
Dalton Delan can be followed @UnspinRoom on Twitter. He has won Emmy, Peabody, and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.