I find myself forced to admit that my last post (#252 St. Patrick's Day and Related Rants) was a violation of my general practice of avoiding political issues in these postings. And, I confess that I am about to do it again! So, if any readers have no wish to put up with my waxing on pseudo-eloquently about things which have some relationship to the current state of politics in the USA, I would suggest that they simply close this file and pretend that it doesn’t exist. I hope that I will be able to come up with posts which will be of greater interest to you in the future, but, I’m not going to apologize for discussing issues about which I feel quite strongly, even if they have political overtones. If nothing else, the discipline of trying to write coherently about them usually lowers my blood pressure a bit.
One set of issues, which have come to the fore somewhat recently, concerns the basic freedoms which are derived from the First Amendment to the US Constitution. That Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Personally, I think this a fairly simple (and admirable) statement of some of the principles which the American colonies agreed to in setting up a common government. I think they did a pretty good job with the Constitution and it’s Amendments, but I am especially fond of the First Amendment, which I suggest makes a great deal of sense and appears to be pretty straightforward and comprehensive.
So, let’s take a closer look at it. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;….” I believe that to be pretty clear. My sense of it is that the freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law because they appear to be necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. In other words, Congress (and no state) can establish an “official” religion nor outlaw any religious practices (within reason). Yes, I do think there are (and should be) restrictions on this. Human sacrifice comes to mind rather quickly as an obvious example of an undesirable practice, as does the notion that any religion has the “right” to execute non-believers, etc. Most obvious, perhaps, is the idea that it is unacceptable to restrict anyone’s religious beliefs or practices except and unless such beliefs or practices clearly pose a danger to the state or impose limits on other people’s right to practice their religious beliefs. That is, neither an individual, nor the government, can forbid, religious beliefs or practices unless it can be established that they violate the need for public order and/or safety and/or the rights and freedoms of others.
Skipping ahead just a bit for the moment, Congress (and, therefore, the states) are also forbidden to violate; “… the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” I think it worth noting the presence of the word “peaceably” in this clause, as I think that’s a key point. The events of January 6, 2021, were clearly NOT “peaceable” no matter what some people would like to insist by carefully editing 40 some thousand hours of video down to a few, carefully chosen, minutes. I was able to, and did, watch the events of that day unfold in real time (and on multiple channels) on my TV and there was nothing “peaceable” about the armed mob which forced its way into the Capitol building, which was legally CLOSED to the public for this ceremonial occasion. I also wonder if someone could explain to me how these “demonstrators” “just happened” to be equipped with helmets, truncheons, body armor, zip ties, etc., at hand for this “spontaneous” demonstration? I would suggest that it was pretty obvious to anyone who was paying attention to the news during the period leading up to that day that the closing of the building was a reasonable precaution and the “assembly” of “demonstrators” was NOT peaceable and WAS armed. Hence, it appears evident to me that what happened that day was NOT protected (nor should it have been) by the right to assemble and protest as described in the First Amendment.
That brings us to the crux of what I wish to discuss; “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” As I see it, these are, largely, the same thing, although there do appear to be reasonable distinctions. Unfortunately, many people, especially in the press (media) would like us to accept that they are somehow MORE protected than private citizens. Personally, I have doubts about that notion, I think they may be MORE restricted, but I’ll get to that later.
As anyone who has worked in a theatre should know, there ARE, in fact (and in law), restrictions on Freedom of Speech. For example; it is illegal to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre or to yell “Bomb!” at an airport even if you have reason to believe that a such a danger exists, because you might easily cause a panic and kill (or injure) more people than the fire, or bomb would. Lying about almost anything may be LEGAL (if perhaps ill-advised) to your family, friends, boss, etc., but it isn’t when testifying in court or being questioned by properly constituted authorities. There’s also the fact that the courts have ruled that you aren’t protected if you are lying about someone else’s mental health, criminal background, or medical status. That’s slander when spoken and libel when written. Okay, those are civil charges, not criminal ones, but they ARE illegal. You are also not protected (even under civil law) if you spread lies about someone to hurt them socially or professionally. Also, my understanding is that just saying that you are going to hurt someone (say, shoot up a school, a bar, or an otherwise peaceful demonstration) can be, at least technically, criminally illegal.
And there ARE other examples: Private companies, say Youtube or Twitter, since they are NOT part of the government, are within their rights to censor what is posted on their platforms, unless you can demonstrate that they are not consistently applying the standards to which all users agreed when they signed up. Your employer can also fire you for speech which damages the employer’s business. Hate speech (promotion of racism, sexism, hatred of a race or a religion, etc.) is NOT protected. Nor is incitement to commit an offense against the law, nor challenging the integrity and sovereignty of the United States. Other than that, I believe that an individual’s speech is, largely, free of legal restriction.
The Founder’s made a point of singling out “the Press” for special attention in this Amendment, and I think there may well be reasons for that fact. If an individual can be cited for endangering the public (yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre), then it only seems reasonable that those who claim to be “serving the Public Good” by making the “news” (Definition — News: newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events) available, are committing a similar, but a larger, potentially MORE dangerous act if they knowingly present information which is contrary to fact. That does NOT, in my opinion, mean “the Press” does not have the right to express an editorial opinion, but that they have an obligation to clearly indicate what they believe to be “fact” from what they know is “opinion.” This is the reason that newspapers, for example, have editorial pages and also may publish “Letters to the Editor,” and such. It’s worth noting, however, that those entries are, in my experience, clearly separated from the “news,” which is supposed to be factual. (As my High School Journalism teacher used to say; “News consists of Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.”)
Now we ARE dealing with humans here, so mistakes ARE possible. Anyone can make a mistake, and, if you watch (read) the legitimate media, you should have noticed that, from time to time, they acknowledge a mistake, attempt to correct it, and apologize for having made the mistake in the first place. To my way of thinking, while I am unhappy that inaccurate information was published or broadcast, I think these steps go a long way towards gaining forgiveness for the incorrect statements. However, I strongly believe that deliberately using a press (media) platform to spread what is known to be false information closely resembles yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre when one KNOWS that there is no such danger. To me, it’s pretty obvious that the potential for creating a public danger, possibly on a large scale, exists and should be illegal.
Still, most of the time, especially for individuals, I believe that speech is, and should be, generally free of legal restrictions. This means, as Roger Ballwin, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union said, “In order to defend the people, you have to defend the people you hate.” That means that, if I want “Freedom of Speech,” I have to respect YOUR right to it, as well. Or, as Voltaire is sometimes misquoted as having said; “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I think one of the best statements of the meaning of “freedom of speech” was written by Aaron Sorkin for the character Andrew Shepherd in The American President. I know I have quoted it before, but I think it’s worth a second glance.
America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad,
‘cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, "You want free speech? Let's
see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing
center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend
a lifetime opposing at the top of yours." You want to claim this land as the land
of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol
also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.
Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you
can stand up and sing about the land of the free.
All this suggests that I find myself forced to support the people’s right to express their belief that the last election had problems, even if I disagree. That’s why we have courts, to settle such concerns on their merits. But once the courts have ruled, we citizens are supposed to accept the decision reached. It’s worth noting that MANY questions regarding the election were, properly, dealt with in MANY courts prior to Jan. 6 and that ALL concerns were dismissed.
I’ve always been interested in “free speech” issues. In part, this probably was enhanced when I had what I considered to be a sort of “freedom of speech” challenge a few years back. Very few people know about, as I have avoided discussing it in public, but it may be worth describing. It began, as I recollect it, during the latter half of the 1999-2000 academic year while we were deciding on a theatre season for the following academic year.
You see, sometime about 1990, I think it was, when I was teaching a class focusing on the creation of production concepts and a student wanted to use The Rocky Horror Show script for a project. Since I had never seen a stage production of this script, or the movie, let alone read the script, I asked this student for a copy of the script to peruse. As I remember it, this copy was almost certainly a “pirated” version. Anyway, I read it through carefully, listened to some of the music (from the movie, probably), and discussed the script with the student involved. As I remember it, my response was that this particular student seemed to have a pretty weak grasp of the satire which seemed central to it, but I probably let him do the project, anyway.
On the other hand, I rather fell in love with the show, I think because I had grown up watching the movies mentioned in “Science Fiction, Double Feature” not in movie theatres, but on local television when I was a kid. Unlike the student who introduced me to the show, who seemed to have little to no knowledge of the satiric references to an entire generation of “B” (Were they even THAT good?) movies, and seemed to think they were not of much relevance, I was quite familiar with them and quickly became convinced that the script was intended as a bawdy, raunchy, overdone, 1970s satire of the “sci-fi, horror” genre of the serials and movies which grew out of the comics of the 1930s into movie “serials” and, after WWII, added the concerns of “the Red Scare,” and the effects of “atomic” radiation on the natural world in the 1950s.
Anyway, I filed the script away as one I’d like to do sometime, and didn’t think much about it until (again, as I remember it) when we were working on developing the theatre season for the 2000-2001 academic year. At some point, I remember mentioning in the shop one day that I’d wanted to do RHS for a long time and a number of the students became quite excited about that idea. So, it got mentioned it to the other theatre faculty as something which some students thought seemed like it would be fun and that I had an interest in directing it. I think it’s true that I don’t know for sure what happened beyond that. I have suspicions there may have been a certain amount of student pressure exerted in its favor. I think it’s also true that the show had been quite recently released for “amateur” (which includes educational theatre) productions. In any event, it ended up going on the calendar as the musical for the next winter, AND I was going to be able to direct it!
Now comes the problem. Later that spring, after our upcoming season had been published, the UNC System (which WCU was a part of) announced that it was seeking the voter’s approval for a big bond referendum the next fall. It took a while, but eventually, (it was early that summer, as I remember it) I was called into a private meeting with the Dean. He explained to me that, in the light of the UNC System seeking this bond referendum, some “concerns” had been expressed over the theatre program presenting such a “controversial” production, as it might influence the vote to go against the referendum, etc.
Now, I liked that Dean, so I don’t want to bad mouth him. I strongly believe that HE was being pressured by a “higher level” member of the Administrative staff, whom I think I could identify correctly, but I can’t say for certain. I also wish to point out that I find it hard to believe that the Chancellor (whom I would later get to know quite well, when I served as Chair of the Faculty for four years) even knew about this situation. No, I firmly believe that the pressure was coming only through quasi-official channels and from “underlings.”
As I think back on this, I believe that it's reasonably likely that the Dean was not all that familiar with the show, except that it had something of a “cult” following among younger people. I willingly admit that it WAS a bit controversial because it is a bit risqué (certainly at THAT time), there IS some (obviously faked) sexual content, and (horror of horrors) it’s not a “traditional” musical but a “campy,” cult piece with a somewhat fanatic audience. In fact, it’s still popular all these years later.
In any event, the Dean and I had a pleasant chat where he explained, somewhat embarrassedly I thought, that, “concerns” had been expressed to him that this choice might reflect badly on the university and have a negative impact on the upcoming referendum. I believe that I indicated that I would withdraw the production, if ordered to do so, but I also explained that I would not lie about why the production had been withdrawn to either my students or the public. I remember pointing out that the season had already been announced, so there would probably be questions regarding the change from students and/or the press and media. I think I also pointed out that that sort of censorship MIGHT be more damaging with the voters than just ignoring the issue, but I don’t know if that had much impact.
I suspect, however, that pointing out that UNC-Greensboro (a much larger and more centrally located sister institution) had announced that THEY were also doing The Rocky Horror Show during the upcoming FALL semester, shortly before the actual voting was scheduled to take place, so I didn’t quite understand the concern over Western doing it at the end of February, when the vote was in early November of the previous calendar year. I may also have pointed out my long-held belief that if an educational theatre doesn’t risk offending at least some people every so often, I don’t see how it can be considered to be doing its job, but I’m not sure about that. The Dean agreed to get back to me about this, as I remember it, confirming, in my mind, that he was just a “messenger boy” in this case. Anyway, the subject never came up again and we had great fun with our production (which I thought was better than UNC-G’s), but it had an impact on me that while one sometimes has to fight for one’s freedoms, violence is probably not the best solution, and it is likely to create potentially greater difficulties.
This brings to mind other concerns related to the questions I have been discussing. The “Culture War” on education is, at least in my mind, closely related to the notion of freedom of speech and the press. I am willing to admit, even defend, the right of people to speak and write ideas which I find offensive, but I will NOT concede to them the right to censor the facts of history in order to suit their notions of propriety. Facts are facts and, if the facts make us uncomfortable, it is OUR problem. I believe that we (as a culture) had better learn to accept both the good and the unpleasant facts of our history and deal with them, or we are going to end up with a society which is likely to make significant changes in directions we may not desire, as they could well deny us the freedoms we have enjoyed in the past.
I find it unacceptable in the modern world, to use language publicly which is known and intended to be offensive to other people on account of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, etc. I find it unfortunate that my ancestors may have engaged in behaviors which were intended to be detrimental to those of other races, religions, ethnicities, etc. I am conflicted, however, as I have some ancestors who were hanged as witches in Salem, as well as some who were among their accusers and some who were members of the court who sentenced the others to die. But, I wouldn’t be born until long after all of them were dead and I accept no responsibility for their actions.
It appears that far too many of our current political class want to believe that they can legislate the establishment of a world like depicted in Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, or Happy Days when everything seemed so simple and peaceful and nothing really bad every happened. Guess what, guys? Those were TV shows! They were scripted to be pleasant, peaceful, and non-controversial because they existed to sell commercial time for the broadcasters! To put it simply, but honestly, they were NOT real! And, everyone KNEW it! They were intended to be entertainment, NOT news. News was reporting on the war in Korea in the 50s (which was NOT too much like M*A*S*H) and, later, on Vietnam, (which wasn’t too much like M*A*S*H, either).
I believe that we need to worry less about being “offended” by facts we don’t like and spend more time being concerned about being truthful to ourselves and our children! We cannot change facts, but we can use them to examine how our society got the way it is and how we can at least try to improve it. Removing Huckleberry Finn from the school library will NOT remove the “N” word from use, and isn’t it better for us to explain to our kids why it isn’t acceptable today, rather than attempt to “whitewash” history by pretending that it never existed? Do we really think that, “Slavery really wasn’t so bad,” as some have suggested, or that the US always treated the “Indians” fairly, or that there was never any discrimination due to racism, religious bias, or ethnic background as some people would suggest? Refusing to acknowledge gender differences, etc., may be comforting, but they aren’t going away. Hitler tried to eradicate those who didn’t conform to his ideas of what society was SUPPOSED to be, but it didn’t work and seems unlikely to be more successful now.
Facts really don’t change, but knowledge can be forgotten, if we work hard enough to make that happen. If we let Tucker Carlson of FAUX NOOSE’s edit about 44,000 hours of video from January 6 down to a few minutes carefully selected to only show “peaceful demonstrators” (who WERE in the building illegally, remember) wandering around the Capitol to be all that’s left after those of us who watched the events as they happened are gone, it’s likely that we will have a country that resembles an oligarchy instead of resembling something like a democracy. If we remove Maus and The Diary of Anne Frank and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn today, are we going to eliminate The Koran, The Torah, and those “incorrect” versions of The Bible tomorrow? What about the teachings of still other religious traditions and the facts of other nations’ histories?
Yes, we probably should be careful about exposing children to ideas which they are too young to understand. (By the way, I’ve never heard anyone suggest teaching the graduate school concept of CRT to K-3rd graders, except politicians!) Yes, we should be careful to prepare them to understand that humans are not perfect, we all make (and have made) mistakes, we all struggle to understand and do what is best for our survival and that of others. However, it would seem to me, at least, that hiding the facts (truth) of human behavior and history is unlikely to prepare our children for the future very adequately. Even more dangerous, if we adults insist on lying to our children, how do we expect them to respond when they discover that we have been doing so? They will, you know. It’s as inevitable as a snow melt in Florida!
The reality is that history is messy, and it’s often a good deal more complicated than it first appears. One doesn’t have to be much of a Finding Your Roots fan to discover that. But we, as a people can either accept that fact and work towards establishing that notion of E pluribus Unum which has been the traditional motto of the US as placed on the Great Seal since it was adopted in 1782, or we can end up as naughty children caught in our own lies. The truth may not always be pleasant, but at least it’s the truth! That seems like a good thing to me, because I can’t believe that we won’t get caught eventually. The book burning “firemen” would try to stop it (unsuccessfully) in Ray Bradbury’s fictional America in Fahrenheit 451, and I think it’s unlikely to work in the age of social media, either. We’d better figure out how to deal with it. I think, in the long run, our children would be grateful to have reason to think we at least tried to be truthful, especially if we actually took steps to try to resolve the issues.
Having gotten this more, or less, out of my system for now, next time I’ll try to revert to more normal material
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
— Nelson Mandela
Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic; capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” — Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows