WEEKEND BRIEFING
Censorious

Jul. 24 - I think I've done this before, but you'll excuse me for doing it again. I'm going to post the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

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.

For ease of reading, I'm going to truncate it down to the point I'd like to discuss:

Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...

That's your Constitutional guarantee of free speech (for my American readers, anyway).

Censorship is the act or practice of censoring. That transitive verb is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary online concisely thus: "to examine and expurgate."

As a noun, "censor" is defined in the relevant entry by Merriam-Webster's online dictionary as "one who is empowered to examine manuscripts before they are committed to the press, and to forbid their publication if they contain anything obnoxious; -- an official in some European countries."

(For those who, like myself, enjoyed the fruits of a public American eduction, let me clarify that America is not a European country.)

When thinking censorship and freedom of speech in America, it's important to keep these definitions in mind. It's especially important to remember that: (1) the First Amendment guarantees that the government can't muzzle us, but (2) the First Amendment doesn't do anything to stop private parties from attempting to muzzle one another.

If Congress passed a law banning speeches on the subject of Yak husbandry, for example, that would obviously be an abridgement of free speech. It would be un-Constitutional.

If a New York Times columnist suddenly began writing odes to Stalinism and the editorial board examined his or her columns and decided to expurgate them—or, to use more regular language, to shitcan them—that would be an act of censorship. It would be entirely legal and it would be morally defensible, but it would still be censorship.

Now, to paraphrase Olivia Newton-John, let's get hypothetical, baby.

Say the Times editorial board in the example above decided not to expurgate (shitcan) the columns in question. Say a bunch of their subscribers complain. "It's obnoxious to have to read all this tripe about the glories of Stalinist Russia," they write. (Letters from Brighton Beach might be especially unsympathetic.) "Please stop publishing this awful nonsense, which praises a system that systematically killed tens of millions of people."

And say the Times editorial board says nyet. "We respect the diversity of opinions among our columnists," they say. "If you disagree with our Stalinist columnist, you're free not to read that column."

Fair enough, all the way around.

But some strident anti-Stalinists are so offended they cancel their subscriptions to the Times. And for purposes of illustration, let's pretend it's a better world than that in which we live, and that a significant majority of the population actually understands the horrors of Stalinism and deplores them appropriately. The trickle of cancellations quickly becomes a raging torrent.

The business manager of the Times encapsulates their dilemma in Hollywood-simple terms: either drop the Stalinist column, or the paper's goin' belly-up (he said, between munches of his cigar).

And let's say the board doesn't yield, the paper goes belly-up, and New Yorkers are left with the Post, the Daily News, and the usual smattering of low-circulation rags. It is now fair to say that the public has "examined and expurgated" the Times. The paper has been censored by the public.

Consitutional infractions? None.

Everyone clear?

Well, maybe you are, but you're clearly not everyone. Let's troll through some recent headlines:

Elton John, who was "currently in New York playing a series of concerts" at the time he made his remarks, has attacked "censorship" in the US.

Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau laments "censorship" of his strip from a chain of newspapers.

The Linda Ronstadt, Whoopi Goldberg, and Dixie Chicks flaps are probably still fresh in your minds.

The outrage is as voluminous as it is misplaced.

Has some sort of public censorship occured in many of these instances? Yes. Has anyone's Constitutional freedom of speech been diminished? Not a fucking whit.

Sir Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Moore, Gary Trudeau, Ben Affleck, and all their peers have every right to spout their opinions. But there is no Constitutional right to immunity of a reaction to one's words. After all, Messrs Bush and Kerry are duking it out for our votes this November. Their rhetoric—direct and indirect, visual as well as verbal—will persuade the majority of eligible Americans not to vote. (Sorry, that's not how I intended to end that sentence, but it's the sad truth.) As for those of us who actually do show up at the polls or complete our absentee ballots, we'll be voting for one or the other of those guys, or maybe some other clown altogether. However we cast our vote, though, we will necessarily be censoring his or her opponents.

If you enjoyed the 2000 election, imagine what kicks you'd get from an election in which the loser got to sue his opponent's supporters for censosring him!

"I had every right to run for president, and to be elected president, but by calling for my defeat my opponent encouraged his supporters to silence me. I refuse to be muzzled! My right to free speech has been trampled by the jack-booted thugs of the opposition!" Yadda yadda yadda.

One of the pieces I linked to above was an opinion column by the ever-odious Bill Press, one of the only big pundits I've actually had the pleasure of working against (on Prop. 103 in California, so foolish a piece of legislation that even California's legislature couldn't come up with it). Here's his money quote:

But personal tastes aside, the fact remains: Celebrities are Americans, too. Like all the rest of us, they have a right to say that Kerry stinks, or Bush stinks. And as fellow Americans, we should be willing to hear somebody utter a political statement we don't agree with without becoming rude or violent. More importantly, if entertainers are going to be punished for expressing their political opinions, the same sanctions should apply across the board.

That's not the way it is today. in today's America, it's wrong for a celebrities to voice political opinions. Unless they're Bo Derek, Tom Selleck, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Wayne Newton, Mel Gibson, Ben Stein, Robert Duvall, Ricky Schroeder, Delta Burke, Wynonna Judd, Naomi Judd, Reba McEntire or Dennis Miller.

Until that changes, entertainers on the left will have to follow the example of Natalie Maines. After apologizing for her comments about President Bush, she told her fans she'd learned her lesson: "I realize now that I'm just supposed to sing and look cute so our fans won't have anything to upset them while they're cheating on their wives or getting into drunken bar fights or driving around in their pickup trucks shooting highway signs or small animals."

Looks like Ms. Maines needs to brush up on her Artistotle. But that's not the point I want to make. My point has to do with the line "the same sanctions should apply across the board." Let's break down what he's really saying.

The "sanctions" of which he speaks are not any sanctions at all. They're public disgust, contempt, or disagreement—all of which are legal, and might even be interpreted as the inevitable symptoms of a healthy and engaged democratic body-politic. Mr. Press is focusing on entertainers who've been chastised by the public for their anti-war or anti-Bush words, but he could just as easily have included Michael Jackson, whose new release suffered at least partially on account of that lingering stench of pedophilia, or, speaking of pedophilia, certain members of Boston's clerical community. Or Martha Stewart, whose company has taken a beating in the marketplace.

What he's really citing are examples of people who've been chastised by the public for endorsing views the public doesn't like. So when he says "the same sanctions should apply across the board," what he's really saying is that the public should also chastise celebrities who espouse views that that they agree with.

I know, I know. What he's trying to say is that the minions of the far-left ought to get themselves organized and mobilize against the public figures they disagree with—but haven't they already done that? Haven't the media been brimming with stories of the organizational prowess of MoveOn and other such entities?

It's more than disingenuous to suggest that President Bush's critics haven't been loud, organized, or mobilized. You'd have to be oblivious not to have heard the voices of the angry left resounding around the world. What galls Mr. Press, and the men and women he's trying to defend, is that they're not getting the public support they think they deserve. That's perfectly in synch with the politics of the American far-left, which begins with the assumption that a handful of enlightened philosopher kings and queens know better than we poor serfs and peasants.

The First Amendment is a beautiful thing, and the grotesque circus noises of the American media in an election year ought to reassure all of us that it stands in no jeopardy at all.

Private censorship is not only inevitable—why do you buy one book, for example, and not rather all of them?—it's also a symptom of a healthy body politic sorting through the marketplace of ideas, embracing some and rejecting others.

And yes, I'll shut up now.

Molli

She weighed 5.61 pounds yesterday. Damned if I was going to make it through a whole Almanac without mentioning her.

Ice-Cream Men

At the turn of the last century, ice-cream men were a breed apart. It was hard work making ice-cream and the rewards were few. "You don't choose ice cream," they said, "ice cream chooses you."

Well, Charles E. Menches was an ice-cream man. They say it ran in his veins. (They say forget the autopsy: they say you don't need actual ice cream in your blood to have it in your veins.)

Charles E. Menches had always known he'd be an ice-cream man. Everyone had known. While other boys in St. Louis played stickball or jacks, little Chuckie experimented with different creams and salts. While other boys dreamed of being doctors or lawyers, little Chuckie dreamed of exotic flavor combinations like cinnamon-onion swirl and artichoke-pistachio.

Charles E. Menches's passion for ice cream was infectious. He made his brother Frank an ice-cream man. They began traveling to fairs and special events across the Midwest to sell ice cream from a tent.

They did what all ice-cream men did: they scooped their ice cream into bowls and sold it to their customers. People loved ice cream back then, just as they love it today. And why not? It was ice cream.

One sweltering day at the St. Louis World's Fair—July 23, 1904, to be precise—Charles E. Menches and his brother Frank sold so much ice cream that they ran out of dishes.

An ordinary ice-cream man might have folded up his tent and taken the rest of the day off. But not Charles E. Menches. Charles E. Menches knew the code of the ice-cream man. More than that, he lived it.

The people of St. Louis would not be denied their ice cream. Not if Charles E. Menches had anything to say about it.

The tent beside Charles and Frank's ice cream tent belonged to Ernest A. Hamwi, a Syrian pastry-maker who sold sweet wafer pastries called Zalabia. (Ernest A. Hamwi was what Syrians would call a Zalabia man, but they wouldn't say he had Zalabia in his veins. Syrians would never talk such tripe.)

In a moment of brilliant epiphany, Charles E. Menches bought all of Ernest A. Hamwi's Zalabia and rolled them into cones. He then began selling his ice cream in sweet wafer cones instead of dishes.

The ice-cream cone was born.

(Sure, Italo Marchiony had received U.S. patent #746971 for the ice-cream cone seven months earlier in New York., but Italo Marchiony had never been an ice-cream man.)

Other Stuff

On July 25, 1943, Benito Mussolini resigned as Head Evil Bastard of Italy. He did not receive a gold watch. His 401(K) was in tatters. He was therefore machine-gunned to death, suspended upside down, and urinated on by the people of Italy as a civic reminder of the importance of retirement planning.

On July 25, 1689, King Louis XIV of France declared war on Britain for having joined the League of Augsburg and the Netherlands in order to oppose the French invasion of the Rhenish Palatinate. This caused the Battle of Schenecteday in New York. (Really.)

British statesman Arthur James Lord Ballfour was born on July 25, 1848. In 1917, as Foreign Secretary of the British Government, Lord Ballfour declared that "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country." This came to be known as the Ballfour Declaration, acknowledged by scholars throughout the world as the beginning of the Middle East Peace Process.

Ballfour has given us quite a walk.

July 23 is July Revolution Day Egypt, and the birthday of Monica Lewinsky (1973), Don Imus (1940), Don Drysdale (1936), Arthur Treacher (1894), and Karl Menninger (1893).

Besides Lord Ballfour (really Balfour), July 25 is also the birthday of Katherine Kelly Lang, Barbara Harris, Jay Ferguson, Estelle Getty, Brad Renfro, and Adnan Khahoggi.

The 25th is Flag Day in Argentina, Constitution Day in Fiji, St. James' Day in Spain, and Republic Day in Tunisia.

July 26 is celebrated by some Muslims as The Prophet's Birthday.

Born on July 26: Sandra Bullock (1965), Kevin Spacey (1959), Dorothy Hamill (1956), Mick Jagger (1943), Stanley Kubrick (1928), Blake Edwards (1922), Jason Robards, Jr. (1922), Vivian Vance (1912), Gracie Allen (1902), Aldous Huxley (1894), Carl Jung (1875), and George Bernard Shaw (1856).

Enjoy the weekend!

2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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