It seems so long ago, back on Valentine’s Day of 1989, that Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salmon Rushdie for blasphemies against Muhammad in the novel “The Satanic Verses.” Rushdie’s logorrhea offended me less lethally 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 to expose himself squiring supermodel types — a grand tradition since Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe.
Rushdie got one thing right, opining “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” From Texas to Montana, Florida to Louisiana, librarians are paying the price for pandering governors and over-caffeinated school boards whipping themselves up over “critical race theory” — even locating it in math textbooks — as well as excising gender identity and whatever else can be tossed into a stew of Scopes Monkey Trial-style gibberish. CRT joins LSD and LGBTQ on a list of targeted acronyms to obsess idle minds.
It’s an old story endlessly retold.
The historian William Manchester, when he was a cub reporter, covered the 1951 slander trial brought by art teacher Luella Mundel in Fairmont, W.Va., at the height of Joe McCarthy’s hysteria. Dismissed from her position, Mundel found herself and her views on trial for such crimes as showing her class Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 masterpiece of modern art, “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.”
Working with producer Helen Whitney at ABC News, we revisited Fairmont with Manchester. My conversations with townspeople would not have been out of place 30 years earlier. Manchester and I shared Jack Daniels from my hip flask as we studied the courtroom. How far had we come, really?
The state of our union’s discourse
Like many a blade, the sword of self-righteousness cuts both ways. I like to think of myself as a fairly enlightened person, but the PC police are prone to disagree, as manifested by corrections I receive from time to time from the more highly evolved and pedantically humor-impaired younger generations. While I have never been convicted, I am ashamed to admit I apparently can still trouble the minds of the young.
Like any spiritual seeker, I have miles to go before reaching the mountaintop. While busy summiting, much of what we’re getting from the “woke” crowd smells akin to roadkill. I am not in the mood to announce when 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 are faced with Will Smith leaning into macho intolerance with his slap-happy Oscar moment, and that other wacko whacking Dave Chappelle, it isn’t safe to take the stage in stand-up comedy anymore.
It had been a long time since Lenny Bruce got arrested, and George Carlin and his “7 Words You Can’t Say On TV” also appeared dead and buried, but no.
On the other hand, there’s the sorry specter of Elon Musk serving notice on coastal elites that the Trump bump will be back on Twitter while he makes up his mind in the art of the deal. What’s a fella to think: free speech, fighting words or yelling fire in the theatre? Maybe we should emulate the Trappist monks and zip the lip for a decade or two, get in tune with simple Simon in Paul’s evocation of “The Sound of Silence.”
In the culture wars between progressives and the Fahrenheit 451 crowd lighting the fire under librarians, one begins to wish a plague on both their houses. If you don’t want anyone telling you what to do, return that favor in kind. We’ve lived through the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst, and Rupert Murdoch and his thunder from down under have put paid to civil discourse. If you haven’t heard the dog-whistle of racism from Fox News’ bloviators, you just haven’t been listening. The “great replacement” theory is crime-time primetime on Fox.
Words can get you arrested in Russia and China, while here we are lost between freedom and plain dumb. Hate speech is one thing. Murdoch rakes it in while we navigate the Scylla of the self-righteously enlightened and the Charybdis of the latter-day book-burners.
We have lost sight of what needs preserving in a country worth fighting for. A purist, Thomas Jefferson advised “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.”
We free-draw the wrong lines. It’s OK to moderate lying tweets, Elon. Crack open the books and turn off cracked cable news you can’t use. Send Murdoch packing.
Then leave me to my words, and I’ll turn a deaf ear to yours.
Sticks and stones. Reset the bones of the matter.