Category Archives: Freedom of speech

Human dignity

According to the Atlantic, “In Germany, legislators are attempting to address the spread of hate speech and false information online with a new law that aims to protect ‘human dignity’ on social media.”

Human dignity? They must have forgotten about Herr Freud, in his latter days, cancerous, moribund, stroking his beard, meditating love and hate, Eros and Thanatos as WW II broke out in Europe.

The Atlantic article says, “Article One of Germany’s postwar constitution instructs, ‘Human dignity shall be inviolable.’ This notion means you are not allowed to claim false things about me, because it hurts my dignity,'” one legislator says.  OK, so he’s talking about false claims, or lies. But dignity? What makes us dignified? The refusal to tell lies? How about indignant? The telling of lies?

Can we be forced not to tell lies? And if we have to be forced, are we in fact dignified?

Isn’t lying as German as Schweinekotelett, as American as apple pie? Not that lying is good,  or right, but it’s inevitable. Not that we want lies told about us, or want to lie about others, but we have the right to tell the truth, and so do they.

I prefer the American approach, with its First Amendment right to freedom of speech, even noxious speech. It’s part and parcel of our idea of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which is not necessarily a happy, or easy, progress.

acetylene
Truth will burn like acetylene.

Oh, you bully, you offended me! Of course, you did! You’re an idiot! Your idiocy speaks for itself. And there are plenty of us, after all, even in the age of Trump and the far-right parties in Germany, who can speak more fluently and powerfully than you and who will meet your hate speech with truth that burns like acetylene. Eventually, even the no-nothings will know this.

 

 

 

And being trolled in turn

Like many people I spend too much time on Facebook. It’s fun to tease and banter with online “friends,” and it’s easy to “friend” someone, as Facebook calls the process. (In the old days, in the real world, we “befriended” people.) So now I have 370 “friends” online, but regular exchanges occur with only 10 or 20, I suppose.

The other night I posted a thread about President-elect Trump (shudder!), who promised all sorts of reforms during the campaign, for example, that he’d “drain the swamp” of Washington and its entrenched, corrupt political powers. (He was talking mostly, but not exclusively, about the Democrats.)

Trump monster from black lagoon
Donald Trump starring in a remix of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (2016)!

I put up the picture (left) of the monster from an old movie, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and said this is Trump. He’s the swamp creature, and we need to drain him!

A FB “friend,” and a real-world acquaintance whom I met biking last summer, commented that Trump will indeed drain the swamp — of the communists in the White House! Now the Democrats may be leftists, some like Bernie Sanders socialists, but they certainly aren’t communists! What a laugh. This “friend” is a small business owner, and I’m sure he has the usual mind-set of petty-bourgeois business owners (yes, let’s use Marxist jargon here!): he’s doing all the work and not reaping the rewards. He’s a producer, not moocher, and yet the rewards are being spread to welfare recipients who spend their time making babies, taking drugs, shirking work. 

God almighty, spare me these tiresome alt-right tirades. And spare me, certainly, the cesspools of misinformation like Fox and Breitbart from which they draw their “intelligence.”

I told the dude he would not be able to pass a basic freshman English course with such nonsensical misrepresentations. “Truthiness” is too good a word to apply to such paranoid  McCarthyite outpourings.

When the “friend” called me a liar because I claimed Trump paid no income taxes, I unfriended him.

Life is too short. Who needs such “friends,” who buy into poisoned wells? I could cite the New York Times report on Trump’s failure to pay income taxes, after a huge loss in 1995, but the “friend” would only dismiss this story as the rantings of the “liberal media.” Ditto for Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who says Trump’s cabinet picks suggest not a draining of the swamp but the adding of alligators.

The “friend” suggests my responses make me an enemy of free speech. No, everyone has the right to get up on his bandbox, but I don’t have to listen to toxic nonsense — especially not on my own front porch.

Trolling the alt-right

I have a bad habit, on the Internet and in real life, of deliberately nudging or testing people, usually when their beliefs and mine are at variance. This, I learned recently, is called “trolling.”

trolling
You wanna go trolling? Or aren’t you interested in stinking fish?

Sometimes the habit is innocent enough. Too many Facebook posts I’d characterize as “pious,” whether of a religious or psychological nature. Cliches, really, or maxims from deservedly obscure self-help gurus (not to be confused with writers like Shakespeare, Goethe, or Ambrose Bierce). If people can’t recognize the difference between a genuinely profound idea, or sentiment, and something superficial or bogus, I’ll be glad to call their attention to the matter, though it wins me no popularity contests.

In real life, as we say, in the quotidian, where we live and exercise and breathe, I will troll my alt-right acquaintances at the gym I attend. These are the dumbbells that love guns, hate minorities, and have no room at all for reading or thinking. So I’ll say stuff like “I sure hope Pres-elect Twatwaffle will put an end to welfare!” And when they rail against the lazy moochers — welfare mothers with many mouths to feed, fathers with multiple baby mamas — I’ll say, “You mean niggers?” And they’ll say, “That’s what I was thinking.” And I’ll say, innocently enough, “Well, let’s call a spade a spade!”

And if they say, anent the latest violence on the news, “They kill students at Ohio State?,” I’ll respond, “Yeah, it’s another crazy Somali. Why don’t they restrict immigration to white Europeans?” And they’ll say, “Sounds like a good idea to me.”

Meanwhile, the world whirls on, and if we aren’t getting any smarter in the “first post-literate presidency,” we can at least get sassier.

The huddled masses yearning to be free

In the wake of the election of President Trump, we have to acknowledge that there was great anger on the part of the electorate and great yearning too.

statue_of_liberty-cr
Lady Liberty holds the torch of freedom for all — the high and mighty, the weak and oppressed, the billionaire, the redneck, the wetback, the elite.

I think of the Emma Lazarus lines inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, think ironically of these lines, for today’s wretched, huddled masses, it seems to me, who may be counted by virtue of my education among the moralists and elitists, are the rednecks and other uneducated white working class (WWC) folks who elected Trump.

Our yearnings are theirs too. Who among us doesn’t want freedom, however we define it? Freedom from fear and want? Freedom from oppression by the government or other institutional forces who may despise and/or underestimate us?

The WWC have long disdained the long arm of the law and government that tells them what to think and how to express themselves. They can’t express their doubt or anger in their limited vocabulary (and whose vocabulary is not limited?), so they vote for the anti-PC candidate.

As Andrew Marantz writes in the New Yorker, Mike Cernovich, whom I profiled last month, became a prominent vessel of pro-Trump populism by saying unconscionable things on Twitter. “This election was a contest between P.C. culture and free-speech culture,” he told me the day after Trump’s victory. “Most people know what it’s like for some smug, élite asshole to tell them, ‘You can’t say that, it’s racist, it’s bad.’ Well, a vote for Trump meant, ‘Fuck you, you don’t get to tell me what to say.’ ”

In this yearning for freedom to say what one thinks, whatever one thinks, however “unconscionable,” whatever anyone else thinks of what one thinks, the wretched masses are like artists.

For if the essence of art is the yearning for freedom, so too the votes of the WWC. Now, the WWC may not have the skills or materials to be actual or actualized artists, but they do have human voices and human dignity and are worth listening to. Worth closing our yaps for, just a minute, and listening to. Not to worry, we’ll have our chance to talk again. And we’ll have our chance, again, at the ballot box. Our chance to vote and perhaps to vote for a candidate who’s more to the liking of a greater number of the people as a whole.

Meanwhile, it may be time to learn a little humility and bear up under the weight of what we might think of as our own oppression. For there is art in suffering, too, and learning. We don’t want to end up, after all, like Robert Frost’s runaway boy, in the first poem of his Boy’s Will (1913), who concludes, in perverse, puerile triumph,

They would not find me changed from him they knew —
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

Syria and freedom of expression

Adonis, Syrian poet
The Syrian poet Adonis, in a French cafe.

In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Guyer interviews the exiled Syrian poet Adonis (see “‘Now the Writing Starts’: An Interview with Adonis”). Though I had never heard of him before reading this interview, even though he is a perennial candidate for a Nobel Prize,  I was intrigued and fascinated by the wise man’s words. He is in Paris because of the civil war going on in Syria since 2011, when the people began to rise up against the dictator Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the presidency, we might say, from his dictator father a few years ago. In other words, Assad is the usual bloody tinhorn dictator in the Middle East, the kind that the people began rising up against throughout the Arab world in the “Arab Spring” of 2011, starting in Tunisia.

In a country with no democracy, no freedom of expression, repression is bound to occur. And the people of Syria were sick and tired of putting up and shutting up. They demonstrated, in the spring of 2011, for basic freedoms, and Assad shot them down, literally, with soldiers and crushed them with tanks. Then all hell broke loose, and a variety of revolutionary groups sprang up, some organized around religion and ideology, others not.

Adonis says among other things that poets and novelists belong to no religion and no institution. They are beyond politics and the identities we forge with specific religions and national states. They are wise men, and how many of them do we have? (He is not talking about writers who are out merely to entertain, but those who are thinkers and worth their weight in gold, in sincerity. Most writers are just trash-mongers, he suggests, and he’s not wasting his time with them.)

Adonis recognizes that religion is the problem in the Middle East. Here’s what the sage says:

Nothing has changed. On the contrary, the problems are bigger. How can forty countries ally against ISIS for two years and not be able to do a thing? Nothing will change unless there is a separation between religion and the state. If we do not distinguish between what is religious and what is political, cultural, and social, nothing will change and the decline of the Arabs will worsen. Religion is not the answer to problems anymore. Religion is the cause of problems. [Emphasis mine.] That is why it needs to be separated. Every free human believes in what he wants, and we should respect that. But for religion to be the foundation of society? No.

Imagine that we lived, in the US, in a theocracy, where religion, a state-established religion, was the rule. How free would we be to express our views — that we were atheists? Or agnostics? Or, for that matter, believers of another stripe (say, Catholics or Hindus or Jews)? When we think of our own history of religious utopias, they are just about all transient failures — the Puritans, who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 and barged into Indian territory; the Transcendentalists’ Brook Farm in Massachusetts (1841-1846); the Oneida Community in New York (1848-1880), which practiced “Communalism, Complex Marriage, Male Continence, Mutual Criticism and Ascending Fellowship”; and such flash-and-fizzle religions as Jim Jones’ Jonestown cult, which ended in the murders and suicides of its followers in 1978.

Even the few utopian movements that survive, like Joseph Smith’s Mormons, can’t be said to be other than aberrations. In the 1830s and 1840s, at founding, Smith and his followers encouraged dissension wherever they resided, and were routed to the deserts of Utah in 1847. Since that time, they’ve had to renounce some of the founding practices, including polygamy, in order to make peace with the United States government and be accepted into the Union. But they are hardly a model of tolerance and plurality. Rather the opposite.

We see the threat of religion today in American life especially in the influence of conservative Christians. They seek to impose their own version of sharia (a strict, literal religious law) on the US, and would outlaw abortion, homosexuality, alcohol, you name it. These righteous prigs would have everyone believe and be like them. No thanks. If push came to shove — let’s hope it never does — would we stand up against this tyranny? Would we rise in arms, even as Syrians and Arabs have risen again Bashar al-Assad?

American freedom is founded not on the belief of the Founding Fathers in Christianity but, rather, on the fundamental separate of church and state. The state will not sponsor any religion, nor will it oppose any. Many of the Founders were doubters and skeptics, or theists, who believed in an Enlightenment version of the Universe, run by a benevolent but withdrawn God, who ordered Earth and the planets to move like clockwork.

Adonis despairs of those revolutionaries in Syria who would oust al-Assad but establish, in his place, another institution, religious or bureaucratic.

Look, the revolutionary must protect his country. He fights the regime, but defends institutions. I heard that Aleppo’s markets were totally destroyed. This wealth was like no other, how do they destroy it? The revolutionary does not loot museums. The revolutionary does not kill a human because he is Christian, Alawite, or Druze. The revolutionary does not deport a whole population, like the Yazidis. Is this a revolution? Why does the West support it?

We need our markets, our museums, our way of life. If you’re not interested in the market, don’t shop there. If you have no respect for museums, don’t go. But you have no right to blow these things up because of a religious belief or any other insane ideology.

Age of ignorance

This is the season of political choices, as we all know. The presidential primaries are hard upon us, and here in Arkansas we also vote for judges and other lesser offices.

Last night my wife watched the Republican debate, in which Sens. Rubio and Cruz lit into the front runner Donald Trump. There was plenty of sound and fury in the debate, evidently, but I couldn’t bring myself to watch, as I loathe all of the candidates. Disgusting to see them all pander to popular taste, Cruz and Rubio trying to outdo each other in claiming the mantle of true conservatism, Trump continuing to insult his opponents as well as the intelligence of viewers in general.

Read an article in The New York Review of Books by the poet Charles Simic, who was born, in 1938, in the former Yugoslavia, where I taught one year (1979–1980). Simic writes about what he calls the “Age of Ignorance”:

In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him. No more. Now such people are courted and flattered by conservative politicians and ideologues as “Real Americans” defending their country against big government and educated liberal elites. The press interviews them and reports their opinions seriously without pointing out the imbecility of what they believe. The hucksters, who manipulate them for the powerful financial interests, know that they can be made to believe anything, because, to the ignorant and the bigoted, lies always sound better than truth:

We are less and less able, as a nation, Simic suggests, to distinguish critically between idiot candidates and intelligent ones. Those who appeal most to our passions, fan the flames of our ignorance are those who stand the best chance. Trump has a huge lead in his bid precisely because he “tells it as it is,” that is, resists the pressure to be “politically correct” by spewing out all his venom toward women and non-whites. He will build a wall to shut out all Mexicans. He will deport all Muslims. He will call all women cunts.

Ah, such refreshing views. They are not correct, true, true. They are not true, either. But they fan the flames, and here is Herr Trump, like a new mini-Hitler, perched on the edge of securing the Republican nomination. That ought to do in the Republican party for a good, long while, but if Simic is right our popular ignorance is not about to go away.

As an English teacher, who’s tried to teach critical thinking for a long time, I too am appalled by the lack of clear and logical thought. But apparently it’s way too much to ask of an ignorant electorate, besotted by TV and the mass media, duped by corporate interests, intent only on feeding their fat faces and the fat faces of their children. Oh Founding Fathers, thou should be with us at this hour!

In your face poetry

Claudia Rankine
The Jamaican-American poet Claudia Rankine.

Joined a poetry discussion group a couple of months ago, led by Linda Leavell, from whom I had taken an OLLI class on the poet Marianne Moore. (Linda has written a fine new biography of Moore, Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore.)

When I joined, we looked at a couple of poets with Arkansas connections: Miller Williams, who died just this year and who taught for many years at the U of A, and a student of his, Jo McDougall, who grew up on a rice farm in the Arkansas delta. Both are more or less traditional poets, intent on form and formal compression — saying a lot in a little space, which they do admirably.

Then we came to Claudia Rankine, a black Jamaican poet, living and teaching in the States, whose two books of poetry have been hailed as “brilliant” by the critics. The second volume, Citizen: An American Lyric, which we read, struck me, however, and others in our group, as fraught with problems and questions:

  • Why the naked aggression of the tone, the confrontational manner?
  • Who is the audience for this “lyric” or mixed-media collage (many passages are prose, or video script, and they’re accompanied by photos and/or photo collages)?
  • Why the abstract academic language and could-be-Marxist jargon?

Linda gently countered our objections, offering other views but not disparaging us.

Walt Whitman, she pointed out, was greeted with cat-calls and confusion when he first published Leaves of Grass. Here was a poetry so new, so revolutionary, it startled, shocked, offended people used to traditional English forms like rhymed iambic pentameter.

Maybe the audience is the people — a inclusive, popular, demotic group? Maybe it’s white bourgeoisie, like us, who read poetry and who need shock and waking up? (Let’s face it, there were ten or eleven white faces, female and male, in the group last night, not one black face, or brown, or yellow. Let’s face it, if Baudelaire and Rimbaud could épater lebourgeois, or shock the middle class, shouldn’t we expect today’s artists to do the same? Sitting on our capital accumulations and hemorrhoids, don’t we need shaking up?)

But what do you do (Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!) when you read a passage like this?

And there is no (Black) who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked, and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the clearest vengeance … to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as the dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled …

Rankine is catching no flies with this vinegar.

Similarly, she defends, as an egregious example of racism, the kind of bad line calls that Serena Williams suffered in major tennis matches, and Williams’ response to one call, telling the referee that “I’ll fucking take this ball and shove it down your fucking throat.” The ghetto of her upbringing reasserts itself in the face of white prejudice, the desire to smash the white face and wipe it out. (And yet Williams glosses this event, and the outrage it produced, this way in a recent interview: “I just think it was weird. I just really thought that was strange. You have people who made a career out of yelling at line judges. And a woman does it, and it’s like a big problem. But you know, hey.”)

Not just a woman. A black woman. A black woman so physically imposing and dominating that she, and her sister Venus, have been called “the Williams brothers” (if mostly by the Russians, who should talk, they with their Olympic doping record).

Each person reading Citizen will have a different reaction. Our group was divided about the work, many praising it, others like myself doubting its worth, all of us prying, under Linda’s instructional nudging, into the whys and wherefores of this odd and perhaps epic new American “lyric.”

You better watch the things you say

orwellAlmost 70 years ago George Orwell wrote “Politics and the English Language,” an admonitory essay that foreshadowed his dystopian novels 1984 and Animal Farm.

Orwell warned against the loose use of language or, more exactly, the weasel use of language. As in saying one thing and meaning, deviously, something altogether different. Weasel uses, he suggested, are especially prized in politics, for they give the ruling classes the linguistic and psychological tools they need to brainwash the general population.

… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow.

These examples are very familiar to anyone who’s sat through a politician’s or an executive’s or a bureaucrat’s speech.

But I think of Orwell now especially in this season of renewed political discussion — the start of the 1916 presidential race, almost two years ahead of the election — because the air is already full of political bullshit, pardon my French. (Why do we always blame the French for forthright speech, pace Charlie Hebdo?)

When we hear political phrases, newly popular, like “Citizens United,” the Koch Brothers’ PAC to separate and further emasculate the citizenship (by conferring personhood on corporations) and “Right to Rise,” Jeb Bush’s PAC to keep the underclasses, all of them, in their place, a group we might more accurately call “Right to Trickle Down from Dives’ Table,” can we stop vomiting?

Where politics is just another product we pick off the shelf, something we buy in the meretricious market where slogans pose as ideas, who notices? What harm is done? Simply to the way we think, and be, and interact with our fellow man, if we grant such thing — beyond our solipsistic zone — as fellow man.

 

Charlie Hebdo

We’ve seen tumult, terror, and protest throughout France and Europe this last week, following the deaths of a dozen journalists and others at the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

A chilling illustration of the serious aims of writing and graphic expression.

Here in the US we may not tend to pay much attention to these freedom of speech liberties. We fritter them away, I mean, in such silly satires as The Interview, the movie just released, by a trembling Sony Corp., mostly via online streaming.

In this flick, a bumbling duo from a TV talk show fly to North Korea, meet the dictator Kim Jong Un, pal around with him, get laid, and then, a la the familiar delusional Rambo formula, get violent and succeed in assassinating the bad guy.

Everything in the film is improbable and juvenile too, from the fart and fuck jokes to the violent denouement. The movie is made for the usual crowd of 20-somethings, it appears, who know little and care less about politics and the real issues of the written and spoken word.

Of course, the film’s actors, director, producer have not been assassinated, unlike the Charlie Hebdo editors. And heavens forbid they should be! The kind of free speech our forefathers had in mind, now widely adopted throughout free world countries, is much more serious in intent and responsible in action than The Interview creators had in mind.

Nous sommes tous Charlie, n’est pas?