Free Speech Taking It On The Chin

It’s been a bad month for free speech and, apparently, some people with very, very sensitive feelings.

The comedian Kathy Griffin, proving that you don’t have to make fun of pedophile priests to be edgy, dissed the semi-mythical figure of Jesus during her acceptance speech at the Emmy awards. Lampooning the disingenuous winners who attribute their success to their deity, Kathy Griffin cracked, “A lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award, I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. … Suck it, Jesus, this award is my god now!”

Reaction to this was swift. The Catholic League condemned her quip as “hate speech” and members of Tennessee’s “Miracle Theater” posted a $90K full-page add in USA Today stating, “Enough is Enough”, referring to the entertainment industry’s supposed anti-Christian bias. You might think that people who were content in their blessings from a personal relationship with the Lord of Heaven, might have taken a more “sticks and stones….” attitude. Well, maybe a backwater professional Christian theater group doesn’t often get the opportunity for that much national attention, do they? I guess they could, if they donated that $ 90,000 to feed children or build a school, or something.

Under pressure from these groups, the TV Academy has opted to cut Griffin’s remarks from the broadcast.

There is a lot that can be said about remark itself. Like how it goes to the very core of comedy, holding up to your face that which is common and revealing it as absurd. That really isn’t important. The important point is that entertainment, satire and public speech should be protected. They are foundational to a free society and the repression of said speech, is the tipping point of a very slippery slope indeed.

Griffin’s response, “I hope I offended some people. Am I the only Catholic left with a sense of humor?” I have a strong suspicion that Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, the cast of Monty Python and Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G), to name a few, would say it is her job to offend people.

But wait, there’s more… “Sally Field’s anti-war remarks were censored by Fox” on AlterNet.org and “Why Did Fox Censor Sally Field’s Emmy Speech?” from MotherJones.com.

A far more troubling incident occurred yesterday when the Senate passed a resolution expressing outrage at a MoveOn.org advertisement in the New York Times with the bold heading “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” Where does this outrage come from, a collective guilty conscience? (“How Dare You”, Michael Kinsley, www.time.com, Wednesday, Sep. 19, 2007)

MoveOn.org is a liberal lobbying group with millions of members, it has consistently opposed the war and the current administration. Where is the surprise? Why was it more important for the Senate to take time to respond to an advertisement than supposedly finding better ways to improve the lives of Americans? Where is that same commitment to healthcare, to the economy, to education, to the soldiers and veterans that come home damaged?

Is it really so troubling that a group opposed to the war is skeptical of a report which paints a positive picture of our recent actions there? Is it un-American to be unconvinced?

Republican candidate for president, Rudy Giuliani, ripped Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, for not voting to condemn the MoveOn.org message. Using a tactic that has become so commonplace in the Bush years, Giuliani condemned Clinton’s skepticism as turning her back on the troops. Clinton, a member of the Armed Services Committee, is probably privy to many more reports on the situation in Iraq than a former Mayor. It would seem more reasonable for Giuliani to ask, “If she’s unconvinced, what am I missing?”

Again, there is a great deal in the content of the messages from Kathy Griffin and MoveOn.org that is worth discussing and is incredibly important to the times we live in and our future, but that is NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN, IF OUR FREEDOM OF SPEECH IS SUPPRESSED.

I was going to finish up with a quote attributed to Voltaire about freedom of speech. You know the one, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend with my life your RIGHT to say it.” Unfortunately, the exact wording is hard to pin down and there seems to be a question as to whether he said it or it was a paraphrasing of his personal attitude. It is not found in any of his writings.

Instead, I will wrap with a quote that I know belongs to the magnificent French poet, philosopher and satirist known under the pen-name of Voltaire. “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O, Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.” (Voltaire / 1694-1778 / Letter to M. Damilaville / May 16, 1767)

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