Saturday, January 21, 2006

Can We Talk?

Apparently, it depends entirely upon what we say, and how we say it:

An experiment in open expression and free speech has proved a bit too free for The Washington Post and its Web site.

The newspaper company has temporarily shut down -- a section of that invites reader comments -- after receiving hundreds of posts, many using profane or sexist language, responding to columns by The Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell.
The episode was another demonstration of the unbridled -- and often uncivilized -- discourse that can take place on the Internet around political issues. The Los Angeles Times faced a somewhat similar situation in June when it enabled online readers to rewrite one of the newspaper's editorials about the Iraq war; the paper dropped its "wikitorial" feature after some users posted obscene photos and foul language.

Now, to be sure, this incident has sparked a lot of interest in left blogistan, and the Post was not entirely wrong in its reaction. Maybe. Perhaps. Depending on your idea of language, actually.

Lenny Bruce is now forgotten, largely, although he should be remembered as the patron saint of this issue. "In freedom of speech, the accent is on freedom, not on speech." He was tried for obscenity, a conviction later overturned, but one has to wonder how much of his problem was telling the truth: "He said that 'every man who professes to be a man of God and owns more than one suit is a hustler - so long as there are people in the world who don't have any.' " John the Baptist couldn't have put it any better.

Bruce's problem was with the police authority, but what he had to say about his legal problems and freedom of speech is interesting:

LENNY BRUCE: I don't know if it's a message for humanity, but my point of view is that under our constitution no American citizen is born with an original sin. Therefore, the burden is not upon any of the citizens in our country to prove that our speech is beyond reproach, but respected and protected by the constitution. The difficulty I've had is with the people who confuse themselves with the authorities. Which I believe is a quasi-religious point of view.
There is something almost quasi-religious in the concern of the Washington Post over the language used on its blog. It is, according to the opening paragraphs, "profane and sexist" language that is objected to. And certainly, voicing opinions in the crudest and most denigrating possible terms doesn't do much to advance a civil discourse.

But then, political discourse in this country has seldom been civil, and when it is, it is usually the stultifying hand of the "status quo" which seeks to set the terms of civility, all the better to control what is said, and what is heard. The assault on that status quo has been the hallmark of American disdain for hypocrisy since at least the Boston Tea Party:

"Why in hell," he observed impatiently, "do all them goddam hypocrites keep the poor bums waiting for two, three hours while they get off their goddam whimwham? Here is a hall full of men who ain't had nothing to speak of to eat for maybe three, four days, and yet they have to set there smelling the turkey and the coffee while ten, fifteen Sunday-school superintendents and W.C.T.U. [Women's Christian Temperance Union] sisters sing hymns to them and holler against booze. I tell you, Mr. Ammermeyer, it ain't human. More than once I have saw a whole row of them poor bums pass out in faints, and had to send them away in the wagon. And then, when the chow is circulated at last, and they begin fighting for the turkey bones, they ain't hardly got the stuff down before the superintendents and the sisters begin calling on them to stand up and confess whatever skullduggery they have done in the past, whether they really done it or not, with us cops standing all around. And every man Jack of them knows that if they don't lay it on plenty thick there won't be no encore of the giblets and stuffing, and two times out of three there ain't no encore anyhow, for them psalm singers are the stingiest outfit outside hell and never give a starving bum enough solid feed to last him until Christmas Monday. And not a damned drop to drink! Nothing but coffee--and without no milk! I tell you, Mr. Ammermeyer, it makes a man's blood boil."
H.L. Mencken, from 1948, writing about "A Bum's Christmas." That version was published on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal in 1998. Risible stuff, I should think, if posted on the pages of a blog. Not exactly newsworthy, however, if published on the editorial page of a major newspaper.

At least, I don't recall it stirring a flap 7 years ago. It's an excellent story, by the way; I highly recommend it.

Which is not to say I condone its tone, language, thesis, or conclusions. But it is more true than false, and a stinging rebuke of religion and reformers and social workers.

Imagine anyone publishing it today. Perhaps we tolerate it not only because Mencken was a fine writer, but also because he's no longer a contemporary.

Which brings me around to my point: certainly some of the comments at the WaPo blog were vile, obscene, unpleasant, rude, and inflammatory. I've read enough comments at enough websites to know what to expect. When I started posting comments in the "Politics" and "White House" sections of Salon's "Table Talk," back during Clinton's administration, the rest of Table Talk considered us the part of the website where you locked your doors and didn't stop for the red lights. We were raucous and rude and nasty and biting, and we were proud of it. Sort of like the characters in Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," without the physcial violence. We liked nothing better than a good verbal brawl over political issues. It wasn't a good discussion if we weren't all bruised and exhausted before the subject was.

It's the nature of politics in America, and it comes directly from the experience of politics in Europe (especially England), and the nature of freedom. Freedom is an unbridled affair, and that's as it should be.

Our language should follow suit, and our public fora shouldn't be squeamish about it.

Important matters are at stake. How we talk about them, in what language we talk about them, is the least of our worries.

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