Saturday, April 14, 2007

"And So It Goes"

Photo Credit: Avalon Books
There is not one person of my generation who has graduated from high school in America and hasn't read a book by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. His books, including Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse 5, and Breakfast of Champions, were often recommended, if not required reading, for high school level literature courses. He exposed us to a level of satire and humor that went beyond Mad Magazine or Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, as well as political ideology that we may not have been aware of at the time.
Writing in the genre of Science/Speculative Fiction, his plots, story lines, and dialogue often reflected his personal beliefs in Socialism and Atheism. But, in spite of the fears of censorship advocates and book burners of the time, reading his books did not create a generation of anti-capitalists. Rather, his books opened up a dialogue in our minds where we were invited to defend our beliefs--Vonnegut, through his writing, did not try to force his beliefs upon the reader, he merely presented his ideology for scrutiny. Whether we agreed with his ideology or not, he made us think, and created constructive discourse among ourselves and our fellow students. In his way, he proved that freedom of speech/expression does not cause the End of Civilization As We Know It.
Political and social ideology aside, Vonnegut wrote good books--books that entertained us and made us laugh. He has often been called the Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain) of our time, which is, in our minds, a justifiable comparison. He allowed us to laugh at ourselves, often while identifying with his main characters who were almost always helpless victims of circumstance, with no control over their own lives. As darkly cynical as some of his humor was, a glimmer of hope was always present in his writing.
Kurt Vonnegut passed away Wednesday, April 11, reportedly due to head injuries suffered in a fall. He will always be remembered as an important and influential contributer to modern literature, perhaps the best of our time. "And so it goes..."

Friday, April 13, 2007

Whose job is it to tell us to be offended?

The questions generated by the Don Imus controversy have gone far beyond what he said, and how and why he got fired. The entire controversy has grown in such a way it affects everybody, whether we are members of the Rutgers women's basketball team or not.
Granted, Imus' bad joke was uncalled for, and never should have been said, much less repeated everywhere in the media. There were likely less than 300,000 people--less than one-one hundredth of the US population--listening when he said it, and it would be safe to say, given Imus' history of racism and sexism, that none of the listeners were members of the championship basketball team. The entire matter should have been irrelevant to most of us. The entire set of circumstances was escalated, by people who have chosen to make themselves the nation's thought police, into a situation that is life threatening to freedom of speech.
It would be entirely rational if the reason for firing Don Imus from both his radio broadcast and television simulcast was loss of revenue from lack of sponsorship. In that case, the question of First Amendment rights would be irrelevant. However, the reasons given by the Viacom/CBS broadcasting consortium that Imus was canned due to complaints by employees, and the pundits and newscasters across the media have speculated that it was because of the involvement of Sen. Barak Obama and/or the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. It could be reasonably argued that the involvement of these three did have something to do with several large companies withdrawing their sponsorship of Imus' radio and television programs.
One question that comes to mind is, do we really need somebody to tell us when we should be offended? Certainly, we all possess the rationale to determine for ourselves what is right and what is wrong. Most of us believe in the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King--that there will come a day when the color of one's skin does not matter. But the Reverends Jackson and Sharpton have too much to gain from perceived racism. There are sheep who accept without question anything that is said by these two men. Without being told they are oppressed, the sheep wouldn't feel oppressed. Jackson and Sharpton do not want to see Dr. King's dream come to fruition, for, if it did, they would be out of a job.
What precedent does the firing of Imus set? Where do we draw the line? It should be up to the individual to treat others with respect, not up to the Federal government and the FCC to tell us what we can say, see, or hear. Can anybody who feels offended by anything just say so, and thereby limit the choices we make for entertainment? It certainly seems that way, and, figuratively speaking, book burning has made a comeback. From the looks of things, song lyrics are next, soon to be followed by such entertaining television programming as The Daily Show, South Park, Red Eye, The Jimmy Kimmel Show, and The Cobert Report, all of which are satire, which is the most often misunderstood form of humor. We don't have to agree with the issues made by such programming, and we can often laugh at ourselves watching these programs. We really don't have to watch or listen--because we have the rationale to make such choices. In any case, we must realize that humor and satire are not news or opinion, in order to realize the significance, or lack of such, to the nature of society and culture as a whole.
As South Park creators and writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone often point out, in their program, we can only be offended if we choose to feel offended . We can either laugh at a joke, or feel that it is wrong, but in no way should we let it be an excuse to limit freedom of speech.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sacrificial Lamb?

Photo credit: Don Imus-WFAN Pediactric Center For Tomorrow's Children

Freedom requires responsibility and that includes freedom of speech. When one person exercises his or her individual rights in a way that trespasses on the rights of others, it is no longer an expression of freedom, but of aggression.
Don Imus' statements, in actuality, hurt nobody except himself.. What he said, and the backlash to what he said, should not be used as an excuse to limit freedom of speech or expression, but as a warning that there may be consequences in what we say and do. Imus was wrong to say what he said, but he had every right to say it. It is conceptually erroneous to point out the apparent hypocracy that some are allowed to use language that others aren't. Offense is a relative concept that must include context, meaning, and scope, or sphere of influence. We would do well to see an example in the entire incident that respect for others is the best way to protect our individual freedoms, and it all comes down to personal responsibility. However, what we do see is a sacrificial lamb that negates the conscious of others who will continue to use unfounded and hateful terms such as "Nazi," "Chickenhawk," and, in the context it is often used, "neocon."
We should remember that our First Ammendment rights also give us the freedom to choose to listen or not to listen, and that includes the choice to or not to be offended. We have, at our disposal, a high tech device called the "on-off switch." Rather than using offensive speech to limit the rights of others, it is better to just ignore it.