Mark Twain (Library of Congress No. LC-USZ62-5513)
Your elites don’t trust you. They don’t trust you to be able to read certain historical or literary documents, listen to TV and radio pundits, or even look at certain billboards and posters without getting the wrong ideas and letting them poison your mind to the extent that you turn to violence.
We’ve seen that a lot this month, with censorship efforts against a broad spectrum of source material, from Huckleberry Finn to the U.S. Constitution to Sarah Palin’s website, in the wake of the Tucson shootings. Continue reading
I really don’t want to be the movie-racism police, especially after the flame war that started after I pointed out the lazy and thoughtless stereotyping in Avatar, but hey, Moviefone asked me to, so here’s my commentary on this Complex.com list that supposedly documents the 50 most racist movies you didn’t know were racist. (No. 1 is Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which you wouldn’t know was racist only if you’ve forgotten Mickey Rooney’s embarrassing and entirely gratuitous yellowface performance, shown above. Which would be a pretty normal thing to want to forget.)
I don’t have much to add to what I already wrote, except to note (with dismay but not surprise) the comments that demonstrate that many people still remain in denial about this, to the point of violence (figurative, so far, though someone named Buffmuffin thinks I should be “summarily executed”). I’m not saying that people who disagree with my essay are racists, but there’s an awful lot of entrenched sentiment that moviegoers and critics who will no longer sit idly by and allow racist imagery and narrative to pass without remarking on it are somehow impinging on creative freedom, that freedom being the privilege of insulting people according to group affiliation without ever being called on it.
When Hollywood stars testify before Congress, does anything ever get accomplished? Does either the star or his or her interrogators ever come off looking smarter or better informed about the issues?
Yesterday, Nicole Kidman testified before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee. She was seeking funding for a United Nations initiative to thwart violence against women throughout the world via humanitarian grants to local organizations. But all the headlines talked about was her offhand comment, prompted by a Congressman’s fatuous question, in which she appeared to endorse the notion that movie violence has contributed to the real-world violence against women that she is trying to reduce. (See headlines here, here, and here.)
The question by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) deftly shifted the blame onto Hollywood; Kidman was equally deft in deflecting the blame away from herself, insisting that she, at least, doesn’t make the kind of movies that portray women as weak sex objects and targets of violence. (Watch the whole exchange here.) But the damage was done. Not only did the media focus shift to the most tangential part of her testimony, but she seemed to concede a point long argued by censorious types on both the right and the left, that Hollywood violence is somehow responsible for real-world violence. Continue reading
Tiresome as the Bill O’Reilly-Keith Olbermann feud has become, the two are within their rights to criticize each other and each other’s employers. Now, however, their respective bosses at Fox and MSNBC have forced them to silence their mutual criticisms so as not to rock the boat for either corporate parent. This New York Times story lays out how, despite the fact that the feud was ratings manna for both channels, their CEOs decided that it had become an embarrassment to both corporate parents, so each side agreed to muzzle its own attack dog.
There are often complaints that the mainstream media are too biased toward the left or the right, but they’re really biased toward the corporate interests of the companies that own them. Usually, journalists working for big media outlets don’t have to be told by their bosses what news to downplay or ignore so as not to embarrass the parent company; they simply do so automatically. It’s rare for the bosses to have to admonish the reporters directly; rarer still for them to acknowledge such self-censorship in the pages of, say, the New York Times. Remarkably, the Times story presents its account of the gag order as if it were a sports or gossip story, about the feud between two colorful personalities, rather than as a cautionary tale of how two big rival corporations, out of mutual self-interest, shut down the free expression of each other’s employees and silenced possibly newsworthy criticism of each other. Well, maybe it’s not that remarkable; the Times, too, is pro-corporate, so it’s not going to present the story in a way that recognizes that the free expression rights of reporters at all major media outlets, including the Times, are at risk. Continue reading
Supreme Court ruling (link opens a .pdf document) against even fleeting profanities on broadcast TV is being hailed by right-wing TV watchdogs as a victory for family values, but it’s clear that the decision does not really put to rest the issues at hand. As Variety reports, the ruling essentially tosses the ball back to the appeals courts, leaving undecided the larger First Amendment questions (should the FCC really have the authority to regulate content on broadcast TV?) and any recognition of how much the TV landscape has changed since the FCC started punishing networks for airing (even in passing, on awards shows and such) words from George Carlin’s notorious list.
The old standards used to apply because broadcast TV was a “uniquely pervasive” medium that made use of the public airwaves. Now, the broadcast channels are just a handful of options in the 500-channel universe, and they have to compete (unfairly, network execs will say) against cable channels that, because they don’t use public airwaves, are free to air unregulated and uncensored content. But the court also didn’t address whether the FCC should be regulating content in the first place. Networks complain that FCC sanctions often seem arbitrary, while the FCC commissioners argue that to issue an explicit set of don’ts would amount to prior restraint, which clearly would violate the First Amendment. That leaves only the Potter Stewart standard (named for the former Supreme Court Justice who defined pornography by saying only, “I know it when I see it”), which seems no fairer, and which may also violate the Constitution. Continue reading
The intersection of fine arts and faith is a ways away from my usual beat (though it’s in the same neighborhood), so I was certainly flattered that Menachem Wecker, who explores that particular crossroads on his Iconia blog, wanted to interview me. In the newly published Q&A, we discuss, among other issues, the questions of free expression, tolerance, and sensitivity that seem to arise in our secular pluralist nation whenever a work of religion-inspired art enters the public sphere and inevitably offends someone. Other topics include religious expression in pop culture (see video below) and what social media like blogs and Twitter mean for the future of criticism. Read the full interview here.
Vodpod videos no longer available.
Not sure why this didn’t make a bigger splash, but Friday night, David Letterman owned up to a big mistake and tried to rectify it. Approaching the 15th anniversary of Bill Hicks’ death on Feb. 26, Letterman acknowledged for the first time his own responsibility for censoring the last of the comic’s many appearances on his show, having cut Hicks’ routine in its entirety before the show aired in October 1993. Letterman was brand new to CBS at the time, and material that might have passed muster when the scabrous political comic had appeared on his 12:35 NBC show suddenly spooked the host when he worried how it might play at 11:35 at his new workplace. According to Hicks, Letterman’s producer blamed the CBS censors for the drastic chop, but as Letterman acknowledges (in the clip below from Friday’s show), the decision was really his own.
Letterman did not know at the time that Hicks, 31, was dying of pancreatic cancer, and that there would never be a chance for Dave to make amends. He tried to do so belatedly on Friday, having Hicks’ mother on as a guest and finally airing, for the first time, the entire censored routine, which you can watch after the jump.