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Jewish World Review July 3, 2002 / 23 Tamuz, 5762

Matt Towery

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Updates and freedom | First, a quick update. On May 21, this column reported that the U.S. government would start issuing security warnings for around the Fourth of July. This past weekend, the FBI admitted to having quietly notified law-enforcement agencies to keep a weather eye on the Independence Day weekend. The same column also suggested a fear by officials over "dirty bombs," fears that became public several weeks later. Fortunately, inside sources now say federal officials have foiled the most specific threat for early July.

And freedom is the issue of this week's inside look from outside Washington's infamous Beltway.

When the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued its ludicrous decision about the Pledge of Allegiance last week, there was an almost unanimous national revulsion against the ruling. Only the most adamant liberals continued to argue that somehow the constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech is less important than the rather hazy provision prohibiting the establishment of a national religion. Few expect the ruling to stand, and should it, expect to see the swiftest adoption of an amendment to the Constitution in U.S. history, providing expressly for the recitation of the Pledge as it traditionally reads.

It's always fun to see the double standard that's applied to concepts like "state-sponsored religion" and "censorship" when the so-called "enlightened elite" encounter policies and statements that aren't to their liking. Consider two examples, coming from very different directions, but involving the same television network.

Last fall, Bill Maher, the host of ABC-TV's "Politically Incorrect," lived up to the show's title shortly after Sept. 11 by saying, "We (the U.S.) have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 200 miles away . . . (But) staying in an airplane when it hits, say what you want . . . it's not cowardly."

The viewer indignation that followed wasn't surprising. And even though Maher backtracked with clarifications of his comments in the days and weeks that followed, ABC appeared to buckle under pressure and, ultimately, canceled the show.

What's amazing -- particularly for those of us who have appeared as guests on Maher's show -- is that the network would respond with such a gut reaction to the fallout from Maher's slip-up. The show's entire concept was to allow the host and his guests the opportunity to say exactly what's on their minds, even if -- or because -- those comments were controversial. I certainly agonized over some things I said on the show, but I realized that this was the magic of an offbeat talk show in which everything was said in the heat of a running verbal battle.

And for those who can't understand why anyone would defend a show that espouses such outrageous -- and on that particular night, truly incorrect -- words, consider ABC's alleged censorship of some recent words that, if anything, read the opposite of Maher's perceived anti-American comments.

Country singer Toby Keith was scheduled to appear on ABC's Fourth of July music tribute special to sing his new song about the Attack on America called "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." Included in the song's lyrics are the words, "You'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A., 'cause we'll put a boot in your a--, it's the American way." But it was ABC that gave Keith the boot.

And country star Charlie Daniels, who reportedly was told by PBS representatives that his song about 9/11 was inappropriate for their Independence Day program, decided not to perform at all.

And now the boots are flying. Hundreds of angry viewers mailed their old boots to ABC headquarters, in care of news anchor Peter Jennings. Apparently much of the blame for Keith's dismissal from the show has fallen on Jennings, although to be fair, it is hard to find exactly what role Jennings played in the controversy.

Even Congress has gotten involved. High-profile Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., who has become one of the Senate's most intriguing members, announced on the Senate floor last week that he would be mailing in his old boots and entering Keith and Daniels' censored lyrics into the Congressional Record.

And so as we celebrate our nation's independence, we must contemplate a court that says we can't recite our pledge and a media that punishes those with extreme and "politically incorrect" views. For those of us who value true diversity and freedom, Maher's, Keith's and Daniel's talent will be missed. change.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate