Jewish World Review Nov. 20, 2001 / 5 Kislev, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- AMERICA is a great country. What better evidence is there than the opportunity people have to say the stupidest, most witless things?
Many Americans probably think that Washington, D.C., has a monopoly on idiocy. Not true. Barnes & Noble bookstores regularly host book signings. Among the chain's current guests is Bill Ayers, author of "Fugitive Days: A Memoir."
A 1960s radical, he planted bombs. He recently told The New York Times, "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough."
When criticized, however, Ayers averred that he "never intended to injure or kill other human beings." Apparently he used kinder, gentler bombs.
Promoting an unashamed terrorist seems particularly odd in the post-Sept. 11 environment, but company Vice President Mary Ellen Keating decried "censorship" in rebuffing customers who suggested that she cancel Ayers' appearance.
Dropping him, claimed Keating, "would be to give in to our fears, and ultimately to validate the position of our enemies." If the fear was that he planned to bomb his own book signing, it probably was overblown.
But as James Taranto mordantly observes in his wonderful "Best of the Web" compilation for OpinionJournal.com: "Terrorists win if we don't let terrorists cash in on their past crimes? This has got to be the most twisted use of the 'we can't let them win' cliche."
Keating is apparently not alone in believing that a refusal to support disagreeable speech is censorship. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, free-lance writer Nora Vincent complains about people complaining about the stupid things said by academics, celebrities, and others after Sept. 11.
Indeed, she is appalled by the argument that exercising free speech means being willing to accept the consequences of one's speech. Criticism is OK, she allows, but not "putting a gun to the speaker's head," which would make the First Amendment "meaningless." Well, yes, but more importantly, shooting the speaker would violate the criminal law.
Firing a professor would also contravene the First Amendment, she argues: "After all, how free can your speech be if your job is in peril if you say the wrong thing?" In fact, the First Amendment only applies to government. And appropriately so.
Say her city's leading newspaper, The New York Times, hired a columnist to write about world affairs. Say this person turned out to be bright, interesting - and a Nazi.
Would it really violate the First Amendment to fire him or her? The U.S. Constitution requires liberal papers to publish Nazis? With that expansive interpretation, we are lucky Vincent is not on the Supreme Court.
But she goes on to contend that "yanking advertisements from network television shows should also be unconstitutional." What if the show's host turned out to be an unabashed pederast, committed to winning converts?
To "remain true to the spirit of the First Amendment," Vincent argues, we should pass a law preventing "advertisers from revoking their support for shows." But today any show is free to ask for all of its funding up front or to demand a contractual guarantee. What Vincent doesn't like is that any advertiser is equally free to say no.
In Boulder, Colo., an employee asked the library to hang a flag in the entrance. Art Director Marcellee Gralapp said no, explaining that such as a step "could compromise our objectivity" and that she wanted "people of every faith and culture" to "feel welcome."
I'm not much of a flag waver, but how would displaying the Stars and Stripes compromise the library's "objectivity" and make people feel unwelcome? Boulder is in the United States, is it not? Perhaps the problem was space - the library had strung up 21 ceramic, uh, penises and titled the result "Hung Out to Dry." A sign outside the gallery alerted visitors that "this exhibit contains mature material that may be objectionable to some." So much for making people feel welcome.
There is good news, however. There are stupid people in other countries. Very stupid people.
The British boy band Blue was in New York City on Sept. 11 to cut a video and witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center. Virgin Records set up a promotional interview with the Sun newspaper.
When asked about the WTC attack, three of the musicians were appropriately horrified. But not 18-year-old Lee Ryan.
He asked, "Who gives a f___ about New York when elephants are being killed?" Over his bandmates' protests, he added: "Animals need saving and that's more important. This New York thing is being blown out of proportion."
He later apologized.
We all do dumb things. But some people do extraordinarily dumb things. Thank goodness for our cherished freedom to be stupid and
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