MIKE GOLD: What Makes America Great
These are the most important words ever written:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
That’s the First Amendment, in its entirety. It’s elegant, isn’t it? But did you notice what word isn’t there? Look again.
The word is “except.” There’s no “except” in the First Amendment.
That’s what makes the United States of America great. It’s where we separate the wheat from the chaff. The democracies from the dictatorships. The good from the evil.
Ask around and some people will tell you that the Supreme Court ruled the First Amendment doesn’t give you the right to shout fire in a crowded theater. If the utterer is smart, that quote will be attributed to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The problem is, it’s bullshit, twice-over.
Number one: in ruling on the case of Schenck v. U.S. in 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” The emphasis here is mine; those critical words are usually left out of the debate. You’ve got to be lying, and you’ve got to actually cause damage. However…
Number two: Schenck v. U.S. was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1969 in the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, which ruled that speech could only be banned when it was likely to incite imminent lawless action, such as a riot. The majority noted yelling fire outside a building to prevent people from entering is quite different from encouraging people to stampede out.
The Constitution doesn’t say “but in case somebody figures out a way to allow people to get their words heard by a whole lot of other people all at once, a federal agency is going to appoint a brilliant comedian to figure out which seven words can never, ever be uttered, no matter how inadvertently, no matter how pointedly, and no matter how necessary or how puerile they may be – and we’re going to fine the shit out of people who ever use those words.”
Last week, ComicMix’s Glenn Hauman, a First Amendment freedom fighter of the first order and with the street cred to prove it, ran a piece about how a federal appeals court ruled against the FCC in their fining broadcasters for the dissemination of inadvertent obscenity. In his article, Glenn substituted asterisks for the vowels in the dirty words. I know Glenn; that reflects his highly tuned sense of irony. Glenn’s also a very considerate guy: he doesn’t want to get you in trouble if you’re reading ComicMix at work and your boss sees the naughty stuff. I’m not quite as considerate.
It’s Glenn’s prerogative as a writer, so I didn’t fuss with his choice. The fact is, when you see “f*ck” you read “fuck.” When you see “sh*t,” you read “shit.” When somebody indulges in euphemisms, people know exactly and immediately what the bad words are. But you’re not going to get Battlestar Galactica on the air unless you say “frakkin’.” And, no doubt, pay Yosemite Sam his royalty.
It’s ridiculous. It’s hypocritical. Even if these words had any meaning or any shock value any more, there is no reason to be so judgmental. People who think ill of those who use cuss words yet drive while on their cell phone are a much bigger threat than those who are subjected to their self-righteousness.
About 20 years ago, DC Comics’ editorial honcho Dick Giordano assigned me the task of representing the company at the redraft of the much-hated (and now completely impotent) Comics Code. Yep, Dick has a fantastic sense of humor. At the meeting, one of the first things I asked for was a list of the dirty words that can’t be used. Fair is fair, I pointed out. Marvel’s rep, the much-missed Mark Gruenwald, agreed. Since we were Marvel and DC combined, we got to assign the editors from Harvey Comics and Archie Comics the task of coming up with the list. Okay, that was sophomoric, but if you knew either Mark or me, you’d get it and you probably do anyway. A week or two later, Al Harvey and Victor Gorelick came in with a great list.
They passed the list around and we debated the merits and demerits of the words, adding a few that Al and Vic missed – the very few, actually; it was an extensive list. Then we all exploded in laughter at the astonishing bullshitness of the situation. One of the editors – I won’t reveal which – said “What’s the difference? The Code censors are going to ignore all this anyway.” Which is exactly what happened. Immediately.
We censor in the name of the Children. You know, those Children who are raised in nunneries, who, if they were never exposed to television or radio or literature or people like me, would be good, pious and safe. The kids who presently live on Earth-53. We divert everything with which we are uncomfortable into the “oh, no, we’re doing it for the Children” file. That’s a lot of crap. If you raise your kids honestly with good, sound values, if you teach them right from wrong and you show them how to be strong and the ways to stand up for those values, you won’t have anything to worry about. Stop hiding behind the kids.
There’s plenty of stuff going on to worry about. Language doesn’t make the cut.
Mike Gold is editor-in-chief of ComicMix.com. Be afraid, be very afraid…