Friday, May 22, 2015

The most important of all rights, the one whose absence sooner or later permits the shutting down of every other one, is the right to blaspheme. Call it “freedom of speech” if you want, but I believe it runs deeper. It is the right not only to “say” – and by that I mean any cultural expression and all of the arts – anything but explicitly the right to offend, to make people crazy (literally) by articulating whatever goes most deeply against their beliefs. Regardless of the lip service given to freedom of expression in many nations, I don’t believe I have ever seen a society that did not have some line that it would not permit an individual to cross. In some nations, this may simply be insulting the head of state, or of religion. In France, you can make fun of Islam, but you cannot deny the holocaust. In the US, you can spend a fortune to deny climate change, but it is different when a white person “performs” racism than when, say, Kara Walker puts its silhouette on a museum wall. We have seen enormous quantities of violence perpetrated against anyone that crosses such a line.

The Silliman clan was driven out of Lucca centuries ago for denying the omniscience and omnipotence of the Church of Rome. My niece could not marry in her own church as recently as last year because she believes that women have a right to marry women. I was born, as the bionote to this blog concedes, in Pasco, Washington, the site of several recent police shootings. Did I mention that my father was a cop, albeit not there? Or that I’ve largely stopped attending baseball games because I find the displays of national jingoism too disgusting?

 This year we have seen the murders in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and we have seen far too many famous cowards protest the giving of an award to the survivors of that attack. They may think they are being “culturally sensitive,” but they are in fact siding with the very same forces that, for example, banned “degenerate works of art” during the Nazi regime. There really is no middle ground. None.

It is not just that it is a slippery slope: it’s a one-way slide greased straight to the bottom. Anyone who thinks that the ability to prohibit one form of speech is not part of a chain of logic that gets playwrights hung and presidential candidates exiled, arrested or shot is as ignorant of history as Jeb Bush is of science. In Mexico, a mayor did not like the criticism of his administration by students at the local ag college. His wife arranged with the local drug cartel to have 43 of them murdered. I see the hands of those who protested the Charlie Hebdo award from PEN on the very guns aimed at those young men.

We have, on at least two occasions recently, seen white authors producing works on the subject of race be attacked for their productions. We have seen what amounts to an online lynch mob attempt to prevent Vanessa Place from participating in the planning of events in the AWP. One need not agree with Place or to even think her Gone with the Wind tweets are anything but a klutzy and obvious way to say that, yeah, we are still the nation that enslaved millions and committed an act of genocide on the peoples who lived here before our ancestors arrived with guns. And it is true, certainly, that Place, like Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens or the satirists at Charlie Hebdo, is someone who compulsively and repeatedly tries to push peoples most sensitive, private buttons, to provoke exactly the thuggish reaction she is now being greeted with. She is after all the American publisher of Urs Allemann’s Babyfucker and the author of Tragodía, a trilogy of works examining – from an appellate perspective – sexual violence. Finally, after multiple attempts to generate this sort of reaction to her work in all its forms, she does seem to have found a group of folks who apparently just fell off a potato truck and played into her hand by petitioning the AWP and revealing themselves to be a mob no better – and hardly any different – from the fascist jackboots tossing books into a bonfire in Prague some 80-odd years ago. As someone whose ancestors did indeed ride on potato trucks, I find their behavior objectionable, thuggish, stupid.

It is hardly news that writers, as a group, are no better than any other collectivity of human beings. We may sneer at the audience that prefers the lies of Fox News to a more serious consideration of social and political events. But it is tragic that we seem to be just as incapable of thoughtful self-reflection as those who do not profess to value thinking as integral to the human project. Are the signers of the petition to the AWP really that different from the police officer who fired at Michael Brown? If so, it is only in degree, not in kind. In signing, they too have wrapped their own fingers around the trigger of that gun. Either you are shooting Lorca or you are not shooting Lorca, setting fire to Roque Dalton or not setting him ablaze. It is startling just how rapidly seemingly intelligent people, some of them friends, signed up to become part of this mob. And they have Vanessa Place to thank for holding up this mirror to their faces. Here’s hoping they enjoy the view.