A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…I used to post my opinions about hot-button topics, both here and on social media. In some ways, this blog began for two reasons, thirteen years ago (!): first, to get me writing again and second, so I could talk, here, about things no one else would let me, or pay me, to write about. It was the midst of the Bush administration, and the 2004 election, in which homophobia and fear of the gays was used to get people out to vote–and to vote against the queer community’s rights and realities and humanity, if you want to boil it down to its ugliest truth–and having just lived through the brutality of a hate crime, I needed a place to vent. And vent I did, for many years. I did realize that there was a bit of the “preaching to the choir” element to this; no one who would actually learn anything from something I posted was likely to read it, and I finally realized a few years ago that arguing with someone on social media rarely, if ever, did anything besides raise my blood pressure and ruin my day. And my time is so precious that I hated wasted it in any way when I could be productive with that time instead. I also realized that I am a gay man and an author; if you know those two things about me you pretty much should be able to figure out what my positions are on social and political issues. (I still love the one-star review I got on Amazon for one of my Chanse books, where the complaint was about how I “used my book to promote my liberal agenda.” Because of course a novel by a gay man with a gay main character is your usual go-to for a conservative point of view?)
Occasionally, I will post when something is so egregious it cannot be ignored; the Trayvon Martin murder was one of those. But I am digressing. The point of today’s entry in Short Story Month is to talk about freedom of speech; which is also apparently a hot button topic. I personally have grown incredibly weary of people arguing about censorship and freedom of speech when they don’t know what the hell they are talking about; in the United States, yes, we do have freedom of speech, but that only pertains to the government. To wit, here is the actual language of the First Amendment to the Constitution:
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.
In other words, the government is prohibited from censoring speech, or abridging free speech in any way. There have been rulings by the Supreme Court that have inhibited free speech in some way; but please note that nowhere does that amendment guarantee anyone a platform, or freedom from the consequences of their free speech; only that the government itself cannot stop someone from having a platform, nor punish anyone for using their right to free speech.
It is astonishing how people will bleat about their right to free speech, or scream censorship, while trying to tamp down on someone else’s right to free speech. If I say something homophobic or sexist or racist, there are consequences from the free market I would have to face as an author; boycotts, attacks on social media, and so forth–and I would never try to stop anyone from doing so; as long as the government is not involved everyone has that right to protest me for things I’ve said or done, or boycott me, or whatever as long as they don’t threaten to harm me or my loved ones physically. (And for the record, this HAS happened to me.)
Do I find Ann Coulter and Milo whatever his name is reprehensible? Yes, they are vile people, and the things they write and the things they say in the public forum revolt me. Do I think they should be banned? No, I don’t. But cutting off Milo or whatever his name is’ Twitter account for violating their terms of service is NOT censorship or inhibiting his freedom of speech. Twitter is not a public utility, and he agreed to those terms of service when he signed up for a Twitter account. He violated those terms, and thus was banned from the site.
Which brings me to today’s story, “Knox”, by Harlan Ellison, which I read in his collection Approaching Oblivion.
“Knox” is…well, it’s Ellison at his most provocative, his most thought-provoking, and his most subversive. The story was originally published in Crawdaddy magazine in 1974 (is Crawdaddy still around?), and while that was definitely a different time, the language used in the story is kind of raw in the present day–and yet it is precisely the kind of story that people need to read.
I am not going to quote from the story because the language is so raw and racist and prejudiced and bigoted; yet the story itself is powerful because of the language Ellison uses. He uses every word that has ever been used as a pejorative for any racial or ethic minority, including the n word (IN THE FIRST SENTENCE). It’s a bit jarring, because I can’t even use the word as a quote; but they are all here in the story. Knox, the title character, works in a factory under a Fascist type government but also is part of a ‘neighborhood watch’, whose focus is to ferret out anti-government sentiment, treason, and those who aren’t basically of white European descent. Knox at the beginning of the story is a part of the watch, hoping to become a member of the “Party” so he can advance at work…and over the course of the story, as Knox becomes more and more a member of the party and a tool of the government, no longer thinking, loyalty to the party more important than friends and family…well, it’s very chilling.
And sadly, I don’t think such a story–because of the language–would get published today.
But that’s a part of why I love Ellison so much; even as he writes about inhumanity, there is so much humanity there. Knox becomes a horrible, horrible person…but you also see it happening and you also understand how it happens…and that makes it even more powerful, and awful. This, you see, is how normal, every day lovely German people became Nazis.
And now, back to the spice mines. Here’s a hunk: