By John Marshall, November 15, 2011. (Update below w. Jack Johnson)
Isaac Davis: Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey? You know, I read this in the newspaper. We should go down there, get some guys together, y’know, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to them.
Party Guest: There is this devastating satirical piece on that in the Op Ed page of the Times, it is devastating.
Isaac Davis: Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point.
Party Guest: But biting satire is better than physical force.
Isaac Davis: No, physical force is better with Nazis. It’s hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.
– “Manhattan” (1979)
When “Manhattan” came out, the controversy over Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois was barely over a year old. According to the rule, “comedy is tragedy plus time,” not enough time had passed to satirize contemporary Nazis who wanted to march in a community of Holocaust survivors, which is why “Manhattan” has two characters discussing satire rather than portraying it.
One year later, a movie did satirize guys with shiny boots – “The Blues Brothers.” Jake and Elwood are driving the Bluesmobile and find their path in a Skokie-like town blocked by Nazis holding a demonstration. Their exchange is less clever than “Manhattan’s” but “gets right to the point”.
Elwood: Illinois Nazis.
Jake: I hate Illinois Nazis.
They not only disrupt the demonstration, their disruption turns the American Nazis – satirized even further by Henry Gibson, from terrifying new archetypes into classic comic villains.
Yet neither “Manhattan” nor “The Blues Brothers” disputed the right of the Nazis to free speech.
That was indicative of the debate at the time, in which free speech was defended by the ACLU and discussed throughout society and the media.
I was in high school and competing in the American Legion Constitution Public Speaking Contest (my first open mike, if you will). I remember a conservative student holding spellbound a whole Legion hall of World War Two vets with his argument that if we didn’t protect the right of Nazis to speak, one day we might the lose the same for the American Legion.
The U.S. Supreme Court, even its most right-wing, has seen the First Amendment as an immovable rock that you don’t fuck with (see, I can only say things like that because of the First Amendment).
When Jerry Falwell objected to being depicted sitting naked in an outhouse in the pages of Hustler and sued, the Court sided with Larry Flynt. That was a landmark decision for humor, which has benefited everybody from MAD magazine to the Colbert Report.
The test of the First Amendment is not whether it protects the speech that you like, but whether it protects the speech that you don’t like. I don’t particularly like the 2 Live Crew, but they’ve done more for my rights than most politicians.
Challenges to the First Amendment don’t usually occur on a daily basis over a period of months. The Skokie march was a huge issue, but it wasn’t replicated in dozens of other cities. The flag burning controversy didn’t come about as a result of hundreds of flag burnings a week. Past First Amendment controversies allowed us to feel that the First Amendment was basically strong, but needed tending here and there, from time to time.
Now the First Amendment is being weakened on a daily basis, not by its citizens, but by its authorities.
OWS protesters are being deprived of their right to protest and being physically attacked when they assert that right. In dozens of cities police are arresting people, not telling them the charges, macing them, beating them, shooting them with rubber bullets.
My own wife got caught in the riot after the Union Square march (her video of the young girls who got maced has gotten thousands of hits on YouTube).
My hope is that a year from now this episode will be seen as the end of an era when attempts to turn America into a police state failed. Then we can have funny movies (“Police Academy Zuccotti Park”) about how we all lost our minds and turned our civil liberties over to cops with nightsticks.
But that will take a larger national discussion than the one we’re having.
The country that at one time rationally weighed the pros and cons of Nazis marching on a community of Holocaust survivors will have to debate – openly, freely and without fear – whether we want our law enforcement officers to take away our First Amendment freedoms as they see fit.
Because 32 years after “Manhattan,” it’s still no easier satirizing guys with shiny boots.
The above post by John Marshall came in before the early morning eviction of OWS, NY City, which is still in a state of flux. “Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Lucy Billings signed an early-morning order temporarily barring cops from keeping protesters and tents out of Zuccotti Park.
But within hours, she was off the case as court administrators prepared to randomly choose a new judge — and excluded Billings’ name from the list of candidates.” (emphasis mine)
But the post is now more meaningful than it was yesterday. Hopefully, this turn of events will give rise to more discussion among the people – “openly, freely and without fear”.
If you’re still looking for details amid the media “non-coverage”, here’s Digby’s early morning take on it with video.
Good post from John Marshall, thanks Donna for highlighting it here. One of the things that Occupy Richmond did last night was exercise their ’1st Amendment Rights’ before City Council, waiting patiently for two hours in order to speak. As Occupy members stood before the council to address their concerns over the recent eviction at Kanawha Plaza and the suppression of their right to peaceably assemble, Mayor Dwight Jones walked out, refusing to listen to the speakers’ grievances. This is not how it’s supposed to work. Municipal officials only have the authority to the extent that we grant them authority. So, too, with Judicial, Legislative or Executive branch figures at the Federal level. Authority resides within ‘we, the people’ to the extent that ‘authorities’ ignore, walk out or suppress our rights–that is the extent to which they are no longer legitimate authorities. Mayor Jones or Mayor Bloomberg hold power only temporarily. They have apparently forgotten where ultimate authority resides.