Sunday, January 9, 2011

What the city can teach this country

Everyone agrees that shouting fire in a theater is a crime. It's a social agreement that emerges from the culture of congestion.

Yesterday FF and I sat sorrowful and silent watching the news coverage of the massacre in a Safeway parking lot in Tucson, Arizona while Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford lay in a hospital having a bullet removed from her head. I called my friends in Tucson, Mountain Sea and his girlfriend, to make sure that they were O.K. They were as O.K. as any two really sad people could be. They have been thinking, as has the avuncular Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, that Tucson has become the epicenter of bigotry and hate speech in America. And they are thinking of getting the heck out of there. This is the same state where armed posses of citizenry have been armed by a sheriff (not Dupnik) to go after illegal immigrants in the desert. Who can blame them for being, well, a little down on Arizona?

On Saturday, Pima County Sheriff Dupnik remarked ""The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry." Then, refusing to moderate his speech on the topic on Sunday, he continued: "I think we're the tombstone of the United States of America." And he seemed to be suggesting that our country is on its deathbed and Tucson will mark its grave. Pretty strong words. But unmerited?

Who will be called to account for Sarah Palin's "target practice" propaganda previous to the midterm elections in which a rifle site was placed on Congresswoman Gifford's district? Who will bring Bill O'Reilly to justice for repeatedly spouting hate against Dr. George Tiller, murdered while attending church in 2009 by a crazed anti-abortion activist? And what about Florida radio host Joyce Kaufman's infamous line delivered at a Tea Party rally in July, "If ballots don't work, bullets will"? And then there is the ongoing hum of vitriol which is the stuff of talk shows and certain TV hosts.

As FF is quick to point out, Keith Obermann has the talent to be as odious and over the top as Glen Beck. And the horrific season of political ads previous to the midterm elections is something I still have nightmares about. We have become a nation of bullies, kids who humiliate each other on Facebook and adults who, unable to express ideas in complex sentences and ruled by their fears and prejudices, lower the tone of public discourse to "screw you!" "Yeah, well screw you too!" Thomas Hobbes, the ultimate federalist, claimed that the life of the average man was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Now the only difference is we imagine we are not solitary because of Twitter and, oh yes, we live a lot longer than we used to. But the brutish, nasty and poor are qualities in which we have come to revel and make good money on TV deals. The nastier, the more newsworthy.

Legally, speech inciting others to violence goes unpunished unless a direct causal relationship can be determined between the speech and an act which results the deprivation of another person's civil rights, among them the right to remain alive. But in a world of rapid individual broadcasting and widespread editorializing, is it fair to hold ourselves to those standards meant for a slower world, or practical to expect the torrent of electronic messages to be traceable to those angry, deranged recipients who decide to actualize their hateful words?

People who live in cities understand something of the difference between free speech and saying whatever you want whenever you want, and if there were no calibrating forced at work in America's cities, they would have exploded a long time ago. In New York, we understand this because we are in unusually close contact with millions of other people on a 23 square mile-sized rock. On each square mile of Manhattan real estate is living an average of 75,000 people: The average US town/city has less than 7,000 people in the whole town. If Mr. New Yorker always said what was on his mind, he'd be in the hospital or dead within a week, which is another way of saying that good walls and closed mouths make good neighbors. I would say that by and large the New Yorker is more tolerant and restrained than the average American citizen by a long shot (pardon the expression).

New Yorkers know something about the niceties of free speech, because our daily safety depends upon it. I think that cultural artifacts like rap and hip hop developed in the cities precisely because of a strong need to find an outlet for angry self-expression that won't get you killed. This sort of contained, organized creative expression is unknown in rural environments where you can say what you want when you want to and populations remain either homogeneous or self-segregating. There's no particular need to practice tongue-holding in the land of the romantic country ballad, Nascar and caribou shooting with the Mama Grizzlies.

Most New Yorkers know from birth that "straight-talk" is not the same as shooting your mouth off, and freedom is not doing whatever the hell you damn well please. If you'd ever been standing in an attitude of studied restraint on the platform at Lexington and 53rd with a hundred other people while an evil-smelling, homeless prophet of doom preached loudly that all women were whores, you'd know what I'm talking about.

But in this Brave New World, country becomes city and city becomes country, geography is leveled and foreshortened by the video game landscape of modern digital media. Suddenly non-urban people who don't have experience with getting along with others in a crowded subway are in sweaty, close proximity with fellow beings the world around, thrust into a crowded virtual Metropolis for which I believe they are ill-prepared. Both the new broadcasters of opinion and the recipients of their virulent messages on MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter are swimming in unfamiliar waters, newly puffed up with the ability to throw their voices long distances, and desperately uneducated to the grave responsibilities of doing so. Indeed, as in the case of the Tucson gunman, many are simply desperately uneducated. Period.

As Congresswoman Gifford fights for her life in a Tucson hospital and others in that desert town grieve the loss of their loved ones, the difference between free speech and criminally irresponsible speech has to be considered carefully -- and soon.

We have failed to recognize that everyone now lives in a culture of congestion thanks to the all-inclusive aspect of modern media, but most are unprepared to deal with it. The messages that are broadcast now are unfiltered by wiser minds and voices of reason, and the air is full of the egotistic buckshot of hate speech and irresponsibly provocative imagery. Most of the citizens of this country are utterly unprepared to deal with the new media. And many of them will defend to the death -- maybe even your death -- their constitutional right to shout "fire" in this very crowded theater.

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