Free speech causes trouble again

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on March 9th, 2012

When Bill Maher‘s fans (both regular fans and fans who are members of the MSM) talk about him, they like to cite just how influential he is, how wickedly insightful, how capable he is when it comes to “speaking truth to power.” When he gets into a bit of hot water, his fans/defenders dismiss the controversy and say that he’s merely a comedian. He deserves every protection afforded by freedom of speech. Move along, there’s nothing to see here. Just a comedian flapping his gums. Pay him no mind.

When Rush Limbaugh says something that is influential, he’s dismissed as “an entertainer” or “a clown.” He’s no more consequential than Jerry Springer or Maury Povich. Move along, there’s nothing to see here. When he gets into a bit of hot water, his critics say that he’s the de facto leader of the Republican National Committee and that he should resign. And if he doesn’t resign, we’ll circulate a petition to have him removed from the airwaves.

This is a textbook example of a double standard.

We’ve always held that a double standard is bad. It never works out the way you want it to. (A standard, on the other hand, is a good thing. It is what it is.)

In the pages of this magazine, we have always stated that it is important to defend the free speech of all– even those you may not agree with. Especially when it comes to humor. And make no mistake, the slut comment was a joke. It was a rhetorical flourish to make a larger point about a current issue.

In a sane world, comedians (who are inclined and capable of making jokes of a somewhat socio-political nature) would have viewed the testimony of Sandra Fluke as a “comedy wet dream.” How else to characterize a 30-year-old woman who testifies in front of our elected officials in Washington, in a highly-publicized event, that she spends a thousand dollars a year in birth control?!

Again, your propensities may vary– making jokes about sex or politics or contraception may not be your bag– but Limbaugh had no such reservation. He went for it and wrote the “slut” joke that got him into hot water. We can debate all day long as to whether it was well-constructed or bulletproof or even all that uproarious. But the premise– the basic underlying thrust, if you’ll excuse the poor choie of words– made sense. It may not have been riotous, and the execution might have lacked, but it was sound. A woman who is spending a grand a year on contraception is having a lot of sex.

To be sure, there were some brave souls– fellow comics– who attempted to make similar jokes online (particularly on Facebook or on Twitter), but they were few. And their efforts were quickly swamped by a tsunami of petitions and scolding and name-calling and shaming by those who felt it far more important to get Rush Limbaugh off the air. The spectacle of standup comics seeking to silence an entertainer and force him off the air was truly disheartening.

And it was only a matter of time before the “other side” could stand the double standard no more. There are reports out there that thousands of HBO subscribers are fleeing. Up until now, folks were perfectly willing to put up with Maher calling Sarah Palin a “cunt.” Even though the insults were somewhat asymmetrical. (As The Female Half points out, on the insult scale, “cunt” far outweighs “slut.” “You may see hundreds of women walking behind a sign that proudly advertises a “slut walk,” says she. “But you’ll never seen anyone walking behind a banner that trumpets a “cunt walk.”)

We would have been distressed if any of our colleagues were to circulate petitions to have Maher removed from his chair at HBO. And, let’s face it, the transition, “And speaking of dumb cunts…” is perhaps less of a joke than Limbaugh’s… but it’s a joke nonetheless.

But where’s the harm? Why not try and silence that big bag of wind Limbaugh? He’s nothing but a racist, drug-addled hate-monger. Here’s the harm: Louis CK is now officially collateral damage. He has canceled his appearance as the guest speaker at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner.

The pushback continues. It has been known for quite some time now that CK tweeted some rather “vulgar and inappropriate” “jokes” about (again) Sarah Palin during a flight to Los Angeles. (“@SarahPalinUSA kudos to your hole, you fucking jackoff cunt-face jazzy wondergirl.” among others.) Those tweets were sent out well over a year ago and, though he got some grief for his drunken tweeting, it’s been smooth sailing by and large with critical acclaim for his FX television show and wildly positive buzz for the tech-savvy marketing of his digital DVD.

Greta van Susteren cited the drunken tweets and suggested that her colleagues refuse to attend the bash in D.C. CK has canceled. (And in a backflip double-double standard, some of those who were, 24 hours ago aghast at the vile treatment a 30-year-old political activist/law student are now calling van Susteren a “cunt” and a “hag” and making cracks about her plastic surgery.)

We’re reminded of a saying, “What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” It is a saying that’s so old that it was coined when people actually knew what to do with a goose and how to make sauce! Try finding a recipe for goose sauce in any modern cookbook! Why is such a golden rule (which addresses the “ethic of reciprocity”) either forgotten by some or deemed outmoded by others? Consistency has never been more of a virtue in this day and age of the WWW and instant lookup-ability.

Mind you, we don’t mind if someone gets grief for public statements. Rush is getting it, Maher moved from one network to another because of it, Louis CK is no doubt exercising caution when using Twitter (if he uses it at all)… or alcohol… or both in concert and now has had to back out of a sweet gig.

We do mind, however, when people (people who should know better, i.e. comedians) are the ones who are leading the charge and behaving like some sort of dime store Terry Rakolta and circulating petitions via Facebook to have Rush Limbaugh taken off the air! Well, excuse us while we wretch our guts out.

If anything, comedians should be locking arms and leading the charge in defense of speech, not spearheading efforts to curtail it.

It’s easy to defend speech when it’s something you agree with. It’s difficult– but necessary– to defend speech when you disagree with it. Doing so isn’t heroic. Doing the opposite is cowardly.

Like it or not, there is a connection between us comedians and Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher and Opie & Anthony and Dennis Miller and Adam Corolla and Chelsea Handler. When it comes to comedy and free speech, we can’t play ideological Kerplunk.

And if you doubt that there is a connection, you haven’t been paying attention for the past 72 hours.