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In 1989, I visited China for the first time. I still remember flying to Hong Kong (then a British colony), with its glittering lights and gargantuan buildings — it was an empire of neon and steel — and taking the train to Guangzhou, disappearing into a dark tunnel and emerging three hours later to discover another world.
That was just over a decade after the Cultural Revolution had ended and the country was still shaking off the slough of the past. Cars were as rare as planes, street lamps nonexistent. Bicycles whooshed down the streets by the thousand, as if whipped from a quiver of arrows. Hundreds of men and women were dressed in the blue or gray Mao suits that were only now giving way to Western clothing. The words “foreign devil” were muttered once or twice as I walked through the crowds, but they were rare, overwhelmingly outweighed by the locals’ warmth, laced with an ironic humor, as if the Chinese knew the folly of their system better than I or any outsider ever would. I fell in love with China then and I’ve loved it ever since.
All this has made me especially attentive to the battle that’s raging as the Chinese government wages war with its American critics, most recently Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park.
For those who haven’t followed the news, Morey on Oct. 4 shot off a tweet using the words “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” an expression of support for the protests that have shaken the established order more than any since the June 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square. Even though Morey quickly withdrew the tweet and Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta shot back, “we are NOT a political organization,” the damage was done. China dropped its guillotine, suspending all cooperation with the team, while NBA commissioner Adam Silver danced on the head of a pin as he experimented with a number of contradictory responses.
Days later, China lashed out at South Park when an episode, “Band in China,” poked fun at its leader Xi Jinping, while mocking Disney and Marvel for censoring their movies at the country’s behest. The government immediately wiped South Park from the web, prompting Parker and Stone to hit back in their next episode, “SHOTS!!!,” in which a character yells: “Fuck the Chinese government!”
Were they right? Were they wise to provoke this economic giant or should they have backtracked, just as Morey did, knowing their actions were deeply offensive not just to a foreign government, but to the majority of China’s 1.4 billion people who are opposed to the Hong Kong protests, which they regard as a separatist movement fueled by the CIA?
Nobody is advocating censorship. But self-censorship happens all the time — and sometimes it’s justified. Should it have been exercised here?
Choosing when to speak and when not is one of the toughest dilemmas in a society that believes in free speech. Because speech has consequences, as we all know. Speech can hurt, wound, offend and sometimes destroy. It can trigger actions that occasionally lead to death. It can affect people’s lives as well as their incomes. The more inflammatory it is, the more carefully it has to be measured.
The Supreme Court recognized this in 1942 when it issued a unanimous ruling in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, qualifying the protections offered under the First Amendment.
“There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem,” wrote Justice Frank Murphy. “These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words, those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”
The problem is, what constitutes “fighting” words? Should we only take them in a literal sense? Or is an emblem — a swastika, for instance — to all intents and purposes the same thing?
That question burst into the open with the force of a volcano in 1977, when neo-Nazis fought for the right to march in Skokie, a Chicago suburb with a heavy Jewish population. The proposed march was banned by an Illinois court, which led to a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court — with this twist: the ACLU was on the Nazis’ side. The Court ruled in the Nazis’ favor.
The issue came up again two years ago when white supremacists held their Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., resulting in a young woman’s death and dozens of injuries as a supremacist rammed his car into the crowd. The ACLU, again, applauded the court that had permitted the rally (though it’s since said it won’t defend hate groups protesting with firearms).
Was it right to do so? Should the rally have been given a green light? How much freedom of speech do we really want?
In each case, I’ve reluctantly, painfully, come to believe those extremists did indeed have the right to march — or at least should have if the cities where the marches took place had the means to prevent violence. I speak as the son of a Holocaust survivor, acutely aware of the dangers such groups pose.
What Morey and South Park did was different. Neither used words or emblems that incited violence, but they nonetheless offended millions and may have done vast economic damage to the organizations that pay them well — especially the NBA, which draws 10 percent of its revenue from the basketball-obsessed Chinese. Were they foolish to do what they did? Should they have censored themselves or been encouraged to do so?
In Morey’s case, I say yes. His tweet appeared to be issued without thought or consideration. His immediate attempt to delete it made him seem cowardly and unprincipled, thereby giving fodder to an autocratic government, which quickly spread word that his action was orchestrated by the United States.
But in South Park’s case, I say the opposite. Parker and Stone did what they did with full awareness of the underlying situation, supporting demonstrators who have never advocated separatism, whatever China would have us believe. They chose to speak boldly, knowing the economic effect their words might have on themselves and Comedy Central. It was a rare act of courage at a time when Hollywood has kowtowed to almost every autocrat in sight — as we saw when rival studio heads failed to give Sony their full-throated support following the North Korean hack and when they flocked to meet Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman at a Rupert Murdoch-hosted dinner.
Words matter. Words have weight. Chosen carefully, spoken in the right place and at the right time, they can change the world. If this weren’t true, neither China nor North Korea would have reacted the way it did.
Both are systems run by autocrats. Both need to be challenged in public as well as in private. Both know that each time they silence one voice, they have effectively silenced thousands more.
Hollywood has a duty not only to stand behind Parker and Stone, but also to applaud them and follow their lead. Because in failing to do so, it tacitly allows injustice to grow. In choosing the economic benefits that come from rich business deals, it quashes the benefits of free speech.
Mao once said that power comes from the barrel of a gun, but I prefer the quote Woody Guthrie pinned to his guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”
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