I Will Defend Your Right to Say Something

“What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s a-happening …”

Remember that? It’s from the 70’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar.

It was a huge hit at the time.

In the scene Jesus is alone with his glory-seeking disciples and they continually cry the repetitious refrain “What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s a-happening. What’s the buzz, tell me what’s a-happening…” while Mary Magdalene seeks to comfort Jesus in the “here and now.”

If you visited that link above to the YouTube video of this song you’ll recall that it started out with soldiers marching forebodingly in formation above the heads of the gathered clan. To the disciples’ gesticulating and rhythmic crying out to know what’s happening, Jesus demands to know what do they really care and accuses them of being obsessed with fighting. He advises them to concentrate on the present, that focusing on the future is futile in the face of “times and fates” that can’t be defied.

Judas then calls Jesus on the carpet for tolerating Mary Magdalene’s simple ministrations in the face of how it might appear to the authorities, excitedly stating:

It doesn’t help us if you’re inconsistent.

They only need a small excuse to put us all away.

Jesus heatedly responds, telling Judas:

Who are you to criticize her?

Who are you to despise her?

Leave her, leave her

Let her be now.

Leave her, leave her

She’s with me now.

If your slate is clean

Then you can throw stones

If it is not

Then leave her alone!

Jesus then throws out more tough love to the gathered disciples telling them that not one of them will stand with him when his hour of need comes upon him.

I’m amazed that men like you

Can be so shallow, thick and slow.

There is not a man among you

Who knows or cares if I come or go.

The disciples go apoplectically into denial at this point. We all know what happens next and who was there at the end to take Jesus down off the cross, but the point I’m trying to elaborately make now has to do with the Helen Thomas crucifixion currently trending everywhere.

Helen Thomas is a 90-year-old woman with a history of service behind her. Wikipedia reports that she is an American author and former news service reporter, member of the White House Press Corps, columnist, and one of the most notable Arab-Americans of her time.

The woman has covered every President of the United States from the last years of the Eisenhower administration until the second year of the Obama administration. She is notorious for asking hard-edged and demanding questions from her front-row seat during White House press conferences.

I should state here that Helen Thomas is the child of Christian immigrants from Lebanon and I am married into a Christian Lebanese family. You may think this is a factor in my views. I do not.

Helen makes people uncomfortable because she puts words to thoughts some people are thinking.

Lots of people don’t like her.

In fact, her alma (1942) mater, Wayne State University today pulled her Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in the Media Award.

“Wayne State encourages free speech and open dialogue, and respects diverse viewpoints,” the school’s statement said. “However, the university strongly condemns the anti-Semitic remarks made by Helen Thomas during a conference yesterday.”

Here’s my take on this.

I don’t give a rat’s ass that what Helen said might offend people.

I want to hear it.

I want to hear every single side of what’s going on without editorial comment from the bleachers.

I want to know, first hand, what the real buzz is.

There’s something to be said about waiting until a person is dead before handing out awards, but once a thing has been done it’s done and everyone should be left to bear the consequences.

People (and institutions) reveal themselves.

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I happen to think Helen’s crusty 90-year-old bluntness is invigorating.

I think what some may call obtuseness is good for the public arena of discussion.

I’ll say it very plainly here.

Helen Thomas has the right to say whatever she wants to, whenever she wants to, wherever she wants, to whomever she wants to about whomever she wants to.

Her expressions may not be my own but at least it lets me know there are people in the world who think like she does.

THIS is the real menace in coming down hard and punishing (censoring) someone like Helen.

People clam up.

They go underground.

They get subversive.

Frustration, anger, hostility builds.

They stew, plot and plan.

The world becomes less interesting.

It also becomes more dangerous.

Before you know it, bombs are going off in public places.

I may (or may not) agree with what she says but damn it, last time I checked she had every right in the world to say it.

You know that old saying that one should not talk about politics (or religion) in polite society?

I say rubbish to that.

When we can sit down at one table or stand toe to toe and discuss politics (or religion) without someone blowing their lids after five minutes, THEN we’ll have a polite society.

Not before.

Thomas is on to something when she told the Detroit Free Press in an article published today that the leaders of Wayne State University “have made a mockery of the First Amendment and disgraced their understanding of its inherent freedom of speech and the press.”

Yes, I’m comparing Helen Thomas to Mary Magdalene.

Yes, I’m comparing Helen’s judges to Judas Iscariot.

Yes, I’m comparing every single idiot one of us who thinks Helen should be savaged for her diverse frankness to the noisy disciples Jesus accused of being obsessed with fighting; the fracas unthinking mob who swerve and sway to popular public opinion.

What Wayne State University is saying is they won’t defend Helen’s right to say something.

I will.

Will you?

Maureen Sharib has been a “Socratic sourcer” her entire sourcing career; from the moment she first picked up the faxed list of Silicon Valley high-tech companies that was her target list to “phone source” in 1996 to today she has instinctively followed this method of investigative sourcing using (mostly) the telephone.  She is a proponent of sourcing as a synonym for success and envisions the craft moving away from a dangerously drudgery-paced life-form existence to an exciting investigative/competitive place within organizations where practitioners co-exist within a framework of market research, human resources, and C-level future planning. She owns the phone sourcing and competitive intelligence firm TechTrak.com, Inc. You can contact her at Maureen at techtrak.com or call her at (513) 646-7306.  If she’s not on the phone she’ll pick up!


17 Comments on “I Will Defend Your Right to Say Something

  1. Keith – you’re a lot of fun.
    But then, you know that, don’t you?
    Your saying goes right along with another one a’ my favs:

    “No good deed goes unpunished.” ~from another blockbuster musical, Wicked

  2. Maureen, I’m with you that complete avoidance of controversial subjects doesn’t lead to much in the way of progress. More often, it leads to whomever is in the minority being told, very subtly, to STFU while the other guests agree with each other.

    That said, I think people and institutions retain the right to say, “it is impossible to resolve what you said with the values I stand for.” If you say something I find unacceptable, I won’t physically assault you, but I may stop being friends with you. So I suspect the real difference here may be that you think what Thomas said was “diverse frankness” and not, as many believe, beyond the pale. If so, then the question is, would you approve of what Wayne State did if Helen Thomas said something that you considered truly vile?

  3. I agree very much with most all of what you said: I’d like the racists and bigots, regardless of their targets, the Mel Gibsons, the David Dukes, the Jeremiah Wrights, the Helen Thomases, and so on, to come forward so we can all decide whether to read their writings, see their movies, attend their sermons, and so on. They might as well speak up. I once wrote a column called “Let Rocker Talk” (see your favorite search engine) which was heavily criticized by some, but was very similar to what you write. I argued that the bigot John Rocker should not have been fined for speaking, for it gave the impression that one’s speech, not their hate and bigotry, is the problem.

    Having said that, why you want to give Thomas an award, or have her keep any of hers, is beyond me. A diversity award, no less! All these bigots, as far as I’m concerned, shouldn’t be awarded, and should be stripped of any awards they have received. Let’s let them speak, but not honor them with awards. (Not that I’d ever give her an award anyhow — for years she has robotically, boringly, sounded like a near-terrorist-sympathizer up there at the White House, which is particularly sad for a Lebanese person, as Lebanese Christians have been such tragic, long-time victims of terrorism at the hands of Hezbollah, one of the world’s most vicious terrorist organizations, which has publicly supported Thomas.)

  4. I’d rather hear truly vile come out of someone’s mouth and have the chance to try to understand WHY they feel the way they do and attempt to come to some type of accord than have them hiding in some cave in Afghanistan plotting my destruction.

    People are WAY TOO WILLING to draw lines in the sand in this world. I’m not from the “if you ain’t with us you be agin’ us” side of the fence.

    I straddle it when I can.

    As for Wayne State I think that suggestion I made about waiting until a person is dead and can’t do any more harm to themselves in this world before heaping awards and connotations on them – might be good advice going forward.

    That being said, I think it’s reputations that last that are the real treasures in this world. There are other ways of handling embarrassing situations like Wayne State found themselves in. Here’s a story demonstrating that:

    Back in the 80s (maybe it was the 70s) a street here in Cincinnati was renamed after one of the greatest baseball players of all time – God love him – Pete Rose. In the late 80s the betting scandal broke. How embarrassing for Cincinnati.

    Did they pull the signs down off Pete Rose Way? No they didn’t but in the last couple years there has been a major redesign of the streetscape in that area and you’d be hard pressed to find mention or signs down there that say Pete Rose Way.

    It’s just not front and center like it once was.

    That’s why I say people (and institutions) reveal themselves if you give them enough time (and rope) to hang themselves.


  5. Colin, you hit the nail on the head. There’s a double standard. I find bigotry against Muslims and Christians and Jews in the workplace or outside of it equally reprehensible.

    No one would ever suggest that someone who insulted Islam be given a diversity award.

    But Christians have seen tax dollars used to subsidize depictions of Jesus in human excrement. Jews are the unfortunate target of endless distortions in the media (see honestreporting.com and other excellent sites aimed at correcting the record).

    Again, don’t get me wrong: I find hate against Muslims ( though apparently quite rare … see http://www.politicsdaily.com/2010/11/26/fbi-hate-crimes-anti-religious-offenses-declined-in-2009 ) and workplace discrimination against Muslims to be totally unacceptable, under any circumstances, ever. But the same goes against Christians and Jews. It should be protected as free speech, but not honored, not awarded for its frankness.

  6. Thanks, Maureen.

    I am in favor of unfettered free speech in the public sphere, though I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling conflating unlimited corporate political spending with free speech. At the same time, freedom of speech does not extend to the workplace.

    Also as a frequent commenter and occasional blogger myself, I often wonder: why would anyone care what you, I, or anyone else have to say, think, or feel on a subject, except as a minor entertainment? They care what THEY have to say, think, or feel on a subject, but why should we?
    So on a final note, I’m going to end this topic of free speech and blogging with a line from another hit Broadway play:

    “The Internet is for Porn”
    from Avenue Q.

    Keith “*The Mushroom” Halperin

    *He’s such a FUN GUY!

  7. Maureen, in Canada you can get charged for hate speech. David Akenakew was charged. The charge was not upheld but he did lose his Order of Canada. He said this action was a threat to free speech. See here.

    Recently, Maclean’s Magazine (Canada’s version of Time) was taken to the Human Rights Tribunal because of a series of articles by Mark Steyn.

    Here is a fascinating interview about hate speech in Canada. See here.

  8. I felt the same way when Karen Mattonen (@HireCentrix) was removed from the ERE community. While her comments were sometimes long, many of us appreciated her candor and “bluntness” when she was the top contributor here.

    You could literally recreate this article and put Karen’s name where Helen’s is.

    Just a thought.

  9. It is always sad to see someone who is smart, accomplished and has worked hard to build a career destroy themselves with bad judgement perhaps as a result of impairment due to age or disability.

    Over the years of watching Helen in the White House press conferences it became painful to watch her questions become not questions but caustic indictements based on her personal agenda.
    She was finally removed from the White House press core after many comments were made by her colleagues that it was time for her to retire. It would have been an act of kindness if her colleagues had influenced her to retire or been able to point out to her that her questions and comments were destroying her influence and years of success.

    As to having awards stripped by her Alma Mater, that’s a tough call and maybe her age and/or impairment should have been taken into consideration or balanced by her many years of stellar reporting but sometimes it cannot be ignored when someone who has championed diversity effectively becomes hateful and destroys her own credibility.

    Poor Helen, i wish she had gracefully retired before she became a symbol of hate speech and had to be forced to retire for her own sake and the sake of those values she spent so many years defending.

  10. Free Speech becomes tricky when it’s like that bunch of nuts that protest at military funerals with their hateful slogans. They have the right to say what they want to but move it down the street where you don’t impact the rights of free speech of the other guy. Or the nut who is started Wikileaks.

  11. I love how political this site is getting !

    Helen Thomas was given the railroad by the VRWC, of course.

    Colin, when somebody tells me the moon landings were faked, I never really hear anything they say again 😉

  12. If you make a public statement while employed by me that damages my business interests, I will explain to you that I value and respect your right to speak your mind as freely as you like as I hand you the cardboard box and take your office keys.

    Freedom of speech is protected by the greatest single document ever written by man. The assumption of responsibility for the consequences of exercising that right is a small part of what it means to be an adult in a free society.

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