Brainiac On Banjo #051: The Challenge of Ideas

I just checked and I’ve decided I’ve got too many friends. Let’s see who I can offend today. But, first, a couple of disclaimers.

One: For decades I have been uttering I am a first amendment absolutist. There should be no roadblocks in the world of free expression. Yes, people need to stand behind what they say and I’m not at all opposed to laws that hold people responsible for malicious defamation. But there should be no roadblocks between the thought and its delivery. That’s free expression.

Two: I am a fan of Walter Mosley’s. I would have read every novel he’s ever written but for a couple decades he’s been in a Smith-Corona destruction derby with Stephen King. Had I been editing Fantastic Four, I would have found a way to get Mosley to write it.

Last Friday, Mr. Mosley wrote a piece for the New York Times about his quitting Star Trek Discovery. Mosley states: “I’d been in the new (Discovery writers’) room for a few weeks when I got the call from Human Resources. A pleasant-sounding young man said, ‘Mr. Mosley, it has been reported that you used the N-word in the writers’ room.’

“I replied, ‘I am the N-word in the writers’ room.’”

Well, some unnamed person was outraged because one of America’s most acclaimed living writers self-referenced as the N-word. That person bitched to Human Resources, complaining “that my use of the word made them uncomfortable, and the H.R. representative called to inform me that such language was unacceptable to my employers. I couldn’t use that word in common parlance, even to express an experience I lived through.”

Wait. Uncomfortable? Think about that. People get “uncomfortable” whenever ideas are challenged. Challenging ideas is in the writer’s job description – particularly when you’re writing a show about the challenge of ideas. You know, like Star Trek.

Mosley quickly figured out he had, as Steve Goodman wrote, “a fatal dose of the ‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going nowhere in a hurry’ blues.” He exercised his right to stop smelling the bullshit. He took a hike… all the way to the New York Times.

CBSViacom responded the way corporate America always responds when they do anything with malice of forethought. Were I less polite, I’d say President Sharpie wrote it. “We are committed to supporting a workplace where employees feel free to express concerns and where they feel comfortable performing their best work. We wish Mr. Mosley much continued success.” Yeah, you bet pal, and don’t let the door hit you on your ass.

This is quite typical, and it is seen throughout a corporate America run by lawyers and insurance companies. Freedom of speech isn’t limited to – or needed for – ideas that the majority find acceptable and inoffensive. I’ve been in many a writers’ room and I’ve even run a couple, and lemme tell you it is not a place for the conveniently offended. Spit-balling ideas gets rough, and everybody risks exposure.

You might be thinking “OK, Mr. Smarty-Pants, if you’re so tits-to-the-wind about freedom of expression, how come you keep on saying ‘N-word?’” I’m glad you asked, although I question your judgment about that “tits-to-the-wind” thing. It’s simple. My editor placed very few restrictions on me when I signed on to Pop Culture Squad, and one of them was “thou shalt only use ‘N-word.’” She knew my feelings about euphemisms, and she knew I was unlikely to pull a Dick Gregory here. Nonetheless, I agreed.

I am captive to my word whenever I can remember it. I haven’t quoted A.J. Liebling this week, so let me remind you of his statement from 1960: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Then again, he also said “People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.” Go know.

You can call me a kike (or whatever turns you on) and I’m likely to be appreciative. Your doing so reveals a lot about you, and it tells me you may be the enemy and I should keep an eye on you. There are thousands of white Americans who firmly believe they are not racist because they never, ever use the “N-word.” They may be right about their not being racist, they might be wrong, and most likely they are some of both. But you still can be a world-class bigot even though you are linguistically circumspect.

We intimidate people who use our language properly in order to get an important point across the plate, and then we feel as though we accomplished something important. We took a stand against racism because we are teaching bigots how to hide in plain site by reaching for an impotent euphemism. I guess we’ve solved America’s racial strife. Except tomorrow morning, Mosley and I might be standing next to each other in Times Square wearing matching suits and ties and I will land a cab ride to Connecticut long before Walter can score a cab to Central Park. Damn, I thought we cured racism when we elected Obama. Thanks a lot, Mosley!

In his Times piece, Mosley said “The worst thing you can do to citizens of a democratic nation is to silence them. And the easiest way to silence a woman or a man is to threaten his or her livelihood. Let’s not accept the McCarthyism of secret condemnation. Instead let’s delve a little deeper, limiting the power that can be exerted over our citizens, their attempts to express their hearts and horrors, and their desire to speak their truths. Only this can open the dialogue of change.”

Truer words, pal. Truer words.