And Tyrants Rush In
It seems almost inevitable that Lewis Mills High School in Burlington will someday do for "douche bag" what Juneau-Douglas High School in Alaska did for "Bong hits for Jesus," which is take an intemperate outburst by a spirited and peevish teenager and put it on the lips of the justices of our nation's highest court.
I am referring to the case of Avery Doninger, who was kicked out of the LMHS student government for saying - on her essentially private page of the LiveJournal social networking site - "Jamfest is canceled due to the douchbags [sic] in central office."
I won't even delve into what this sentence means or into the other facts of the case, some of which have been reported in this newspaper and all of which have been reported pretty exhaustively on the Internet, where it might be fair to say that Avery Doninger has attained the status of Sacco and Vanzetti, were it not also true that the reference would be lost on about 80 percent of the people participating in the Doninger brouhaha.
In fact, even though my sympathies are utterly with the Doninger side of the case, I've become just a teeny bit uncomfortable with all the energy marshaled on her behalf. Righting the wrong that caused Avery Doninger to lose her office as class secretary is, from the looks of things, a more pressing matter than righting the wrong that caused two young men, roughly her age, to get shot in the face in Hartford's Parkville section earlier this summer, apparently by Martians who vanished into another dimension immediately thereafter.
That, of course, is an unfair comparison, but I can't get over my lingering sense that if you want anyone in Connecticut to care about anything bad that happened to you, you're a lot better off not being black or poor or ugly. But that's a different column.
Meanwhile, some of the brightest lights in Connecticut writing, including Wally Lamb, will assemble Oct. 14 to read and speak and help raise money for Doninger's legal fees, as her case moves through the federal courts. (Philip Roth, don't you dare sit this out!) Even dim bulbs like me have been invited, as well as five local bands, so maybe it should be called Douchestock or something.
I'm actually not going to participate, again not because I don't sympathize, but because I'd like to maintain some illusion of journalistic distance.
I actually think the case is vitally important, because almost any case involving speech and government is vitally important, particularly as long as the Bush administration remains in power.
The Bushies themselves are, it should never be forgotten, a foul-mouthed and vulgar clan. In (fittingly) 1984, George H.W. Bush emerged from his vice-presidential debate with Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman ever to compete at that level in American politics. The kindly, patrician Bush told a group of longshoremen the next day that he "tried to kick a little ass" the previous night. It was telling that, even in his pathetic ersatz Stanley Kowalski moment, he was only confident that he had tried. His much more ass-kicking gorgon of a wife called Ferraro an "I can't say it but it rhymes with `rich.'"
The current President Bush called New York Times reporter Adam Clymer a "major league ass---e" during the 2000 campaign. His creep of a veep, Dick Cheney, visited the august floor of the U.S. Senate and told Sen. Pat Leahy to "go f--k yourself." Bush, talking to the prime minister of England at a G8 meeting, said "s--t" into a live mike. (Here, I'm doing what sportswriter Steve Rushin calls "obscene Hangman.")
While this was going on, the same group of people installed a tough new FCC and pushed through a bill that added a zero to the top indecency fines, from $32,500 to $325,000 per station per incident.
This was ostensibly to protect us from Janet Jackson's nipple, but it was more truly a way of controlling speech. Bush and Cheney are at heart - and I do not say this lightly - tyrants, and it is a rare tyrant who will pass up a chance to limit what is said by the people of his land.
You don't have to exercise that power all the time. But having the hook means you can jerk just about any fish out of the water when you need to.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said, apropos of comedian Bill Maher, that all Americans "need to watch what they say." Good idea. If you keep us cowed, if you secure for the government the right to decide what can be said, you're well on your way to owning the language, so you can, just for example, rewrite the definition of "torture" that it does not include many things that are, well, torture.
And once you get rolling, you can redefine other words, like "success," and you can claim you are reducing troops when, in fact, you've actually just run out of them. You can claim there are 36 nations helping us in Iraq, even if nobody knows what they are.
If you want a glimpse of government's true attitude toward speech, check out a few prisons, which are one of the few places where government is really allowed to control just about everything.
Wally Lamb was helping to run a writing program at a woman's prison. When it got too famous, the prison suspended the program, confiscated all the computer disks from the program and erased all the program information from the hard drives. When "60 Minutes" wanted to interview one of the affected prisoners, that turned out not to be allowed.
School, as any teenager will tell you, is one rung up from prison. You get more freedom than you do at York Correctional, but no more than they really have to give you.
That's why a lot people are fighting hard for one young woman's right to type the word "douche bag." Maybe she shouldn't have used that word, but then she was sitting at home when she wrote it. I mean, it's not like she said the f-word on the floor of the Senate.
You can hear Colin McEnroe's talk show weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m. on WTIC-AM 1080.