Part 2 – How many records you expecting to sell after your second LP sends you directly to jail?
Discourse around freedom of speech is so terrible that it’s difficult to read the words “free speech” without rolling your eyes. Free speech is a joke: at best it’s an embarrassing forum post by a guy who is absolutely furious that the moderator keeps deleting his My Little Pony memes, at worst it’s a far-right dogwhistle. As outlined by William Davies, the right has diligently spent the last few years manufacturing a “crisis” in free speech that is supposedly infecting everywhere from college campuses to major media outlets. This tactic began in the United States, where freedom of speech is more of a hot button issue in general, and – if cable news is to be believed – college-aged liberal activists have a more developed apparatus for no-platforming speakers or demanding trigger warnings for assigned reading. (I am generally sceptical of the truth of this, because I was immersed in liberal-left university circles here in Ireland for several years at the height of this whole thing and never once encountered a “safe space”, even as middle-aged media personalities went on the radio to complain about safe spaces. I would not be in the least surprised if there are plenty of Americans for whom the same is true.)
Most of the stuff this debate is about is either not censorship or not even really happening, at least at any scale. It is not censorship that some college kids don’t find your gay jokes very funny or that someone put “trigger warning: rape” on their blog post or that The Guardian publishes an article disagreeing with your argument. The fakeness of this whole debate is something everyone left-of-centre is intensely aware of: there might be good-faith arguments to be had about the legitimacy of, say, no-platforming, but free speech warriors – from Fox News hosts down to the lowliest Twitter troll – are not approaching the issue in good faith. When they talk about threats to their free speech, they usually mean threats to the legitimacy of their authority. They say, “why am I not permitted to speak?” because “why are people disagreeing with me? I’m right!” would give too much of the game away.
But this has created a problem on the left. Not that the left “hates free speech”, as the right claims, but in liberals and leftists allowing the right to define the parameters of the debate. The right has made such a habit of calling the dumbest shit censorship – where most of the supposedly silenced end up regularly appearing on Question Time – that the left-of-centre has defensively embraced a minimalist approach to free speech.
In an effort to delegimitise right-wing freedom-of-speech concern trolling, many liberals’ and leftists’ definition of free speech is becoming narrower and narrower. Very little encapsulates this approach quite like a comic published by xkcd in 2014:
You’ve probably seen this comic before. I’ve seen this comic dozens of times, easy. I have liked and shared it on multiple social media sites. I used to love it, used to think of it as an almost perfect rebuttal to the frivolous free speech arguments of the right (or of random guys online). I’m not sure if it was a massive influence on online left and liberal discourse, or it’s just the distillation of ideas that had already taken root – a little of both, most likely. But it ticks all the boxes: ideas so engrained in those circles that I parroted them back for a really long time without ever really thinking about what they mean.
“Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences” is something I used to say all the time, that I still see people say all the time, even though if you think about it for ten seconds it doesn’t make any sense. I think this started as a response to people invoking free speech because they didn’t like being criticised, something which xkcd mentions specifically. There are indeed consequences to your speech that have nothing to do with your rights being violated: if you say bigoted things and then people think you’re a jerk, that’s the just the risk you take. Someone else using their freedom of speech to criticise you is not only not censorship, it’s kind of the point of the whole thing. But “freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences” is so broad in scope and diminishing in what it deems a violation that we get to the point where xkcd and millions of people think the only way for your free speech to be violated is for the government to put you in prison.
Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from all consequences, but it necessarily means freedom from artificial consequences put in place to discourage or outright prevent certain types of speech. People thinking you suck or arguing with you or not wanting to hang out with you are natural consequences, but being arrested or fined, losing your job, or being targeted with harassment or violence are artificial consequences designed to punish the speaker and prevent others expressing similar ideas. Arrest is a “consequence” of speech, but it’s one that xkcd recognises as a violation: because everyone in practice believes that free speech means being protected from at least some consequences. Otherwise it wouldn’t mean anything.
The idea that the government sending you to prison is the only violation of your right to free speech is about the most minimalist approach to free speech you can get without throwing away the concept altogether. It ignores the broad range of muscles the state can flex to get you to shut your mouth: directly through the justice system with bans, fines and injunctions, or more sneakily, through deportations, harassment, or arbitrarily denying permits for events. It dismisses how many non-state actors can in practice be arbiters of speech in a society where corporations hold more and more concentrated power and your employer is all that stands between you and starving to death. xkcd equates freedom of speech with the First Amendment to the US Constitution, but freedom of speech is an idea much bigger than any document that enshrines it.
This whole framing is a total 180 from the time in which Eminem first blew up, the tail-end of the won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children culture-wars era that began in the 1980s. South Park and Attitude Era wrestling lit up our TV screens, Marilyn Manson was getting blamed for the Columbine Massacre, and video games were supposedly turning teenagers into sociopaths who couldn’t distinguish fiction from reality. “The moralizers tended to be white people from politics and the church,” Wesley Morris writes in an excellent article analysing this shift, “Their concern was that television, movies, books, museums and music were exposing people — young people — to unsavory concepts like abortion and lust.” Artists, meanwhile, seemed set on seeing how far they could push this thing. Morris writes, “the prevailing mood was mockery and more boundary expansion.”
Eminem’s early music feels like a vital window into this radically different free speech debate of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s a reminder of the falseness of the present free speech divide, but more importantly, shows how the left-of-centre’s new defensive minimalist approach is self-sabotage. The shift didn’t occur because the right came to care about free speech, but because they came to recognise its rhetorical usefulness. It’s not a value; it’s a shield, a debate-killer, a tool to bluntly mould the world in your own image. How else could preventing corporations from funnelling unlimited funds into political campaigns be a violation of free speech but making it illegal to boycott Israel not be?
The other main plank of liberal/left free speech minimalism is touched on by xkcd: “[free speech] doesn’t mean anyone else has to listen to your bullshit, or host you while you share it,” or, as rendered in eleven million tweets and Facebook posts, you are entitled to free speech, but you are not entitled to a platform. Like the freedom from consequences argument, this gets at something true and extrapolates wildly from there. It is correct that no-one is entitled to be published in The New York Times or be interviewed on TV. It is true that the moderator on a forum is not violating anyone’s free speech by enforcing community guidelines (although some of course go mad with power). But if you are not entitled to a platform, to any platform, do you really have free speech? The natural endpoint of “you are not entitled to a platform” is freedom of speech meaning you’re allowed to say whatever you want while muttering to yourself in your bedroom, as long as it isn’t loud enough for anyone else to hear.
That’s an uncharitable interpretation, I know, especially because this argument generally comes up in relation to access to major, mainstream platforms – TV, newspapers and Twitter, mostly – rather than as a broad theoretical statement. The same goes for the freedom from consequences thing. Hardly anyone believes those things in their baldest, simplest rendering, likewise the idea that the only genuine form of censorship is arrest. The left-of-centre feel safe to say these things which, in their direct application, legitimise so many forms of censorship because we take free speech for granted. A false history has been created in so many minds, almost as a defense mechanism: a history where free speech is uncontested, perhaps has even gone too far, where the only kind of speech that is ever subject to repression is bigotry. It’s a history where free speech is a right-wing value. Not because the right gives or has ever given a fuck about freedom of speech, but because as they’ve appropriated its rhetoric for their own ends, we’ve barely put up a fight — haven’t even had the presence of mind to recognise we were conceding something.
It’s a false history that – like the right’s bogus free speech campaign – is extremely American. That’s not a bad thing as far as it goes, but it’s pretty alarming to hear Irish liberals and leftists parroting it when we live in a country that banned a Marx Brothers film for encouraging anarchic tendencies, banned The Catcher in the Rye and Brave New World for being sexually explicit, and cut the Paris flashbacks from Casablanca to remove Ilsa’s affair with Rick and render the film incomprehensible. In my lifetime, the Irish Film Censorship/Classification Office banned Natural Born Killers (upheld until 2001), From Dusk till Dawn (upheld until 2004), Showgirls (passed uncut in 20-fucking-17), and, of all things, WrestleMania 2000 (currently rated TV-14 on the WWE Network). Blasphemy was unconstitutional in Ireland until a 2018 referendum. Ireland has never had real protections for free speech, and it freaks me out to see some Irish people borrowing the has-free-speech-gone-too-far pose of Americans liberals and leftists.
But let’s be clear: it’s also a false history in countries that don’t have the bananas censorship history that we have. In 2011, the UK banned The Human Centipede II for some reason. They spent the 1980s banning so-called “video nasties” including The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Not to mention the UK’s over-reaching anti-terror legislation: students at the University of Reading were warned not to access a mainstream academic essay on the ethics of socialist revolution on their personal devices, to only read it “in a secure setting”, and not to leave it where might be seen “inadvertently or otherwise, by those who are not prepared to view it” for fear of falling foul of Prevent. The rapper Tyler, the Creator has been banned from entering the UK since 2015. Likewise entering New Zealand since 2014, because his violent lyrics make him a “threat to public order”. (Earlier in his career, Tyler, the Creator, like Eminem, frequently rapped from the perspective of an evil alter-ego; unlike Eminem, he is black.)
It’s even a false version of history in America, the country that is proudly supposed to be the most free speech absolutist place on the planet.
The old adage about how the most stringent protection of free speech wouldn’t protect you in falsely shouting fire in a crowded theatre originated in 1919 with US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. arguing that the First Amendment did not protect members of the Socialist Party in Philadelphia distributing fliers urging conscripted men to resist the draft. That same year, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of famed labour leader and five-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs for delivering a speech protesting US involvement in World War I. The prosecutors argued that Debs was trying to arouse mutiny and treason by preventing the drafting of soldiers. The only reasonable reaction to these convictions is a deep, almost suffocating shame. It’s galling that anyone could reference them positively in any context, including quoting the “fire in a crowded theatre” line, yet they do.
In the century since, the United States has violated the principle of free speech in a thousand different ways. You could write a depressingly thorough history of twentieth-century America purely through the lens of free speech violations. The easy thing is to pretend that it’s been a hundred years of smooth, uninterrupted ascent into ever greater liberty and justice. But that’s a lie. It’s a constant battle.
A lot of that is the straight-up arrests that xkcd acknowledges as first amendment violations, although the US Supreme Court didn’t always agree. The black civil rights protestors in the 1960s are the most obvious example: the sheriff of Birmingham, Alabama obtained an injunction on 133 specific people, including many of the civil rights movement’s leaders, forbidding them from parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing, picketing or holding kneel-ins in churches. Martin Luther King’s violating this injunction got him sent to prison, from where he wrote the Letter From Birmingham Jail, still one of the best pieces of writing on the fight against racism ever put to paper. Injunctions against protesting meant black citizens got arrested for praying outside of city hall in Albany, Georgia; Robert Moses was arrested in Sunflower, Mississippi when handing out leaflets about a voter registration drive for “distributing literature without a permit”; John Lewis was arrested in Selma, Alabama for carrying a “one man one vote” sign outside the courthouse.
Artistic expression could get you thrown in jail as well. Legendary stand-up Lenny Bruce was arrested for obscenity four times between 1961 and 1964 for telling jokes about coming and cocksuckers, one of which was mid-performance on stage. (He was also barred from entering the UK as an “undesirable alien”.) 25 years later, NWA were arrested for playing ‘Fuck tha Police’ in concert, supposedly because they were inciting violence.
But lots of censorship in twentieth-century America came in sneakier forms. The distinction, upheld by just about everybody, between censorship by the state (which is a violation of free speech) and censorship by private actors (which is fine) begins to fall apart when you look at it closely: the state and private actors are always so deeply entangled, working in tandem to shut you up. Threats of state censorship frequently led to self-censorship – well, censorship by the corporations that own production companies and publishing houses, controlling what art would get released to the public. All the major film studios signed up to the Motion Picture Production Code – commonly called the Hays Code – which forbade depictions of “suggestive” nudity (“in fact or in silhouette”), “sexual perversion” (i.e. gay people), “miscegenation” (i.e. interracial relationships), and ridicule of the clergy. Also cursing, obviously. The Hays Code was rigidly enforced from 1934 into the 1950s, before being abolished and replaced with the rating system in 1968.
While obviously much freer than the Code, the rating system, too, can have a censoring effect: NC-17 films – the equivalent to an 18s rating in Ireland or the UK – are not shown by multiple major cinema chains and are not given wide advertisement. Films will almost always be cut to get to an R rating rather than take the massive commercial risk of releasing under the NC-17 rating. On top of that, which films garner an NC-17 and what feedback they receive from the MPAA are the product of institutional biases: in favour of Hollywood over independent films, in favour of straight over gay sex, in favour of male over female sexual pleasure. In the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Matt Stone says that when he and Trey Parker made the independent film Orgazmo, the MPAA would not give notes on what to cut to get an R rating, but when they made South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut at Paramount, the MPAA gave them “extremely specific” feedback on what to change to get an R. “[They say] ’We serve the public, we serve the parents’… It’s crap,” Stone says, “They serve the studios. That’s who pays their bills.”
Much like how the possibility of state censorship enabled the Hays Code and, to a lesser degree, the rating system, the spectre of state censorship of comic books enabled the major comics publishers to execute a massive, censoring power grab. The Comics Code, formed in 1954, worked similarly to the Hays Code but for comic books. Created by the major comics publishers to preempt government regulation by self-censoring first, the Code banned depictions of policemen, judges, government officials and respected institutions “in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority”, mandated that good must always triumph over evil, and forbade profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, nudity and gore.
Also forbidden were “walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism”, which sounds funny until you realise this was specifically to exclude publisher William Gaines of EC Comics. Gaines had made enemies of industry heads both for his testimony at the Kefauver comic book delinquency hearings and for including socially progressive messages in EC Comics’ titles. Since the publishers who signed up to the Code refused to sell to retailers that also sold non-Code titles, EC Comics ended up folding. Its only property which survived became a magazine: Mad. So the Comics Code not only censored the entire art form, just as the Hays Code did with films, but was designed to personally punish Gaines and EC Comics for their speech, artistic and otherwise.
But nothing encapsulates the sheer breadth of free speech violations the US has been willing to justify like the Red Scare. The Red Scare was a veritable smorgasbord of free speech clampdowns, with the government and non-state actors using all the tools in their toolbelt to conduct a witch hunt against communists and alleged communists. Hundreds of communists were imprisoned, including a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, often on the basis of testimony later admitted to be false. “Loyalty reviews” were implemented for government workers, failing which not only meant thousands of employees lost their jobs, but became basically un-hireable. The FBI also distributed anonymous documents with evidence from FBI files of communist affiliations of teachers, lawyers, and others, usually resulting in their being fired. The loyalty reviews were supposed to be confidential, but J. Edgar Hoover routinely gave evidence from them to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
The HUAC famously subpoenaed people from the film industry to interrogate them about their membership of the Communist Party, real or suspected. The Hollywood Ten refused to cooperate, citing their First Amendment rights, and were imprisoned for contempt of Congress. Immediately after, the major studios began blacklisting any suspected communists, stating they would “not knowingly employ a communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States.” The moralisers behind the Hays Code became the authoritarians behind the blacklist: Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper ruined the careers of anyone she suspected of being a communist, having communist sympathies, being gay, or anyone else she deemed insufficiently moral.
Senator Joseph McCarthy strong-armed the State Department’s overseas library programme into removing “material by any controversial persons, communists, fellow travelers, etc.” from their shelves. Charlie Chaplin was banned from re-entering the United States in 1952, and his subsequent film – Limelight – was so widely boycotted that it was de facto banned. That same year, a law was passed allowing the government to deport both immigrants and naturalised citizens engaged in “subversive activities”. And that’s just stuff done at a national level: plenty of states banned communists from employment in the public service or receiving public aid. The punishment for subversive propaganda in Michigan was life imprisonment; the punishment for advocating the violent overthrow of the government in Tennessee was the death penalty.
It’s easy to imagine the Red Scare as a faraway thing that has nothing to do with the present. But then there’s the Nixon administration bringing an injunction against The New York Times for publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971. There’s the US Supreme Court finding George Carlin’s seven dirty words routine indecent in 1978. There’s the District Court for the Southern District of Florida ruling 2 Live Crew’s album As Nasty As They Wanna Be obscene, making it illegal in those counties, in 1990. There’s Blockbuster Video refusing to stock The Last Temptation of Christ while having an effective monopoly on the home video market in the 1990s – not to mention all NC-17 films. There’s the shit-ton of songs that got blacklisted by the US’s biggest owner of radio stations after 9/11. There’s Ralph Nader’s 2004 presidential campaign, where Democrats had great success in filing bad-faith complaints – like a signatory being down as Bill instead of William – to get him taken off the ballot, resulting in Nader being charged with the Democratic Party’s legal bills for their troubles. (In Pennsylvania, he was ordered to pay $81,102.19, becoming “the first candidate in American history to be penalized financially by a state for attempting to run for public office,” writes Oliver Hall.) There’s the boycotting and harassment and general fucking-with the Dixie Chicks endured for speaking out against the Iraq War, in response to which George Bush said “they shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out”, because freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences, I guess. There’s the imprisonment of Chelsea Manning and the exile of Edward Snowden. There’s copyright creep, Piss Christ, and Charlie Hebdo.
At his peak, Eminem was both an avatar for the silenced and a successor to the censored. He is self-consciously a test for people who claim to love freedom of speech, who pat themselves on the back as they condemn long-past violations and reassure themselves nothing like that could happen again. We all like to imagine that, dropped into a long-ago era, we would be on what looks from the present like the right side of history. Eminem is there to see what side of history you would really be on. “How much damage can you do with a pen?” he asks on ‘Who Knew’, and suddenly he’s DH Lawrence, he’s Allen Ginsberg, he’s Vladimir Nabokov.
“What in the world gives me the right to say what I like?” he raps in ‘Bitch Please II’. He doesn’t need to answer the question, because the listener does that work for him: your mind supplies the answer automatically, and it quietens your objections more than his protestations ever could. It forces you to consider your objections in free speech terms, even though we naturally resist framing our own objections that way. Nobody ever says they love censorship; they say they hate sedition and perversion and violence, that they want to protect their country and their children. Censorship is just the result.
Eminem seemed, somehow, both suppressed and irrepressible: that the only reason the powers that be couldn’t shut him up is because he was such a force of nature that nothing could contain him. Eminem was the Road Runner, and no matter how many traps the Coyotes laid, they could never catch him. But his early career is still defined in no small part by those attempts to shut him up, and his attempts to transgress the boundaries his would-be censors set out.
When a radio station in Colorado played the radio edit of ‘The Real Slim Shady’ in July 2000, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that the edited version of the song was still indecent, fining the radio station 7,000 dollars. They later reversed their decision – in no small part, I assume, because they’d have to fine almost every radio station in America – much to the chagrin of FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. Copps released a statement saying, “In a matter of this importance, I believe the Commissioners themselves, rather than the Bureau, should be making the decision about whether to reverse the initial finding.”
(The “a matter of this importance” bit cracks me up, because it’s 2002, and it’s a radio station in Colorado playing an edited version of ‘The Real Slim Shady’ two years earlier. Did Copps miss that his country just went to war?)
Since the original FCC ruling was overturned, it is ultimately a trivial quirk of history, like how Oscar the Grouch used to be orange or Monkee Michael Nesmith’s mother invented Tipp-Ex/Liquid Paper. But it demonstrates the kind of atmosphere Eminem became popular in, how suppression of his art was normalised and mainstream. It’s often said that everyone believes there are some kinds of speech that should be curtailed. Today, this is usually in reference to hate speech, but where that line sits is contingent, not absolute. One generation’s shocking controversy becomes the next generation’s normal. Once the speech not deemed worthy of protection was obscenity that many of us wouldn’t bat an eyelid at now; once it was protesting against conscription; once it was rock and roll. We collectively decide to push “the line” further out. And in the early 2000s, Eminem lived right on that line: he was such a lightning rod for controversy that the radio edits of his songs could still get you into trouble.
Obviously a part of this was deliberate branding – the skits on Eminem’s early albums are almost exclusively about conflicts with authority figures who want him to tone it down, a self-conscious declaration of his own edginess – but it’s a mistake to think of him as a forerunner of the right’s bogus free speech campaign. Eminem is a transgressive artist knowingly part of a tradition of transgressive art, cracking open taboos, baiting the listenership with his grotesquery. The contemporary right complain about being censored because they can’t deal with people not caring what they have to say; Eminem complained about being censored because people kept threatening to censor him. Sometimes, they even got away with it.
On ‘I’m Back’, Eminem references the Columbine Massacre:
I take seven kids from Columbine
Stand ’em all in line, add an AK-47, a revolver, a nine
A MAC-11 and it oughta solve the problem of mine
And that’s a whole school of bullies shot up all at one time
Only we don’t hear him rap those words. On the “uncensored” version of The Marshall Mathers LP, the words “kids” and “Columbine” are censored.
It was 2000, just a year since the massacre. There have been so many school shootings since then – to the point where it seems like there’s one every few weeks, wave after wave of tragedy leaving you almost numb – that the post-Columbine atmosphere seems distant and alien. Columbine signified, Stanley Cohen writes in the introduction to the 2002 edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics, a “cognitive shift from ‘how could it happen in a place like this?’ to ‘it could happen anyplace’.” The media invented the shooters’ motivations more or less from whole cloth, claiming that they were bullied, loner outcasts from the Trench Coat Mafia, taking revenge on the jocks and the cool kids, their minds distorted by rock music and video games. “It’s a powerful story, but entirely fictional,” Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, writes, “Every element of that narrative would turn out to be false.”
The shooters didn’t target anyone, much less jocks: they had planted massive bombs at the school, planning to kill 600 students, but they failed to go off. They weren’t part of the Trench Coat Mafia, and they weren’t outcasts or goths. They didn’t even like Marilyn Manson. But it didn’t matter: once that story was told, it became the only version of events in the public consciousness. Manson captures the atmosphere the media fostered after the massacre in his interview with Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine:
I can definitely see why they would pick me, because I think it’s easy to throw my face on a TV because I’m, in the end, sort of a poster boy for fear…
The president was shooting bombs overseas, yet I’m a bad guy because I sang some rock and roll songs… Nobody said, well, maybe the president had an influence on this violent behaviour. No, because that’s not the way the media wants to take it and spin it and turn it into fear. Because then you’re watching television, you’re watching the news, you’re being pumped full of fear, there’s floods, there’s AIDS, there’s murder, cut to commercial – buy the Acura, buy the Colgate, if you have bad breath they’re not going to talk to you, if you have pimples the girl’s not going to fuck you, and it’s just this, it’s a campaign of fear and consumption. And that’s what I think that it’s all based on, is the whole idea that, keep everyone afraid, and they’ll consume.
Soon George Bush would come to power, and after 9/11, a bipartisan consensus began shredding civil liberties everywhere you looked: the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, a huge Orwellian surveillance apparatus that spies on literally a billion people. Bush said the terrorists hated Americans for their freedom, so in his War on Terror he took away their freedoms, and all the while the public were pumped full of fear by a news media so deferential to power that it cheerleaded the Iraq War. This was all for your own protection, we were (are) told over and over. They only spy on you, silence you, infiltrate peace groups and torture whistle-blowers to keep you safe.
The political discourse around the Columbine Massacre – which focused so much less on the urgent, actionable policy issue of gun control than the fearmongering moral panic about music and video games, the existential threat of your kid being a secret monster over the physical threat of killing machines you could buy at Walmart – seems, in hindsight, like a miniature dry run. Keep everyone afraid, and they’ll consume.
The Marshall Mathers LP makes several references to the Columbine Massacre. The false narrative of the bullied outcast brainwashed by entertainment, exacting violent revenge, adheres so closely to the Slim Shady persona as used on Eminem’s previous album that it seems kind of inevitable that he’d end up rapping about it. On ‘The Way I Am’, in Marshall Mathers mode, he blasts the media for feeding the violence-in-entertainment story of Columbine – “’Cause they full of shit too / When a dude’s getting bullied and shoots up his school / And they blame it on Marilyn” – and criticises the implicit class and racial hierarchy in which violence is considered tragic: “Middle America, now it’s a tragedy / Now it’s so sad to see, an upper class city.”
But on ‘I’m Back’, he’s Slim Shady. I could make a case for the artistic value of how he references to the Columbine Massacre here – how he subverts the “Marilyn Manson told teenagers to shoot up a school” narrative by literally telling teenagers to shoot up their schools, exposing the lie by embracing it – but honestly, he’s just baiting. He says it to see who he can piss off, to see what he can get away with.
And he doesn’t get away with it. If you think it’s only censorship if the government does it, then this is fine. But – in an era before the internet really exploded, before teenage rappers could upload stuff they recorded in their bedrooms to SoundCloud and become a phenomenon – record companies had outsized control on what music artists could say, at least if they wanted to reach a mainstream audience. They were, in effect, arbiters of speech. This is exactly the kind of censorship that it’s easy to dismiss: does the world really need to hear Eminem’s Columbine joke? Does it have any artistic or social value? Does any value it has outweigh the harm it would cause? And since we know what he says anyway, does it even matter?
With civil rights protestors or the Pentagon Papers or Lenny Bruce, the violation is self-evidently wrong because the censored speech is self-evidently worthy of protection. But drawing lines of worthiness and deserving is looking at free speech from the wrong angle. Rights are, by definition, entitled to by all. Efforts to morality-test who may access a right goes against the idea that it is, in fact, a right. Rejecting the universality of a right postures as nuance, but embraces another, darker absolutism: establishing moral standards that dictate who may access the human dignity that forms “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Morality-testing of civil liberties is a refutation of those liberties, just like means-testing of economic rights like healthcare, housing and financial security is a denial of their status as rights.
Of course, morality-testing also means empowering someone to determine the moral standards one must reach to have rights. In a world of extreme inequality, that would fall to those who already hold almost all the power in society – the wealthy ruling class – but honestly, it’s not a power I would trust in the hands of anyone. “People often fail to appreciate why a kind of ‘absolutism’ can be very valuable in protecting liberties,” Nathan Robinson writes,
…Instead of having to empower someone to determine who the acceptable speakers and the unacceptable speakers are, even if we agree that there are some unacceptable speakers, allowing all speakers divorces the question of how bad the content is from the question of whether the person can speak… Of course, it’s usually impossible to fully ‘decouple’ these questions, and nobody who has an easy answer to free speech issues has thought about them enough, but there is a reason why leaning toward ‘absolutes’ and ‘universals’ is valuable. If line-drawing is tricky and likely to lead to abuse, then it’s better to simply avoid having to draw any line at all.
I’m not sure true free speech absolutism is possible or even desirable in reality: I can think of several reasonable exceptions, including limited copyright provisions, the regulation of commercial advertising to protect consumers, and prohibitions on harassment and incitement to violence, as long as those things are defined in a narrow, appropriate way. But I believe we should strive for free speech maximalism as much as possible, for exactly the kind of reasons Robinson outlines. Freedom of speech is a right, a foundational freedom inseparable from the full constellation of human rights. Drawing lines – of deserving and worthy and permissible – is so fraught that I really, really want to avoid doing it.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about a totalitarian Christian theocracy, as well as its recent TV adaptation, has become a kind of rallying cry for left-of-centre women in Trump’s America, with feminists dressing up in handmaid outfits at protests all over the US and the world. As often happens when a piece of art becomes primarily a political tool, the nuances and complications in the novel seem to have been flattened out. But the book was formative to my belief in free speech maximalism: in the past sequences, Offred’s second-wave feminist mother burns pornographic magazines, and in the present sequences, it’s illegal for women to read. The connection is clear – burn the words and images you think are harmful and you set the stage for the words and images that your enemies deem harmful to be burned. It doesn’t frame it simplistically, doesn’t lapse into blaming the rise of the religious right on feminism “going too far”. Instead, it’s a warning, a call to vigilance: if the left forfeits free speech, the right will destroy it, often in taking the left’s premises and twisting them for their own ends.
In 2018, Walmart pulled Cosmopolitan magazine from its checkout aisles after pressure from the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, who in a statement praising the decision said, “This is what real change looks like in our #MeToo culture”. It would be easy to mistake NCOSE for a women’s rights organisation, but in reality, they were originally founded as Morality in Media, created by an interfaith group of clergy to combat “children’s access to adult material”. (Would-be censors love to “protect children”, but only some imagined child, an always happy and innocent rosy-cheeked cherub who doesn’t know any swear words.) NCOSE have put both the academic database EBSCO Information Services and the American Library Association on their list of “pornography facilitators”. Their statement continues, “Walmart’s removal of Cosmo from checkout lines is an incremental but significant step toward creating a culture where women and girls are valued as whole persons, rather than as sexual objects.”
“Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles,” the narrator says in The Handmaid’s Tale, in one of the book’s most unexpectedly chilling moments, “There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
This is partly why I value transgressive art so much: it pushes towards maximalist freedom of expression, finding the outer edges and pushing at them in a way that makes the edges visible and forces us to confront them. Pure, unadulterated freedom to. Sometimes, like in the case of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, transgressive art is beautiful, important and revelatory, great art by any definition. But sometimes the act of transgression is value enough in itself. Sometimes it’s John Waters filming some dude’s gaping asshole in Pink Flamingos, sometimes it’s a tits-and-gore adaptation of Shakespeare where Romeo and Juliet are brother and sister, sometimes it’s an upside-down porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt” that becomes one of the most important pieces of art of the twentieth century. Sometimes it’s Eminem rapping a recreation of the Columbine Massacre, and the words he wrote getting censored out of his own art.
In 2000, the US Senate held hearings about an FTC report on the marketing of violent entertainment to children. “Parents… feel locked in a losing competition with the culture to raise their children – our children,” Senator Joe Lieberman said in his testimony, “Then came Columbine… It was a warning that the culture of carnage surrounding our children may have gone too far, and that the romanticised and sanitised visions of violence that our children are being… bombarded with by the media has become part of a toxic mix that is actually now turning some of them into killers.”
Lieberman, then Al Gore’s running mate on the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket, had announced earlier that week that “he would support additional regulations on the entertainment industry if it does not reform its marketing practices within six months.” It’s a cause Gore’s wife, Tipper, had pioneered with the Parents Music Resource Center in the 1980s, the organisation responsible for the Parental Advisory sticker (a compromise between PMRC, who wanted greater restrictions, and the record companies). Outside of a vanishingly small number of industry representatives, most of those who spoke at the hearing towed the same line, from both parties: if they disagreed, it was on the nature of what should be done to halt the spread of heinous filth, not on the merits of the supposed filth itself. From either side of aisle, politicians spoke about protecting their children from music and movies and video games, from Limp Bizkit and shooter games and Larry Clark’s Kids; a similar hearing the year before spoke about protecting children from Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails and The Matrix.
“Children”, here, are a rhetorical device, a pawn, wiring a shortcut to the emotional parts of our brains. These are not real children, but what we imagine children to be, the protection of whom can justify almost anything, as long as it is politically expedient. Lynne Cheney, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and future Second Lady, made this rhetorical trick more explicit than most. She warned that while we all may be shocked that this entertainment is marketed to children, we should not lose shock at the works themselves: “there is a problem with the products they market no matter how they market them.” She quoted extensively from Peggy Noonan – a columnist in The Wall Street Journal and a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush – about how children born into the “culture of crime” that began in the 1960s have never had a “normal culture against which to balance the newer, sicker one”.
(None of the senators question this dichotomy between the old normal culture and the new, sick one, with the 1960s as the turning point. I can’t help but feel that the reason no-one questions it is that to drill down into that dichotomy means admitting that the “normal culture” was defined by racial segregation, female subjugation, and censorship.)
For Lynne Cheney, the problem is not just that entertainment works may fall into the hands of those too young to be equipped for them, but that these works are, in some basic way, “sick”, debasing our culture and, by extension, harming our children. The implication isn’t just that the works she objects to are unfit for child consumption, but unfit for human consumption. When she critiques the movie Kids – in which young teenagers have sex and do drugs – she leads with the harm seeing it could do to children, but cycles back around to its inherent depravity: “I have no doubt that many kids saw this film and got the idea that, well, this is the way kids behave. Even though it did have an NC-17 rating, because it’s very easy for kids to see a film like this. But even if they didn’t, what is the entertainment industry doing to our children when they create a culture in which children are viewed this way?”
But Cheney’s real bugbear was Eminem. Eminem’s lyrics “could not be more despicable, could not be more hateful, in their attitudes to women in particular,” she said, “There are many groups that Eminem is quite despicable towards. He is a violent misogynist. He advocates raping and murdering his mother in one of his songs. He glories in the same song in the idea that he might murder any woman he comes across. He talks about how he will choke the women he murders slowly so their screams will last for a long time… It is despicable, it is awful –”
Senator John McCain then interrupts to ask the leading non-question, “You put yourself through the torture of listening to this?”
Cheney uncharitably mischaracterises the Eminem lyrics she cites: ‘Kill You’, from which these lyrics are exclusively drawn, is the peak of Slim Shady’s slasher villain aesthetic – all blood and guts and chainsaws – and a self-aware satire of the criticisms against him, taking credit for all for which he’s been blamed. “You’re goddamn right, bitch, and now it’s too late,” he raps, “I’m triple platinum and tragedies happened in two states.” When Cheney says Eminem “advocates raping and murdering his mother”, the word “advocates” is doing a lot of work. “Just bend over and take it like a slut / Okay, Ma?” he raps, and just as you recoil in horror, just as it feels like it’s too much to bear, he flips it: “Oh, now he’s raping his own mother! / Abusing a whore, snorting coke / And we gave him the Rolling Stone cover?” You can argue about the artistic worth of Eminem’s approach here – just as arguing about whether slasher movies are sexist has lit up feminist film studies for forty years – but Cheney drains his words of any duality of meaning, taking them completely at face value. It’s an approach to Eminem that The Marshall Mathers LP actively discourages: ‘Kill You’ is immediately followed by ‘Stan’, a parable on the dangers of literalism.
But even if Cheney described Eminem’s music perfectly accurately, she’d still be wrong. In her testimony, she calls herself a staunch advocate for the first amendment, warning against legislative solutions to the problem. Rather, she encourages both the public and policymakers to shame corporations into not distributing art she finds offensive. She doesn’t frame it this way, but what she’s advocating is corporate self-censorship based on the threat of state censorship. It’s the Hays Code, it’s the Comics Code, it’s the blacklist. It’s not about the protecting the children, it’s about scrubbing all of culture clean, because it is sick.
In the free speech minimalist approach, this is fine, even when it’s happening in Congress. But with the maximalist approach, this is a threat to freedom of expression. It matters.
Free speech maximalism means understanding that as long as private industry rules our lives as much or sometimes even more than the state – landlords and banks controlling where we can live, our bosses controlling how we spend our time and whether we have enough money to live on, corporations controlling what we can read and hear and say and buy and do, overtly or covertly, all without even the veneer of public accountability of a democratic state – censorship by the private sector is a violation. It means recognising harassment campaigns and threats of violence as threats to free speech. It means recognising that censorship disguises itself in appealing costumes, like the safety of you and your children, whether that be protection from terrorists, pornography, or irreverent cartoons. It means only considering curbs on free speech as a last resort, not a kneejerk reaction.
In 2000, Eminem was scheduled to perform in Toronto when Ontario’s attorney general sought to prevent him entering Canada to “advocate violence against women”. A decade-and-change later, Tyler, the Creator was banned from entering New Zealand and the UK for the same kind of shock rap that made people want to bar Eminem from Canada. In 2003, the US Secret Service reported that it was “looking into” allegations that Eminem had threatened President Bush. (“Fuck money / I don’t rap for dead presidents,” he raps on ‘We As Americans’, then an unreleased bootleg leaked online, “I’d rather see the president dead / it’s never been said but I set precedents.”) A decade-and-change later, the secret service forced rapper YG to change the lyrics to his song ‘Fuck Donald Trump’. “The Secret Service was calling my label [Universal] to get the lyrics to my album so they could try to pull it off the shelves,” he told Vulture.
‘White America’, the first song on The Eminem Show, sets the tone for the album, marking it apart from its predecessors. He’s not Slim Shady here; he’s Eminem, and he wants you to take what he’s saying seriously. Today, free speech is the right’s security blanket, a finger always pointing leftwards. But on ‘White America’, the threat is corporations – “sponsors working round the clock to try to stop my concerts early” – and the government – “I must’ve struck a chord with somebody up in the office / ’cause Congress keep tellin’ me I ain’t causin’ nothin’ but problems”. He mentions activists, but “actin’ like I’m the first rapper to smack a bitch or say f****t” applies as much to Lynne Cheney as GLAAD. It’s easy to think of Eminem as the forerunner to the edgy alt-right boys that followed, but he makes it clear who is the threat to his freedom of expression. It’s the same people as always: the right, wanting to scrub the culture clean, moulding it in their own image. The right haven’t switched sides on the free speech issue; they just found a new way to do the same things.
It seemed that the only reason the powers that be couldn’t shut Eminem up was because he was such a force of nature that nothing could contain him. But most people are not forces of nature, just human beings, and so those same powers can succeed in shutting their mouths. And the only bulwark we have is our vigilance.
“Burn the flag and replace it with a Parental Advisory sticker,” Eminem roars. The word “flag” is censored.