Few people in the public eye can escape hate mail. Public scrutiny is one thing, but the sophomoric and so often crude letters designed to ruin the recipient's day are increasingly the gambit of idiots. Maybe it goes all the way back to Michelangelo. "If you're such a great artist, why are you painting graffiti on church ceilings?" But I doubt it.
It's the kind of dialogue that has also become the signature of many in the entertainment world. If Roger Ebert doesn't like a movie, it's a critique. It's not hate mail. That's not only because he's paid to be critical, but also because the tone of his criticism is dedicated to evaluation, not insult. I suppose if you made that movie Ebert considered a stink bomb, it might feel like hate mail. But serious critics like Ebert don't say your mother rode a broomstick or that you're so fat it's embarrassing.
Others in the Hollywood orbit do. It's Hollywood's version of hate mail.
Seth MacFarlane, a darling of Tinseltown, makes the Sunday evening Fox cartoons "Family Guy" and "American Dad." Recently he was interviewed by the gay magazine The Advocate as part of a series of chats with celebrities and Hollywood types with a "Big Gay Following."
They asked him about a "Family Guy" episode favoring "gay marriage" he made in 2006 titled "You May Now Kiss the Guy Who Receives." A year later, when Fox replayed that episode in a four-program block promoting the teen-sex movie "Superbad," the Parents Television Council made that foursome its Worst of the Week pick. When The Advocate recounted this fact to MacFarlane, he cried foul, in a remarkably foul way:
"Oh, yeah. That's like getting hate mail from Hitler. They're literally terrible human beings. I've read their newsletter, I've visited their Web site, and they're just rotten to the core. For an organization that prides itself on Christian values -- I mean, I'm an atheist, so what do I know? -- they spend their entire day hating people."
And then the man denouncing "hate mail from Hitler" invited the authors of the PTC report to perform a certain sexual act on him, using precisely the same language that one would find scrawled on the wall in a dirty bathroom stall in some dingy truck stop in the middle of nowhere.
The anything-goes lobby on the Internet loved this interview and that hate mail, singling out these remarks as "highly entertaining" (the Defamer blog) "enjoyable" (New York magazine), and "choice" (After Elton, a blog sponsored by Viacom's gay cable channel Logo).
A television show can be brilliant and clever and hilarious -- and still inappropriate for young children. That's doubly important for a cartoon, which children -- and the show's childish creators -- quite naturally see as a medium made for them. Sometimes, "Family Guy" can be hilarious. Occasionally, it is even clever. It is also absolutely inappropriate for children. Yet when an organization like the Parents Television Council, which simply wants to restore a sense of decency to this increasingly squalid medium, says so -- out comes the hate mail from Hollywood.
Consider recent plot lines like evil baby Stewie shooting his mother full of holes with a submachine gun. Or his father then shooting Stewie to death. How does a 5-year-old boy or girl process those scenes? MacFarlane doesn't seem to spend two seconds thinking about it, but people who worry about children's media intake certainly do. Apparently one can worry about but not voice that concern without receiving hate mail from Hollywood. So be it.
MacFarlane doesn't just unleash his hate-mail style in interviews. He also unloads it on TV. Let's revisit the "Family Guy" show on "gay marriage" that spurred MacFarlane's outburst. Part of the plot has one of the show's regular characters urged by a girl to join the Young Republicans, which in this episode goes by the acronym SARS, like the deadly respiratory virus. The girl describes their mission like this: "We perpetuate the ideal that Jesus chose America to destroy non-believers and brown people."
That line is not hilarious satire. That is hate mail. It may be airing on national television instead of being scrawled on a pad and put in an envelope, but it's still hate mail. It smears Christian conservatives not only as violent racists out to destroy "brown people" but attributes to them the kill-the-infidel echoes of a homegrown Christian version of al-Qaeda.
Hollywood millionaire moguls like MacFarlane are notoriously awful at realizing that free speech is a two-way street. He expects to be adored wherever he goes, even if making vicious fun of everyone else is his daily bread. He may be a television success. But in the world of public debate, he's not a player. He's the guy scribbling graffiti in the bathroom stall.