Censorship across the divide: 'Epithet' that!

Diana West

1/5/2004 12:00:00 AM - Diana West

My husband received the following letter from a waggish friend:

"I just wanted to wish you and yours a happy holiday. I'll leave it at 'holiday' to avoid running afoul of the ACLU ...

"On second thought, I withdraw 'holiday.' It derives from 'holy day,' which clearly presents problems. And 'season's greetings,' a well-known dodge, suggests other difficulties. With global warming, what is a season? So I'll just say, 'Timely greetings to you and yours.' Uh, wait. 'Yours' implies possession of the female. Maybe it should be, 'Timely greetings to you and those who, through their own free choice, the same choice we cherish in Roe v. Wade, choose to be associated with you.'

"Nor will I mention the so-called 'new year.' After all, other cultures celebrate their new year at other times. Who are we imperialists to demand our own?

"I find this time of year so difficult. Don't you?"

In a word, yes. Everyone has a war story from the Yuletide front, where Christmas comes under such heavy fire that Americans wave the pre-emptive white flag of "Happy Holidays" to avoid giving what is known as "offense" and receiving what feels like censure. Not that "Christmas" is the ultimate unmentionable. A story recently made the rounds about a Virginia teacher who spoke the utterly non-denominational (in fact, traditionally superstitious) injunction "God bless you" over a sneezy student. Said student, sniveling wretch, proceeded to inform on the teacher for this act of New Blasphemy, for which the teacher was, incredibly, reprimanded.

Such developments make New York Governor George Pataki's posthumous pardon of Lenny Bruce's obscenity conviction all the more, well, offensive. Lenny Bruce, of course, was a comic celebrated since his fatal drug overdose for being the first performer to stand on a stage and give voice to all of those words that are usually represented in print by typewriter symbols. (He also found fun in St. Paul's sex life, Eleanor Roosevelt's anatomy and Jacqueline Kennedy's reaction to her husband's assassination.) Pataki saw fit to call the pardon "a declaration of New York's commitment to upholding the First Amendment."

What is there to say when four-letter words get a commitment to uphold the First Amendment, but "Merry Christmas" (not to mention "God bless you") is an offense punishable by sensitivity training? And how strange that Lenny Bruce's expletives deleted so long ago were effectively restored in the same month the Supreme Court effectively censored G-rated political speech by upholding the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act?

Confusing? The reaction to the Bruce pardon by Ronald K. L. Collins, a First Amendment scholar and pardon proponent, is unlikely to clarify things. "You see, there is a God," said Collins to The New York Times upon hearing the news. (A letter to the editor only deepened the muddle by describing Bruce as having "died for our sins.") The New York Times, by the way, has practically run more stories on the Bruce pardon than on the capture of Saddam Hussein. Funny how the same paper -- along with the rest of Big Media -- has put a veritable gag order on the recent doings of the obvious heirs to Lenny Bruce, those foul-mouthed comedians who have come out to raise money for Howard Dean.

It took the New York Post's Deborah Orin to report in any detail on the "X-rated, epithet-ridden" comedy-fund-raiser held for the Democratic front-runner last month in New York City. The event included Judy Gold calling President Bush "this piece of living, breathing s---"; Janeane Garofalo deriding the Medicare prescription-drug bill Bush recently signed as the "you can go f--- yourself, Grandma, bill"; and Sandra Bernhard insulting Condoleeza Rice "in racial terms with a 'Yes Massa' accent at another Dean fund-raiser the same night." Dropping the n-word for blacks, David Cross "joked" that Republicans are racists, while Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Mary was derided as "a big lezzie." Dean, "fuming," according to his aides, did nothing to stop the session. Republicans, Orin wrote, "say that if anything like this had happened at an event where a top Republican was present and did nothing to stop it, the media would rage about it for weeks."

The fact is, censorship is no less a part of our society because comics are free to cuss and soil; indeed, the lines that cannot be crossed without social sanction are as indelible as ever. The difference lies only in the location of the lines. With four-letter-language -- and insults against Republicans -- you're on terra firma; when it comes to holiday greetings, you're on your own. H---- N-- Y---.