When Frank Zappa fought in defense of the First Amendment in the 1980s, he did it, partly, so that Blackie Lawless of metal band WASP could appear on album sleeves with a buzz saw separating him down the middle at the crotch.
But what Zappa understood, and what I understand, is that that isn’t really the fight at all. It’s a consequence of the fight, but the point is that even the dumbest, crudest, and most hateful forms of idea expression must have to be passionately defended at every juncture they meet hazard for that single greatest asset of our culture, free speech, to prevail.
It is in this light that I take a very subtle, but absolutely crucial, deviance from most of Representative Todd Akin’s critics. For his remarks on rape, Akin has met with very vocal condemnation from all sides of the aisle, even from some of the most ardent pro-life defenders (but he has also been embraced, unsurprisingly given the Republican Party’s glee in always seeing how far they can take the line and still survive, by others). But his comments are being derided not so much because they’re wrong, or even because they are senseless, sexist, and cruel. It’s because they’re something you just don’t say.
I am all for calling a chauvinistic, hateful, ignorant, petty, cruel man what he is, and I have no interest in being represented by one. I even think chauvinism, ignorance, pettiness, and cruelty ought to be disqualifiers in our leaders – but they aren’t. If you listen closely to much of the commentary, even from many of his most vocal detractors, the reason he should be out isn’t because he’s chauvinistic, petty, ignorant and cruel. It’s because his remarks were insensitive and inflammatory, and that’s not the kind of speech we want in this country.
I say, on the contrary. It’s precisely the kind of speech we need in this country. We need Todd Akin brutally bad. We need him on the news, giving speeches to people, and appearing on daytime talk shows. What we need on top of it is a civilization sufficiently educated and compassionate enough to be able to discern for themselves the outright scandalous nature of his remarks.
Akin said that rape couldn’t result in pregnancies; that the female body has a way of “shutting that whole thing down” with the sperms and the fallopian tubes and whatever other doo-dads women have hidin’ out down there. Especially if you consider the notion of “legitimate” rape, it becomes clear what a monstrous, hideous creature this Todd Akin really is. But never in a million years would I dream of telling him, “You can’t say that.”
Americans ought to rejoice when a politician says something so flat-out demonstrably demonic. His statement is like a frightening stricture that would’ve been fit to parody centuries ago, in Rabelais or elsewhere, a Dark Ages level of not only scientific but also absolute moral ignorance. We should simply give him no further thought or consideration of any serious kind. He isn’t fit to clean your gutters. He ought to be living in one.
But that’s because of the intrinsic nature of the statement itself. If it stung somebody in a personal place, that does make it worse, and especially for that person, but it doesn’t make it unusable speech. If you tell people they can’t say that, which has been what’s happened in effect (and may be part of the reason a guy like Hannity can get behind the backlash – the less people are allowed to say, the better we’d all be as far as he’s concerned), all you do is further restrict an already diminishing (and never that large to begin with) lexicon.
This is why Frank Zappa defended Blackie Lawless’s right to have a buzz saw run through his pants zipper. It’s why I weasel myself into making a commentary on free speech every time I sense an assault from any side. We mustn’t regulate speech. If it’s truly psychotic, moral people will be able to tell (and they can tell, in the Akin instance, because the outrage has been so monumental and near-universal). We have to trust that there are enough moral and educated people who can see that for themselves. If there are not, then we must use our superior wisdom to set them straight.
If there’s one thing history teaches us, it’s that yesterday’s outrage becomes tomorrow’s acceptable. Liberals and many conservatives alike were stunned, and felt the first initial blow to their own immediate lives, when George Bush signed the PATRIOT Act into law. Now, Obama scribbles his name on it and it only grows bigger; it’s just become a fact of our lives. People were sufficiently outraged the first time Bush did it. Nothing has happened since.
People have the right, and the need, to hear these kinds of words. It manages somehow to brilliantly stimulate dialogue. So off-the-charts dangerously psychotic was Akin’s statement that all sorts of healthy dialogue emerged in its wake, about the fascistic, Dark Ages mindset of the supremely religious Right; about the psychology of a person like Todd Akin who has six children and not the faintest idea about the processes that brought them here; about abortion itself and the ignorance of the men writing laws about women's bodies. The political ramifications have, in fact, all been positive. It seems unlikely the Republicans will be able to as successfully use abortion as a rallying cry to the one-issue fundamentalists in their base without offending the moderate swing voters they need to win (supposing the elections are a neutrally arbitrated contest where votes actually count, which they might be, for all I know). No wonder the establishment wants him to go away.
All these are reasons I invite comments like Todd Akin's. Now we know, more clearly than ever, where they stand. We must settle this contest in a fierce intellectual arena if we're ever to move away from the primitivizing, sadistic forces that would sooner revert us to a chattel society than suffer another dime of their virtually invisible tax burden be put toward childhood leukemia research or nuclear disarmament. Let Todd Akin say whatever he wants. There is no better place for humanity and decency to come out on top than an open, unpoliticized, vigorous contest of ideas.