April 22, 2003

Tim Robbins So Deserves A

Tim Robbins So Deserves A Rant

A lot was made recently when Dale Petrovskey, president of the Baseball Hall of Fame, cancelled an appearance by Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, two outspoken war opponents, in what was supposed to be some sort of appreciation for the movie Bull Durham, which, if I recall, was a travesty of a movie. I mean, it just plain sucked. But, whatever.

Robbins went and cried foul that it was a violation of his first amendment right to free speech, WHICH IT WASN'T, but I'll get to that later. At any rate, Robbins eventually got to spout his meaningless steam to the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on April 15. Here's what he had to say, with my own invective interspersed for good measure.

Thank you. And thanks for the invitation. I had originally been asked here to talk about the war and our current political situation, but I have instead chosen to hijack this opportunity and talk about baseball and show business. (Laughter.) Just kidding. Sort of.

*wiping tears from my eyes* Man, that was funny. He should be doing stand-up. Oh, wait, I guess he sort of is doing stand-up.

I can't tell you how moved I have been at the overwhelming support I have received from newspapers throughout the country in these past few days. I hold no illusions that all of these journalists agree with me on my views against the war. While the journalists' outrage at the cancellation of our appearance in Cooperstown is not about my views, it is about my right to express these views. I am extremely grateful that there are those of you out there still with a fierce belief in constitutionally guaranteed rights. We need you, the press, now more than ever. This is a crucial moment for all of us.

Screech! Okay, Mr. Robbins, I'm going to have to ask you to stop right there. I need to frisk you, and I'm talking about an entire body cavity search here. "Constitutionally guaranteed rights." Let's revisit that one, shall we? By rights, I assume you mean the first amendment, so let's look at that little bit of Constitutional goodness. Being that I have a degree in journalism, I was kind of forced to learn this one by heart. Seriously, I had to write it, verbatim, during one of my tests. Hey, I had a lazy professor, what can I say. *ahem* Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The important word here is. . . anyone? Mr. Robbins? CONGRESS! That's right, the guv'mint can't step in to shut you up. You can't be jailed, or tortured, or sodomized by Richard Simmons for speaking publicly against something in this country. Privately owned institutions, on the other hand, like, oh, I don't know, the Baseball Hall of Fame, should they take umbrage with with your views, can choose not to host you should they feel so inclined. It's like this: let's say I have a child, and you have a penchant for swearing like a sailor. Now, although I have no problem with you swearing on your own time, I'd just as soon you not do so in front of my child. So, I don't invite you to my house, and that's perfectly within my rights. It's not a violation of the first amendment. You have no Constitutional right to come into my house and swear in front of my child, just as you don't have the right to make sexually harassing comments in the workplace, just as you don't have the right to speak at the Baseball Hall of Fame should the president of that insitution decide that he doesn't particularly like you or your views. Got that? Good. Then let's move on.

For all of the ugliness and tragedy of 9-11, there was a brief period afterward where I held a great hope, in the midst of the tears and shocked faces of New Yorkers, in the midst of the lethal air we breathed as we worked at Ground Zero, in the midst of my children's terror at being so close to this crime against humanity, in the midst of all this, I held on to a glimmer of hope in the naive assumption that something good could come out of it.

Oh, good. Tim Robbins held on to a glimmer of hope that something good could come out of 9-11. I feel so much better. God bless the hopes of celebrities.

I imagined our leaders seizing upon this moment of unity in America, this moment when no one wanted to talk about Democrat versus Republican, white versus black, or any of the other ridiculous divisions that dominate our public discourse. I imagined our leaders going on television telling the citizens that although we all want to be at Ground Zero, we can't, but there is work that is needed to be done all over America. Our help is needed at community centers to tutor children, to teach them to read. Our work is needed at old-age homes to visit the lonely and infirmed; in gutted neighborhoods to rebuild housing and clean up parks, and convert abandoned lots to baseball fields. I imagined leadership that would take this incredible energy, this generosity of spirit and create a new unity in America born out of the chaos and tragedy of 9/11, a new unity that would send a message to terrorists everywhere: If you attack us, we will become stronger, cleaner, better educated, and more unified. You will strengthen our commitment to justice and democracy by your inhumane attacks on us. Like a Phoenix out of the fire, we will be reborn.

And here I thought his opening paragraph was funny! This is just plain hysterical! In other words, to combat international terrorism, and to prevent future planes from crashing into buildings, and to prevent anthrax from being sent through the mail, America needs to. . . tutor children and teach them to read! fuck-a-duck-a-ding-dong! Was this guy brought up on Mars? Wait, my sides are still hurting, but I MUST repeat his most golden line: "send a message to terrorists everywhere: If you attack us, we will become stronger, cleaner, better educated, and more unified." Yes, I'm just sure that terrorists would quake in their boots when they look and see how their attacks have made us cleaner and better educated. That'll learn 'em up real good.

But, you know, before we go and focus on our better, cleaner, more unified America, I have an idea. First, let's go into Afghanistan, a hotbed of terrorism, bomb them into the first century, scatter their terror members to the four winds, and then put the lean on any other country that harbors them. And then that one country, Iraq, which harbors terrorists of its own and compensates the families of "martyrs," let's knock that regime down while we're at it. Because, you see Mr. Robbins, 9-11 didn't happen because of unclean, un-tutored American masses. It happened because of a rotten cancer running throughout much of the Middle East that has to be removed. You go and scrub and tutor all the Americans you want, that won't make us one bit safer.

And then came the speech: You are either with us or against us. And the bombing began. And the old paradigm was restored as our leader encouraged us to show our patriotism by shopping and by volunteering to join groups that would turn in their neighbor for any suspicious behavior.

Yeah, I know I was turning in my neighbors left and right. Those were the good old days. Listen, Tim, I know the world must look a tad weird when you're sitting atop a pile of money that you earned acting, and to a lesser extent directing, you should know that, down here in the trenches called the middle class, we're not on the lookout for suspicious behavior. We don't take the color-coded terror system seriously. What we've done is taken it upon ourselves to actually learn what makes this world, not just America, tick. We have learned that it takes far more than a simple focus on the homefront to exact change, and we're willing to fight to bring that change about.

In the 19 months since 9-11, we have seen our democracy compromised by fear and hatred. Basic inalienable rights, due process, the sanctity of the home have been quickly compromised in a climate of fear. A unified American public has grown bitterly divided, and a world population that had profound sympathy and support for us has grown contemptuous and distrustful, viewing us as we once viewed the Soviet Union, as a rogue state.

Okay, our democracy has not been compromised. Once police begin routinely opening fire on protesters and we start jailing and torturing dissidents for speaking against the government, then you can talk about a compromised democracy. And, I don't know about you, but the sanctity of my home hasn't been compromised by fear, although I'd sure like to find out where that weird smell is coming from. As for the world that had profound sympathy for us in the wake of 9-11, I think it's become rather obvious that a lot of that sympathy was, at best, crocodile tears. When you see footage of fleeing Iraqi Ba'athist leaders all driving BMWs, you have to ask just how much of that contempt and distrust was actually fear of having the U.S. discover just how much opposing countries have been, in fact, in bed with terror supporting regimes. As far as I'm concerned, world sympathy is pretty much useless if it doesn't translate into support.

This past weekend, Susan and I and the three kids went to Florida for a family reunion of sorts. Amidst the alcohol and the dancing, sugar-rushing children, there was, of course, talk of the war. And the most frightening thing about the weekend was the amount of times we were thanked for speaking out against the war because that individual speaking thought it unsafe to do so in their own community, in their own life. Keep talking, they said; I haven't been able to open my mouth.

In other words, people kept sucking up to big star. The danger of being surrounded by toadying "yes" people, is that eventually you may actually start believing them.

Susan and I have been listed as traitors, as supporters of Saddam, and various other epithets by the Aussie gossip rags masquerading as newspapers, and by their fair and balanced electronic media cousins, 19th Century Fox. (Laughter.) Apologies to Gore Vidal. (Applause.) Two weeks ago, the United Way canceled Susan's appearance at a conference on women's leadership. And both of us last week were told that both we and the First Amendment were not welcome at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In my world, this is what is known as WHINING. Awwwww, poor Tim. And, again with the first amendment. Well, as long as we're on the topic, here's another little tidbit about the freedom of speech. It's simply the freedom of speech, it is NOT the freedom of speech without consequences. Yes, you can say whatever you damn well please in this country. You can go into the center of a city and expound, at the top of your lungs, about whatever you wish. However, don't assume that, just because you're loud and your voice carries, that people will agree with you and stay silent about their opposition to you and your views. When people disagree with you, weird things can happen. People will stop inviting you places. People will cancel previous engagements they may have had with you. And, people will most assuredly call you names. And, you know what? All of that is perfectly legal and well within the framework of the first amendment. They're simply exercising their first amendment rights in response to your first amendment rights. Ain't America cool?

A famous middle-aged rock-and-roller called me last week to thank me for speaking out against the war, only to go on to tell me that he could not speak himself because he fears repercussions from Clear Channel. "They promote our concert appearances," he said. "They own most of the stations that play our music. I can't come out against this war." And here in Washington, Helen Thomas finds herself banished to the back of the room and uncalled on after asking Ari Fleischer whether our showing prisoners of war at Guantanamo Bay on television violated the Geneva Convention.

Again, this goes back to the simple rule that the freedom of speech is not the freedom of speech without consequences. Here's something that is apparently lost on Tim: in the professional world, the world of bosses and paychecks and office politics, there are PLENTY of things you can think but you DON'T say, lest it mean your immediate dismissal. Sure, I think the girl in the office down the hall has a stellar butt, but I don't TELL her that. Sure, I think this company could be run better by a geriatric monkey with half a brain, but I don't post a memo throughout the building stating that. Sure, Helen Thomas is older than most buildings in Washington D.C., and she disagrees with everything the Bush administration does, and she would have loved to use her front row position to flap her jaw and state her opinions as if the press room was her own personal theater, but that doesn't mean she could do that without CONSEQUENCES.

A chill wind is blowing in this nation. A message is being sent through the White House and its allies in talk radio and Clear Channel and Cooperstown. If you oppose this administration, there can and will be ramifications. Every day, the air waves are filled with warnings, veiled and unveiled threats, spewed invective and hatred directed at any voice of dissent. And the public, like so many relatives and friends that I saw this weekend, sit in mute opposition and fear.

No, we sit at our jobs all day trying to earn what is commonely referred to as a living. Opposition is alive and well in this country, just watch the steady stream of protests being organized practically on a daily basis. Mute opposition my ass. Sometimes, Tim, what you percieve to be mute opposition, may actually be mute support.

*At this point, Tim goes off on a strange and totally irrelevant tangent about Hollywood and the media, and Columbine (yes, Columbine), and how it all somehow ties back to the war in Iraq. I won't take the time to fisk that portion because, quite frankly, it fisks itself.*

And in the midst of all this madness, where is the political opposition? Where have all the Democrats gone? Long time passing, long time ago. (Applause.) With apologies to Robert Byrd, I have to say it is pretty embarrassing to live in a country where a five-foot- one comedian has more guts than most politicians. (Applause.)

I have a theory on this. Perhaps the Democrats are staying silent because maybe, just maybe, they actually support this war. With apologies to Paul Wellstone (Applause). It's kind of hard to look at the atrocities played out by Saddam's regime and then step in front of the cameras and say that ousting Hussein and his cronies was a bad idea.

We need leaders, not pragmatists that cower before the spin zones of former entertainment journalists. We need leaders who can understand the Constitution, congressman who don't in a moment of fear abdicate their most important power, the right to declare war to the executive branch. And, please, can we please stop the congressional sing-a- longs? (Laughter.)

Yeah, the sing-a-longs are pretty fucking stupid.

In this time when a citizenry applauds the liberation of a country as it lives in fear of its own freedom, when an administration official releases an attack ad questioning the patriotism of a legless Vietnam veteran running for Congress, when people all over the country fear reprisal if they use their right to free speech, it is time to get angry. It is time to get fierce. And it doesn't take much to shift the tide. My 11-year-old nephew, mentioned earlier, a shy kid who never talks in class, stood up to his history teacher who was questioning Susan's patriotism. "That's my aunt you're talking about. Stop it." And the stunned teacher backtracks and began stammering compliments in embarrassment.

By who's word is he going on for that anecdote, I wonder. I'm betting he's going by the word of his 11-year-old nephew, and we all know that 11-year-olds are bastions of truth and honesty, and they never, NEVER, embellish stories. Hell, I'll even pretend the story is true, because making the leap that a classroom anecdote like that is somehow a microcosm of America is just laugh out loud funny.

The journalists in this country can battle back at those who would rewrite our Constitution in Patriot Act II, or "Patriot, The Sequel," as we would call it in Hollywood.

Yeah, the Patriot Act and its follow-on are both horrendously misguided, and probably illegal, pieces of legislation. I agree with Tim on this point, as much as it pains me to admit that.

We are counting on you to star in that movie. Journalists can insist that they not be used as publicists by this administration. (Applause.) The next White House correspondent to be called on by Ari Fleischer should defer their question to the back of the room, to the banished journalist du jour. (Applause.) And any instance of intimidation to free speech should be battled against. Any acquiescence or intimidation at this point will only lead to more intimidation. You have, whether you like it or not, an awesome responsibility and an awesome power: the fate of discourse, the health of this republic is in your hands, whether you write on the left or the right. This is your time, and the destiny you have chosen.

There's nothing quite like having a celebrity acting as a cheeleader for the nation's journalists. If I had been sitting in on that speech, I would have stood up and politely asked Tim not to tell me how to do my job.

Our ability to disagree, and our inherent right to question our leaders and criticize their actions define who we are. To allow those rights to be taken away out of fear, to punish people for their beliefs, to limit access in the news media to differing opinions is to acknowledge our democracy's defeat. These are challenging times. There is a wave of hate that seeks to divide us -- right and left, pro-war and anti-war. In the name of my 11-year-old nephew, and all the other unreported victims of this hostile and unproductive environment of fear, let us try to find our common ground as a nation. Let us celebrate this grand and glorious experiment that has survived for 227 years. To do so we must honor and fight vigilantly for the things that unite us -- like freedom, the First Amendment and, yes, baseball. (Applause.)

With that, I must get back to work, and I can assure you that I will do so half-heartedly at best, because from this day forth, all my writing will be done in the name of Robbins' 11-year-old nephew, and that makes me so sad, I think I'm going to cry.

Posted by Ryan at April 22, 2003 12:01 PM
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