Racial sensitivity leads to censorship in Philadelphia (1985) after a black mayor accidental firebombs radical headquarters in a Philadelphia residential block.
ON MAY 13, 1985, PHILADELPHIA was in flames. Police attempted to serve arrest warrants to a group of MOVE members who were a nuisance to their neighborhood. The group built a small fort out of their headquarters, boarded up the windows, used megaphones to push their agenda, broadcasted obscenities, and members armed themselves. Police, running into resistence, dropped a satchel bomb to puncture a hole on the house intending to make way for tear gas. The house caught fire. With some delay, firefighters approached the MOVE headquarters trying to put out the flames, but were shot at by members of the controversial group. At one point, a decision was made to allow the building to burn to force out the occupants. The tactic did not work however, and eleven MOVE members, including five children, died in the inferno. The flames quickly spread out of control destroying 60 other homes as well.
That night was the first day that Joe Szabo started drawing editorial cartoons for the Philadelphia Daily News. In the next several days, he drew four cartoons involving the tragedy. Two of them were censored. In one of those, a man standing in the middle of smoldering rubble is uttering to himself:
“It was a damn Goode idea…”
Mayor Wilson Goode was ultimately in charge of the ill-fated operation, and the bombing was widely attributed to his leadership, or the lack of it. The cartoon was said to be in bad taste and was rejected. The other one (above) dealt with the issue of firefighters trying to put out the blaze, but being shot at by the radicals.
The Philadelphia Daily News, in its infinite wisdom, declined publication of the cartoon, reasoning that the MOVE member (on the right) “clearly shows African-American features,” and that “it would incite the city’s black population.” All members of MOVE were black.
Moral of the story: What was the moral? Was it the pernicious silliness of misplaced empathy? The bloated perils of false vulnerability? The entire question of censorship strikes against the desperate urgency that someone or an entire priviledged class of harbored “feelings” or “intellect” must be protected from the honest opinion of another. These people need to learn how to cope, not be coddled as emotional cripples. Except in the special case of children, cerebral men and women should be—both free to express themselves with whatever tools are available to them intellectually as well as interpret for themselves the expressions of others—without this need of special protection. This is the laissez-faire marketplace of ideas we hear so much about, but rarely observe in practice, even as we continue to wallow in the bloody clues of free speech and expressive liberty of ideas.
The stilted practice of politically correctness is a totalitarian practice of social domination that is showing cracks in its armor, particularly in the political sphere. In the case of strident art, I suggest we should all prefer the anarchy of a free language rich in inert symbols that are meaningless until the poetic energies of social collusion create meaning—first among individuals, and engineered to oscillate outward into the clusters of what is nothing more than the miracle of spontaneous and makeshift literacy (Wittgenstein).
Political language is the language of control. Artistic language is the language of transcendence.
We are not talking about the legislating of morality in this essay. We are also not talking about exotic dance moves as titillating exercises in free speech. We are specifically talking about intrinsic human speech and the communicative arts of human articulation using man-made symbols of language and abstract or representative depiction. Do executive bodies have an innate right to forbid certain depictions by free speakers deemed undesirable especially when the ban is not exercised universally for whatever cause (affirmative action, political correctness, hate speech) existing within or beyond the powers of control these executive bodies hold?
This essay is in progress…