Shady logic: Will the real free speech advocate please stand up? 

Who'da thunk it? This year's most lofty civics lessons came courtesy of two of our most low-brow public figures. President-elect George Dubya taught us the power of a single vote (and the power of daddy's friends). Hyper-offensive rapper Eminem, meanwhile, underscored the value of open public discourse.

The latter lesson is one commonly misunderstood. The faulty equation: outspoken criticism and/or personal avoidance equals advocacy of censorship. It was an issue this year, as Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP became the center of the latest public debate over the influence of popular culture and how to improve the tone of commercial entertainment.

Specifically, those of us who worry that someone like Eminem -- an extremely talented lyricist, as well as a documented misogynist and homophobe, with generally antisocial views and utter contempt for the notions of self-restraint and public responsibility -- might pose a negative influence on kids with anything less than fully attuned, completely communicative parents. Or at the very least, that the complexities of Eminem's position on racial, cultural and corporate politics -- as well as (in this election year) plain old politics politics -- might be missed by the less sophisticated, more impressionable ears that have listened to the 7 million copies of The Marshall Mathers LP now in public circulation. That is, those of us who think that, at the cost of losing an uncommonly talented young rhymer, our society might be ever-so-slightly better off without the likes of him. (Then we'd only have to worry about all the damage peers, families and governments do to young people.)

To espouse these views, however, in our current under-educated, over-reductive climate is to put one's self at risk of being branded a foe of free speech by folks like Eminem himself, his music industry apologists or other fascists who've convinced themselves they're champions of liberty.

Not only is the equation -- wanting something to go away equals advocating a policy that outlaws it -- an illogical leap, the opposite is actually true. In a society that calls for free speech above censorship, the only legitimate and effective (if only slightly) means to counteract the offensive material foisted on us by powerful corporations is to personally avoid it, keep it away from those for which you are responsible, advocate that others avoid it as well and act in legal ways to compel the makers that it's in their interests, either morally (fat chance) or financially, to stop producing the material. None of those are censorship; all involve exercising free speech.

Those who would have us believe the proper progressive response to offensive cultural expression is silence in the name of free speech are the same empty-suited liberals who allowed Republicans (can you imagine!?) to become known as the party of family values.

So as a music critic and as someone sympathetic to progressive views, Enimem provided plenty of ammunition to justify, even enervate, my chosen vocation. In a perfect world, there's no need for censorship because objectionable speech is counteracted and balanced by good criticism. If only music critics held the sway of pop stars, that's an equation that just might work.


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