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Happy 4th of July, Slants and Redskins!

July 04, 2017

Multiple Pages
Happy 4th of July, Slants and Redskins!

For far too many political-opinion writers, Independence Day has turned into an annual bitchfest about the U.S., with an inescapable flood of op-eds about how America is “warlike,” how the Founders were “racist,” and how the whole shebang is merely an excuse for mindless jingoism. Even those on the right sometimes join the clambake of woe, moaning about how our changing demographics will soon make the holiday meaningless (“enjoy July 4th before it becomes Cuatro de Julio”). This trend over the past few decades toward pessimistic July 4th essays is understandable. It’s a reaction to decades of “Happy Birthday, America, I love you, you’re doin’ great!” pep talks and PSAs from the Red Skelton/Bob Hope/Paul Harvey crowd who defined the 4th during the Cold War years. But as the eminent philosopher Huey Lewis once proclaimed, it’s hip to be square, and I think this year, a positive, uplifting, dare I say retro July 4th essay is warranted.

Because Guy Aoki finally lost one. And those of us who treasure free speech and detest leftist SJW censorship won big.

Who is Guy Aoki? To best answer that question, let’s travel back to 1999, the year in which minority advocacy groups declared the “great American TV whitewash” in response to the fact that the fall television shows announced by the major networks had fewer “people of color” in lead roles than in previous years. The “whiteout” was treated as a worse crisis than the Dust Bowl. Rags like the L.A. Times pimped the story for all it was worth, and one result was that people involved in the casting of TV shows were condemned to atone for their crimes against diversity. Back then, under my newly assumed last name of Stein, I was peripherally involved in mainstream production and casting, happily making a living in obscurity, avoiding controversy wherever possible. So when I was first told about “the workshops,” I held my tongue. Ah, the workshops. Casting folks were ordered by panicked studio and network heads to attend “diversity workshops” where we were berated by a rainbow coalition of screaming leftist ninnies, and where some of the biggest names in casting were forced to sit through hours and hours of unqualified “actors of color” giving piss-poor readings, because of course we all know that the best way to find true talent in any field is to force people to the front or back of the line based solely on skin color.

Repulsed as I was by the segregated workshops, I held my tongue. I hadn’t liquidated my previous identity just to jump back in the fire by getting embroiled in a new, different “hot button” controversy. I had my say, via a few pseudonymous op-eds in the L.A. Times and The Washington Post, and I left it at that.

“What matters to me on this July 4th is that we live in a country in which I can make a patently offensive joke and not be hauled off to jail or a ‘human rights tribunal.’”

One of the things that puzzled me at the time was the fact that of all the racial strong-armers slapping around the TV networks, there was one—Guy Aoki—who never seemed to lose a battle. Sure, the networks would often cave to the demands of the NAACP, MALDEF, and GLAAD, but not always. In contrast, I never recall Aoki failing to get every damn thing he demanded. This was perplexing, because he always seemed to me to be the most pathetic and inconsequential of the race demagogues. He was just a dude who had declared himself the official representative of every Asian human being on planet Earth, and he’d spend his every waking hour monitoring TV shows looking for things to bitch about (in the days before TiVo and the internet, that was a herculean task). Say what you will about the NAACP, but it has a long and significant history. It has lots of members. It’s fought battles in the courts and in the streets that have, for better or worse, helped change the face of America. Aoki, on the other hand, was just a busybody, a self-proclaimed King of All Asians. But rather than laugh his ass out of their offices, networks always seemed to cave in, no matter what he demanded. He got Conan O’Brien to apologize on air for a joke Sarah Silverman told on his show. He got The Simpsons to rewrite and rerecord a segment of an already aired episode because Mr. Burns said “Chinaman.” He got Fox TV to pull an entire program (2003’s Banzai) from its schedule. He forced every employee at CBS Radio to undergo mandatory “sensitivity training,” and he forced two local radio stations (Power 106 FM and KKBT FM) to ban Asian impersonations from their morning comedy programs.

Aoki was a bully and an obsessive control freak, and it was always a source of frustration to me that nobody ever said, “Wait…what if we just don’t let this guy boss us around?”

Well, finally, a handful of people—eight, to be exact—have decided that Aoki ain’t the boss o’ them. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court put pee-pee in Aoki’s Coke with its unanimous decision (only eight justices, as Gorsuch was not yet on the court when arguments were heard) in the case of Matal v. Tam. In this landmark ruling, all eight justices, liberal and conservative alike, agreed that the government cannot withhold trademark protection from “racially offensive” words or phrases (the decision stemmed from the case of an Asian-American rock band that wanted to trademark its name, the Slants). As summed up by my favorite constitutional scholar, UCLA’s Eugene Volokh:

The justices made clear that speech that some view as racially offensive is protected not just against outright prohibition but also against lesser restrictions. In ‘Matal,’ the government refused to register “The Slants” as a band’s trademark, on the ground that the name might be seen as demeaning to Asian Americans. The government wasn’t trying to forbid the band from using the mark; it was just denying it certain protections that trademarks get against unauthorized use by third parties. But even in this sort of program, the court held, viewpoint discrimination—including against allegedly racially offensive viewpoints—is unconstitutional. And this no-viewpoint-discrimination principle has long been seen as applying to exclusion of speakers from universities, denial of tax exemptions to nonprofits, and much more.

This is a huge victory in the fight against the PC police. That the decision was unanimous, with even “wise Latina” Sotomayor signing on, gives me July 4th optimism. Justice Alito specifically slammed the notion that “government has an interest in preventing speech expressing ideas that offend.” He singled out an amicus supporting the government’s case filed by a Native American organization, in which the Injuns argued that “encouraging racial tolerance” must take precedence over free-speech rights. Bullshit, cried the justice. “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate’ (United States v. Schwimmer).”

But if freedom won in the Tam case, Guy Aoki lost. A big supporter of the government’s position that viewpoint discrimination is appropriate, he penned an angry op-ed immediately following the decision. And here’s where it gets absurdly funny. Remember—Tam was about an Asian rock band fighting for the right to trademark its name. Apparently, Aoki has finally found a few Asians he doesn’t want to represent, and he spent the bulk of his rant attacking the band members, mocking them for seeking to influence public policy even though they’re virtual nobodies, and deriding them for claiming to speak for “the majority of Asians”:

They made five albums and one EP, yet none of them nor any of their tracks made a single Billboard music chart. You know how easy it is to make one of the Billboard’s various 785 charts these days?.... Nothing The Slants have ever done has shown up on Billboard’s radar…. The group actually has more former members (9) than current ones (4). Maybe they should worry more about keeping the band together than making “The Slants” “safe” for the rest of us.

I would put every cent I have on the fact that Aoki, a man who tried to influence public policy though a virtual unknown, a self-appointed leader who claims to speak for the majority of Asians, had zero comprehension of the irony and hypocrisy in his screed. In any event, for a man supposedly dedicated to standing up for Asians who are demeaned, Aoki is certainly quick to demean “his people” if they dare step out of line.

Of course, Aoki was hardly alone in lamenting the court’s decision. Writing in USA Today, Manhattan attorney Daniel Kornstein condemned the ruling as “a victory for government-sanctioned bigotry,” adding that the court “should have more carefully balanced the interests of free speech with the strong public policy against prejudice and discrimination.” No, it shouldn’t have. As Justice Alito bluntly stated, free speech is more important than the left’s mushy-headed crusade for “racial tolerance.” 

As most legal experts pointed out after the decision, Tam will undoubtedly lead to the Washington Redskins football franchise being able to regain its trademarks (trademarks that were canceled by the government in 2014 because they were deemed “racially offensive”). So thanks to Tam, I can now trademark the name of my new Native American/Chinese-fusion restaurant, Big Chief Prairie Nigger’s Chinky Chinaman Rice & Buffalo Bowls. That’s a joke, of course. But what matters to me on this July 4th is that we live in a country in which I can make a patently offensive joke like that and not be hauled off to jail or a “human rights tribunal.” The Founding Fathers had a lot of ideas that were radical at the time. Challenging the divine right of kings, the right of a colony to break free from its mother nation, etc. Those ideas aren’t radical anymore. But the notion that unpopular, hateful, or inflammatory political and ideological speech should be given absolute protection from government censorship is still every bit as radical today as it was back then (indeed, perhaps more so). Even a nation like New Zealand, which regularly flaunts its love of free speech, has hate-speech laws. Ditto Iceland, Denmark, etc. “Free” countries, to be sure. But to a point.

People like Guy Aoki also routinely say they love free speech…to a point. And, to me, “to a point” means not at all, because the moment the government has the power to censor speech based on the offensiveness of the content, that’s the moment you no longer have free speech.

A couple of years ago, I wrote ominously about how the Supreme Court may soon consist of enough justices who are sympathetic to the concept of “group defamation” that we might one day in the not-too-distant future see “hate speech” restrictions here in the U.S. The Tam decision makes me regret my pessimism. Frankly, it’s nice to be able to write about good news every now and again.

So, to all my readers—slants and redskins included—have a happy 4th of July!

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