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The DOOWHOP Beat: Who Gave Censors the License?

Yvonne de la Paix likes doo-wop music. So do I. It snaps, sizzles and curls your toes.

But maybe computers can’t appreciate that. They got no rhythm, got no soul, got no common sense to call their own.

So I’ll blame this one on the humans, those of the state Department of Motor Vehicles. They’re the ones who sicked their computer on Yvonne de la Paix, and the computer, bless its little microchip heart, simply did as it was told.

It ferreted Yvonne out.

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“Our Department recently received a letter of complaint from a member of the public on the Environmental License Plate DOOWHOP assigned to your Datsun,” the certified letter sent to Yvonne’s Westminster address began.

“The configuration DOOWHOP is offensive to the Italian community.”

Oh.

No, wait a minute. Make that, Oh yeah?

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GIMEABK!

Yvonne, of course, is not being singled out. The DMV computer turned up more than 500 other such license plates--all with some version of WOP or DAGO in them--that are said to be offensive to the Italian community.

The humans then reviewed those and winnowed the truly offensive down to 333. The plates’ registered owners were ordered to turn them in by July 26, or else.

So far, according to DMV spokesman Bill Gengler, 182 drivers have demanded an administrative hearing to duke this thing out. Most of the others--only 13 cases have been closed--still haven’t made up their minds.

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Yvonne, though, is incensed. On principle.

Because she sold her car in February (to a Cal State Fullerton student who says he’s planning to give the DOOWHOP plates back to Yvonne), she hasn’t even been using the tags lately. But still.

“I was angered by the letter, implying that I was a bigot and that if I didn’t turn over my plates in 14 days I would be taken to court,” Yvonne says. “My license plate is not in any way a racist comment, unless the DMV or the Sons of Italy didn’t know what they were attacking.”

The Sons of Italy is a fraternal organization with about 44,000 members nationwide, 12,000 of them in California. The Californians sent a letter and petition with 300 signatures asking that license plates bearing any and all configurations of WOP or DAGO be banned in the state.

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They made the same request last year, only this time they got action. Fast.

Palm Springs insurance executive Richard Armento, chairman of the organization’s Social Justice Commission, says the difference came after his counterpart in Virginia persuaded that state to outlaw the same offending plates. Armento wrote to Gov. Deukmejian asking him for the same treatment here.

“I sent my letter to the good governor on May 4, and on May 30 I got a call from the DMV saying they were going to recall the plates,” Armento says.

(The DMV’s Gengler, meantime, says the governor had absolutely nothing to do with it, that Deukmejian’s office simply passed Armento’s letter on. He says the person at the DMV who ruled against the Sons’ request last year is now dead, so they’ll never know why he didn’t take action.)

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In any case, the result of the petition was California’s first mass recall of personalized license plates.

“The public is the final judge,” says Gengler. “With 300 signatures, we couldn’t not do something. . . . And WOP and DAGO are racial slurs.”

Which, of course, is true. To some extent. Many Italian-Americans, mostly the older generation, are offended by these terms. But many others, mostly the young, are not.

It’s been overwhelmingly Italian-Americans who requested the DAGO and WOP plates in the first place.

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“Since we did this, I’ve gotten 150 calls from people with the plates,” Armento says. “They want to hang me. They are Italians, every one of them. They just don’t understand what the problem is.”

Nor, of course, does Yvonne de la Paix.

“Will I, as a woman of French descent, be able to disallow anyone who has a plate that may spell or remotely resemble FROG the right to a colorful plate?” she asks. “Gee, I might even demand that any sound or spelling of TOAD be recalled too as an indirect, negative reference to my heritage.”

Armento, incidentally, thinks that Yvonne should rail against FROG, which the DMV says is acceptable for a state license plate, although it’s currently not on any vehicle.

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As for DOOWHOP, Armento says that maybe that should be allowed to squeak by. He thinks the correctly spelled DOO WOP, however, should be banned.

“Well, you see,” Armento says, “then they’ve got the WOP in there, and that offends me, and a whole lot of other people.”

So maybe some of you--Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Irish-Americans and every other kind of American--are thinking, “Where do you draw the line?”

When does freedom of expression go too far? Or can it ever? And who is to decide? By what right?

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The debate, these days, is popping up all the time and positions--as I’m sure you’ve noticed--are becoming extreme.

Some, for example, would outlaw all to which they take offense. The work of rappers 2 Live Crew, painter Andres Serrano, comedian Andrew Dice Clay and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe come to mind. Throw into the mix the flag burners and screecher-songstress Roseanne Barr and you’ve got quite a group.

They’ve been called racist, sexist, blasphemous, pornographic, treacherous and lacking in all standards of good taste. Depending upon who’s doing the appraising, they may be all, or none, or some of the above.

But even if they are offensive, it is worth repeating that they have the right to be--as well they should. Even if I, or my neighbor, or my congressman, or anybody else, doesn’t like it one bit.

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Today it’s tolerance that’s in short supply.

Here’s what Yvonne de la Paix wants to know: “How far will our own paranoia and mistrust go? Has it gone so far that we automatically see racists in everyone who is not exactly like us? Doesn’t that, then, make us bigots ourselves?”

Good question, Yvonne. At the rate we’re going, it may take King Solomon to figure this mess out.


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