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1st Amendment Means ‘Pfeiffer’ Too

After weeks of protests by African American leaders, the UPN network decided to pull the pilot of “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,” a sitcom about a black British nobleman who becomes an advisor to Abraham Lincoln. UPN made clear that its decision to withhold and “review” the pilot was made because of the protests from groups like the Brotherhood Crusade and the Beverly Hills-Hollywood chapter of the NAACP. Leaders from these groups have stated that they are not satisfied with UPN’s actions and will not stop protesting until the show is canceled.

I’ve always been a 1st Amendment activist. I hold the freedom of speech, and the free expression of ideas, to be the cornerstones of our democracy. Over the years, through my membership in the ACLU and other organizations, I’ve fought against censorship in all its forms. And I haven’t been alone. Yet now, with the “Desmond Pfeiffer” controversy, I find myself asking, “Where have all the free speech activists gone?”

Wasn’t it only a few weeks ago that anti-censorship groups and individuals were decrying the religious right’s attempt to block the premiere of Terrence McNally’s play “Corpus Christi”? This small play became a lightning rod for those who claim to favor freedom of expression. Nationally syndicated columnists wrote passionately of the right of artists to have their messages heard, no matter how controversial. Letter-writing campaigns were organized, and pressure was put on the Manhattan Theater Club not to cave in to the censors. I’m thankful that the censors lost, and “Corpus Christi” opens Tuesday.

Yet the “Desmond Pfeiffer” controversy has been going on for weeks, and there’s hardly been a peep from the anti-censorship crowd. Why? What’s the difference between the two cases? The religious right objected to “Corpus Christi’s” depiction of Jesus Christ, which was claimed to be “blasphemous” by several religious leaders. This was the same claim made during the controversy over Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Yet the multitudes who rushed to the defense of that film and other controversial works, like the National Endowment for the Arts-funded “Piss Christ” (a crucifix submerged in urine), have failed to materialize in defense of “Desmond Pfeiffer.”

I am, quite frankly, ashamed of my fellow anti-censorship activists. Their silence in the face of this blatant attempt to censor a network show serves only to play into the hands of religious right leaders like Pat Buchanan, who asked rhetorically in his syndicated column a few weeks ago whether “Corpus Christi” would be defended so vigorously if it offended black people or Jews instead of Christians. Is he right?

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Even if every other free-speech activist continues to be silent, I would like to go on record to deplore the actions of the censors in the African American community. They claim that it is offensive to set a comedy during the time of slavery. Let’s not forget that many great (and not-so-great) comedies have been set in violent, painful times.

Hitler and World War II comedies have been plentiful, from “To Be or Not to Be” to Jerry Lewis’ “Which Way to the Front?,” from Steven Spielberg’s “1941" to TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes.” There have even been Holocaust comedies, like “Genghis Cohen” (the BBC miniseries about a death camp commandant possessed by a Jewish comedian he murdered) and Roberto Benigni’s newest movie, “Life Is Beautiful,” a Holocaust comedy that won the Grand Jury Prize this year at Cannes.

Joseph Stalin is said to have had 30 million people murdered. Yet Bolshevik-era comedies like “Children of the Revolution” and Mel Brooks’ “The Twelve Chairs” nevertheless found humor in the subject. And as horrible as the genocide of Native Americans was, there have been many comedies set in that era, from hokey fare like “F Troop” to truly great works like “Little Big Man.”

The Korean War caused untold death and suffering, but that didn’t stop us from laughing at “MASH.” And where was the outrage when the rap group 2 Live Crew had a huge hit with “Me So Horny,” in which the line, “Me so horny, me love you long time,” was played repeatedly? In “Full Metal Jacket,” the movie from which that line was sampled, the character who speaks those words is a syphilitic Vietnamese prostitute forced to turn tricks to survive as her people die around her. Yet many in the African American community had no problem with grossly trivializing that terrible situation.

Even slavery and Jim Crow racism have been treated with humor and irreverence over the years. Some examples include the play “Purlie Victorious” (and the hit musical version, “Purlie!”), the movie “The Skin Game” and various skits on the Fox TV show “In Living Color.”

No one “owns” history. History belongs to all of us. No one individual or group “owns” the Civil War period any more than the religious right holds a copyright on how Jesus can be portrayed. Artists have a right to set their comedies in whatever period they want. Their efforts might not turn out to be funny, respectful or well-received, but that’s beside the point. For free speech to remain something more than a cliche, free expression--the right to publicly air controversial ideas--must survive.

And all of us, black or white, Christian or Jewish, must realize that we’re likely to see and hear things we dislike. I, for one (and maybe I’m the only one), sincerely hope that UPN doesn’t give in to the censors. Anyone care to second that?

Christopher Cole, a resident of Los Angeles, is writing a book about censorship.


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