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Repression Ascendant
Bong Hits for Freedom

Even sober, Jesus would approve .

Paul Robert Cohen was 19 years old. On April 26, 1968, he put on a jacket sporting the words “Fuck the Draft” and went to the Los Angeles County Courthouse. Children were around, as they always are when repression needs a prop. He was arrested on a charge of maliciously and willfully disturbing the peace with offensive conduct and given thirty days in jail. The case went to the Supreme Court, and on June 7, 1971, on a 5-4 vote, the court overturned the conviction. “For, while the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre,” Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote, “it is nevertheless often true that one man's vulgarity is another's lyric.” The phrase evokes what Octavio Paz says in “The Labyrinth of Solitude:” about “bad words,” which he calls “the only living language in a world of anemic vocables. They are poetry within the reach of everyone.” Harlan’s rationale doesn’t approach Octavio Paz’s, which is more powerful, and I think convincing: manners of speech can’t be used as means of judging the validity of speech. Harlan’s rationale ends up being a cop-out, a weak way of justifying what, on its face, is justifiable speech whether children see and hear it or not. A courthouse is as public and communal a place as they come, but also as close to the center of local power and government as we have. It’s not for nothing that so many of Faulkner’s stories gravitate around the courthouse. Paul Robert Cohen spoke his words to power, and to people. And was arrested.

Justice Blackmun, fresh from his appointment by law-and-repression’s Richard Nixon and a couple of decades removed from his eventual liberal conversion (embracing sodomy in 1986 was his famous turning point), dissented: “Cohen’s absurd and immature antic, in my view, was mainly conduct and little speech.” Cohen was engaged in conduct, but to differentiate between conduct and speech in this case is, like Harlan’s point about lyricism, another cop-out, a sophist’s distinction. Still, it’s Blackmun’s rationale that may yet prevail by the time the Supreme Court rules in the case of Joe Frederick, the Juneau, Alaska, high school senior who unfurled a “Bong Hits for Jesus” banner outside of school during an Olympics torch ceremony sponsored by Coke.

Frederick hadn’t been to school that day (he says he was stuck in the snow) but he made it to the street in time for the little parade. When the principal saw him with his banner, she crossed the street, tore it up, and suspended him for ten days. You can get a sense of where this court is heading: “I thought we wanted our schools to teach something, including something besides just basic elements, including the character formation and not to use drugs,” Chief Justice John Roberts said during arguments Monday. That’s just the problem: schools shouldn’t be in the business of teaching “the character formation” at all, nor the moralities of drug use. They’re in business to teach critical thinking, as high a calling as schools have, and as powerful a way of effecting character formation as they have without treading on morally dubious grounds. But since the 1980s the crock known as “character education” has insinuated itself into the curriculum precisely at the very same time that benevolent repression, or the supremacy of law and order, replaced the 1960s’ and 1970s’ atmosphere of challenging confrontations—as necessary an ingredient of education and creativity as “order,” if it’s interesting and critical education we’re after.

Which, of course, we don’t seem to be these days. Creativity and standardized tests don’t get along. “Key to the discussion is the term ‘disruption,’” Ohdave wrote a couple of days ago, anticipating the Roberts line. In school, yes, and not nearly to the extent that Ohdave (or I assume Roberts) would interpret disruption as virtually anything that challenges school authority. But the Frederick case doesn’t involve school. The moment an event, a speech or anything whatsoever takes place beyond the schoolhouse, or at least beyond a school-sponsored event (a student getting drunk on a school trip to D.C., say), it’s no longer a school matter. Whether Frederick unfurls a banner that says “Fuck Jesus” or even “Fuck You, Principal So-and-So” (I forget her name up in Juneau), he is no longer ruled by the school, but by laws and ordinances prevailing outside of school. That means a student may very well walk up to a principal at the mall and cuss him out if a student is dumb enough to do that. The student is only hurting his own standing.

But the principal has no right to use his school authority on the student in that context. It is no different than Paul Robert Cohen wearing his “Fuck the Draft” shirt: it’s not up to the state or the school or the police to judge whether the speech is valid or not. Only actions matter. But none of these points will carry the day in the Frederick case. This is an age of law and order at any cost. The authoritarians are not only in charge. They’re extending their reach, breaking down boundaries between school and private life in the same way that employers are breaking down boundaries between home and the workplace, in the same way that police have broken down boundaries between permissible intrusions and intrusions once protected by that relic known as the Fourth Amendment. None of this is happening in a vacuum. The Frederick case is merely one of many symptoms in a disease so far advanced that even liberals and libertarians defend its blisters.

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