Havre de Grace. -- Let's begin with a little song.
Die, nigger, it's better you than me. Die, nigger, f racial animosity! Die, nigger, I know your family's grievin' Die, nigger, but still I'm gettin' even.
That's vicious, sickening, putrid stuff, right? If you heard it on the radio, you'd be shocked and appalled. If you heard people you knew singing it, even if they were drunk, it would change your opinion of them forever. If your children brought a tape of it home from school and put it on your new sound system, you'd put a stop to it in a hurry and explain to them why it's disgusting.
If a group of white freshman sang such a song while walking
across the campus of an elite university, can you imagine the reaction? There would be expulsions, newspaper and legislative investigations, and angry sermons on the subject of hate from the great editorial pulpits of the nation.
But of course, that little song is the chorus, with a few small significant changes, of the richly-publicized and commercially successful Ice-T number called "Cop Killer." The recent hoo-ha over this work of art has taken public debate to gaga heights seldom reached even by Congress.
When "Cop Killer" first came out, our cultural commissars paid little attention, on the tacitly racist assumption that the words of black entertainers don't matter. They only began to wake up and hyperventilate when the first rumbles of grass-roots outrage became audible.
"Cop Killer" has disturbed the police, which isn't surprising, as it glorifies the murder of police officers. The police picketed the annual meeting of Time Warner, which distributes the song, and called for a boycott of the company's products. Ice-T himself, sophisticated in the arts of public relations, had himself photographed giving the finger to a blind policeman who had been shot in the face.
Time Warner's chairman, Gerald M. Levin, explained to the world that the company wasn't promoting the bile of Ice-T in pursuit of anything as crass as profit. It was moved, rather, by the spirit of public service.
Some defenders of "Cop Killer" concluded that heck, the whole thing was just a spoof, and the police ought to, like, lighten up. Others said that however repulsive the contents of the song, our cherished right of free expression would be endangered were it suppressed. But Mr. Levin didn't leap into either of those leaky lifeboats. Instead he stayed bravely on the bridge of his media supertanker and held his course toward the rocks. "Cop Killer" is honest-to-goodness art, he maintained, "rooted in the reality of the streets."
It seems to me that the Ice-T affair raises at least two serious, complicated questions. The first is the old issue of freedom of speech, and the second is the increasing acceptance of a double standard in determining what our society considers acceptable behavior.
In a democratic country, when it comes to deciding what speech is legally acceptable, the best standard is the one that comes the closest to the unattainable absolute. Where speech is concerned, freedom very rarely creates problems, but legal restrictions upon freedom invariably do.
Ice-T, most sensible people agree, ought to be allowed to sing his songs, whether they're offensive or not. There's a practical reason as well as a moral reason for that. In the open air, songs of hate and violence can be seen for what they are, and allowed to dissipate; if they can only be sung underground, they acquire both power and cachet. Make speech illegal, and, paradoxically, you lend it legitimacy.
By the same token, there's no good reason why Time Warner shouldn't distribute a song such as "Cop Killer" if it sees commercial advantage in doing so. That doesn't mean, however, that company officials ought to prate about its artistic merit. Sell garbage, by all means, but have the courage to label it correctly.
The greater problem raised by the Ice-T party is that of the double standard. Why is it that some of the same people who were so shocked by the famed Willie Horton campaign ad of 1988 are so blase about "Cop Killer"? Why is it that Ice-T can be played from a boom box on a college campus today, but a song such as "Dixie" -- let alone the ditty with which this column began -- can't? The reason given by a group of professors at the University of Michigan is that "behavior which constitutes racist oppression when engaged in by whites does not have this character when undertaken by people of color." Freedom of speech is selective, this means, and those with political clout will do the selecting.
Right there you have the problem. A society with Ice-T lyrics spouting from boom boxes may be a noisy one, but it's free and vital and open. It's when the same society gets all prissy and "sensitive" about somebody else's lyrics or flags or attitudes that the rot sets in.
Let Ice-T and Time Warner peddle their garbage. Just let everyone else peddle their garbage too. Out in the fresh air, after a while the sun and wind will blow the stink away.
Peter Jay's column appears here each week.