Americans increasingly support free speech as a concept but make lots of exceptions. A new Pew Research poll found that 40 percent of Millennials (ages 18 to 34) believe the government should be able to prevent people from making offensive statements about minority groups.
New York governor Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, certainly agree. Often rivals, they teamed up to remove a set of controversial subway ads advertising a new Amazon series that depicts an alternate history in which the Nazis and the Japanese won World War II and divided control of America between them. The show’s creators include director Ridley Scott (Alien and Blade Runner) and writer Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files). It has won rave reviews, including a 96 percent positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes.com.
The ads for Man in the High Castle, which appeared on a single subway line linking Times Square with Grand Central Station, featured a version of Japanese Rising Sun flags and Nazi-inspired imperial eagles (but no swastikas). The Metropolitan Transit Authority approved the ads because they did not violate MTA guidelines against political statements.
When controversy about the ads first arose last week, the MTA at first stood its ground. Adam Lisberg, a spokesperson for the MTA, explained that the public agency had no choice but to allow the ads. “We cannot pick and choose the way WCBS radio can — whether it likes an ad or doesn’t like an ad,” he told WCBS Radio. “This advertising, whether you find it distasteful or not, obviously they’re not advertising Nazism; they’re advertising a TV show.”
Then the politicians got involved, with Mayor de Blasio blasting Amazon. “While these ads technically may be within MTA guidelines, they’re irresponsible and offensive to World War II and Holocaust survivors, their families, and countless other New Yorkers,” he said. Governor Cuomo turned up the heat. Last Tuesday, the MTA acknowledged that “Cuomo called the head of the MTA and asked him to ensure the ads came down.” The MTA quickly took the subway cars out of service.
Amazon itself didn’t comment directly on the controversy, merely noting in a statement that the show is part of its lineup of “high-quality, provocative programming that spurs conversation.” If Amazon wanted publicity for The Man in the High Castle, it can declare “mission accomplished.”
#share#The irony is that the acclaimed Philip K. Dick novel on which the series is based makes points about the loss of freedom — apparently unbeknownst to Cuomo and De Blasio. Dick painted a world where basic freedoms had been crushed beneath the boot the Nazis and Japanese, though life for many continued with a peaceful normality on the surface. Collaborators aided the occupiers with the task of running Vichy-style governments. Some of the dissidents in the film are horrified that their own relatives are secretly cooperating with the Nazis. American traditions are continued but in a twisted way. The holiday celebrating “Victory for the Axis” shows altered American flags and neighborhood festivals.
The fascist dystopia depicted in the series is disturbing, but the show’s writers give viewers reason to hope. A mysterious “man in the high castle” is producing films that depict an alternative history in which the Allies win World War II and America is free and prosperous. The plot revolves around the desperate attempts of an aging Hitler to seize all of the films and find their creator. An air of mystery about the meaning of the films is only enhanced by the first season’s expertly handled surprise ending.
Freedom is never likely to be surrendered in America in a quick, dramatic way through the arrival of an occupying army. But it can be — and to some extent already is being — lost through the gradual erosion of the freedom that makes democratic discussion and debate possible.
#related#Last month, the Young America’s Foundation commissioned a poll of college students to assess their views on speech. The poll found that 64 percent strongly or somewhat agree that “political correctness and oversensitivity make it difficult to openly talk about culture, gender, race, ethnicity, discrimination, or racism.” But at the same time, perhaps most troubling of all, 48 percent of students expressed support for universal, mandatory sensitivity training. A shocking 53 percent even agreed that “choosing to use or not use certain words can constitute an act of violence.”
In other words, today’s college students — and future leaders — are becoming used to the concept that many subjects are taboo and that bringing them up in uncomfortable ways can make someone a potential Enemy of the State. The message Philip K. Dick tried to send in The Man in the High Castle about the ease with which people get used to the absence of freedom couldn’t be better timed or more appropriate.
— John Fund is National Review Online’s national-affairs correspondent.