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Media Matter

by James Lileks

Whenever talking about the YouTube video on which the riots were blamed, it’s important to note that it’s bad. Lousy acting, cheap F/X, costumes from the Halloween store. But what if The [title removed for fear 10,000 people will set themselves on fire somewhere] had been a really good movie?

The critics rave! “Breathtaking, revelatory, audacious, with the director’s trademark mixture of lilting wit and raucous smut.” Sacha Baron Cohen’s Oscar-worthy turn as a transgendered Zoroastrian who invents the Islamic holy texts to win the love of a gullible young man (Tom Cruise) is praised by all. Sixteen months after its release, a mob — on 9/11, by one of those “gosh, you can’t make this stuff up” coincidences — attacks the U.S. embassy in Tunis with such fury it manages to burn down the entire country, putting in doubt longstanding scientific theories about the flammability of sand.

Would that be better, somehow? Because they were supposedly incensed by a quality project?

The constant reassurance that the movie is Bad and its director a Bad person ought to be irrelevant, like saying that someone who drew an offensive cartoon of Mohammed hadn’t quite mastered the art of shading and perspective. But apparently it’s important to disparage the quality and character of a work of art before you tut-tut about a lethal response. Might as well just run photos of burning embassies on the front page with the headline “everyone’s a critic.”

The First Amendment doesn’t have a schlock-exemption clause. It doesn’t say your abrasive utterances must be set forth in gooder grammar. It is silent on the issue of penmanship.

Now, this is the point where people usually roll their eyes and say, “Criticism isn’t denying anyone’s free speech. It’s not like the government has to get involved.” But the government did get involved. The director was hauled in for discussion of his parole violation late one evening. Unless you believe that California cops sit around bored for hours until a big red light goes off and they slide down the poles because there was a parole violation across town six months ago, you might suspect that pressure was applied. That would seem to be the government at work. And getting overtime pay, probably.

Then there’s the small matter of the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff phoning up a private citizen known for his Fahrenheit 451 approach to non-Christian holy books and telling him to mind his ways. Totally justified. You can’t shout “Fire” in a crowded YouTube comment thread, or something. Who knows what pressure the top brass put on the citizen? “I don’t mean to drone on and on, but we know where you live.” That would seem to be the government at work.

Now, this is the point where conservatives carp about the media’s double standard and say, “What if a Bush spokesman implied that Bill Maher wasn’t funny or said people should handle their Dixie Chicks CDs in a careless manner, encouraging scratches? They’d cry fascism!” Yes. They’re excitable that way. If Dick Cheney officiated at a lesbian wedding, he’d be a homophobe if he didn’t kiss the father of the bride. It’s a given.

We’re told the media don’t matter anymore, because there’s Twitter. But for the muddle-pated middle who depend on news crawls and headlines to tell them what the popular kids think, the media is a Jell-O mold that shapes their vague beliefs, tells them who’s Up, who’s Cool. The media skew the message in the proper direction, because they’re good smart folk who know a Romney term would mean a Hobbesian society where the 1 percent get rich selling pre-rusted coat hangers to back-alley abortionists, and gay teachers’-union stewards are sent to work fracking gas while Koch-paid overseers crack the whip, and Friskies markets “Senior Blend” cat food, as they did during the Reagan years. Also, war somewhere.

To prevent these real and present dangers, reality must be adjusted. When the president shows up on the harpy-holler hootenanny The View and says he’s there as “eye candy, ” he’s not a sexist pig who thinks women want to swoon over cool dudes, he’s just speaking Truth to Behar. When the president met with a CIA Pakistan expert who was wearing “stiletto heels,” as The Daily Beast described her, and he said “with clear amusement, ‘You don’t look like a Pakistan expert,’” it didn’t mean he was demonstrating the habitual sexualization that keeps women from achieving equality in the workplace. It meant he’s a man’s man with normal appetites, aside from that whole dog-it’s-what’s-for-dinner thing.

I mean, you want some Mormon creep in there who wouldn’t even look at her legs?

Speaking of whom: If Mitt Romney makes a comment about our embassy being overrun, and suggests the administration’s motto is Strength through Cower, he’s hammered. Politics stops at the edge of the water on which Obama walks.

Isn’t that odd? No one deplored the quality of his remark and then noted he certainly had the right to make it. Well, if there are riots in other lands, perhaps the State Department can cut an ad for Pakistani TV, explaining that Romney was wrong to use a gerund the way he did, and they don’t stand behind his use of the split infinitive, but in America we’re free to criticize our leaders.

That would calm the rioting, if they hated us for our grammar. But they no more hate us for our First Amendment than they hate us for our bacon-flavored vodka. They just hate us. Everything else is an entry in the “local customs” section of an embassy orientation guide.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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