Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Point of View

A number years ago I was working on a construction project in a foreign (non-US) country. Among the subcontractors on the job was a Israeli company, doing some of the mechanical work. The Israelis ran a tight, businesslike operation. One of their go-betweens was a normally jolly fellow by the name of Joseph, who coordinated the use of cranes and heavy equipment with us.

Someone had hung a strip of toilet paper on the wall of our office. On every piece was printed a picture of the president of the United States. (An approximation of what it looked like is posted above.) It had been hanging there along with notes and memos for some time, before I even noticed it. To me it didn’t seem much more scurrilous than other avant-garde political cartoons of the time. I mean, look what we did with Nixon.

But the it had apparently caused a stir among our non-American coworkers. One day an extremely agitated Joseph burst into our office and pointed out the presidential toilet paper.

“I cannot believe that you allow this outrage!” He said. “A thing like this is a disgrace! It is a terrible insult! Yet you leave it there on the wall, for everyone to see it!”

I looked at it again, trying to see his viewpoint. To tell the truth, I couldn’t imagine who from “our side” would have put it up there. Our boys’ conversation tended toward beer, babes and baseball, not current affairs or politics. “Well, you see,” I said (this was back in the day), “a lot of construction workers are Democrats . . .”

“Then you would just leave it there? I cannot believe you would put up with such a thing!” he said, storming out, before I thought to explain that partisan mudslinging has been an American tradition going back the expiration of the Alien and Sedition Acts. We left the toilet paper up for a while as a mute paean to the First Amendment.

Sometimes it seems–as in the present climate–that the stridency of partisan voices goes too far. But who would limit them without endangering our basic right to freedom of expression?

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