There's been much talk in Thai circles about Johnny Spencer, a white supremacist recently prosecuted in Lousville, Kentucky for publishing a poem on the internet that "threatens to assassinate President Obama."
I read the poem. The guy's a sleazebag. Yet, though I myself, as one of those non-Anglo-Saxon non-whitebread U.S. immigrants that have polluted the purity of his utopia, might well be the object of Johnny's hatred, or in his ideal universe be at the receiving end of his bullet, I am troubled by this prosecution. I too have written poems and they have often been about issues that mean something in the real world. I hope I'm a better poet than Johnny, but I must acknowledge that even a lousy poet must have some kind of crippled muse. But what I believe is that while nations have a certain right to deal with threats, attempts to destabilize, and verbal incitements to social chaos, they should not be allowed to fetter the imagination. Crimethink shouldn't be a crime.
Mr. Spencer, it seems, decided to drop his first amendment-based defense of this case and simply to plead guilty. That is a pity because a supreme court decision on this would really show us the real American of 2011. And that would be a weathervane for our whole world, which, for some time now, has been drifting away from enlightenment.
Judge Whalin had ruled earlier that this poem did not fall under the protections of the first amendment because an "average citizen" could clearly view it as a threat to the president. As an "average citizen" myself, and one who voted for Obama, and will almost certainly do so again, I have to admit that I did not "clearly" see a threat in that poem. I saw a troubled mind, a sick fantasy, someone in need of psychiatric counselling.
Which brings us to the parallels that are being seen in the Ah Kong situation. Those parallels do exist, but is also instructive to look at the differences.
• violence has occurred. Mr. Spencer didn't shoot a congressman, plant a bomb in Oklahoma City, or massacre a bunch of Norwegian students. Ah Kong did not lob hand grenades in Rajprasong. But these allegations of hate speech are happening in a time when people are panicking and ready for scapegoats.
• conspiracy theories abound and infect every side in the discussion.
• an issue of freedom of expression has come head to head with the need to protect a head of state and what are perceived as core societal values.
• What Mr. Spencer wrote is out there for everyone to see and judge. No one except the court has seen the content in question in the Ah Kong case, leading everyone to speculate that this content fits exactly their own theory of the situation.
• Mr. Spencer has admitted writing the poem, and apologized to the FBI about the implied threat, whereas outside observers have so far not been convinced that this old granddad did anything at all.
Are the critics of the U.S. right to bring up this case as an example of American hypocrisy? Well, yes, comparisons are absolutely fair game and there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around — the U.S. is a democracy in which the Supreme Court and a few "hanging chads" preempted an election, a country that condemns "cruel and unusual punishment" while happily torturing people off-shore, and so on. Anyone who thinks America is perfect is blind.
But the reality is that the comparison doesn't entirely fit. It fails the "average citizen" test. I don't see any concerned average citizens clamoring to release or condemn Johnny Spencer. Johnny has elicited mostly apathy in the U.S., whereas this Ah Kong case is argued about with incredible passion — a passion fueled largely by rumor, since even the recent public statement by a court spokesperson did not actually reveal any facts; it merely stated the opinions of the judges as though they were facts. Alas, Thailand has shifted away from the paternalistic mind-set. Kids don't always do what they're told. They do grow up despite one's attempts to infantilize them and keep them in the fold. All government officials need to realize that our taxes pay their salaries, and that they work for us — we don't work for them.
It is possible that if all the facts were actually laid before the eyes of the "average citizen" that the passion would be abated somewhat? Is it possible that one day those who run this country might trust its citizens to think for themselves, and trust that they may hold a variety of opinions and yet still coexist?
But now ... back to the issue of fantasy. Let's not talk about bad poetry but instead about great art. I think that the following quote from the prominent science fiction writer Yevgeny Zamyatin is absolutely appropriate to our times:
True literature can exist only where it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy functionaries, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics.
Insofar as Johnny Spencer took responsibility for his own words, and accepted the real world consequences of his dreaming, he must be allowed, in his own way, the stature of an artist. A crap artist to be sure, but an artist all the same.