The courage of New York firefighters was honored during the “Concert for New York” at Madison Square Garden on October 20, and David Bowie noted the privilege he felt to play for his “local ladder” heroes, who step into danger to save innocents and extinguish fires. Among the entertainment all-stars present, the actor Richard Gere didn’t merely talk or sing about courage: He did something brave.
Gere knew what he was stepping into. Five days prior to the concert, he had been slapped by The New Republic and its adolescent “Idiocy Watch” column for using words as inappropriate as “love and compassion” and speaking of the “negative karma” of terrorists. At the concert, Gere steered clear of any reference to his well-known Eastern religious tendencies, but he did repeat the newly explosive Western expletives. He seemed to anticipate, anyway, the boos that hailed down upon him from many of the 20,000 seats. His response was decidedly different from that of Sinead O’Connor, who had once burst into tears upon being jeered at a 1992 MSG all-star show. The officer and gentleman of the silver screen utilized the rejection artfully, like an expected stage prop, to remark that it is the same “love and compassion” that the firefighters demonstrate when saving lives. “That’s apparently unpopular now,” Gere closed, implicitly acknowledging that booing is, too, a form of speech, “but that’s OK.” It was a classy New York minute.
It took guts for Gere to turn the hose of his art upon the flames of wartime in a crowded arena. In that, he deployed a decidedly New York weapon: Speech.
New York City’s historic refusal to shut up is now one of the national treasures that some newly minted sunshine patriots wish to bulldoze under the rubble of Lower Manhattan. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer lectured that we must “watch what we say” after the September 11 attacks, and even some journalists–formerly the warriors who defended free speech–have signed up as speech cops. As the networks obey federal “requests” to deny airtime to Osama bin Laden, some journalists have argued that Al Jazeera, the Qatar TV network, should be censored too. CNN sent six questions to bin Laden but roared that it will air the responses only if they are “newsworthy,” while a Fox news official criticized CNN for even asking the questions. The New York Times and an illustrious media partnership spent a million dollars to recount the Florida 2000 presidential vote but have now bounced the project from public view on the grounds that the results–the elite of the Fourth Estate, alone, have seen the data–might have “stoked the partisan tensions,” according to one Times reporter. (This suggests that the next Daniel Ellsberg may have to leak documents from inside the Times rather than to the newspaper.)
Is all this watching of what we say really how we are supposed to honor our dead in New York? Is that the way to pay our respects in the city that never sleeps nor shuts up?
Before speech becomes a “quality of life crime,” artists and communicators are going to have to face the crowd, as Gere did, employing all the creativity and chutzpah we can muster. The changing political landscape is not entirely negative for this effort: The imminent exit of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani–he was pro-censorship before censorship was cool–further heightens the unpredictability of the drama now under way. To shut up or not to shut up? That is the question. It’s up to you, New York, New York. To wit: