Commentary: Our glorious right of free speech

Last weekend, somewhere between another round of Falconless NFL playoffs and “Big Bang” reruns, a gravelly voice came from the TV set reciting lines from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It might even have been a recording of Frost himself; I really don’t know, and I’m not sure I want to. I wasn’t watching PBS, so hearing classic American poetry on the tube was a little surprising.

It shouldn’t have been. It was a Jeep commercial.

We have a Jeep, which somehow makes it worse, but that wasn’t what occurred to me at the time. This was: When courts and politicians and “family” groups (dear God, how socio-politics has contaminated that wonderful word) are fiercely debating what constitutes “obscene” TV programming, does the subject of literary grave-robbing for car commercials come into the discussion?

Of course not. Nor should it.

It’s not just that we’ve gotten used to this kind of commercial obscenity, though of course we have. Culturally speaking, media bombardment has been defining deviancy downward (to crib from the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan) for decades. I’m pretty sure it was way back in the ’80s that I heard Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changin’” in a TV ad for a Wall Street stockbroker.

So the sound of a long-dead Robert Frost shilling for American Motors shouldn’t have shocked anybody. If it did, then I hope the offended didn’t flip over to a TV shopping network, which was having (drum roll, please) a Martin Luther King Day sale.

That’s got to bring out the goosebumps and make your lips quiver and the hair on your neck stand on end. How proud and gratified Dr. King would be. (Do I remember, somewhere between “the sons of slaves” and “content of their character,” a rousing reference to discount prices on cubic zirconium earrings? The Dream lives on.)

Speaking of Dr. King, and on a point not altogether off the subject: One of the first things I read when I got back to work after said weekend was a story about a King memorial service at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church that resembled a political rally. Speakers campaigned for President Obama, trashed voter ID laws and lambasted Newt Gingrich for his shameless race-baiting. (Gingrich, of course, denies that “food stamp president” and his other bottom-of-the-barrel rhetoric is racial, but of course he’s lying. Try to contain your shock.)

I wasn’t there, and don’t know what else was said beyond what was quoted in the story. I do know that I agreed with every word of it. I also know that it seems every bit as inappropriate and offensive to me, in that context, as Robert Frost in a car commercial or Martin Luther King’s name attached to a TV shopping show.

Sorry, but politics in church leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Whether we’re talking about political speech I agree with or political speech that makes my head ache and stomach churn, it really doesn’t matter.

Most of us don’t need a history refresher about a time not so long ago when churches were the only gathering place, political or otherwise, for black Americans effectively denied the basic constitutional right of free assembly. That time is not 2012, and the people using churches to advance political agendas are by no means all, or even mostly, black. (A sneaking suspicion says the opposite is the case.)

But you know what’s great about all this? We don’t have to like it. Any of it. We don’t have to like dead poets shilling for SUVs, or dead civil rights leaders shilling for costume jewelry, or living Americans politicking in church.

And you know what’s even better? The same freedom that protects their right to do all those things protects my right to say how crappy I think it is, and your right to say how full of it you think I am. Have at it.