“I’m a long gone daddy in the USA…” (Bruce.)
For most folks in America, July 4th is about picnics, blowing shit up, and toasting the gutsy nature of our country.
Born in defiance and battle, prickly and belligerent and idealistic, with built-in endless (and often absurd) political arguments…
… we’ve somehow made the grand experiment last a couple of centuries and a half.
For me, though, the real victory of the joint isn’t in the details of elections or legislation, or the question of how exceptional we are or aren’t as a culture.
Nope. My own pursuit of life and liberty has always balanced on the First Amendment…
… particularly the parts about freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
That’s the beating heart of this place. That’s the saving grace.
For every writer here… novelist, copywriter, journalist, blogger or disgruntled “letter to the editor” ranter…
… there is a long, gruesome pedigree of ancestor writers who were prosecuted or erased or bullied into silence, stretching back as far as history goes.
We’re so spoiled here with freedom of speech, that many naively believe it’s an essential privilege that, of course, is the rule and not the exception.
Yet, the opposite is true.
Even today, the right to speak or write about what’s on your mind remains curtailed, risky, and forbidden all over the planet.
Even here, the struggle to get to this point — where you and I can write “fuck” without fear of censorship or a visit from The Man — was an ongoing battle that claimed careers and lives of contemporaries.
I grew up owning banned books (from the notorious Grove Press, which insisted on publishing every author banned in the U.S. throughout the latter half of the 20th century), watching authorities destroy comics like Lenny Bruce and artists like Jim Morrison, and being pleasantly dumbstruck when respected magazines like The New Yorker finally began printing formerly-prohibited words like “motherfucker” in their articles.
It’s not just about swearing, or about sex, or even about the never-ending brawl between Puritanism and libertarianism.
Much deeper than that.
The offensive language and unhinged rants now common online are just a price to pay for the more important victory of Free Thought over censorship.
All those past writers and wannabe scribes, muzzled and cowed into submission or silence over the past eons, would weep with joy at the lack of control by The Man over what we think and write. Never mind the wonders of electricity, air travel, the InterWebs, the buzzing gadgets that dominate modern life — the real jaw-dropper is our ability to use our minds unfettered by outside authority.
It’s a shame folks here take it all for granted. That’s how you lose these kinds of privileges.
The offended classes gather power, see freedom of thought as a direct threat to that power, and wage constant war against it.
Most folks have no use for too much freedom — it’s kind of scary, full of challenges to their belief systems and ideologies and traditions.
And I’m all for having the sense to pull back a bit in situations where speaking like a drunken sailor will cause folks to clutch their pearls or faint. I’m fine with a little cognitive dissonance, where we pretend that kids have never heard a bad word before, or that “decent” literature and movies can be great art.
But do not infringe on my right to enjoy Shakespeare and Twain and George Carlin and Henry Miller without hiding (all have been banned or censored at some point in our history).
And I will write whatever the hell I choose to write, whenever I choose to write it.
We all have to pick our battles in life. Writers tend to be an introspective, introverted bunch who aren’t so hot with manning the barricades…
… which is why it took nearly the entire arc of civilization’s history to reach this point of unfettered free thought.
So we modern writers owe it to the ink-stained wretches of the past — our professional ancestors — to embrace, defend, and heap glory onto the practice today.
This kind of freedom was never a guaranteed deal.
The Founding Fathers argued about it, and current governments elsewhere still get queasy even considering letting nutballs like us off the leash, with no way to stop our brains from thinking way outside of the box.
I realize that many of my fellow citizens would be just fine with a few shackles on writers here and there. For them, other battles are more important. And that’s fine…
… as long as these nay-sayers keep losing that argument.
For me, the real fight of the past few generations — the fight worth dying for today — is freedom of speech. The unconditional freedom to think, and write, whatever goddamned crap I feel like writing about…
… whether it’s the next Great American Novel or just a funny post on social media skewering uptight jerks.
Or even another ad that raises eyebrows.
Yes, there are a few restrictions still. I’m okay with having a few legal lines that shall not be crossed (because they cause real harm, not theoretical harm).
But the restrictions should remain rare.
Hearing harsh language won’t damage your brain, no matter how freaked-out you get over it.
Being exposed to foreign ideas won’t change your biology.
And stumbling upon writing that offends you won’t cause civilization to crumble.
I’ll toast the First Amendment today, and every day afterward, for the rest of my life.
It was worth blowing shit up for. It’s worth every knock-down fight that has happened, and if more fighting is required, sign me up.
For all the faults and missteps and foibles of my country’s existence…
… I still allow myself to get choked up over Old Glory.
Because she flies over my continued ability to be the kind of writer my ancestors could barely dream of being.
P.S. Hey — make sure you’ve got my books with you when you go off on holiday.
You can order them right now, in the right-hand column here. The digital versions will be in your digital hands immediately, too… no waiting…
"11 Really Stupid Blunders You're Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now."
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Darn you Carlton. You misinterpreted Bruce’s song to be 100% positive about the USA.
He just dressed up the background to be ultra-catchy 🙂
Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up
Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.
Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man
Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “son, don’t you understand”
I had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now
I know the story behind the song, Lawton. I know that Bruce was pissed off that Reagan used it in his reelection campaign (which I lived through).
It still fits my post. Conflicted, but still an American.
You did indeed. Yeah Bruce was pissed they used it.
You the man.
You are right John. I spoke to soon.
No worries, Lawton. Always good to hear from you, man…
U2 John. Fun to see the book we worked on is doing so well.
Just messing though. Good thoughts here. We live in a beautiful country.
Thanks for another awesome post John!
Awesome article John. Very well put (as always) and extremely timely.
Really enjoyed that, thanks again. On a learning point – I’ve sang the chorus to Born in the USA a million times: never really heard the rest of it. WTF – can’t wait to share that with the missus, it’s one of her fav Bruce moments.
Well said. Fighting the same battle over on my turf, sending my folks to yours so they can see I’m not the only one who thinks this.
I know you don’t give a hoot about my little opinion (and freedom of speech does not guarantee or presume you or I have a right to be “heard”) But it’s flat out wrong to suggest people aren’t harmed by obscenities. In reality, the written and spoken word is the most powerful force in the universe. It has creative and transformative powers. (God said, “Let there be light, and there was Light”) Words change atmospheres, realities, cells, nations. Jesus taught us that what comes out of a man’s mouth is what defiles him, not what goes in. So you may see it as a free speech issue. But I see it as a “harm to the soul” issue. If you speak blessings, blessings will come. If you speak foulness, vulgarity and insults, well, that’s what will be created. There are many things which are legal that aren’t right. When you (or anyone, including myself, when my old nature spits out a long-unused foul word in a moment of crisis) use a vulgarity, it feels like a stab to the gut. People who like to use foul language also tend to humiliate, insult and marginalize those of us opposed to rampant obscenities. But as much as I like and respect John Carlton the copywriter, I will go with Jesus (whose very name has inexplicably become a curse word) when it comes to being good and kind to the human soul and using language that uplifts and creates positive change.
Well said. I respect John, but Jesus is true north.
Can I please ask you what the best strategy is to CREATE A LIST OF LEADS of potential clients?
I already know how to write copy. I just need to create a better system for prospecting.
Would really appreciate any advice.