The Man in the High Castle in Albany and The First Amendment

The Man in the High Castle is a piece of alternative history fiction. It imagines an alternate future in which fascist forces won World War II. The Nazis occupy the eastern part of the United States, while the Japanese take up residence in the west. The Italians are non-existent in the series. You would think that they would get Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey… but I digress.

So there is an alternate future in which America loses its civil liberties and fascist forces occupy it. There is a surveillance state. Political dissent is not tolerated. Hmm… add in a butterfly ballot and some hanging chads and its… well, I digress again.

Suffice to say, it is quite thought-provoking to imagine this alternate future. What lessons does it teach us? There is something for everyone in it. Stand up to fascism? Defend the homeland? We should all be armed?

But, in a day and age when Americans flee both left and right to avoid thought, it just couldn’t be without some controversy.

To advertise the series, Amazon bought some subway ads displaying the flags of the fictional Japanese and Nazi puppet regimes. Entire subway cars appeared as you might imagine them if The Man in the High Castle were a work of non-fiction. There is a red, white, and blue “rising sun” flag, and a stars and stripes that replaces the 50 stars with one big fascist looking eagle.

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It makes you think…

Seeing pictures of this, it makes me say “it kinda makes you think, doesn’t it?”

That’s the point.

It makes you think.

It makes you think “what if we had not prevailed in World War II” Or, at the very least, it makes you think “what the hell is going on here?” Then, maybe you ask someone in the subway “what is all this?” You think. You talk. You are now in the marketplace of ideas.

Some people complained that it was “inappropriate” to put symbols of these defeated regimes on display.

Local politicians also joined in on the uproar Monday evening. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio urged Amazon to pull the “offensive” ads, and Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn democrat, even called for a boycott against the Seattle company.

“While these ads technically may be within MTA guidelines, they’re irresponsible and offensive to World War II and Holocaust survivors, their families, and countless other New Yorkers,” de Blasio said in a statement. “Amazon should take them down.” (source)

What? Too soon?

Irresponsible? What does that mean?

“Offensive?”

There are Holocaust survivors left in New York City, and I could not fault them if a few had an anxiety attack upon seeing a Nazi-esque eagle on the American flag. So, I see that side of it. But, I’m not about to call to ban Mel Brooks movies for them. Further, if there’s one group of people who I would imagine would want us to consider what might have been had we not fought the Nazis hard enough, it should be Holocaust survivors. You can’t have “never again,” if you neglect to think about what “again” might look like.

And “offensive” to veterans? I very much doubt that the greatest of “the greatest generation” are as soft skinned as today’s college students. Again, I would imagine that World War II vets are as proud as anyone to point to these ads to say “you see what might have happened, had I not given up those years of my life fighting?”

These guys jumped out of planes into Normandy, or fought hand to hand with the Japanese at Iwo Jima, and Bill DeBlasio has the audacity to say “they might be offended?” These are people who have seen real offensiveness. These are not children who whine for “safe spaces” when confronted with opposing viewpoints.

You want “offensive?” I have offensive for you. I guess I spoke too early when I said the Italians were not part of “The Man in the High Castle,” because governor Cuomo seems to be acting the part of Mussolini. He demanded that the ads come down or he would “order” that they be ripped out. (source)

Yes, the Governor ordered that First Amendment protected expression, expression that might even border on political speech, be suppressed because someone was offended.

How’s your irony meter working?

If you’re offended at anything, it ought to be at what Governor Cuomo did.

Just unpack it for a moment. Amazon made a series that is supposed to make us imagine a world where we don’t have our basic freedoms. Ads about the series “offend” a handful of people, so the governor, without any authority to do so, simply orders the speech suppressed. No due process. No nothing. Just “that offends me, so suppress it.” That’s called prior restraint.

One might think that this was performance art — that maybe Cuomo was trying to give us a taste in the real world of what it might be like if we had a dictator ruling over us, with no First Amendment to protect our freedom of expression. The ads are inarguably First Amendment protected expression. Public officials do not have the right to try and squelch free expression by using coercive threats. See Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan, 372 U.S. 58, 64–72 (1963). When a government official tries to stifle free expression of ideas that he disfavors, either through actual legal coercion or simply through threatening the use of government power, he violates the first Amendment. See American Family Association, Inc. v. City & County of San Francisco, 277 F.3d 1114, 1125 (9th Cir. 2002).

See also Okwedy v. Molinari, 333 F.3d 339, 344 (2d Cir. 2003) (per curiam): “the fact that a public-official defendant lacks direct regulatory or decisionmaking authority over a plaintiff, or a third party that is publishing or otherwise disseminating the plaintiff’s message, is not necessarily dispositive … . What matters is the distinction between attempts to convince and attempts to coerce. A public-official defendant who threatens to employ coercive state power to stifle protected speech violates a plaintiff’s First Amendment rights, regardless of whether the threatened punishment comes in the form of the use (or, misuse) of the defendant’s direct regulatory or decisionmaking authority over the plaintiff, or in some less-direct form.”

If there is anything offensive about this story, it isn’t that someone at Amazon’s ad department had poor taste, it is that Governor Cuomo gave us just a little taste of what it would be like if we really lived in the “High Castle” world, and I for one, don’t like it one bit.

3 Responses to The Man in the High Castle in Albany and The First Amendment

  1. dan says:

    Nice cleanup :)
    but it still misses on several marks.

    “And “offensive” to veterans? I very much doubt that the greatest of “the greatest generation” are as soft skinned as today’s college students. Again, I would imagine that World War II vets are as proud as anyone to point to these ads to say “you see what might have happened, had I not given up those years of my life fighting?””

    And you would be guilty of a huge leap of non-logic because it does not necessarily follow. All you can guess is that they figured Hitler=bad. Beyond that, you are engaging in wild speculation. Remember your own history. The US entered the war after Pearl Harbor, When Hitler was stomping on Jews and polish catholics, the US was busy denying Jews entry. If you want to guess at what they would think, talk to one who is still alive, or to their kids. or grandkids if they were active in the lives. I actually know (or knew) plenty of these vets. Why? My dad was one of them. He was a pacifist (and sometimes even a commie) but he felt strongly about an obligation to go overseas and do what he could. So did several of my uncles. And their friends. Most were not even Jews. One of my uncles brothers didnt come back. They would tell you without hesitation that making money like this off Nazi symbols was an insult to the effort they made. They never wanted to see nazi symbols around, even if it was toy soldiers being destroyed by our troops in battle on the living room carpet. Proud???? you have got to be joking. Seeing those symbols on a subway car is the last thing they would want. They would feel trapped. I think you read too many captain america comics when you were a kid.

    For the record, I have the book (yes there was a book first). I read it. I read everything Philip K Dick wrote. The book (not an original edition) is in one of the boxes I have stored after I downsized. I’m sure my parents knew about the book. Since they knew of my passion for science fiction, they probably assumed I had it. I actually waited till I moved out before buying it used. just because it was the respectful thing to do, And that’s the thing about a book. it has a cover. It gets closed and put away on a shelf. It doesn’t have to be in your face. its not something you have to sit on. You think people werent anti-nazi back in the day when the book came out? A lot more vets were still alive at the time. Of course they were. But the book didnt get millions of calls to ban it. Some jews read it. they didnt have to.

    That’s the point. This was just foolish marketing and probably some bad bribery going down with the MTA, who are well known to avoid crossing lines. You can’t even put a campaign up that looks like graf. All it took to get the campaign pulled was hand waving. Nobody went to court. Nobody signed an order. They didn’t have to.

    The ad removed choice from people. it wasn’t on amazon TV or on a book cover you didn’t have to look at. It was something you had to sit on during your morning commute in from Yonkers. No choice involved. That’ s why I think you are on the wrong side on this one. The campaign was pulled on agreement. Amazon could have refused and forced the hand. Did they? no. Do amazon have lawyers? Of course they do. Do you know some of them? I’m sure you do. Yet, they pulled the campaign. That’s a first amendment issue? Look the internet in the eye and tell us all that you believe Amazon felt coerced. If you can do that, then your cites matter. If not, then….

  2. The fact that Amazon chose not to battle the governor on this is not the same as Amazon agreeing to pull the ads. And, don’t be certain that Amazon is not considering a suit over the First Amendment violation that the governor committed. I can neither confirm nor deny that they are considering one, but you should not presume that one is not being contemplated, nor that one will not be filed.

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