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, which 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, this alternate future provokes the imagination. 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. Someone had to complain that it invaded their “safe space.” THEY’RE FEELS!!! THIS IS ARE COUNTRY!!!

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.

It makes you think.... NO, NOT THAT!  NOT THINKZ!

It makes you think…. NO, NOT THAT! NOT THINKZ!

It made me say “it kinda makes you think, doesn’t it?”

That’s the point.

It makes you think.

It is supposed to make 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 have now entered the marketplace of ideas. Look around. There is some scary stuff for sale here. The good news is that there is other stuff that you might like.

Go ahead. Pick it up. Smell it. Leaf through the pages. You can even taste some of it if you like. Then decide.

Well, that is until the FEELINGS show up like the bat-winged pterodactyls that buzz my car every time I break 120 mph on Interstate 15 on my way back to Las Vegas. Then everything gets all twisted. I start to lose control…

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

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?”

THE BAT GOD OF FEELTYDACTYLISM!

THE BAT GOD OF FEELTYDACTYLISM!

The veins bulge from my temples. I grip the wheel with my left hand and swat the bats away with my right. THE FEELTYDACTYLS DESCEND!

In all seriousness, I realize that 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. I can’t imagine they like walking past the German consulate. I bet they get worked up at a lot of things that don’t set me off. So, I see that side of it. But, I’m not about to call to ban Mel Brooks movies, The History Channel, nor heavy metal bands using umlauts in their band names.

Further, if there’s one group of people who should want us to consider what might have been had we not fought the Nazis hard enough, I’d say it is the Holocaust survivors. You can’t have “never again,” if you neglect to think about what “again” might look like.

“Offensive” to veterans? I very much doubt that the greatest of “the greatest generation” are as soft skinned as today’s college students. World War II vets ought to point to these ads and 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 thinks “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. These are World War II veterans, not Amherst College students.

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) The least he could have done was play Gabriele D’Annunzio. At least that would have been a bit more interesting, what with all the crazy sex and poetry and stuff.

Instead, Governor Cuomo ordered that First Amendment protected expression, expression that might even border on political speech, be suppressed because someone might take offense.

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 might “offend” a handful of people, so the governor simply decrees “this speech shall end.” 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, and aublic 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.

This post originally appeared on Popehat. View it here.

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