Letters to the editor

Free speech vs. our culture of complaint

The estimable C. E. “Buzz” Johnson’s sloppy column, “Free Speech 2000” [Commentary, Feb. 23] is a paranoid, self-righteous, vague lecture on civility in free speech. “Buzz” bleats, “Should we really be allowed to insult, put down, attack, threaten, etc., fellow human beings … without some sort of reprimand by society?” What do “insult, put down, attack, threaten” — and especially that damnable “etc.” — mean? What sort of “reprimand” is in order?

If I say that Johnson’s essay is pompous political correctness, publisher/editor Jeff Fobes can print that opinion — if he wants to. No power in this nation can make him print it, nor should those powers.

I may not — and will not — advocate the kicking of “Buzz” Johnson’s butt for his suggesting that “monitored parts of the country” should be demonstration plots for politically correct theories on free speech. We need neither butt-kicking nor thought police.

I may, however, opine that Buzz’s butt should never, never be kicked — because said butt seems far too tender to survive the slightest touch.

The traditional American view is that all thoughts are inviolable, and all untoward actions are to be constantly constrained. Speech stands on ground, often shifting, between thought and action. This shifting is constantly debated.

Certain types of speech are and should be proscribed, under penalty of law. Libel is an example — yet even some published untruths are allowed under New York Times v. Sullivan case law. “Fighting words” — speech which “by its very utterance inflicts injury or incites breach of peace” — is another example of illegal speech, [and] racial denigration [is yet another]. Yet politics drive the latter two.

Political correctness subverts defining proscribed speech by creating a climate of oversensitivity — of institutionalized paranoia. Rather than encouraging dialogue, political correctness chills it in a deep freeze. It creates a “culture of complaint.”

Of course, civility and calm arenas of dialogue are needed. However, complete philosophical relativism is mere solipsism. A personal right arrogated by an individual to have his say free from rebuttal (and that rebuttal, warm as the law and the editor allow) is hogwash. For free speech is also the right of the hearer to listen to and judge the speaker. And fun to be had!

Buzz, now re-butted — and, perhaps, less tender there — or anyone else, can rebut me. With editor Fobes as sole referee, I await all comers, a-smiling humbly.

— Tom Graham

Protect the Wolfean poetry of Pack Square

We were very disturbed to read in the Asheville Citizen-Times that the Downtown Commission and the Pack Square Task Force are planning to transform our public square.

As residents of Asheville who spend a majority of our free time downtown, we have become accustomed — and therefore attached — to Pack Square. Its unique character has become a sentimental part of our lives. We have spent a good part our childhood peacefully drawing under the towering presence of the monument, eating yogurt cheese and Laughing Seed bread. The Square has always been a place for us to sit and think, and experience our connection to generations who have sat there before us.

Our worries stem from our view across [the street from the Square] toward Pack Place. The grotesquely modern and mechanical sign corrupts our vision of the historically beautiful Asheville. This absurd, frivolous use of our city’s economic resources concerns us. The progression of modernizing what we have left of our city’s Wolfean poetry is quite unsettling. We’re afraid this trend will influence the Square’s new look. It would tear our hearts to see our Square become a reflection of the discordant Pack Place sign.

Our primary objection to this project is the money factor. We feel that this is not an urgent cause. There are many more vital issues in our city that need economic attention. The $2,781,700 which may be spent on this operation seems irrational. Money of this [magnitude] could be used for helping the poor, protecting our environment, or improving our transportation system. It is disturbing that people donate money like this to change the Square, when little is being done to support other pressing issues.

We are simply apprehensive about this project and unsure about our city’s use of resources. Sometimes, we feel that there has been more of an effort to please the tourists than to help our own citizens.

–Nadja Miller and Rose Felstein

Rudeness and sarcasm vs. the First Amendment

In his call for civility in modern speech [Feb. 23 commentary, “Free speech 2000”], Dr. C. E. Johnson’s arguments falter when he inappropriately attacks the First Amendment.

In discussing the controversial statements by Atlanta Brave John Rocker, Johnson asks, “Should we really be allowed to insult … fellow human beings … without some sort of reprimand by society?” If the answer is no, then it’s appropriate for Rocker to get booed at Yankee Stadium; it’s appropriate for pundits to compose outraged diatribes; it’s even appropriate for privately held companies to deny him lucrative endorsement contracts. But it is not appropriate for Congress to outlaw derogatory comments by a private citizen against any group of people, and that is what the First Amendment rightly prohibits.

Furthermore, by allowing Rocker to honestly express his ignorance, we’ve allowed the public to express their disagreement. Without robust public debate, hateful attitudes fester in silence –placing us in far greater danger of violence, and ensuring that closed minds will never open.

Johnson also asks, “How many of you have been adversely affected because you’re not allowed to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater?” The “clear and present danger” doctrine — for which “yelling fire” was Oliver Wendell Holmes’ analogy — was established to stop anti-draft protests during World War I. If the right of free speech is suspended to halt wartime criticism of the government, then clearly we [are all] “adversely affected.”

The authors of the Bill of Rights wrote, “Congress shall make no law prohibiting free speech” (emphasis added). This is unambiguous language that makes no exceptions for political, sexual or impolite speech. The point was precisely to protect unpopular ideas from government interference.

Johnson can’t be blamed for wishing an end to common rudeness, fashionable sarcasm and verbal intimidation. But the embattled First Amendment has too many restrictions already.

— Frank Danay

Neglected lots mar our town

Although not a native of Asheville, I got here as fast as I could! I am appalled at the way some lots have been left by uncaring owners or businesses.

To point out a few sites: Namely, the old “Motel Oteen” (Bates Motel) site now looks like an area that has been used for bombing and target practice for the military, and … the excavated site of an old gas station on Hendersonville Road, next to Fugazy Travel and Wal-Mart.

I have called numerous city agencies, trying to get something done, but I have gotten nowhere. There just doesn’t seem to be anybody or [any] agency in either Buncombe County or the city of Asheville that has any kind of jurisdiction in these matters.

Hopefully, other citizens feel as I do and can form some sort of group for a more attractive Asheville, which can only benefit the area and its citizens.

The city and county are presently trying to do something about the air-pollution problems we now face, but without the cleanup of unused property and lots, the job will be only half-done.

Something must be done about the above mentioned problems, if we are to have a truly first-class city and county.

— William Spathias

Losers, bullies and patriots

I see you are still running cartoons insulting and maligning the Confederate flag [Feb. 23]. What’s supposed to be the meaning of the latest one? I don’t see how the label of “losers” applies to South Carolina or the South today. The state and regional economy is booming, and it seems everyone wants to move here! If the tourism boycott of South Carolina is so effective, why is it I can’t book a resort room in Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head?

If you mean it to refer to the fact that South Carolina lost its struggle for independence from the United States, that’s amply illustrated by the U.S. flag flying above [the Confederate flag] on the Capitol dome. The U.S. flag is there today because the U.S. Army invaded, conquered and occupied South Carolina.

Apparently the United States had forgotten or didn’t appreciate what South Carolina had done for the colonies during the revolution to achieve independence from England. When South Carolina wanted to separate from the United States 80 years later, that wasn’t a legitimate idea, in Washington’s view of things, and [Washington] proceeded to burn South Carolina’s cities and homes, and tear up its countryside.

Perhaps the cartoon should have showed the U.S. flag flying over the Confederate flag, as it does, with the word “bully” inscribed on it!

— Byron F. Hovey

Mass transit works just fine, Mr. Cline

I wonder if Mr. Andrew Cline [Commentary, “Mass transit won’t cure urban congestion,” Feb. 23] has a clue what the benefits of mass transit actually are? I, also, have been to London. I actually lived there and worked there. I still have my tube (train) pass for when I visit. I also had a car (parked in a cheap rented garage during the week) only on my final visit, because the British — failing to notice the idiocies of American traffic problems — have ruined the train system by privatizing it.

Petitions were being handed out in 1998 for the entire length of my stay, urging the government to put the system back the way it was. A BBC documentary aired during that spring, as well. I can only imagine how much worse that problem has become. I know that for the first time in over 20 years of visiting, studying and working in the British Isles, I did not take a train to go sightseeing outside of London.

All that aside — sure, the car traffic in London is bad. Duh. That’s why only rich snobs and tourists bother with cars. Oh, and, naturally, anyone who has to transport things. I have a friend there who deals in “low-end antiques” (junk); she plays the parking game there because she has to use a little van to collect her inventory and ferry it to her shop. Most Londoners take the buses or the tube. As for getting places, my goodness, the buses run every 15 to 20 minutes. Ditto, the tubes.

Now that the Britrail trains are privatized, however, they don’t run as often or as reliably. So for suburbanites, it’s becoming a nightmare (see above). This is because the mass-transit system is not being run efficiently or reliably any more. [But] the tube system is still something to be counted on, as are the buses. [There’s] no excuse for taking a taxi to Victoria Station and being late for a plane. [Cline] should have taken the tube or even (gasp!) walked. Walking in London is wonderful. I’ve been all over on foot, from Mayfair across to the city — in one night’s journey. I lived off Baker Street … and worked in Grosvenor Square. [There were] three different [options for getting] to work — Baker Street [train] Station to Bonds Street, the Grosvenor Run bus, or my feet. It never took more than 20 minutes there or back, even in rush hour. I only wish Asheville had something similar.

Then there is the fact that, in London, even the lower classes can get around town easily, without [spending] a huge chunk of money. Most of the poorer people take the bus, but even the tube only costs 20 L per month for a two-level pass (1998 prices). If you are being paid London wages, that’s equivalent to $20. So the poor benefit. Who doesn’t? …

So when you go to London, take the Gatwick Express to Victoria, get a Tube pass, and pass on that Hertz Rent-a-Wreck. Oh, and if you take taxis, give them at least 30 minutes’ leeway. It’s a big city, fool.

— Cheri Kovak

That chain letter helped

Just a short response to Brad Howard’s letter [Feb. 23]: The world-hunger site on the Web has raised 9 million pounds of food since its inception. It makes no sense to equate get-rich-quick chain letters with efforts such as this.

So [what if] corporations get their ads seen; it’s not bad to know that a corporation is paying for food with its ad money, in this case. I hope no one got the impression that this not legit: It is. So let’s not be cynical to the point where we miss the good.

By the way, there is also a site (race for the rainforest) that buys up acres of rainforest for protection.

— Mytoak Evans

Floggings for graffiti?

A couple of years ago in Hong Kong, if memory serves, a young guy named Michael Fay was caught spray-painting cars to entertain himself. We only got the highlights of the story, but evidently, the authorities did not see this as an opportunity to reach out to young spray-painters and build them a facility where they could express themselves. Instead, they took the view that he was old enough to answer for his misbehavior and was eligible for suitable punishment: flogging. So far as we know, he came home to the United States, and we have heard no more of him. Can we assume that he has abandoned spray-painting, having learned some kind of lesson?

We are informed that the city [of Asheville] has decided skateboarding is sufficiently close to civilized behavior to warrant its own place for practice. But we also learn that, here, the sport or diversion seems to include a high proportion of spray-painters, casual about defacing surfaces that aren’t theirs. If we could agree that spray-painting on private property is not acceptable (and [since we are] hesitant to flog), would it be too much to ask that spray-painters be considered vandals, not yet worthy of a skateboarding facility? One could argue that citizens have the right to say: If we must provide a skateboarding facility, spray-painting [must] stop — or else. A kind of quid pro quo: If we must support such an enterprise, its users must behave responsibly, or lose that support.

Failing that, perhaps we’re ready to experiment with flogging.

— Allen Thomas

Beware the Cline cure

I’m writing in response to Andrew Cline’s [Feb. 23] commentary, “Mass transit won’t cure urban congestion.”

Mr. Cline’s main idea — which, apparently, occurred to him when he missed his flight from the London airport because he took a cab, rather than mass transit — is: Because traffic is congested around subway hubs, mass transit causes traffic congestion … and the solution is to build more roads.

Cline’s dubious logic is right up there with “rivers cause ocean pollution” or “train tracks cause trains” (therefore, pave everything).

More coherent propositions would be “pedestrians cause taxis,” “millions of private vehicles cause lots of pollution,” or “multinational corporations cause self-proclaimed nonprofit, nonpartisan foundations.”

Can someone please hook up Cline’s John Locke Foundation with a think tank?

— Nick Oteen

Preliminary thoughts vs. recommended actions

Your recent article [“Undoing Past Mistakes,” March 1] regarding the WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency board was factual, in that several problems have surfaced during our legal review of agency regulations. I do wish to slightly tweak the nuance, however, of the first segment of your story, which quoted from a letter the agency’s attorney (Jim Siemens) sent to the board chair (myself).

You were certainly entitled to a copy of this letter, as a public document, but as was expressed to reporter Steve Rasmussen, when this copy was handed to him, the letter was a preliminary piece of correspondence between attorney and client. The statements it contained were initial takes on several subjects, subsequently researched more thoroughly and addressed — as was the intent — in recommended action, at the board meeting that followed.

I would not want to leave the public with the impression that the quotes you published were the final and fully measured legal clarifications we were pursuing. …

And thank you for continuing to cover the agency regularly and thoroughly.

— Nelda Holder, chair
WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency

Many faiths, one road

Kudos and thank you to the philosopher-pranksters who were at work on Interstate 40 recently.

For weeks, a rough-made board with the one word — “Jesus” — greeted us as we drove from Black Mountain to Asheville. It had been nailed to an Exit 55 sign, the one saying, “To U.S. 70 and E. Asheville, V.A. Hospital.”

Then, one morning, what a surprise! No one had removed the “Jesus” board, but “Jesus” was no longer alone. Written in a similar hand style, five more boards suddenly appeared — containing the words “Allah,” “Hera,” “Buddha,” “Aphrodite” and “Isis.”

In one fell swoop, we were reminded that there are — and have been — many faiths in the world, and that each faith deserves to be remembered and to be respected.

The next day, there was another lesson. All the signs were gone. Whether [the North Carolina] Department of Transportation removed them or someone else [did], I don’t know. I do wonder why the lone “Jesus” sign stayed up for weeks — with everyone respecting it (even if it was, no doubt, against DOT regulations) — but once other faiths were represented, the boards were removed.

If we have any problem in the world today, it is ethnocentric religious fervor that pulls societies apart and leads to the worst of human abuses. With this recognition, may we all enjoy the moment of unity and love that some philosopher-pranksters gave us on I-40 in the winter of this new millennium.

— Monroe Gilmour
Black Mountain

Just gathering votes at Bob Jones U.

Bob Jones [University] has been all over the TV networks, and [commentators] are using it to either support McCain or work a manipulation toward Bush. Bob Jones University is a private college. No one is forced to go there, and all the students know [its] code of ethics before they set foot on the grounds.

Mr. Bush went there to obtain votes, not to criticize [BJU’s] operations. Who in their right mind would extend an open door to a speaker who was coming to condemn their operations? Mr. Gore went to a Buddhist temple [and] a Jewish synagogue; and I saw him on TV preaching to a … Zion black church (preaching without a license) — and the news media did not condemn him for going. He is seeking votes, not condemning their operations.

Mr. McCain has called Mr. Bush a bigot for going to Bob Jones University, and Mr. Gore said in his speech at [their recent] debate (referring to Mr. Bush), “The people in South Carolina were a bunch of ignorant flag-waving Republicans.” None of the news media have printed [these things], nor reported [them] on television.

There is a difference between a TV report[er] and a journalist. A journalist writes the news and tries not be biased, but write the facts. A TV reporter reads what he/she has received from the producer, and what the producer thinks will hold a rating. Some of our imported satellite columns in our papers interject their own feelings, but [I] guess they do not mean to be biased.

A last [note] on Bob Jones: If [you] do not like the ethics they require, then do not go there. Do all the students graduate and come out to preach condemnation on us who may have a different faith? I have never had one to condemn me [for] my beliefs.

— Ray E. Anders

Give us skateboarders a chance

This is in response to Mr. Grady Smith’s letter, titled “Warning bells for skate park,” printed in the Feb. 23 issue of Xpress.

I have recently moved to Asheville from an area of Florida where skateboarding is a welcomed and well-promoted sport. I am an avid skateboarder myself, and would be lying if I said that the skateboard park above the Civic Center was not a factor in my decision to move here, [even though] I … have yet to use the park, due to a full schedule.

I am quite excited that there is going to be a permanent park in which to board. That will hopefully squelch the complaints heard about the kids [skateboarding] in Pack [Square]. I have heard more about that than anything else regarding skateboarding, in my two months as an Asheville resident.

The “facts” brought to light by Mr. Smith are not ones that are uncommon, where skateboarding is involved. They are not even uncommon when discussing adolescents, in general. However, it is unfair for those who use the park respectfully to be placed into the preconceived stereotype of the devious and disrespectful skateboarder. Kids will be kids, as I am sure Mr. Smith was when he was younger. Not all skateboarders follow the immature antics of their younger peers.

Respect for skateboarding, and what it has to offer, is not something that manifests overnight. I fought alongside numerous others for a few years before the community in which I grew up began to see skateboarding the way we, the boarders, do. The current foundation of tolerance/love that Asheville has for skateboarding is more than what my small island town had to work with. I think Asheville is more than capable of sticking it out with the temporary park, suffering some minor setbacks in the name of positive progression.

To the community: Before you close your ears and only hear the negatives spoken by those who have a misconception of skateboarding and the park, try listening to the positive attributes the park has to offer — spoken on the lips of your children, friends and peers.

To Mr. Smith: Grab a board and come out and play. You may be pleasantly surprised.

— Jessica Jordan

Death-penalty moratorium needed

The Asheville Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), at its business meeting on Feb. 13, adopted the following minute:

In keeping with the Religious Society of Friends’ traditional opposition to the death penalty, Asheville Friends Meeting endorses the American Bar Association resolution calling for a moratorium on all executions while meaningful steps are taken to “ensure that death penalty cases are administered fairly and impartially” and “to minimize the risk that innocent people may be executed.”

We, however, consider this only an interim move toward our vision of and commitment to the total abolition of capital punishment in North America and the United States.

Asheville Friends Meeting recognizes that, in making this endorsement, it is joining with many other faith communities and civic groups in a nationwide movement. We wish to inform local, state and national leaders of our action, and request that they join with us in calling for moratorium now.

— Marcia Master
Clerk, Asheville Friends Meeting

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