One of my favorite Macbeth moments occurs in Act Three, Scene One: the main character is seeking to recruit the right man for the job he has in mind: the murder of his guest King Duncan, who had “borne his faculties so meek, had been so clear in his great office that his virtues will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against the deep damnation of his taking off.”
Two hit men for hire arrive to be interviewed. “We are men, my liege,” they assure the pussy-whipped Macbeth, only to be told men were no different from dogs that, contrary to popular belief, were never created equal. Some had pedigree. But finally they were all dogs.
Macbeth leaves no room for misunderstanding: he informs the murderous duo that the canine catalogue distinguishes every dog according to the gift that bounteous nature had in it closed: some were swift, some slow. Others were subtle, housekeepers and hunters.
While we have no shortage of canines—regrettably too many are homeless and feeding on discarded KFC cartons and polished chicken bones—nothing on Paradise Lost is as rare as men of imagination, creativity, inventiveness and wit—unless of course you also throw in men without humor, with no appreciation for satire and metaphor, in which case one would have little choice but to acknowledge the undeniable: in Le Paradis the last mentioned category are not merely rare but downright nonexistent.
It would appear that when she was dishing out to Adam’s spawn, each according to his or her needs, bounteous nature had in her wisdom determined against casting pearls before swine. Which would account for the uniqueness of Derek Walcott—and why, instead of being cherished at home, he is often the prime target of unappreciative throwbacks that consider his Nobel-winning literature “too deep,” therefore unworthy of time better spent getting drunk and menacing other road users.
Vultures of every ilk imagine themselves the Walcotts of their committee, conjuring arcane meanings for simple phrases such as “as soon as convenient” and for words such as “immediately.”
Only consumers of carrion would mindlessly have turned an article as transparent, meaningless and risible as had recently appeared on the Internet into something representative of a threat to free speech and public accountability.
The item to which I refer first featured on Caribbean News Now, on 25 September 2013. It was read on-air by Radio 100 personnel, without complaint. But no sooner had Radio Caribbean’s Timothy Poleon served it without comment to his lunchtime Newsspin audience than the Justice Minister issued his notice of reprisal.
It would not be “All right in the Morning” for Poleon, he said, pointedly referring to the title of one of my books.
While complaining over RSL about unfair treatment by an ungrateful press with which he had always been most cooperative, the Justice Minister revealed that he had been “advised there have been clear cases of defamation,” and in all such cases had been “extremely tolerant, extremely flexible.”
Over the last few weeks and months, however, he had discerned a concerted effort to undermine him in his personal and professional capacities and clearly this could be allowed to continue.
He did not say precisely how he had been twice undermined. Nevertheless, he had instructed his attorneys to pursue certain action in relation to “these comments over the last few months and weeks.”
His promised action against RCI’s Timothy Poleon was only “the first round.” Others would be “included and served.”
Presumably, by “others” the Justice Minister referred to the owner of Radio Caribbean. Both were soon in receipt of letters from a lawyer demanding apologies and money as compensation for the injury done to the minister’s reputation.
Not long afterward, the newscaster received more demands, based on references to unidentified “prominent government officials” with a particular unsavory penchant. Their lawyer claimed in his letter that certain words complained of would “reasonably [sic] lead people acquainted with” the unidentified two government officials to the conclusion that they were the hinted-at individuals “with a “known history of violent sexual assault.”
The letter, soon to make its appearance on the Internet, quoted the lawyer as saying the natural and ordinary meaning of the words cited was that his clients were “violent sexual offenders . . . and as a result their reputation has been substantially harmed.” Moreover, that they had been “embarrassed.”
There has been no further word on the matter from the Justice Minister. He is not included in an apology that Poleon has all week been reading over RCI, and which has been appearing in two local newspapers.
This week, I phoned Newsspin for the particular purpose of finding out from the absent Poleon’s stand-in what it was that had prompted Poleon to say in his apology that, merely by reading on-air a particular item from the Internet of obvious interest to the Saint Lucia public, he had not only automatically made himself its author but was now also so very sorry he had referred to “the unimpeded ability of two government officials to travel to the United States despite their past criminal conduct.”
I had hoped also to discover details of “the surrounding circumstances” that had helped “ordinary, sensible listeners” to uncover the identities of the unnamed miscreants in the CNN publication that a now apologetic Poleon had made his own.
I did not get past my initial reference to Timothy Poleon’s apology on his own behalf and on behalf of the management of Radio Caribbean International, let alone to that part of his public confession that the Caribbean News Now feature he had made his own contained “malicious and unfounded allegations” that had irreparably sullied the previously pristine reputations of two of the nation’s more upstanding citizens.
“I don’t want to go there,” said Poleon’s stand-in, with a sexy giggle in her voice—unwittingly demonstrating what the Privy Council, in Hector v. Attorney General of Antigua-Barbuda, had referred to as “the chilling effect on free speech.”
If I may be permitted a personal confession: I am arrogant enough to consider myself among Timothy Poleon’s “ordinary and sensible listeners.” But nothing he’d read from his ostensibly inherited CNN article had led me to the absolutely preposterous conclusion that the hinted-at sex maniacs on the government’s payroll might be two of our nation’s most highly regarded citizens.
For one, the CNN-Poleon article had cited just two unidentified government officials out of over two thousand on the public payroll. And that does not include the ever-increasing pool of “consultants.”
Had I cared enough to give a moment’s thought to the matter, I might well have concluded the scoundrels were two public servants who had received long prison terms for rape and incest. One was a teacher (whom I still believe was handed a raw deal by the court!). I don’t recall the other’s exact position in the service at the time he was charged, only that he was “a prominent public official.”
I cannot imagine how their lawyer arrived at the conclusion that had inspired him to demand, by letter, twice daily apologies that represent the worst piece of writing I’ve encountered since I last read something by Tennyson Joseph.
The egregiously composed, not to say sophomoric, text that makes up Poleon’s apology is in places quite funny. It nevertheless reminded me of the quite serious 1987-88 matter of Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, in particular, the Supreme Court opinion delivered by Chief Justice Rehnquist. Following, some interesting snippets:
“The sort of robust political debate encouraged by the First Amendment is bound to produce speech that is critical of those who hold public office or those public figures who are intimately involved in the resolution of important public questions or, by reason of their fame, shape events in areas of concern to society at large . . .
“Such criticism, inevitably will not always be reasoned or moderate; public figures as well as public officials will be subject to vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks. Of course, this does not mean that any speech about a public figure is immune to sanction in the form of damages. Since New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), we have consistently ruled that a public figure may hold a speaker liable for the damage to reputation cause by publication of a defamatory falsehood, but only if the statement was made with the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” [My italics]
As for statements causing public officials embarrassment: “Generally speaking the law does not regard the intent to inflict emotional distress as one which should receive much solicitude, and it is quite understandable that most, if not all, jurisdictions have chosen to make it civilly culpable where the conduct in question is sufficiently outrageous. But in the world of debate of public affairs, many things done with motives that are less than admirable are protected by the First Amendment.
“Thus while such a bad motive may be deemed controlling for purposes of tort liability in other areas of law, we think the First Amendment prohibits such a result in the area of public debate about public figures . . . Even though falsehoods have little value in and of themselves, they are nevertheless inevitable in free debate, and a rule that would impose strict liability on a publisher for false factual assertions would have an undoubted chilling effect on speech relating to public figures that does have constitutional value. Freedoms of expression require breathing space.
“This breathing space is provided by a constitutional rule that allows public figures to recover for libel or defamation only when they can prove both that the statement was false and that the statement was made with the requisite level of culpability.”
The back story: In 1983, Hustler magazine ran a full-page advertisement for Campari, which sponsored an ad series in which celebrities discussed their “first time” with Campari, full of sexual innuendo. The Hustler ad included a picture of Gerry Falwell and his description of his first sexual encounter, with his mother, in an outhouse. In small print at the bottom were the words: “Ad parody—not to be taken seriously.”
Falwell took it seriously and persuaded a jury to award him $200,000 for emotional distress. The US Supreme Court unanimously reversed the award, ruling that parody, no matter how vulgar, is protected by the First Amendment.
Opined the Supreme Court: “The Court of Appeals interpreted the jury’s finding to be that the ad parody was ‘not reasonably believable’ and in accordance with our custom we accept this finding.”
Finally, there is the earlier cited Privy Council decision in Hector v. The Attorney General of Antigua-Barbuda, that in part states: “In a free democratic society it is almost too obvious to need stating that those who hold office in government and who are responsible for public administration must always be open to criticism. Any attempt to stifle or fetter such criticism amounts to political censorship of the most insidious and objectionable kind.
“At the same time it is no less obvious that the very purpose of criticism leveled at those who have the conduct of public affairs by their political opponents is to undermine public confidence in their stewardship and to persuade the electorate that the opponents would make a better job of it than those presently holding office. In the light of these considerations their Lordships cannot help viewing a statutory provision which criminalizes statements likely to undermine public confidence in the conduct of public affairs with utmost suspicion.”
Finally: it is passing strange that the original CNN article, for which Timothy Poleon agreed to apologize on behalf of himself and his management (another gross anomaly, to be later discussed!), remains on the Internet, conceivably demeaning those mentioned therein. Every other week that article spawns another demeaning story.
Also on the World Wide Web are articles by far more demeaning of those fine citizens who demanded and are receiving daily apologies from Timothy Poleon.
Readers remain free to speculate about why there have been no similar demands of CNN and other outlets. Could it be, unlike Poleon, they have verifiable proof supportive of their admittedly outrageous publications?