Can We Take a Joke? Apparently Not.

It has been a tough month for free speech on campus. A Yale professor was ostracized for her reasoned response to the campus’ censorship of Hallowe’en costumes. A University of Missouri professor called for “muscle” to oust a student journalist trying to cover a campus protest. And over a hundred Dartmouth students swarmed the campus library to curse and bully other students who chose not to wear black clothing and join their protest. Several professors and administrators have been forced to apologize or resign, while others express nervousness over how to continue challenging their students to think critically and learn well in an environment of increasing intimidation.

This unrest roiling on campuses provided an appropriate backdrop for the documentary Can We Take a Joke? when it premiered at the prestigious DOC NY film festival in mid-November. Apparently, no — we can’t. Not any more. The right not to be offended seems to have trumped the right to say what we think. And young people seem to be leading the way toward censorship and controlled speech. According to Greg Lukianoff, executive director of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), fully 47% of 18–34 year olds said they think the First Amendment goes too far. “That’s terrifying to me,” Lukianoff says.

It should be terrifying to all of us. Penn Jillette observes, “Outrage has become a powerful political tool for shutting down dissenting voices.” Comedian Jim Norton adds, “There is a strange sense of empowerment in being offended.” Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institute warns, “One of the first ways you know a society is turning authoritarian is the comedians start to worry. When they start going for the comedians, everyone else needs to sweat.”

Well, start sweating, because comedians have indeed become the target. Ted Balaker, director of Can We Take a Joke?, interviews more than a dozen comedians about their experiences not only on college campuses but in comedy clubs and on television. Many tell chilling stories about being shouted down and even threatened with physical violence and arrest for saying things that the shouters consider offensive.

Yet other people go to a comedy show for the very purpose of being outraged and offended. They delight in it. Lisa Lampannelli, known as the “Queen of Mean,” is about as outrageous and offensive as they come. Her act makes fun of every ethnic group and social minority. Nothing is “off the table” for her, including rape, HIV, and cancer. She says she uses humor to help people confront fears and stand up to them. She reports that people will call her ahead of time to say, “My friends and I will be in the fourth row on the right. Please make fun of us!” Others are not so fortunate.

But if you think you’re immune from the Outrage Police because you aren’t a comedian or public figure, think again. Social media has turned us all into public figures. Can We Take a Joke? also tells the story of Justine Sacco, a young woman who tweeted an ill-conceived joke just before boarding a plane from Heathrow to South Africa. By the time she landed, her tweet had spread around the world; her employer had fired her; and angry cybermobs were issuing death threats against her and her extended family. Two years later she still cannot work, date, or go out in public because her unfortunate history is just a Google search away. Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, warns, “We are all just one dumb joke away from sharing Justine Sacco’s fate.”

Lukianoff laments, “I interned with the ACLU and studied censorship back to the 16th century, but nothing prepared me for how easy it is to get in trouble on the modern college campus.” Comedian Karith Foster adds, “College is supposed to be a place where you grow and explore, where you find out who you are and find your own voice.” Sadly, college campuses are turning into a place where voices are silenced, and it’s coming from the students, not from the administrators. Like many of his peers, comedian George Carlin stopped performing on college campuses. “I hate to say it, but all the censorship is coming from the left. That caught me by surprise,” he said.

Can We Take a Joke? is an important film that asks us to open our eyes to the progress that is lost when voices are silenced by force rather than changed by persuasion. “Words can be offensive and hurtful, but they are not the same as violence and they can be countered by other words,” Rauch reminds viewers. Watch for the film in theaters over the coming months. We also hope to screen it at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in July.

“Can We Take a Joke?,” directed by Ted Balaker. The DKT Liberty Project, 2015, 75 minutes.
Spectre: A Ghost of a Franchise?

Spectre: A Ghost of a Franchise?

There are three compelling reasons to see a spy thriller: satisfying plot twists, sardonically witty interplay, and thrilling fights and chase scenes. I suppose we could add a fourth reason as well: familiarity. We become familiar with the characters in the various spy franchises, from Bourne to Bond to Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible), and we can’t wait to see what they are up to every couple of years.

Spectre, the latest entry in the James Bond franchise, fails on almost every premise. It’s getting decent enough reviews from the critics and viewers, but I think those reviews are based more on expectation than on the execution of the film. Let’s start with premise one, the satisfying plot twists. As Spectre begins, MI6 and the double-O gang are being fazed out and merged into CNS, a more bureaucratic intelligence division headed by C (Andrew Scott). That’s not a bad premise, since it puts Bond on his own as a rogue individualist up against the government organization. But that storyline was done already this year, in the most recent installment of the Mission Impossible franchise. And let’s face it: Carly Simon theme songs aside, MI does it better. In both films, the secret agents get the news of their organization’s dissolution at the beginning of the film, but seeing the photos of the collateral damage Ethan (Tom Cruise) and his band of misfit agents have wreaked upon historic buildings as they “saved the world” was a lot more fun than listening to two aging British agents, M (Ralph Fiennes) and Bond (Daniel Craig), keep their upper lips stiff as they react to the news. The rest of the plot also unfolds quietly, in muted conversations punctuated by sudden bursts of wanton killing. Even the fairy tale ogre-ish villains are gone, replaced by ordinary thugs and Big Pharma (of course.)

Premise two, witty interplay, suffers just as much. I miss the sardonic wit of Roger Moore, the double-entendres of Sean Connery, the sophisticated good looks of Pierce Brosnan. I can still recite funny one-liners from Goldfinger and others, but there wasn’t a single memorable line in Spectre. Craig was praised for the rugged ruthlessness he brought to the character when he took on the role of Bond ten years ago, but he has receded too far into himself now, and we can’t connect with his persona. Moreover, those ten years have not been kind to Mr. Craig. He’s fine in his love scenes with the 50-year-old Monica Belucci, but it’s creepy watching him make love to the sweet young Madeleine Swann (Lea Sydoux), the daughter of Bond’s contemporary.

Premise three, the chase scenes, is disappointing too. Yes, there is a thrilling fight inside a flailing helicopter, but Tom Cruise did that in MI as well—only he did the stunt himself, hanging onto the outside of an airplane as it flew at high speeds above the ground. Instead, Craig’s stunt double is all-too-obvious standing on the strut of the chopper, and the interior fight scenes are just as obviously filmed in front of a green screen. The biggest chase scene, in which Bond commandeers a small plane and tries to force a car off the side of a snowy mountain road, doesn’t even make sense, because the girl he is trying to rescue is inside the car that he is trying to force off the mountain!

The only saving grace in the film is Christoph Waltz as the mastermind, Franz Oberhauser. Waltz has become an expert at playing the smilingly sadistic bad guy with the sophisticated German accent, and here he is just as well-mannered, genteel and kind as he inflicts pain and torture upon his victims. Waltz’s go-to villain was developed under the slightly psychotic direction of Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), for which Waltz won two Oscars. But there is nothing new and special—nothing gargantuan—about Franz Oberhauser, and that’s what we expect in a Bond film: gargantuan comic-book villains. He’s just too familiar, too perfectly typecast.

This leads us to premise four: familiarity. Familiarity with a character and a franchise can bring us to the theater, but it can’t sustain us by itself. The Broccoli film dynasty has been producing Bond films every couple of years for over half a century, and they have become as comfortable—and as welcome—as an old shoe. But if the past three films are any indication of their permanent new direction, I think the premise of Spectre’s plot might be the only part of this film that rings true: it may be time to retire the Double-O franchise.

spectre-poster-teaserSpectre, directed by Sam Mendes, MGM and Columbia Pictures (2015) 148 minutes.


Up the River– to Redemption


Rivers can be powerful symbols literature. In mythology, the river Styx separates mortals from immorality; in “Siddhartha,” the river represents the discovery of truth; in “Huckleberry Finn,” the river represents freedom and honesty–only on land does Huck encounter bigotry, hypocrisy and deception.

In the 19th century two phrases developed that struck fear in the hearts of certain men: “down the river” and “up the river.” To a slave, “down the river” meant being sold down the Mississippi toward New Orleans, where plantation owners were poorer and thus harsher and more demanding. To a Manhattan thug, “up the river” meant up the Hudson to Sing Sing, the most brutal penitentiary in America at the time.

My husband Mark and I go up the river regularly to Sing Sing, where conditions are no longer so brutal Sing Sing was once called a penitentiary, but now it is called a correctional facility. It suggests a significant difference within the New York Correctional System. We go as educators, Mark teaching economics and I teaching courses in literature and writing. The program, taught by Mercy College professors, is privately funded through donations to Hudson Link for Higher Education, which administers the program.

Mark had some apprehensions about what we would find in the classrooms, based on comments made by his friends and colleagues when he told them what we were going to do. “You’re crazy!” they said. “Sing Sing is a maximum security prison. These are vile criminals. You could be attacked or held hostage. What are you thinking??” My expectations were more reasoned, based on conversations with my colleagues at Mercy College who have taught in the prison system at Sing Sing and at Bedford, the women’s correctional facility, for several years. “These are some of the best students you will ever encounter,” they have told me. Which of our friends would turn out to be right, we wondered.

It was dark and drizzling as we approached the prison tour first night, the fog creating an eerie effect as we looked at Sing Sing for the first time. I shuddered, thinking of all the men who have spent their lives here, the earliest ones under the cruelest of circumstances, and many of them convicted of crimes they did not commit. I was apprehensive about what we would find inside, but grateful for the opportunity to teach the inmates and perhaps change their lives.

After eight years, the process has become routine, but you never really get used to it. As we enter the “big house” in front, the most noticeable feature is the heavy iron bars blocking the way into every room off the entrance. After passing through the most sensitive metal detector ever (even after removing my wedding ring and eyeglasses, I still set it off) and then waiting while the guard looks at every book and paper in our bags, we walk through a series of double-locked sully ports. We wait in an austere holding room for half an hour or more, until the gate guard calls out, “Bus!!”A guard pulls out a massive key to open the first gate; the evening’s volunteers step through, scrunch together to stand in a small passageway, and wait while he locks us in. Then another guard opens the next gate with another massive key, and we pass through into another corridor leading to even more gates going in various directions.

The decrepit hexagonal guard towers and high barbed fences seem eerily familiar, even to first-timers, as we walk the old path between the buildings and the fence toward the van that will take us to the school building. We’ve seen this prison many times in movies, and I half expect to see James Cagney step out from the shadows. Finally we board a prison van that is also used to transport inmates for various reasons. It is cramped, barred, and smells like despair.

That despair did not travel with us into the school building. Both of us walked away from our first evening of classes exhilarated. These students are golden. Bright, eager, cooperative, engaged and engaging, they want to learn. They know that a degree will change their lives and the lives of their families. It’s true that some of these students are lifers who will never leave Sing Sing, never “use” their degree to get a job. But it matters to them anyway. They are earning a degree for the right reasons: to change themselves and their families. Many of these students are the first in their families ever to go to college, and their children are now following their examples.

Several impressions struck me on the first night of my first class. First, I had a stereotype of my own to overcome. I expected my students to be dressed in bright orange jump suits and perhaps shackled for my protection. They laugh now when I tell them what I expected. Instead, they all look as though they came to school from their jobs as lawn care workers or road crew. They all wear dark green slacks, but their shirts are completely civilian polo shirts and sweatshirts made by Gap or Izod or Guess. I was surprised to see how normal they look, as though they could be any young men in any night class.

My next impression was that they are so polite, helpful, and friendly. And prepared! Every student arrived on time, with a book and a notepad, ready to learn. And they used those notepads without being told! (That may seem like a given, but at Mercy on the outside I have to remind my students constantly to take notes. They arrive whenever they feel like it, sometimes half an hour late, and they turn in their homework when they feel like it, sometimes on the last day of the semester. My “day students” want a degree, but they don’t seem to want an education.)

My Sing Sing students seem mostly in their 20s or 30s, although some are much older. One seemed to be about 60, although it’s hard to tell when you live that kind of life. I have learned over the years that prison life has a way of not aging a person; most of them are ten years older than they look. In that first class I noticed that the only three white men sat on the periphery, one in each corner, outside the group of mostly Latino and black students but not inside their own group, either. It made me wonder about the level of racism that exists inside the prison. I resolved that night to ask about it during our study of “Othello,” since racism is one of the issues in the play. Since then, however, I have seen more mixing among the races, and I realized that the separation of those three men was based more on their age and interest than on their skin color; I have heard that racism is a problem in many correctional facilities, but the men in my classes seem to be virtually color blind.

My most stunning reaction that first night was my overwhelming sadness for their situations. I can go home; they can’t. Of course, I don’t know why they are here, or what they have done. But throughout that first night, as they asked questions and contributed insights, I kept thinking, “You don’t belong here!” That’s what education can do for the inmates fortunate enough to have made it into this program: they are literally changed, penitent, corrected. I was struck by their calm self-assurance and willing participation in discussions. I asked them how many wanted to be writers, and every hand went up. Two students finished their in-class essays early, so I began reading them while the others continued writing theirs. I noticed how one young man watched as I read his essay, anxious to see the comments I was writing in his margins. When I handed it to him (a check+) he smiled and showed it to the student next to him whose essay I was then reading. That one was full of “legalese,” a phony academic voice that students often adopt when they don’t trust their own voice. I called the student up to my desk and talked to him about how to create his own voice. He nodded eagerly and said he would try. Here was an opportunity for me to truly teach, and not just add a few credits to a transcript.

Too soon our class time was over. No bells ring to announce the end of class; instead, a loud gruff voice yells into a squawk box, “Bu-u-u-s!” and that the signal for visitors (that’s us) to leave. Our students hurriedly hand in their assignments and urge us to go. Many from other classrooms come up to greet us and shake our hands as we make our way through the hallway and down the dimly lit staircase.

Outside, the regular inmates congregate in the yard on the other side of the fence, walking in small groups to stay warm, or standing around the television sets that are on display in wooden enclosures in each corner of the yard, each tuned to a different channel to avoid arguments about what to watch. In the summer we might hear the crack of a bat as they play baseball.

By the time we leave, the sun has gone down, and it’s dark in the yard. Inside the lighted school building, our students mill around the classrooms, warm and relaxed among the books, the teachers, and the students–their peers. They’ll be here again tomorrow night, and every night, working toward a degree that may never turn into a job. But it will indeed correct them.

For more information on this transformational program, go to