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Posted by on Dec 10, 2012 in Guest Contributor, Media, Society | 10 comments

The Responsibility of Speech

abc aussie dj story

The Australian radio DJs have been weeping on TV all day long. Some of the video is included along with this article:

Royal Hoax Tragedy: Australian Radio Station Has a History of Pranks Gone Wrong

The Australian radio station 2Day FM that pulled the prank call on Kate Middleton’s hospital last week has come under fire before for its antics gone wrong. The Australian Communications and Media Authority launched an investigation into 2Day FM in July 2009 after the station broadcast a lie-detector test with a mother and a daughter regarding the girl’s sexual activity, despite the girl’s protests. In the segment, which was part of the “Kyle and Jackie O Show,” the 14-year-old girl revealed to her mother that she had been raped when she was 12, according to the Sydney Morning Herald….

There is something here that is not much talked about, but which I see all the time: the difference between ‘free speech’ and ‘responsible speech’ — and yes, Virginia, I realize that First Amendment free speech only applies to the USA, which is more than I can say about MSNBC’s “The Cycle” seems to know about it, given their discussion today.

But this is not new territory for this blog. I’m going to make a simple observation (this being my 58th personal anniversary tomorrow, and my 39th anniversary as a writer/author/journalist): Writers and media types never seem to grasp what amplified power their words take on when multiplied through media. 

I want you to refract the tragedy of holding someone up to national public ridicule and their response, namely suicide. Laying aside Camus’ observation that the only important philosophical question is “Should I commit suicide?” I want y0u to think about this:

Freedom of speech carries with it a responsibility FOR speech. Most people don’t ever worry about it, since their speech is relatively silent. They rail at their television in unprintable language, and that’s free speech. But when it transfers irresponsibly into the public sphere, there are necessary consequences, as anyone who’s been blindsided by a defamation or slander suit will probably attest.

Words have power, and “slander” and “libel” and “defamation” recognize that ill-intentioned words can ruin lives and finances. A rumor about a dentist could destroy his livelihood. Etcetera.

But we don’t believe in the power of those words, and, ironically, it is those whose livelihoods MOST depend on that power that give the least credence TO that power. Just talk. Funny pranks.

But in media, that “funny” stuff is multiplied ten or hundred or thousand or MILLIONfold, and their power is magnified equally.

Which is what happened here. Being “cute” for the radio audience multiplied that derision and scorn that shock jocks feed on, and a woman is dead by her own hand.

Jacintha Saldanha

Jacintha Saldanha, dead by her own hand. 

And here is the family that must deal with the consequences of casually vicious prank multiplied billionfold by the mediasphere:

Saldanha family

This is not the first time we’ve seen this. And it’s not even the most extreme example. O’Reilly’s “Tiller the Baby Killer” jihad had the expected results, but, like this will undoubtedly be — was neatly rationalized away as “just talk.”

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility. I wish that writers and talking heads would learn this. I have known too many who delighted in the use of their poisoned pen to stir up trouble and bedevil those they decided required bedevilment. It will not go away. But it is wrong to remain silent and NOT decry viciousness in the mediasphere. Take the case of Thomas L. Disch in 2008 …

A Failure of Decency

8 JULY 2008 · 11:53 PM

The poet wrote these words:

Thursday, April 5th, 2007
2:28 pm
The Word of God
That is the title of my new book–forthcoming in summer of ’08 from Tachyon Press in San Francisco. Knock on wood, of course, but I did just send off the signed contracts, so if our civilization doesn’t sink beforehand, there will be a new book in my bibliography. It is at least in part a novel, but also, like me, hard to classify in an exact way. Its subtitle is Holy Writ Rewritten, and as that suggests it is also a Revelation, and the secret it unfold is (hold your breath) . . . that I am God!

Had you known that already? Had you guessed? Or maybe it’s not a surprise at all. I’ve promised Jacob Weissman, the publisher, that I will try to get blurbs from those who are already true believers. I am not a monotheist-type deity, so if you’re already a member of another religion, you can still worship me, I won’t be jealous.

My secret identity (secret till now) is only one of the astonishing things you’ll read about in the book. There is also a remarkable account of Phil Dick’s afterlife, including his trip back to AD 1939 in order to murder my true father, Thomas Mann, to prevent my birth and change the course of world history. It’s a complicated tale but full of improving lessons in theological, political, and ethical matters. I’ll let you know how to place advance orders, but meanwhile any testimonial as to my uncanny powers would be welcome. Just leave a comment.

Disch in the ’80s

The Los Angeles Times said this, this morning, of the Poet:

Even in the genre of science fiction, writer Thomas M. Disch was considered unconventional.

The strange new worlds he created were an odd mix: dark and horror-filled, humorous and playful. His work outfoxed readers’ expectations, one critic said, and made labeling a chore for publishers.

But being outside the box was a Disch trademark.

“Tom Disch is one of the few people I have ever met who I would consider a genius,” said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “He was like a brilliant child in the richness of his imagination, although certainly no child had as dark and twisted an imagination as Tom did.”

Disch, 68, who has been called one of the most important science fiction writers of his generation, fatally shot himself in the head July 5, according to the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Friends said he was found dead inside his New York apartment.

Disch also wrote poetry, drama criticism, book reviews, opera librettos, plays, children’s books and an interactive computer novel.

Critic John Clute once wrote that Disch was “perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers.” [MORE]

Perhaps a clue might be found here:

Thomas M. Disch: The Final Interview

Just two days after appearing on the Radio Happy Hour, Thomas M. Disch, AKA “God”, was found dead of an apparent suicide.

I hope it wasn’t something we said.

getting into death thomas disch

And yet, in a way, perhaps it was. I have extracted the audio of Disch (the whole program is up at the Radio Happy Hour site.  HERE. Take a listen and then we’ll get back to it, or, if you won’t, we’ll get back to it after this ….


As we noted yesterday, the subject of the iconic photo — described by Kelly Kennedy in the Army Times, “the arresting image of Army Spc. Joseph Patrick Dwyer as he raced through a battle zone clutching a tiny Iraqi boy named Ali — died of an “accidental overdose,” an almost certain victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I wrote this in “Tomorrow is Thanksgiving” (21 Nov 2007):

When John Wayne made the bizarrely anachronistic “The Green Berets,” Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of World War Two, had only three years to live.

Now, we learn that movie star Murphy was suffering from and lobbying for the diagnosis and treatment of what we now call “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” In all the ages of man before us, it was called “Battle Fatigue” or “Shell Shock,” etcetera. We see it differently, because we are at a different vantage point on the mountain and can, theoretically, see more.

The difference between Audie Murphy, whose widow(s) report that he used to spend horrific nights, screaming, howling, still reliving the ETO* of World War II. (*European Theater of Operations).


He’s a movie star! His life must be heaven!

But we KNOW better, and, sadly, while the Army Times report skews heavily towards the semi-official view that:

… after years of struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. During that time, his marriage fell apart as he spiraled into substance abuse and depression. He found himself constantly struggling with the law, even as friends, Veterans Affairs personnel and the Army tried to help him….

You see? We offered him help, but he wouldn’t accept it. You know, like Walter Reed. Like all the other horror stories because, while we’re keen to dump as many dollars into the war, we’re not at all interested in cleaning up the aftermath, in treating the men and women whose lives we’ve permanently damaged, because we sent them into war.

audie murphy

Audie Murphy with actual medals

Sad thing is, Dwyer is one of those who joined up in the aftermath of 9-11, and truly believed that he was avenging it because, you know, Saddam Hussein, he was behind it. Dwyer’s unit was in combat 17 out of 21 days that they pushed to Baghdad. And he got to deal with war in a way that very few of our troops did: concentrated combat, stitching our casualties together and getting them medivac’d out.

Dwyer was unwilling to accept help, undoubtedly in part in that old “just shake it off” school of male stoicism that we’ve been reared with. I don’t need anyone to help me with my problems …

the dark angel comes for us all, eventually

And with PTSD, that’s a mind-killer, and all too common. We OUGHT to know better than to let Joseph Patrick Dwyer spiral out of control, into essential suicide, because we don’t know HOW to help, and we don’t INSIST that it’s OK to get help. There is still a strong “I ain’t a gonna accept no charity!” ethos in this country, and military training puts a premium on NOT obsessing on your problems, but what Audie Murphy went through because of lack of understanding, and what we learned from Vietnam, and the massive “you don’t have a problem” solution to the veterans of the Gulf War tell us that we do not suffer from a lack of knowledge.

We suffer from a failure of decency.

Simple decency. An inability to accept that the life we have created for Dwyer has consequences, and that WE are as responsible for those consequences, as if we’d been at a party and let him drive home drunk.

Moreso, because he never ASKED to be in that party.


The grandest horrors in the minds of men are justified, these days, with the heartless, “well, they VOLUNTEERED.”

A failure, as I said, of decency.

Here is the core of the Army Times story:

“Of course he was looked on as a hero here,” said Capt. Floyd Thomas of the Pinehurst Police Department. Still, “we’ve been dealing with him for over a year.”

The day he died, Dwyer apparently took pills and inhaled the fumes of an aerosol can in an act known as “huffing.” Thomas said Dwyer then called a taxi company for a ride to the hospital. When the driver arrived, “they had a conversation through the door [of Dwyer’s home],” Thomas said, but Dwyer could not let the driver in. The driver asked Dwyer if he should call the police. Dwyer said yes. When the police arrived, they asked him if they should break down the door. He again said yes.

“It was down in one kick,” Thomas said. “They loaded him up onto a gurney, and that’s when he went code.” [Died.]

The photographer who took the shot has his own take on it:

The picture of Dwyer, [Army photographer Warren] Zinn said, “was something I was proud of, it was an accomplishment, it was on the cover of USA Today. Now it’s not so great.

“He became a casualty of war no different than if he had died on the battlefield.” (Gina Cavallaro – Staff writer, Army Times)

We do not know Army Spc. Joseph Patrick Dwyer, but we sent him to Iraq.

And he never came back.


Thomas Disch was, in many ways, suffering from PTSD himself. And, had the screaming idiots at the Radio Happy Hour, known it, I fear that they STILL would have chivvied, harassed and thrown monkey feces at the soon-to-be late Thomas Disch.

Disch was doing the now-obligatory author radio interviews that now form the backbone of book sales. The rule of thumb these days: if you give good talk show, we can GET you a book (Ghostwriter! You! Over here!) BUT, if you are merely a brilliant writer, there’s no room left for you in the media circus.

chronological to weeks before his death – click for larger image

Drunken German businessmen who frequented the strip clubs in Hamburg that the Beatles worked killing eight hour sets in used to yell at the unknowns from Liverpool: mach show! MACH SHOW! or, roughly, entertain us! put on a show!

If writers were actors, they’d never have taken up the pen.

We have elevated SELLING books above WRITING books. We become proficient in separating our fellow human beings from their money, but not proficient in communicating thoughts and ideas to them FOR that money. The opposite, in fact.* The system mitigates against genius — like Tom Disch.

Who could not “mach show!”

But Thomas Disch was trying to hold on, at 68.


[*No: give us Chicken Broth For The Id. On the Regis and Kelly (Or Kathy, or Katie, or Kewpie) Show.  Or how about Democrats are from Jupiter, Republicans are from Uranus? We could do The View. Dr. Phil’s Complete Guide to High Colonics? The Today Show, and Good Morning America. The Coffeetable Book of Coffee Tables? The Ellen DeGeneres Show. The Beatles’ Groupies — An Oral History. Oprah. Or perhaps FrontLine. Oliver North’s My Favorite War Jokes? Fox News. The Great Wall of Chimichanga? Lou Dobbs.

[For years now, I have been receiving the quarterly Simon & Schuster catalogue, for denoting my review copies S&S and I play a game: I fill out the books I’m INTERESTED in reviewing and fax it in. Then they send me the books THEY’RE interested in having me review. (It is an amusing game. I get books I hate, and they get to circular file my request forms.) And many of the offerings therein embarrass me. Embarrass me as a literate person. Embarrass me on behalf of American letters, and, perhaps ALL letters. They are penny-dreadful and pound-of-flesh awful.

[American literature has been dying a slow, agonizing death since TV. And when I think of Thomas M. Disch’s literacy, I think of how lonely Leonardo da Vinci must have been. Who could he talk to?]

His partner of many years (Disch had been openly out since 1968), Charles Naylor, had died, after a protracted illness that wiped out their savings. Their house “in the country” was overtaken by mildew, and much if not all was lost. Disch begins to make reference to this in the “interview.”

As you may have noted, Thomas Disch was a brilliant writer, an intellectual of genius level, and was facing the yawning chasm at the end (he was 68 years old) facing eviction, and continued obscurity as a writer.

Let’s take a moment to see who Thomas Disch was. And then we’ll talk about that radio interview.



I did not know him, although I reviewed what is now being hailed as one of this three masterpieces, On Wings of Song, in the late Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1979. I am not going to attempt a literary assay of his oeuvre, nor an essay on his penchant for puns (as in his Hugo-winning 1999 nonfiction book The Dreams our Stuff is Made Of).

The writer’s life is much different now than when Tom Disch started out in 1962, flunking his physics paper, by writing and selling a short story to, well here’s the Telegraph (UK) — because, like too many of our great authors and musicians, he was much more appreciated in England (where he lived for a time) and Europe than in the USA:

… Thomas Michael Disch was born on February 2 1940 at Des Moines, Iowa, the son of a travelling salesman. He was educated at home and at a Catholic military school; in 1953 the family moved to Minneapolis-St Paul in Minnesota, and he also spent some time in high school there, where he became fascinated by poetry, memorising thousands of lines of verse.

Immediately after school he moved to New York, where he had a series of short-lived jobs: as a salesman; in offices, bookshops, newspapers and a theatre cloakroom. The last led to stints carrying a spear in Swan Lake (behind Margot Fonteyn) and (blacked-up) as a servant in Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera. He also had a brief spell in the Army, from which he was swiftly invalided out after a nervous breakdown. He worked in insurance, then enrolled in architecture lectures and night classes in creative writing at New York University.

As exams approached in 1962, he realised that he was likely to fail his calculus paper and, under the appearance of another nervous breakdown, devoted the weekend before to writing a short story rather than revising. The Double Timer sold for $112.50 to the sf magazine Fantastic Stories, and he dropped out.

Thereafter he devoted himself to writing, though he continued in a series of jobs (bank teller, mortuary worker, advertising copywriter) to pay the bills….

Disch came up at a time when you could, having established yourself, make a living as a writer when you’d built up enough of a “pad” of novel royalties, and were selling regularly.


Make no mistake, writing for a living is tough when you’re a freelancer, because you’re constantly applying for new “jobs.” Every story, every essay is a new submission. Time moves, and deadlines constantly loom. You hope you have a book that’s paying sufficient royalties, and perhaps a few steady columns — because writing money comes according to no set timetable (save what is convenient for the publisher) and a regular paycheck from a magazine is good for paying one’s rent.

Paying one’s rent becomes a constant obsession for the free-lancer, and Thomas Disch was a free-lancer for most of his adult life. In the Entertainment Weekly column on his death, it is noted that he was one of their critics in the early days of that magazine, and his omnibus review on the books of Dr. Seuss is commended to you.

He had/has a blog at Live Journal called Endzone.

french disch edition

French Disch edition

Mostly, since 1986, it has been poetry. Disch is acknowledged as a master of poetic forms, and a cunning wordsmith — and, as noted, a mighty hewer of prodigious puns: his best-known classic SF novel is Camp Concentration (1972). In Endzone, be careful about reading too much into the last few poems/musings. Instead, appreciate the wit that ranges from the exalted to the ribald and Rabelaisian:

Friday, October 27th, 2006
3:38 pm
Where Babies Come from

from The Kindergarten of Hard Knocks
(working title)

The penis is a sausage daddies have
That hangs between their legs,
And a uterus is a kind of basket
Where mommies hide their eggs.

Put the sausage in the basket
(Which is sometimes hard to do);
Nine months later you can ask it,
“Who the fuck are you?”

–Tom Disch


Disch wrote the Brave
 Toaster stories 

Because Disch himself had a measured approach to death. Here is what HE blogged on the death of a friend,
Monday, July 17th, 2006
Martin Last is Dead

I just learned of his death, on July 6, from a mutual friend.

Even those who did not know him personally may remember his shop, the Science Fiction Shop, on 8th Ave., near 14th St. He was co-owner with his long-term partner Baird Searles. Bai was a columnist in F and SF and an announcer at WBAI. Bai and Martin left NYC for Montreal in the 80s, and Bai died not long after they moved. Martin was 77 when he died, and had worked much of his life in the (classical) music business. I’d fallen out of touch as our politics diverged. They came to think of the States as the Great Satan. But they were genial hosts and marvelous missionaries for the books and music they loved. They introduced me to Terry Riley’s In C when it was a brand-new LP.


And what of Army Spc. Joseph Patrick Dwyer?

The only excuse that we can offer is a failure of simple decency, and that failure extended to EVERYone in that picture:

Zinn last heard from Dwyer in December 2004 in an email that read, in part:

“When I first got back I didn’t really want to talk about being over there to anyone. Now looking back … its one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. I hope you feel the same about what have done. I truly believe you played an important role in this war. You told every one’s story,” the email said.

As Zinn re-read the passage he recalled his return to Iraq in July 2003 to meet the child who had been wounded. The child, he said, “couldn’t get medical attention either. He couldn’t walk.”

Fault? Undoubtedly the boy was offered medical treatment by the Army, but wouldn’t accept it.


Disch cover

Disch’s last book, the one he
was  publicizing on the radio 

In the end, the writer’s life is finally about making that next month’s rent. The business has become all but impossible for the “mid-list author” — them what sells enough books to turn a profit, but not enough to be of much interest to them publishing houses. Them publishin’ houses what’s become a cheap way for movie companies (media megacorporations) to acquire the rights to potential movies. A Warner’s executive once gave an interview bragging about how they’d secured the rights to Harry Potter for $100,000 by reading it in galleys.

Being a free-lancer has become progressively more and more difficult as time has gone by, and worst of all, having been a leader in science fiction’s “New Wave” of the ‘sixties more and more depressing.

In researching this, reading through the obituaries, the blog postings, the two “last” interviews with Disch (the first one is an actual interview by someone who respected Disch’s writing, and not, as we shall see, the Visigoths of Radio Happy Hour) and the rest,it was noted that science fiction triumphed, e.g. we are living in a science fiction world, with robots on Mars, lasers reading our CDs, computers, the internet, satellite dish TV, cell phone TV, etc. etc.

But the New Wave of adult science fiction — not just as Disch once called it, only half tongue-in-cheek, “a subgenre of children’s literature” — was passed by with Star Trek and Star Wars novels, which are basically the old Doc Smith space operas of the 1930s.

buxom SF

To have labored to have created a literature of science fiction, and then see it passed over for  Juke and Kallikak science fiction, you know, whatever looks good on the screen, never mind IDEAS, and logic or, frankly, grammar.

To be a genius living in an increasingly stupid age.

To be facing eviction from his apartment because his gay lover and partner was dead, and that’s whose name was on the lease, with no rights of survivorship. Cruel enough to have lost the love of one’s life, but then to have that death used as a means of evicting you from your rent-controlled apartment, so that it might be rented at a significantly higher rate to a new tenant.

To have won in court and then lost on appeal. (And to be snarked by a real estate lawyer’s blog)

To be savaged by a band of  subliterate, caffeine-buzzed flying radio monkeys…


The Australian DJs weep on TV today, 10 Dec 2012

Tom Disch surely had reasons for putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger.

Who would not despair under the circumstances — a senior citizen mugged by hospitals, mildew, death and landlords?

But isn’t it, finally, a form of PTSD? And isn’t there a failure of decency here? Wasn’t Tom Disch worth conserving?

We do not know Thomas M. Disch. But he has gone to that unexplored country from which no one returns.


Entertainment Weekly says:

In Memoriam: Tom Disch, science-fiction master and poet
Jul 7, 2008, 03:30 PM | by Ken Tucker

The extraordinary science-fiction writer, poet, and essayist Thomas M. Disch has died, reportedly by suicide, on the 4th of July. He was 68.

You may know his best-known work, the novella The Brave Little Toaster (pictured), which was adapted to film as the acclaimed 1987 Disney cartoon. But Disch also wrote ten science fiction novels and scores of short stories that placed him at the center of the genre for their uncommon literary adroitness, dry wit and clear-eyed skepticism. Go read the lyrically beautiful On Wings Of Song (1979) immediately, please.

Disch’s primary calling, however, was as a poet. He published a half-dozen collections characterized by a mastery of poetic forms, and in 1995 published a collection of essays, The Castle of Indolence: On Poetry, Poets, and Poetasters, that was positively inspirational in its glowing appreciation and ruthless criticism of what he considered the best and worst tendencies in modern poetry. I kept it on my bedside table for periodic rereading and inspiration….

There is more, but tomorrow … The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Prisoner. The Brave Little Toaster. But soft …


2012 Back to the present day: Irresponsible words sent Army Spc. Joseph Patrick Dwyer to his death. And, arguably, they sent Thomas Disch and Jacintha Saldanha to theirs. Do I really have to draw some trite moral here?

You’re smart. You get it.

If you’d like to read the whole Disch suicide cycle, it’s a three-parter with really bad numbering.


A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, an honorary Texan, Clown (ditto) and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog

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