My Letter To Bill Hicks, Revisited

Back in 2013, I wrote the following letter to a dead comedian named Bill Hicks. It went viral, to the point where this comedian’s brother, Steve reached out to me and asked if I would send his mother Mary a written copy of the letter.

I was so honored by this request that I printed a copy out on my firm’s letterhead and sent it to Mary.  I got a handwritten response from her, and a few mementos that will be passed on to my kids one day.

I revisited the letter this morning.  One aspect that’s always amazed me about Bill Hicks is he stands out in a select field including guys like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, who will be forever relevant because of their contributions to history and the way they presented truth.  Bill was a guy whose words can resonate across generations.

The text of the below letter still remains as relevant today as it did in 2013.

Dear Bill:

During my undergrad years, a friend exposed me to “Rant in E Minor.” I was immediately hooked, right from the start where you gleefully described the premise behind “Let’s Hunt and Kill Billy Ray Cyrus” all the way to the end of the album. I immediately bought all of your CDs that I could find at the time and began making my way through your catalog.

I’d never heard anything like what you had to say, and it resonated me. Years after you left this planet, your words still influence a generation of individuals who feel disenfranchised and as if they have no hope. I’m no comedian, Bill. I don’t have any real understanding of what makes humor work, but I can tell you this: You were a prophet.

Prophets don’t need to tell people omens of the future. Prophesy is simply a means of speaking the truth. And you spoke it with the fervor of a man with nothing to lose and a mission to tell the world what was going on.

The funny thing is this, Bill: You were right. You were right about so many things, and you don’t even get a chance now to see how scary right you were about some of your predictions. To illustrate, I’m offering up a couple of examples from your finer works:

“I’ll show you politics in America. Here it is, right here. “I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.” “I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.” “Hey, wait a minute, there’s one guy holding out both puppets!” “Shut up! Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control. Here’s Love Connection. Watch this and get fat and stupid. By the way, keep drinking beer, you fucking morons.”—Rant in E Minor (1997)

You recorded that in 1992. Today, we live in a world where bipartisan bickering is the norm. Our congress is in a hopeless state of gridlock, fueled by hatred of either side’s beliefs. And nobody seems to notice there’s at least one man—if not more—pulling the strings of everybody who claims to pay attention to modern politics. They’re not watching “Love Connection” though—it’s “The Bachelor,” “Jersey Shore,” and “Hell’s Kitchen.” And the beer…we have more beer than you can imagine.

But the government is in control. Very much so. In fact, now we’re all being watched by the NSA. Our freedoms are slowly being taken from us by a police state that tells us we need to have less rights for the purposes of “national security.” Now the government just wiretaps your phone without a warrant or other court documents. If you choose to stay silent, you are implicitly guilty. These are things COURTS HAVE ALLOWED!!!

You were right, Bill. But it doesn’t stop there.

Go back to bed, America. Your government has figured out how it all transpired. Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control again. Here. Here’s American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up. Go back to bed, America. Here is American Gladiators. Here is 56 channels of it! Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom. Here you go, America! You are free to do as we tell you! You are free to do what we tell you!”—Revelations (1993)

Did you know that American Gladiators is gone now, Bill? Now we have shows like “Wipeout” and “Oh, Sit!” where people get to laugh at the expense of others as they bumble, stumble, and flop their way through obstacle courses for the glory of acting stupid on television. The other part is the same, though. We live in a world where the government continues to tell us they’re in control, they’ve got it all figured out, and they are the ones we should trust. Meanwhile, our country seems to keep sliding downhill in education, prosperity, and happiness. People are more sick than ever. But the Government’s got it all figured out…that much they keep telling us. And we’re free, all right. Just like you thought. We’re free to do what they tell us.

“I have this feeling man, ‘cause you know, it’s just a handful of people who run everything, you know … that’s true, it’s provable. It’s not … I’m not a fucking conspiracy nut, it’s provable. A handful, a very small elite, run and own these corporations, which include the mainstream media. I have this feeling that whoever is elected president, like Clinton was, no matter what you promise on the campaign trail – blah, blah, blah – when you win, you go into this smoke-filled room with the twelve industrialist capitalist scum-fucks who got you in there. And you’re in this smoky room, and this little film screen comes down … and a big guy with a cigar goes, “Roll the film.” And it’s a shot of the Kennedy assassination from an angle you’ve never seen before … that looks suspiciously like it’s from the grassy knoll. And then the screen goes up and the lights come up, and they go to the new president, “Any questions?” “Er, just what my agenda is.” “First we bomb Baghdad.” “You got it …”—Rant In E Minor

This ended up being true as well, Bill. Not just corporations—MEGACorporations, billionaire industrialists, people with solipsistic worldviews—they run the world, and they control the people who run our country. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kennedy assassination footage got played every time someone else got elected President, just like you said. Just to keep the populace in line.

I’m beginning to see why you kept thinking the Presidents got older—visibly older—from the time they took office to the time they left. Must be the weight of all that poison on their shoulders, Bill.

It doesn’t stop with politics, Bill. Music’s been corrupted too. I remember this diatribe of yours fondly:

“Rick Astley? Have you seen this banal incubus at work? Boy, if this guy isn’t heralding Satan’s imminent approach to Earth, huh. “Don’t ever wanna make you cry, never wanna make you sigh … never gonna break your heart” … oh, I wouldn’t worry about that without a dick, buddy. You got a corn nut! You got a clit! You’re not even a guy! You’re an AIDS germ that got off a slide! They’re puttin’ music to AIDS germs, they’re puttin’ a drum machine behind them in a metronome beat and Ted Turner’s colorizing ‘em, God damn it! These aren’t even people man! It’s a CIA plot to make you think malls are good!! Don’t ya see? (Imitates stereotypical American in a robotic manner) “But Bill, malls are good! Malls allow us to shop 365 days of the year at a 72 degree heat. That must be good.”—Sane Man (1989)

I don’t even want to begin to tell you about “RickRolling,” Bill.

But there’s hope in this world, because some of us actually remember a few things you said for the good of the world:

“The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.” And we … kill those people. “Shut him up! I’ve got a lot invested in this ride, shut him up! Look at my furrows of worry, look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.” It’s just a ride. But we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok … But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one.”—Revelations (1993)

Oh how I’ve carried that last one with me, Bill. You see, I choose not to be in fear. I choose not to be in hate. I choose to love. I choose to laugh. And no matter what, I choose to get on board, strap in, and throw my hands up in the air laughing and squealing wildly, because just like you said—this life, it’s “just a ride.”

See you on the other side, Bill.

Love, Laughter, and Truth,

—CLS

Randazza’s Morality Law Review: Mandatory MiD

What if I told you the United States Patent and Trademark Office has never  registered a trademark containing the word “fuck?”

Step back for a second and just look at the word “fuck.”  Say it.  Does it create a “shock or jolt of dismay” when you hear it or read it?  Why?

What emotions does “The Slants” evoke in your mind when you read it or see it?  Do you take offense to that?  What if I told you that was the name an Asian-American party band chose and summarily had their trademark ejected on the grounds “others might find it offensive?”

These questions are all prime for Mediation is Dead, and that’s why I’m declaring Marc Randazza’s latest law review article, “Freedom of Expression and Morality Based Impediments to the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights” Mandatory MiD Reading Material.

Randazza’s take on the need to jettison the “moral utility” doctrine with regards to trademarks and copyrights is a discussion worthy of merit, because intellectual property is a form of communication, and Mediation is Dead is about a discussion of effective communication. I wouldn’t normally review a law review article, nor would I say that the layperson should read one, but when you have a discussion about topics like “Screw You” “Nut Sack Double Brown Ale,” and whether pornography should get copyright protection, the public will find Randazza’s take both entertaining and educational.

Here are the big takeaways I got from Randazza’s view on injecting morality into trademarks and copyrights.

1. Morality is a circular definition, it changes with the times, and has no place when determining “soft intellectual property’s” worthiness of protection. 

What is morality? That’s the framework with which we need to begin.  It is “principles concerning the distinction of right or wrong or good and bad behavior.” This is fluid and changes constantly, no matter how uncomfortable some people may find it.

It’s a little easier to justify denying a patent for a device on “moral utility” grounds if it’s affecting the human condition. For example, if a device or  procedure cuts away at human dignity then we may reject government protection of its creator because its “moral bankruptcy” doesn’t show usefulness or benefit to society.

With “Soft IP,” such as trademarks and copyrights, it’s a little harder to justify giving a government agency control over whether the creator gets the protection of intellectual property based on notions of what is “moral.”

Let’s take a few examples from the United States.  We have a provision in our intellectual property code that denies trademarks (where protection attaches on registration) or copyrights (where protection attaches on creation) based on whether they are “shocking to the sense of truth, decency or propriety, disgraceful, offensive, disreputable, giving offense to conscience…” You get the point.

We have tended to throw out any notions of whether the “marketplace” or a “substantial component of the general public” would find the trademark or copyrighted work offensive.  “CUMFIESTA” got the trademark because the people consuming their content were searching for pornography, and that’s not a situation where the government should deny protection.  The same with “Madonna” wine or “Nut Sack Double Brown Ale.”  Alcohol consumers won’t particularly take offense to it, so there’s no need to deny protection to the creators of said trademarks.

And then there’s In re Tam., the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals decision that may burn Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act to the ground.

Simon Tam wanted to call his band “The Slants.”  They’re an Asian-American party band. They chose that name.  The government rejected Tam’s application for a trademark, because “Slants” is an ethnic slur against Asian-Americans, and they might find that offensive.

Tam appealed his case all the way to the United States Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, and won.  The Court found that excluding “disparaging marks” from trademark registration violates the First Amendment.

2. There is a real danger the United States Supreme Court will have to decide “morality” and how it affects freedom of expression. 

Tam isn’t binding precedent on several levels.  It’s a good standard to follow, but it’s not close enough.  Right now, there’s a case in the Fourth Circuit that’s fully briefed involving the NFL’s Washington “Redskins” trademark.  If the Fourth Circuit, a historically conservative court, rules against the ‘Skins, then it’s going to cause a split in the law, and the United States Supreme Court will most likely have to decide what the law is.

Allowing the most dangerous branch of the Government to determine what morality is, and whether it should apply uniformly across this country, is absolutely frightening.

3. Morality based impediments on intellectual property violate human rights.

Did you know Budweiser’s trademark isn’t protected in Portugal?  Now you know.  Budweiser’s current owners took the case to the European Court of Human Rights over this matter, saying that denial of their trademark in Portugal interfered with the basic right of a human to freely enjoy his or her possessions.

4. The Morality Police have no place in stifling creativity. 

This is a trend we’re seeing in intellectual property laws as they’re decided across the world.  It still has the potential to shift at any given moment, and that’s a troublesome approach to take.  If we invite bureaucracy to determine what is right or wrong and good or bad for us, then we are good and truly screwed when it comes to free expression.

Imagine the most terrifying figure you can inhabiting the White House.  Now imagine that person having the ability to tell you at any given moment, with the blessing of the legislature, what is “right” or “wrong” for you.

Now ask yourself if that’s the world you want.  If the answer is “no,” your legislature is arguably a phone call away.

5. Stop placing value judgments on the message, and consider the message on the merits.  

“If we accept the theory that morality based restrictions are supportable then it threatens…free speech.”–Marc Randazza

That statement makes the entire article worth reading on the merits for those who frequent Mediation is Dead.

“Soft IP” is a form of communication.  It’s transmission of a message to an intended recipient. Don’t place a value judgment on the message transmitted before you start a fight.  It may be more appropriate to ask “What do you mean by that?” instead of jumping to “I find this offensive and must be silenced.”

You don’t need to place a value judgment on a person’s message to have an effective discussion with them on it.  In fact, your discussion will be better if you speak from a place where you put zero value judgements on your counterpart’s message.

That’s the Mediation is Dead approach.

If you want to download the entire law review article, it’s worth a read.
It’s mandatory MiD.