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Tracy Morgan presents the Comedy Icon Award in New York, March 26, 2011. (� Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters)
Tracy Morgan presents the Comedy Icon Award in New York, March 26, 2011. (� Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters)

Lynn Crosbie: Pop Rocks

Tracy Morgan's anti-gay jokes: It's called freedom of expression Add to ...

On June 5, the raunchy, often unintelligible comic Tracy Morgan performed a show in Nashville, where audience members reported that he made homophobic remarks.

Several walked out, as they often do. "If you want to see the clean Tracy," Morgan has said, "turn on the TV."

He is referring to his sinking comedy, 30 Rock, helmed by Tina Fey, who's riding high with her bestselling book, Bossypants.

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Morgan is low-key, hilarious, occasionally shocking and aggressive. He came up in Harlem-based TV and at the legendary Apollo; he grew up in the Bed-Stuy Tompkins projects with a heroin-addicted, Vietnam vet father who died of AIDS, and was mentored by the also troubled, absurdly underrated Martin Lawrence ( watch an early Def Jam performance just to feel Morgan's bristling, electrical presence).

His more recent performances have been just as vulgar as always, but less coherent, more rambling, and, according to one attendee at the Nashville show, far angrier.

"The sad thing," a fan named Debbie D. blogged, is that "his entire demeanour changed during that portion of the night. He was truly filled with some hate towards us."

This is utterly irrational. Was she feeling hate, or was it Morgan's patented way of challenging the audience into a state of charged awareness?

GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and other LGBT activist groups were not sad, however, but enraged - and took swift action.

I have since read the jokes, which are more than distasteful, and accounts of other, arguably worse, parts of the show that no one seems to have taken umbrage to: jokes aimed at mothers in the work force and the mothers of "retards." I guess the women don't have GLAAD's clout.

When Morgan said, for example, that being gay is a "choice" and that he would "stab" his son if he were gay, GLAAD demanded and received a contrite apology from the comic and from his boss, Tina Fey. Even Chris Rock (always the weasel) supported Morgan, then promptly recanted.

Lookers-on at this week's scandal are united in their fury at jokes made while the LBGT community is still at risk - when being stabbed, for example, is a genuine fear for many.

One lone voice in the fury: CNN's Roland Martin, who blogged of the incident. "Why is comedian and 30 Rock star Tracy Morgan issuing a mea culpa for saying nasty, vicious and vile things during a stand-up routine? Isn't that par for the course of a comedian? … There isn't enough space on the Internet to chronicle the number of times a comedian has said nasty and vile things. Some of it leading the audience to fall out laughing or sometimes, or as in the case of Morgan, walk out in protest."

Asked about comic Michael Richards's infamous N-bombing, Martin argued that this racial slur occurred outside the parameters of the routine, and is, as such, a separate issue.

I agree with Martin, because I am inclined to wonder, does the American constitution guarantee free speech and freedom of expression, or not? Was there an amendment made that I am unaware of (our own Charter is a bit dodgy on the same issue) that qualifies it as "freedom … unless you offend or upset someone"?

Yes, I understand that in this beautiful democracy, Morgan and other transgressive speakers cannot be jailed for their words, hence "freedom." Then again, look at America's greatest comic, Lenny Bruce. I cannot find a picture of him that is not a mug shot: an ardent believer in civil liberties, he was, virtually, broken and hounded to his death by the police and government.

Bruce did not perform the kind of material Morgan does, but the public allowed him to be persecuted for his very good fight (his sole supporter toward the end was another believer in constitutional guarantees, Hugh Hefner, who commissioned and serialized Bruce's autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People).

More and more, public figures are being pilloried for saying something offensive (this is the very word that the politically correct wield like a fur-covered club). They are being fired, exiled and forced to apologize. Of what use is a forced apology?

Non-progressive, religious Christians, Jews and Muslims do not condone homosexuality. Morgan's religious beliefs came into play in Nashville - his arguments were predicated on his own interpretation of Christian theology.

Can you sincerely ask a religion, a canon of ethics, to apologize? Yes, you can. You can speak up, and educate. By shutting down the discourse around hate and violence by demanding apologies and shouting the perpetrators into submission, we merely obfuscate and ignore the larger problem.

Worse, by being tight-lipped, ignorant, censorious prigs, we are also at fault. I would rather fight than switch to the paranoid land of surveillance and retribution that is language, under arrest.

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