henriettalacks

In Defense of Banned Books Week: A Call to Expand the Debate

Ruth Graham, the oafish opiner who unsuccessfully tried to nuke the YA genre from orbit last year with splashes of sophism and dollops of dilletantism, has returned to Slate‘s realm of callow clickbait with an equally preposterous proposition that “there is no such thing as a ‘banned book’ in the United States in 2015” and that, as such, Banned Books Week is a well-intended wash. Aside from ignoring the obvious fallout of the “likable character” debate from 2013 or the way in which Scarlett Thomas’s ambitious and risk-taking novel The Seed Collectors has been summarily repressed by nervous publishers that lack the stones to put it out on this side of the Atlantic, Graham’s remarkable failure to consider the recent Charlie Hedbo/PEN controversy, much less the way in which seemingly liberal minds continue to “ban” viewpoints that they despise belies her woeful ignorance of current reactionary developments in United States culture.

Graham cites a recent uproar over Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in Knoxville, Tennessee, whereby a mother objected to “pornographic” descriptions of infidelity and a lump on Lacks’s cervix being taught in a public school. Graham is right to observe that it was more or less a slam dunk to find the right side on this particular debate, but where she goes astray, undoubtedly aided and abetted by the usual gang of reductionist editorial idiots, is her insane suggestion that Banned Books Week somehow used the occasion to reveal itself as a sinister venue specializing in fearmongering. But Graham doesn’t cite a single word that the Banned Books Week group actually wrote. Blogger Maggie Jacoby compared the mother’s recriminations to “a modern day kind of book burning,” but how is this fearmongering? What Jacoby was rightfully suggesting is that the old forms of suppressing books — fearsome censorship laws, burning books, removing them from school reading lists — have been replaced by an equally diabolical practice whereby one imperious individual or group now decides, irrespective of scholarly or literary merit, that a book or a viewpoint should be expunged from the community.

Censorship battles aren’t limited to blinkered crusaders in Tennessee. “Prudish moms” can be found in such sanctimonious types as Francine Prose and Peter Carey, who cannot seem to comprehend a universe in which offensive and disagreeable ideas are meant to be argued against rather than silenced. The literary world has increasingly failed to understand that an awful idea — and Charlie Hedbo’s juvenile and despicably racist caricatures were indeed meretricious, to say the least — needs to be articulated rather than silenced and that accolades such as the James G. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award are vital reminders of our duty to ensure that anyone has the right to say something offensive or provocative, especially if it runs counter to our perspective, without fear of death or censorship.

Books may not have not faced as many overt censorship challenges in recent years, but the need to squelch undesirable or offensive viewpoints is now being practiced in covert and personal ways that are just as unconscionable. The courageous author Alissa Nutting not only faced a relentless wave of indignant emails and threats after her novel, Tampa, was published, but was also subjected to a histrionic op-ed piece in which a mother believed Nutting’s book was so dangerous that she kept it locked away from her daughter. If the morally scolding can’t get reading material banned from classrooms, then they have proven quite effective in removing “offensive” material from the stores, such as the three men’s magazines ejected by Walmart in 2003 because of efforts made by querulous Christians or, most recently, Rhonda Rousey’s memoir pulled because it was “too violent.”

The public square, whether we like it or not, has been replaced by the venal clamor of a marketplace selling comforting reads and the rising din of outrage culture publicly shaming an author like Erica Jong for ignorant remarks. And while some critics have smartly observed that one can critique an author without excluding her from the conversation, perhaps working to change her mind through a dialogue, others valiantly celebrate an author’s shortcomings as “far more important than any one author’s resistance to a changing zeitgeist.”

In her insistence that “books win” in this new age of condemnation, it’s telling that Graham practices the naive first year law school student’s overused argument of clinging to taut definitions of “banned or challenged” even as she overlooks some very obvious developments which demand that these terms be expanded outside of their presently rigid definitions. A fear of “bad language, violence; and, over and over, sexual content” very much applies in the cases I’ve cited above, just as it does when college students increasingly dole out the manipulative dog-ate-my-homework “trigger warning” charge for classic literature because they don’t want to contend with human realities. These plaints are no different in scope from the mother who tried to pull Skloot’s book from a public school and demand that we expand what a “banned book” really means in 2015.

Nobody wins when some easily offended reader expends a great deal of time and energy to guarantee that a book is withdrawn from a vital forum rather than assembling a provocative and possibly unpopular argument against it, especially when the same ninny fails to provide any evidence of having read the book in question. But American culture is increasingly drifting towards an impulsive immaturity where we cannot fathom that a person is more than the sum of a few foolhardy tweets or inopportune soundbytes and we lack the fortitude to speak with our enemies, let alone maintain cordial relationships with friends we disagree with. It is, however, instinctive enough to find other primordial methods to ban books, whether through trigger warnings or thoughtless censorship campaigns, rather than fostering opportunities for spirited and informed debate. Salman Rushdie should not have to suffer “lasting damage” to his friendships because of a disagreement, but American culture is too wrapped up in blocking or banning anything it finds remotely offensive to have adult conversations. And we are cursed with Pollyanna types like Ruth Graham, serving as myopic propagandists, who are just as implicitly prescriptive as the “prudish moms” who avoid uncomfortable truths that require a drastic change in the ways we relate to the written word and other readers.

graceland

Chris Abani Censored by Florida School District

On Friday afternoon, JAX-4 TV reported that Chris Abani’s Graceland — a book that had been placed on a 10th grade summer reading list — was pulled because of a parent objecting to its content. The mother, who contacted JAX-4 anonymously by email, objected to the following passage:

Then, whistling softly under his breath, he began rubbing a cool white paste all over Elvis’s body. It felt good, soothing almost. Jerome smiled as he noted the expression. Still smiling, he took Elvis’s penis in one hand and gently smoothed the paste over it, working it up and down. Elvis felt himself swell. Jerome laughed and massaged Elvis’s penis faster and faster. It was not long before Elvis shuddered and shot semen all over his torturer’s hand.

Of course, if you think that Abani’s passage is hot stuff, consider how tame it is in comparison to the language found within Deuteronomy 23 — which comes from a book that I understand is quite widely available in Jacksonville, Florida:

He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord. A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.

So castration and violent warnings are okay for kids. But the consensus from this Florida handful is that the Abanai passage isn’t. It remains unclear how many parents objected. But it’s worth pointing out that the book is being banned at the high school sophomore level, not the elementary school level.

JAX-4 reported that the Mandarin High principal agreed with the complaint and proceeded to pull the book from the reading list.

What’s extremely curious is that another Mandarin High summer reading list for this year includes Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus for tenth-grade students. And if Jacksonville parents are truly frightened by the prospect of high school students reading about sexuality, Adichie’s novel features the following passage:

“Obiora says you must be having sex, or something close to sex, with Father Amadi. We have never seen Father Amadi look so bright-eyed.” Amaka was laughing.

I did not know whether or not she was serious. I did not want to dwell on how strange it felt discussing whether or not I had had sex with Father Amadi.

So it seems quite hypocritical to remove one book for sexual description while keeping another openly available. Yet this is precisely the tactic that Duval County Public Schools has taken, fitting in with its prohibitive history.

The Chris Abani ban is hardly the first time that DCPS has removed or attempted to remove books from school libraries. In 1992, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was removed from DCPS libraries for “lurid passages about sex.” Additionally, in 1992, Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic was restricted to students who had parental permission to read the book. The cause? Because the book featured a caricature of a bare-bottomed individual stung by a bee. And according to the book Banned in the USA, in 1997, the Reverend Dale Shaw, president of the North Florida Ministerial Alliance, attempted to remove Richard Wright’s Black Boy from libraries, complaining of profanity at a Duval County School Board meeting. “It has historical value,” said Shaw at the time, “but that doesn’t make it right for high school students.”

But what’s the basis for Duval County’s protective approach? How precisely does Abani’s passage offend? Whatever the reason, the authorities in question appear to be just as anonymous as the mother who complained to JAX-4 News. As of Monday afternoon, representatives from DCPS and Mandarin High did not return my telephone calls for comment.

snlmurphy1

Brittany Murphy: Thoughts on the Saturday Night Live, December 5, 2009 Sketch

In response to Brittany Murphy’s recent death, NBC has pulled a clip from Hulu depicting Brittany Murphy (as played by Abby Elliott), appearing on the Weekend Update section of the December 5, 2009 broadcast of Saturday Night Live. What follows is the sketch presented in a manner that transforms it from its original medium (video) and therefore permits this to fall under the fair use principle. I have appended commentary near the end of this post to ensure that it will not be confused as a replica of the original material and I invite readers to cut and paste this transformative representation to any and all blogs and news organizations, so that people can be informed of what NBC is attempting to hide from the public. This representation is presented for noncommercial and educational purposes.

snlmurphy1TITLE CARD: BRITTANY MURPHY

SETH MEYERS: It was reported this week that actress Brittany Murphy was fired from her upcoming film, The Collar, from being a detriment to production and…oh no.

BRITTANY MURPHY: Seeeeeeeeeth.

SETH MEYERS: Brittany Murphy.

snlmurphy2BRITTANY MURPHY: Seth, I’m really honored to be here, hosting Saturday Night Live.

[It is worth observing that Abby Elliott’s performance of Murphy involves keeping her lower jaw down and moving her head left to right, as if Brittany Murphy is mentally handicapped. Her two palms remain flat against the newsdesk.]

SETH MEYERS: No, no, Brittany, you’re not hosting.

BRITTANY MURPHY: [idiotic laugh] Yeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh.

SETH MEYERS: I thought you were shooting a movie right now.

BRITTANY MURPHY: Yeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh. They fired me. [idiotic laugh] Yeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh.

snlmurphy3[More head bobbing left and right from Slate. This is, as one would expect, your typically stupid one-note SNL sketch.]

SETH MEYERS: Brittany, that’s really too bad.

BRITTANY MURPHY: It’s not bad, Seth. I got a plan. When the movie comes out, I’m going to go to the theater and say, “Booooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!” (small idiotic laugh) And then the audience will join in and say, “Booooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!” And the director will say, “Awwwwwwwwww dag!” And then I’ll be all, “Told you!” Best plan ever. (idiotic laugh) Yeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh.

SETH MEYERS: I wouldn’t call that the best plan ever.

BRITTANY MURPHY: (shouting) Ladies and gentlemen, Blink 182.

SETH MEYERS: (slamming his desk) You are not the host, Brittany Murphy.

BRITTANY MURPHY: Yeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh.

SETH MEYERS: (sarcastically) Yeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh.

BRITTANY MURPHY: I’ll never tell.

snlmurphy4[Elliott then slides on her chair stage right and off camera.]

SETH MEYERS: Brittany Murphy everybody! (raises eyebrow in dubious belief)

* * *

COMMENTARY: Aside from the sketch’s bad timing, there are numerous problems with the concept. Beyond the sketch’s failure to establish a legitimate reason as to why Brittany Murphy should be the target of satire (presumably the sketch writer simply believed Murphy to be idiotic), and beyond the sophomoric reliance upon “Yeaaaaaaaaahhh!” and the news that she gets kicked off of film sets, it is simply not funny. If the audience is presented with a character and the character exists solely to be offered for an audience’s scorn, then we are not dealing with a character, but a flat and one-dimensional archetype. We certainly need more than junior high school verbal tics in order to either (a) relate to the character or (b) have some reason to scorn the character. We must understand the character’s motivations. And those motivations need to be presented without judgment. (In this case, Meyers exists to confirm the audience response, leaving no room for thought on the part of the audience member.) These qualities are what makes memorable comedy. What are the motivations here? Confusion and apparent stupidity. Nothing more. Not even stupidity combined with arrogance, which makes for a ripe satirical target. What made Tina Fey’s performance as Sarah Palin so memorable was that she presented us with merely a replica of the genuine article. This may say more about the failure of SNL writers to come up with original material or it may demonstrate the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction.

Aside from these conceptual logistics, the sketch is poorly executed. Abby Elliott’s performance of Murphy is exceptionally poor. Bobbing your head left and right and keeping your palms flat upon the table is the stuff of forgettable community theater. It is not the stuff of major television comedy. Granted, Elliott has been given some pretty terrible material to work from. But this does not excuse her staggering incompetence as a performer in relation to this sketch.

Finally, NBC needs to be taken to task for failing to preserve this sketch on Hulu, which will surely increase interest in the base material. The idea that NBC is above making a mistake (uh, Jay Leno?), and the failure of NBC to issue a public apology while presenting the sketch or the episode in its original form, demonstrates that it is not interested in preserving history, much less letting the people determine whether the sketch is funny. NBC’s instant and avaricious decision, together with its draconian attempt to prevent the clip from surfacing upon YouTube, shares distressing similarities to Stalinist revisionism and should be roundly rejected by anybody who values civil liberties and the freedom of expression.

Liu Xiaobo Indicted

Some important news. PEN America has informed me that dissident writer Liu Xiaobo has been formally indicted by the Chinese government. Here’s the press release:

Liu Xiaobo Formally Indicted
PEN American Center Denounces Move, Pledges Solidarity

New York City, December 11, 2009— PEN American Center denounced the formal indictment today in Beijing of renowned literary critic and PEN member Liu Xiaobo, calling the move “extremely troubling” and urging supporters and governments around the world to step up the pressure on Beijing to free him immediately.

Liu Xiaobo, a leading intellectual who played a critical role in the 1989 Tiananmen protests and who was one of the main architects of the Charter 08 petition last year, was formally indicted by the Beijing Municipal Procuratorate today, just three days after his case was handed over by investigators and more than a year after he was detained. Liu is charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” a provision regularly used to silence writers in China. If convicted, Liu Xiaobo could face up to 15 years in prison. The case will be heard by the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court, reportedly within the next four to six weeks.

“We are deeply disappointed at this new development in Liu Xiaobo’s case,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah, President of PEN American Center. “We are extremely troubled that the indictment seems to follow the assertion of the Beijing Public Security Bureau that Liu committed a ‘major crime’ in drafting Charter 08 with others, and that he should be convicted of ‘inciting subversion.’ Words are not a crime, and the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed by international law and China’s own constitution. We stand in solidarity with Liu Xiaobo, and call on the Procuratorate to drop all charges and release him immediately and unconditionally.”

A past president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, Liu Xiaobo was detained on December 8, 2008, on the eve of the release of Charter 08, a groundbreaking manifesto and petition calling for greater human rights and democracy and an end to one-party rule in China. It has been signed by more than 10,000 Chinese citizens across the country, many of whom have been questioned, harassed, or briefly detained by authorities.

Yesterday, at great personal risk, many of those who joined Liu Xiaobo in signing and promoting Charter 08 released an open letter supporting him. The letter, entitled “We Are Willing to Share Responsibility with Liu Xiaobo,” challenges authorities to release Liu or punish them all equally. As of this morning, 318 people had signed, 240 of whom live in China.

PEN American Center is the largest of the 145 centers of International PEN, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. The Freedom to Write Program of PEN American Center, which works to protect the freedom of the written word wherever it is imperiled, has been working to end China’s imprisonment, harassment, and surveillance of writers and journalists and curtail Internet censorship and other restrictions on the freedom to write in that country. For more information, please visit www.pen.org/china.

weinertweet

Are Bookstores Being Too Censorious With Author Events?

Jennifer Weiner is a best-selling author. And while her latest novel, Best Friends Forever, proved popular enough to hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, this didn’t stop a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Framingham, Massachusetts from raising a censorious eyebrow.

Some bookstores have begun instituting informal policies which preclude authors from using four-letter words during a public reading. And even dependable draws like Weiner are being asked to hold their tongues. These developments — reflected most recently in the Weiner case — raise new questions about just how much an author is allowed to get away with in the 21st century and whether bookstore policies that are understandably intended to protect children are going too far.

The trouble for Weiner began when she playfully announced the “potty-mouthed” nature of her Best Friends Forever book tour on Twitter. Shortly after her Philadelphia reading, Weiner later tweeted that she had received a warning:

weinertweet

Weiner carried on with the Framingham gig without setting off any F-bombs, and applied her saucy language instead to the inscriptions. (After tweeting about the Framingham event, the organizer of a subsequent off-site event in St. Louis encouraged Weiner to be extra raunchy.)

“I can’t imagine it’s a blanket B&N policy,” said Weiner. “I kicked off the Best Friends Forever tour at the Barnes & Noble in Lincoln Triangle in New York City, and I said ‘cock’ like nine times and told a story about a Hitachi Magic Wand, and the manager seemed perfectly okay with it (my poor editor, who brought her parents to the reading, not so much). As much as I’d like to turn this into a ‘corporate stiffs censor freewheeling lady writer because the world hates it when a lady succeeds’ story, I honestly think it was just this one bookstore, that one afternoon, making a not-unreasonable request.”

A list of questions was sent to Mary Ellen Keating, Barnes and Noble’s senior vice president of corporate communication and public affairs. But there was no response. I was able to reach Margaret Moore, the community relations manager of the Framingham store, by phone. But she was extremely nervous, even when I assured her that I was merely determining questions of policy. I did receive a return phone call from Maddie Hjulstrom, a regional community relations manager at Barnes and Noble, who was gracious enough to talk with me.

Hjulstrom informed me that the email had been sent by Moore when Moore had “learned that Ms. Weiner’s language was colorful at her discussions.”

According to Weiner, the Framingham controversy arose out of concerns that the reading area was adjacent to the children’s section and that Weiner’s scheduled reading time — 3:00 PM — would be too early to account for the hallowed ears of tots.

“Because the event was on a Sunday afternoon,” said Weiner, “I think the bookstore managers reasonably expected that there would be kids there, and felt that they could reasonably ask me to tone down the cussing.”

This was confirmed by Hjulstrom, who told me that the objections had to do with the microphone’s close placement to the children’s department and the possibility that Weiner’s amplified words might drift like cigarette smoke into a 1980s restaurant’s nonsmoking section.

“We want to be respectful of young families and children,” said Hjulstrom. “We don’t regulate where children are in our store. At 3:00 PM, it might be a problem.”

Had Barnes & Noble ever received any customer complaints because of an author or a poet using salty language during a reading? Hjulstrom told me that she couldn’t give me an example of the Framingham store having received a single customer complaint, but that the region, as a whole, had received a few complaints.

The Barnes & Noble “no salty language” policy is, according to Hjulstrom, “not a written policy, just common courtesy.” It is something that is determined on a case-by-case basis.

“All we can do is ask,” said Hjulstrom. “We don’t enforce. We don’t kick them out of their store. We just ask them to respect the children who are in the stores.”

I asked Hjulstrom what might happen if an author used salty language, but did not receive a single customer complaint.

“I’m not comfortable going into what ifs,” replied Hjulstrom. “I just want to deal with the facts.”

But the prohibition causes one to wonder why bookstores — even with the possibility of a child lurking around a bookstore late at night — would be so offended by a monosyllabic exclamation that anyone who has ever stubbed a toe is quite familiar with. Were there efforts by Weiner and Barnes and Noble to broker a last-minute deal?

“We didn’t try to broker a compromise mostly because there wasn’t time,” explained Weiner. “The best solution would have been either to hold the event somewhere else, or after dark, and with just over twenty-four hours, on a weekend, to either reschedule or relocate, that just didn’t seem feasible. And again, once I got over my reflexive ‘the MAN is trying to SHUT ME UP’ paranoia, it didn’t seem like a crazy thing to ask. I’ve got little kids, and if I took them into a bookstore on a Sunday afternoon to pick up the latest Sandra Boynton or ‘Junie B. Jones,’ I probably wouldn’t be thrilled to find some lady standing behind a microphone talking, as I tend to, about ‘wall-to-wall cock.'”

Still, independent bookstores such as San Francisco’s The Booksmith have conducted numerous author events in its children’s section, closing the section off to make room for the audience to sit down. Booksmith co-owner Praveen Madan informed me that, while there are generally no kids around at the time of the event, his bookstore doesn’t make any concessions if an event takes place in the middle of the day.

“We take freedom of speech very seriously and even the suggestion of us laying down any kind of censoring guidelines for authors makes me cringe,” said Madan. “And the issue here is more than freedom of speech. We believe it’s important for authors to be authentic and credible, and sometimes being authentic requires saying things that might end up offending some people. I would rather shut down the bookstore and sell falafels than try to engineer an author’s talk to make the author more palatable for a certain audience. You should be clear about what business you are in. We are in the business of intellectual discourse and opening people’s minds to new ideas and possibilities. If you want to be in the business of reinforcing people’s existing belief systems, than you should run a religious institution or radio talk show, not a bookstore.”

It’s also worth observing that prohibitions on what an author can say at a reading can sometimes have unexpected side effects. As Tayari Jones observed on her blog recently, the author can feel oddly shamed when contending with a complaint.

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, formerly of McNally Jackson and now working hard to open the Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene this autumn, says that there was never a policy prohibiting language or controversial topics at an author event when she worked at McNally. But she did mention that she hoped to be more sensitive to such matters at Greenlight.

“We don’t intend to set any blanket policy,” said Bagnulo. “I think for the most part we will trust our customers to know whether an author is going to be inappropriate for their children or potentially offensive to their own sensibilities. As long as we make clear from the outset what the event is likely to contain, we won’t try to restrict or prohibit authors from anything they’d like to say.”

Even if the event is scheduled in the middle of the day?

“Not unless it’s an event specifically geared toward kids,” replied Bagnulo. “For example, at McNally we held a Halloween event that had kids programming earlier in the day, and some adult authors reading later that had lots of graphic blood and gore.”

Before the Framingham incident, Weiner had never received any complaints from a bookstore for her act. But censorship issues aren’t limited to the big box stores. Weiner alluded to an incident that came from an ostensible independent:

“In 2001, when Good in Bed came out, I did hear from one independent bookstore somewhere in the Midwest that an older gentleman had objected to a cover featuring the book’s poster (naked legs and cheesecake) in the window. But that’s as close to censorship as I’ve come.”

For what it’s worth, Weiner did say that she would do an event at the Framingham bookstore again: “I’d just make sure it was an evening event, or that it was held somewhere far, far away from the innocent ears of children.”

“In general, we feel that authors these days have become rather conservative and risk averse because they are trying to become bestsellers and are afraid of stirring controversy,” said Madan. “I wish more authors would pick topics that might be controversial and not worry about offending people. There are important topics being ignored and we all tend to surround ourselves with people we agree with and we like.”

“I think that indie bookstores work to create an environment of mutual respect between authors and audiences,” said Bagnulo, “where what is controversial is taken in context as part of the conversation, and there’s enough transparency of intention that people are unlikely to be offended.

“It’s not a bad idea to mention ahead of time, ‘Hey, I work blue,'” said Weiner, “but it’s never been a problem in the past, and I don’t really expect it to be a problem going forward.”

knight

Passive-Aggressive Newspaper Drones in Training at Montclair

I learned through The Beat (via Eric) that an installment of Keith Knight’s The K Chronicle has caused an uproar at the Montclair State University newspaper. Despite Knight basing his strip on a real-life incident and not even printing the full word in question, the editors of the student newspaper issued a campus-wide apology, with Montclarion editor-in-chief Bobby Melok stating, “It is never The Montclarion’s intention to offend its readership, and we sincerely apologize to all who were upset with this comic.”

I don’t know what’s more disheartening here: a newspaper of any sort lacking the courage to “offend” by depicting the truth or Melok’s current spinelessness-in-training, a passive-aggressive quality that will serve Melok well should he somehow nab one of the few jobs left at a Sam Zell-owned newspaper. To apologize for an artistic depiction of the word “nigger” (which, incidentally, never appeared in Knight’s strip in its entirety) is to draw greater attention to racial division, to give that word more significance than it deserves, and to suggest that anything probing into the cancer of racism is somehow racist. If anything, Melok should apologize for lacking the guts or the brains to determine what he deems appropriate. Melok went on to write, “We assumed because it was part of the syndicate, it was appropriate.” And I assume that because Melok assumes, Melok is incapable of the most elementary editorial judgment.

stanleyfish

Stanley Fish, Sherry Jones, and the Free Market Apparatchiks

I am certainly not a fan of Salman Rushdie’s limitless capacity for self-promotion, but I am even less enamored of smug academics who wish to split hairs over the term “censorship” to serve their partisan purposes. Rushdie, of course, expressed understandable umbrage over Random House’s decision to withdraw Sherry Jones’s debut novel, The Jewel of Medina from publication. Random House pulled the book because it feared that Jones’s book “could incite racial conflict.” This was, of course, a decision that was every bit as cowardly as those who stood against desegregated schools in the 1960s and 1970s. A bigot during those times might likewise oppose this small step for humankind by claiming that busing kids into other neighborhoods “could incite racial conflict.” It is, in other words, a speculative proposition. A decision based on a peremptory what if. The “all Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do” form of fearmongering popularized by Ari Fleischer is now just as applicable to spineless corporate goons who fail to consider that controversy has also been known to sell. (Indeed, in Rushdie’s case, The Satanic Verses sold very well indeed.)

But this is not really about Rushdie and it is not really about Random House. It is about Stanley Fish’s refusal to accept the possibility that the American publishing industry does indeed censor. Fish begins his post with free market bluster:

It is also true, however, that Random House is free to publish or decline to publish whatever it likes, and its decision to do either has nothing whatsoever to do with the Western tradition of free speech or any other high-sounding abstraction.

Change “Random House” to “Stalinist Russia” and Fish shifts from a capitalist crusader into a bona-fide apparatchik. But never mind that. In examining the etymology of the word “censor,” one must go back to the Roman era when magistrates were then in the habit of legislating public behavior and morality. To be as literal-minded as Fish (censorship only applies to government entities and not the free market), it seems to me that “censorship” is no longer viable as a noun, given that the Roman Empire is no longer around. Fish’s argument is an example of an equivocation. If I tell you that an bird must fly, and I then tell you that what cannot fly is grounded, and I point out that an ostrich is grounded and therefore cannot be a bird, you wouldn’t accept the terms of my argument. In fact, you would string me up and inform me that I am a moron, which would be a well-deserved assessment. And yet Fish has done the same thing with the term “censorship.”

Of course, Rushdie didn’t just use the word “censorship” in his letter to the Associated Press. As Bill Poser has pointed out, Rushdie used the phrase “censorship by fear,” conveniently elided by Fish to serve the terms of his fallacious argument.

Fish does offer a somewhat more valid thesis by comparing the restriction of Jones’s book to a library refusing to stock a book from the shelves. Unfortunately, he makes a comparison that is patently unmeasurable to what befell Jones. He claims that if you can’t get a book from the library, “[y]ou can still get it from Amazon.com or buy it in Borders.” But Jones’s book is not available anywhere else. It was dropped by Random House — i.e., it won’t be published. And, as the record shows, a Serbian publisher stepped in to print 1,000 copies, but stopped the presses when it received protests from a Belgrade mufti. What Fish doesn’t seem to understand is that you can’t obtain this book anywhere else.

If I wanted to go out and purchase a copy of Jones’s book right now, I simply couldn’t. Random House has thereby operated in a lieu of a government body and prevented this book from being distributed to a mass audience. An act of censorship applies to the writing, not the writer. It doesn’t matter that Jones hasn’t been imprisoned for her words. That Fish cannot understand this suggests that he hasn’t paid attention to the media developments of the past twenty years, in which imprisonment has been replaced by the penalty of being denied the airwaves or, in this case, denied a publisher, with contractual details preventing or delaying alternative means of distribution.

Rushdie is absolutely right to declare this “censorship by fear.” “Censorship by fear” is now the way in which magistrating “indecent” material occurs, whether it be networks terrified of airing Janet Jackson’s nipple and facing stiff FCC penalties, an NPR regular who fears speaking unscripted or like an actual human, or a cowardly publishing conglomerate who adds a morality clause to a YA writer’s contract or stubs out a novel because of Denise Spellberg’s threats of a lawsuit. Make no mistake. This is censorship, 21st century style. And it’s as American as apple pie.

zackmiri

Kevin Smith vs. The MPAA, Take 2

Kevin Smith’s forthcoming film, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, is, at least for the moment, rated NC-17 “for some graphic sexuality,” pending appeal. What is exceedingly frustrating here is that the MPAA, true to its character, isn’t being transparent about what this “graphic sexuality” entails. Last month, Seth Rogan spilled some details to the press, reporting that the skirmish between Smith and the MPAA apparently involves a sex scene between a man and a woman. And while News Askew reports that the MPAA is now reassessing the current cut of the film for an appeal, there’s been nothing specific about the situation on Kevin Smith’s blog.

The MPAA has gone after Smith before, most notably for Clerks, which was originally slapped with an NC-17 rating merely for its raunchy dialogue. But there’s a larger question here about why the MPAA continues to maintain an antediluvian attitude on “decency.” The young audience who will watch this film will likely get their hands on the unedited version (assuming Smith loses this battle) once it hits DVD. But if Smith were to unload the specifics about his situation, going to the press with the same highly detailed fervor that he has before, he could very well reopen the very important debate on why incredibly violent films like Hostel are slapped with an R, while films featuring the naked human body are considered verboten for the shopping mall crowd. But if he can skirt around the appeal, this may not be an issue.

The Bat Segundo Show: David Hajdu

David Hajdu appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #207. Hajdu is most recently the author of The Ten-Cent Plague.

Condition of the Show: Dabbling into hidden threats.

Author: David Hajdu

Subjects Discussed: Hajdu’s approach to journalism, primary sources vs. secondary sources, categories of people to talk with when preparing a book, tracking down people who disappeared, grassroots methods of finding people, changing names, the untold story of women in comics, Irvin Kersener’s early career as an agitprop documentary filmmaker*, corroborating facts against shifting memory, telling history without a fully documented record, Billy Strayhorn’s career before Duke Ellington, remembering details based on a nugget, the ever-shifting complexities of William Gaines, whether EC Comics could have survived if it shifted to magazine format, Will Eisner on not being taken seriously, what caused the great comics scare, literate comics, the fear of kids turning on parents because of a medium, Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocents and the media’s willingness to give credence to Wertham’s anti-scientific tract, why America needs a lowbrow cultural blaming point for social ills, cultural class bias, pornography and other populist mediums as subliterary forms, comics decency legislation vs. the Hays Production Code, postwar censorship, comics being placed in a position not to challenge authority, Charles Biro’s Crime Does Not Pay vs. yellow journalism, and Bob Wood bludgeoning a woman to death.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m wondering if certain artists may have changed their names because the comic book industry was considered a great calumny for many of these various artists and writers. Did you face a problem along those lines in tracking people down?

Hajdu: I did. I had trouble with people who changed their names, but not for that reason. Because most people used their real names. Most people, but not all. Some use pseudonyms. Still do in comics. But most people intended to use their real names. But women married. And women who married in that time took on their husbands’ names. And I was surprised to find when I was doing my research how many women there were in comics. I mean, dozens and dozens of women who did terrific, beautiful, important work. Marcia Snider is one. I was never able to find her. I’d been told that she’d married. And nobody I could find knew what her married name was. In the case of the great many women artists, I only had their maiden names. And I couldn’t find them. I tried social security records, but they weren’t of that much value. And I did hit a wall with women artists. And I’m sure to this day, much of their story remains untold because they’ve been impossible to find.

Correspondent: Well, what steps did you take to atone for this? Because if you’re slicing off a portion of comic book history — a very important part of comic book history that involved women — I mean, how did you make up for this?

Hajdu: Well, I sought to do justice to the story that I can tell. I don’t know what I don’t know. I did make a point to ask about those women to the people who I could find. And that’s the only recourse.

* — Despite Hajdu’s representations in this interview, Kershner remains quite alive!

Play

What the AP Owes Its Sources

If the Associated Press wishes to charge bloggers for the number of words they can quote from their articles, then the time has come for the AP to pay for quotes it uses in articles. What follows is a partial list of outstanding amounts that the AP owes under its current model (at the current rates) to figures it has talked with in articles published during the past two hours.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino: 42 words ($17.50)

President George W. Bush: 8 words ($12.50)

83-year-old flood survivor Lois Russell: 32 words ($17.50)

Garner resident Helen Jennings: 13 words ($12.50)

Mayor Roger Ochs: 19 words ($12.50)

Flood survivor Steve Poggemiller: 11 words ($12.50)

Mike Allred of the Centers for Disease Control and Provention: 11 words ($12.50)

Flood survivor Amy Wyss: 34 words ($17.50)

Barack Obama: 229 words ($50.00)

McCain national security director Randy Scheunemann: 22 words ($12.50)

Former CIA director James Woolsey: 27 words ($17.50)

Richard Clarke: 37 words ($17.50)

Sen. John Kerry: 6 words ($12.50)

George Takei: 16 words ($12.50) (To add insult to injury, the AP quoted Takei quoting from Star Trek. Paramount Legal: The AP is trying to collect on your intellectual property!)

It isn’t necessary to go further. The upshot is that the AP owes some serious dinero to these distinguished American figures. $237.50 is the total here, and I’ve only gone through about a quarter of the articles that have been posted in the past two hours. So let’s quadruple that, shall we? $1,000 in a mere two hours! That’s $500/hour X 24!

So it seems to me that the real cheap bastards here are the Associated Press! $12,000 per day! To hell with fair use. In the interests of intellectual property, the time has come for these interview subjects to generate invoices and bill these inveterate gougers at the AP for all they are worth!

Fuck You, Associated Press

The Associated Press have now devised a new set of rules for what it considers to be fair use. If you are a blogger quoting more than four words from one of the AP’s articles, the AP now expects you to pay a license.

This is, as anyone with a basic grasp of copyright knows, absolute bullshit. It is an arrogant tactic from a news organization that truly believes that bloggers are ignoramuses.

So that I might make a specific point about why I believe this concept to be profoundly ignorant of existing copyright law, I hereby announce that the following post is not being prepared for commercial purposes. I do not intend to profit from this post. I merely wish to educate both the public and the AP about the fair use provision of the Copyright Act (that’s 17 U.S.C. § 107 for those playing at home):

A defiant Barack Obama said Tuesday he would take no lectures from a girl whose lemonade stand was robbed of $17.50. Serenaded by a gay men’s chorus, showered with rose petals and toasted with champagne, Obama, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the event, said he made the decision Monday and stressed it was his alone.

Despite his criticism, on May 5, while campaigning in North Carolina, McCain said he was willing to consider the same proposal.

It didn’t seem unusual to see the AP go beyond what’s legally permissible. The decision required a court’s approval because Barack Obama wants to raise your income taxes.

“If we’re banning things such as long-tailed plant-eating dinosaurs, and two carnivorous ones do not have any imminent concern that Kandahar is about to fall to the Taliban, we want to fight until the death,” said a spokesperson for the Associated Press, who, if they truly have their legal knickers in a bunch, may wish to count the precise percentage of material that is being used for this post.

Let us consider instead how these phrases tell a rather goofy story that harms nobody and that does not smear the Associated Press in the slightest. Let us consider how by linking, this blog generates interest in these particular articles. Roughly around 100 words have been used from Associated Press articles. Therefore, if I write a 1,000 word post, I should be on solid ground, with a mere 10% of this post referring to previous material. I have no real desire to say anything here in 600 words that I could just as easily say in 300 words. So to ensure that I am on legally airtight ground, I will simply type the sentence “My cocker spaniel had a hernia” fifty times. This is a phrase of my own invention. But I encourage everyone to use it. I promise you that I will not sue you if you do.

My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia. My cocker spaniel had a hernia.

Now where were we?

Let us also consider whether any of the particular phrases in the AP’s articles are particularly unique and whether they be given this sense of propriety.

The phrase “It didn’t seem unusual to see,” culled from an AP article, was used by Ted Perry on Page 175 of his book, My Reel Story. Should Ted Perry send me a cease-and-desist letter because I have used the phrase in an entirely different context? No. In fact, I did not know who Ted Perry was before looking up the phrase. If the AP wishes to send me a bill for the use of this phrase, should not Ted Perry in turn send the AP a bill for using his phrase? No.

The draconian conditions being asked for here are simply not within the reasonable scope of how human beings transmit language to each other. By this measure, should the television networks fine anybody who uses more than four words of a sitcom catchphrase? Should the advertising agencies do the same thing for their slogans? These other companies understand that conveying a reasonable portion of a storyline or a slogan is what causes the information to be transmitted.

Under these oppressive and undemocratic circumstances, it is important to point out that “fuck you” and “Associated Press” go together like a tasty peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

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Terry Gross Responds

Terry Gross, recently referenced in this story involving a Jonathan Franzen interview that had been cut for broadcast, has been kind enough to respond to my questions. She informs me that “there has been no self-censorship or deals cut to suppress the Franzen interview.” Gross tells me that the audio for the original October 15, 2001 broadcast should have been available on the Fresh Air website and that she was surprised to learn that this wasn’t the case. Fresh Air has asked NPR to restore the original Franzen interview on the website, and I will follow up next week to see if it’s there.

Gross’s email was also forthright in describing Fresh Air‘s policy concerning repeat interviews. She informed me that when an interview is rebroadcast, “we almost always shorten it.” In the case of the elided Franzen remark, the decision was made to curtail the Oprah section because it was “dated.” As to Fresh Air editing policies, Gross pointed out that all of her interviews were pre-recorded and that they are all edited before they are broadcast. She does not record anything live. “Editing is not censorship,” wrote Gross, “Editing is not unethical. Editing is part of what journalists do.”

While I agree with Gross that a certain degree of audio cleanup is necessary to ensure a professional broadcast, I still remain mystified why additional broadcasts are edited further. I also wonder why such concerns as “dated” material should even matter. After all, if the listener knows that she’s listening to an interview that aired before, why then should such a distinction matter?

I have sent Gross a followup email, pointing out that abridgment is not indicated on the broadcast and that the main page for the Franzen repeat does not read, “This is an excerpt from an October 15, 2001 interview,” but reads, “This interview first aired October 15, 2001.” Thus, the listener might insinuate that what she is hearing is the same interview that aired before. This specification would certainly put Gross in a more ethically sound position.

Nevertheless, this offers some insight into how Gross and Fresh Air operates. And I am glad that she has at least taken steps to restore the original interview. I only hope that Gross will be more forthright about how future rebroadcast interviews are edited, if only to escape an ombudsman’s wrath.

Did Jonathan Franzen Cut a Censorship Deal with Terry Gross?

On October 26, 2001, Dennis Loy Johnson reported on the Franzen fiasco:

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Three days later in an interview on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” he told host Terry Gross that he was still conflicted about Oprah because — well, “So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I’m sorry that it’s, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking.”

Thus does class meet boorish elitism. Franzen, through his publisher, issued an immediate sort–of apology: “I try to explore complicated emotions and circumstances as honestly and fully as I can. This approach can be productive on the page, but clearly hasn’t been helpful in talking to the media, many members of which used the occasion of my book tour to raise questions about Oprah’s Book Club and the supposed divisions among American readers. The conflict is preexisting in the culture, and it landed in my lap because of my good fortune. I’m sorry if, because of my inexperience, I expressed myself poorly or unwisely.”

So, as it turns out, it was Terry Gross’ fault; even though she started off the interview by gushing, “I read your book and I loved it!” and did not press him in the least or follow up on his blatantly chauvanistic take of Oprah’s audience, she was, apparently, out to get Jonathan Franzen . . . a poor, “inexperienced” lad with only two previous books and hundreds of previous interviews and public appearances under his belt.

And here is the quote reported by the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Review.

I remember hearing Franzen’s remarks. But if you go through the Fresh Air archive, you’ll find no trace of the full record, much less any indication that the broadcast was modified. There is, of course, this repeat of the October 15, 2001 interview in question, broadcast on September 6, 2002. But listen to the RealMedia file for this show and you’ll find only this excerpt at the 3:34 mark:

I mean, so much of reading is sustained, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV. Or, um, you know, playing with their flight simulator or whatever.

After this, we hear Terry Gross ask her next question. The other part of the quote, as reported by Johnson, “I worry — I’m sorry that it’s, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking,” is missing.

If Terry Gross is a journalist, then she has the responsibility to maintain the full record of this conversation, or at least apprise her listeners that the interview was modified. I do not yet know Ms. Gross’s motivations, but if she is willfully allowing her program to be pressured by authors and/or publishers, then it seems to me that the Literarian Award, which purports to “recogniz[e] the important contribution she has made to the world of books — and to our understanding of literature and the writing process — through her probing and intelligent interviews with authors” does not appear to recognize an interviewer who thoroughly probes her subjects. Indeed, the National Book Foundation has honored an ostensible “journalist” who has failed to preserve the historical record.

At the very least, Gross should have observed — both on the September 6, 2002 repeat broadcast and on the NPR page representing the broadcast — that the interview was edited or tampered with.

I have sent an email to Terry Gross asking for clarification on this matter. I will update this story if I learn any additional details.

[UPDATE: It would appear that Gross has a history of pulling punches. An interview with Village Voice reporter Robert I. Friedman was recorded on January 27, 1993, but Fresh Air never aired the interview, because they were looking for a “moderate” voice.]

[UPDATE 2: Terry Gross has responded to my questions.]

Just Imagine If He Had Read Updike’s Last Novel

Independent: “Mr Chalk was reading The Unknown Terrorist, the latest novel by the Australian author, Richard Flanagan….Mr Chalk, a teacher who was in town for an education conference, had not even ordered a drink when a security officer asked him to leave. ‘He said several customers had complained about the literature I was reading and I’d have to move on,’ Mr Chalk told the Cairns Post.”

What’s hilarious is that Flanagan responded by saying, “Far from being far-fetched, my novel correctly predicted the future of Australia.” It seems these days that no matter how crazy or outlandish a comic novel, there is some ridiculous truth that comes to fruition. (via Quill & Quire)

Anne Lamott Censored by Creighton

From Publishers Lunch:

Fans of Anne Lamott in Omaha have rallied to secure an appearance by the author in the wake of an abrupt cancellation by local Jesuit institution Creighton University. The school had invited Lamott long ago for a paid appearance on September 19 as part of their annual Women and Health Lecture Series, and an overflow crowd of 1,200 had already signed up to attend.

But a group of local Catholics “deluged” the Omaha Archdiocese with phone calls and e-mails earlier this month in protest over Lamott’s personal views on assisted suicide and abortion. Creighton officials had already asked Lamott if she would “stay on topic” with the theme of lecture series, according to her lecture agent Steven Barclay, and she had reassured them that she “didn’t need to be a spokesperson on [the controversial] topics.” (Lamott indicated the same directly to the Omaha World-Record.)

Nonetheless, Creighton decided to cancel the engagement–after first asking if Lamott would back out, but Barclay indicated that she never cancels a booking. Lamott also declined to keep the lecture fee that was owed to her. Creighton spokesperson Kathryn Clark told the local newspaper, “We have decided that the key points she makes are in opposition to Catholic teaching. That makes her an inappropriate choice.”

Despite whatever local pressure was brought to bear on Creighton, there was equal if not greater support for having Lamott appear. As Barclay notes, “She’s a real galvanizing force in the progressive Christian movement. Those people were outraged and I think rightfully so.” Rev. Nancy Brink of Omaha’s North Side Christian Church quickly organized a coalition of six local churches, which has secured a larger 2,000-seat venue where Lamott will now speak on the same day.

The article that Michael Cader references doesn’t appear to be on the Omaha World-Record‘s site. So I did some digging on my own.

I was particularly baffled by this quote from Kathryn Clark: “We have decided that the key points she makes are in opposition to Catholic teaching. That makes her an inappropriate choice.”

Curious about this, I contacted Creighton directly. I was unable to get Kathryn Clark on the phone, but I was able to cajole the kind student who answered into giving me Creighton Public Relations Director Deb Daley’s cell phone.

I asked Daley what specific key points were in opposition to Catholic teaching. Instead of directly answering the question, Daley insisted, “We at Creighton University actually recognize that many different points of view exist.”

Well, then why not a different point of view like Lamott’s?

“We were concerned that by sponsoring a lecture, people would misconstrue that we were endorsing her.”

Apparently, Creighton got cold feet because Lamott had written about helping a friend commit suicide, people would somehow believe that Creighton was directly supporting this idea. I asked why these circumstances mattered so much in relation to Lamott. Daley said that it was the “sponsored lecture” categorization of the event that Creighton had difficulty with.

But what made a sponsored lecture any different from anything else delivered in front of an audience — like, say, a professor talking about a particular topic or point of view in front of his students?

“We provide a forum for opposite points of view,” said Daley again, clinging to this sentence like a piece of driftwood in river rapids.

I explained to Daley that a “forum for opposite points of view” simply wasn’t the case at all if she was preventing Lamott from speaking. I asked, if Lamott’s alleged pro-suicide position was indeed the issue, why Creighton didn’t just have someone appear who was against suicide appear alongside Lamott. That way, all points of view would be preserved and there would be no confusion over which particular point of view Creighton allegedly “supported.”

But before I could get an answer to this question or ask Daley why she had banned Lamott’s appearance when Lamott had agreed to stick to talking points, Daley then told me that everything that needed to be said was in the papers and ended the call.

So here we have an alleged “university” championing “all points of view,” but who is terribly afraid of a speaker associated with a point of view, even though the speaker had promised not to dwell on the point of view in question.

Sounds like censorship to me.

Henry Miller Still Raising a Needless Ruckus

One would think that more than four decades after it was declared “not obscene” by the Supreme Court, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer would be on more or less solid ground in our enlightened 21st century. Not so. A 17-year-old Dallas student checked out the book out from the Hulsey Public Library, told her parents that she felt it was “inappropriate,” and has caused Miller’s name to be removed from a Terrell High School list of “approved authors.” It is unknown whether the student or the student’s parents actually read the book, but it’s worth noting that the city’s library director had “received no prior complaints about the novel.” You know, most reasonable people simply don’t read authors they aren’t interested in and let those who are interested in studying them do so without rancor. Henry Miller meant a good deal to me when I read him as a teenager. I’d hate to have had this reading experience uprooted by someone who found him “inappropriate.” (via Bookshelves of Doom)

Bechdel/Thompson Update

According to Tom Spurgeon, the library trustees voted against keeping the books on shelves (at least for the time being). More in the thread over at Alison Bechdel’s blog:

At the meeting tonight of the Marshall Public Library Board of Trustees, the Board President proposed that the board appoint a committee to revise the library’s materials selection policy. That proposal passed, but with at least one “no” vote. I was sitting in the back and could not see all the hands, so I don’t know how many voted against the proposal.

Here’s the problem, as far as I am concerned: While the committee works on a new materials selection policy, the two books (”Blankets” and “Fun Home”) will be removed from circulation. They will be unavailable. There was no mention of how long the process will take.

When the Board President asked which of the Board members wanted to serve on the committee, apparently most of the hands went up, because we heard her say, “Well, I guess the whole Board could be on the committee.”

There’s nothing yet at the Marshall Democrat-News, but if I find anything specific that we can substantiate, I will report on it.

[UPDATE: A reader from Marshall notes that the books are “temporarily removed” as a materials collection policy is being drafted and that the case is at a standstill. The Marshall Democrat-News is an afternoon paper and I will update this post as more qualifying coverage comes in.]

Bechdel & Thompson on Trial

Comics are on trial in Missouri. The Marshall Public Library Board of Trustees conducted a hearing to discuss the removal of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Craig Thompson’s Blankets from the local library. Apparently, a few citizens of Marshall, MO found certain drawings within these two graphic novels objectionable. One resident, Louise Miles, of Marshall, spoke before the Board, “We may as well purchase the porn shop down at the junction and move it to Eastwood. Some day this library will be drawing the same clientele.”

Indeed. Let us consider the definition of pornography, as defined by my trusty Webster’s Unabridged:

“obscene literature, art, or photography, esp. that having little or no artistic merit”

Okay, so some of the people of Marshall (and it’s important to note, not all; a brave man named Dave Riley spoke in favor of the two graphic novels) consider illustrations of naked people lying in a postcoital position — a form of illustration, mind you, that goes back to the Paleolithic era and the Moche of Peru, something relatively tame compared against a distinguished history going back centuries before Ms. Miles’ birth — “obscene.” Personally, I found both Bechdel and Thompson’s respective illustrations quite beautiful. But that’s just me.

louisemills.jpgThe real question is whether Louise Mills of Marshall (pictured right) is qualified to determine whether Fun Home or Blankets has “little or no artistic merit.” Is Mills an arts major? What are her credentials exactly? By what stretch of the imagination is she an expert on Bechdel and Thompson’s “artistic merit?” An ability to froth at the mouth and cringe in fear? Good golly, make that woman Chairman of the Board!

If this is a situation in which Louise Mills’ tender sentiments were upset by naked people or the implication of sex, then perhaps Ms. Mills might wish to consider how out of step she is with the 21st century. Premarital sex is something that more than 70% of the nation seems to be enjoying these days. I believe this puts Mills in the minority.

Disagreement is the New Assault?

Rocky Mountain News: “Howards and his son walked to about two-to-three feet from where Cheney was standing, and said to the vice president, ‘I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible,’ or words to that effect, then walked on. Ten minutes later, according to Howards’ lawsuit, he and his son were walking back through the same area, when they were approached by Secret Service agent Virgil D. ‘Gus’ Reichle Jr., who asked Howards if he had ‘assaulted’ the vice president. Howards denied doing so, but was nonetheless placed in handcuffs and taken to the Eagle County Jail.”

Is JetBlue Racist?

I fly JetBlue all the time, but this terrible story from Raed Jarrar, who was asked to remove his T-shirt because it contained Arabic script that “offended passengers” (never mind that nobody could read the shirt), has me rethinking the airline. Calls will be made tomorrow. (via Maud)

[UPDATE: It’s worth noting that, last October, Lorrie Heasley was ejected from a Southwest flight for wearing a Meet the Fockers parody T-shirt. Heasley vowed to file a civil rights lawsuit, but I can find no trace of it. But in a New York Times article, two law professors remarked that the Heasley case doesn’t apply to the First Amendment because only the government can violate the Constitution. Writing in Salon, Andrew Salon remarked upon this troubling predicament.]

Josh Wolf Benefits

To follow up on the Josh Wolf incarceration, Laughing Squid points to two benefit events designed to raise money for Josh’s legal defense fund.

Event #1: Cafe La Boheme, Saturday August 19, 2006, 5:00 PM-7:00 PM.

Event #2: House of Shields, Thursday, August 24, 2006, 7:00 PM.

Josh’s case represents a scenario that could apply to all journalists, establishing a legal precedent which will affect the way any story is covered. That local story about police corruption involving a reporter gaining the trust of an anonymous source? (Consider Fajitagate, for example.) Well, the case is under investigation and it’s been transferred to a federal court, sidestepping the California shield law, and the journalist has to give up his sources or be thrown in jail. If you are concerned with preserving California’s shield law and the future of investigative journalism, and you happen to be in San Francisco on either of these two days, these two benefits are worth your while.

If not, you can always donate to Josh Wolf’s defense fund.

Never Underestimate the Power of Wyoming’s Ed’s Stupidity

At Wyoming Valley West High School, students are petitioning the district to have a banned poem reinstated. What was the poem’s topic? Unbridled teenage sexuality? Gang warfare? Some sestina penned in homage to Kathy Acker? Nothing of the sort. The poem merely involved a teacher catching a kid without a hall pass.

[UPDATE: The school is based in Pennsylvania, not Wyoming. Sorry, folks. Between this and the Warhol screwup, I’m definitely slipping — for reasons I won’t go into here.]

Books Subject to Governmental Approval

The Book Standard reports that the House of Representatives have added a clause to the Children’s Safety and Violent Crime Reduction Act of 2005 in which books which offer “any visual depiction of simulated or sexually explicit conduct” or are “produced in whole or in part with materials which have been mailed or shipped in interstate or foreign commerce, or is shipped or transported or is intended for shipment or transportation in interstate or foreign commerce” must, as with pornography, report every performer portrayed in a visual depiction. In other words, if a photograph appears in a book depicting anything considered “sexually explicit” (a term that isn’t even defined by H.R. 4472, which suggests that this could apply to an innocuous image of two men kissing), the government wants to track your participation.

Of course, such a Stalinistic tactic does not, in fact, run directly counter to the First Amendment, but this does raise serious questions about whether certain performers might be audited or “investigated” simply because their work is considered “sexually explicit” by the U.S. government. Consider an author like William T. Vollmann, who regularly features provactive photographs by Ken Miller in his work, in an effort to chronicle the poor and the prostitutes. Will future editions of The Royal Family now have to be eviscerated of these photos?