by Pat Holt
Tuesday, September 25, 2001
THE STATE OF CENSORSHIP
It seems fitting during this Banned Books Week to look at the matter of censorship and its chilling Before-and-After quality.
Every indication from Congress to the White House is that during this "state of war," Americans will have to trade civil rights protections for national security.
Not everyone agrees. In an article called "The Big Lie," Brigid McMenamin writes in Forbes magazine that Americans need not "sacrifice their liberty to achieve safety." [See http://www.forbes.com/2001/09/17/0917lie.html]
"Take the bill passed by the Senate two days after the attack," writes McMenamin. "It would permit police to tape phones and seize Internet records without a search warrant. That would leave Americans vulnerable to even greater evils."
The question is whether the government is "trying to exploit a crisis for illicit purposes," says Forbes, as it did in 1996, when "antiterrorist laws [were] inspired by the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City."
At that point, the government was allowed to "take advantage of these tragedies," says Timothy Lynch, a constitutional law expert. "Sacrificing rights didn't work then," Mcmenamin concludes, "and it's dishonest for law enforcement to pretend that waiving civil rights now will work, either."
Laws and procedures are already in effect that give federal and local agencies a wide berth during anti-terrorism investigations, says John Gibeaut in his report for the American Bar Association. There Gibeaut describes a two-pronged threat - 1) "adding terrorism-related offenses and broader wiretapping powers to the same law used to fight mobsters and drug dealers, commonly called Title III," and 2) wide surveillance powers granted for up to one year before a court order is required under FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. [See http://www.abanet.org/journal/ereport/civil.html.]
All of this ushers in a new era of censorship and invasion of privacy, writes John Leonard at Salon.com, through "roving wiretap legislation, e-mail and other Internet peeping rights, detention and deportation of aliens based on secret evidence, and a gutting of statutes of limitation, not to mention the unleashing of the CIA to hire its own gang of thugs and to resume assassinating foreign leaders we don't like." [See http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2001/09/21/networks/index.html.]
Not only is Congress "falling all over itself to give Attorney General John Ashcroft most of what he wants," Leonard contends, new technology is leading the way.
It may not be long before everyone will be required to carry national ID "smart" cards, writes Leonard, "capable of tracking our criminal history, our bodily motions, our financial transactions, and our driving speed." Then there are the "biometrics of fingerprinting, voice recognition, retinal scans and racial profiling, not only at airports, but at train stations, sports stadiums, parks, schools and reservoirs."
Who knows if any of it will "work" in terms of fighting terrorism? The only thing we know for sure is that a new and bigger Big Brother is right in front of us.
The most profound effect has already happened, Leonard indicates: Restricted freedoms create an atmosphere of censorship that stills dissent. During the last two weeks, Americans saw a parade of experts talking about the catastrophe of September 11, but "what we didn't see," writes Leonard, "was any meaningful dissent from the tom-toms. End of dialogue.
"We are apparently supposed to shut up and eat our spinach. Asking questions, proposing alternatives, making distinctions, arguing analogies, remembering history or criticizing our stand-tall president is for the moment unpatriotic and maybe even unmanly. Wave that flag, stuff that qualm."
To put the future in perspective, let's go back a few weeks and years to examine the state of censorship before the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Thanks to an eye-opening book called "Places I Never Meant to Be," published for Banned Books Week (September 22-29) by Simon & Schuster (202 pages; $10 paperback), we hear from a variety of authors whose Young Adult books have been threatened by censorship.
Here Walter Dean Myers, Paul Zindel, Norma Klein, Susan Beth Pfeffer, Julius Lester, Harry Mazer, Jacqueline Woodson, Rachel Vail and others offer original stories so that we can see for ourselves how good they are as creators of fiction - how quickly we're pulled in by their narrative, how much their characters intrigue us, how right it feels to put ourselves entirely in their hands as they transport us to another world.
Then we see what is at risk when, at the end of each story, the author talks about how it feels to see one's work eviscerated by committees and petitions and censors who want certain words, acts, dialogue or descriptions removed - or before that, by editors who want to make the work "safe" from such censors by, of course, censoring it themselves.
And while many of the authors reveal different experiences in schools, libraries, bookstores and publishing houses, one stunning message comes across:
The worst kind of censorship is not heavy-handed or public; it's not even a pulling of the work from the shelves (as bad as that is). Rather, the worst kind of censorship is invisible and internal; it's a seeping in of the threat outside, a corrosive influence that strangles the work before it's even written.
As Julius Lester puts it: "Sometimes it is difficult to write, knowing there are forces waiting to seize upon what they consider to be an 'objectionable' word, scene, or character in something I've written."
"I struggle each day not to let the fear of the censor poison my writing," writes Harry Mazer. "When our chief goal is not to offend someone," Katherine Paterson tells us, "we are not likely to write a book that will deeply affect anyone."
Then there is the fact that authors themselves are often the last people to fight censorship. "How protected I am, I now think, by the undaunted teachers and librarians and booksellers who are on the front lines and face the extreme attacks of some of The CensorKooks," as Zindel says. Knowing that others must fight your battles for you can also raise the spectre of self-censorship even before the author sees it.
Judy Blume – one of the most censored writers in the United States - edited and introduces these stories, and explains how the 1970s created an atmosphere of comparative freedom for writers. This, however, changed "almost overnight, following the presidential election of 1980, [when] the censors crawled out of the woodwork, organized and determined."
Schools were not ready for the assault of the Moral Majority and other book-banning groups, Blume says. Objections were not only aimed at language and sexuality," she says, but at "something called 'lack of moral tone.' " Still, Blume's toughest challenge was the atmosphere of self-censorship that invaded her own publishing house.
"My worst moment came when I was working with my editor on the manuscript of 'Tiger Eyes' (the story of a 15-year-old girl, Davey, whose beloved father dies suddenly and violently). When we came to the scene in which Davey allows herself to feel again after months of numbness following her father's death, I saw that a few lines alluding to masturbation had been circled. My editor put down his pencil and faced me. 'We want this book to reach as many readers as possible, don't we?' he asked.
"I felt my face grow hot, my stomach clench. This was the same editor who had worked with me on 'Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret'; 'Then Again, Maybe I Won't'; 'Deenie'; 'Blubber'; 'Forever' - always encouraging, always supportive.
"The scene was psychologically sound, he assured me, and delicately handled. But it also spelled trouble. I got the message. If you leave in those lines, the censors will come after this book. Librarians and teachers won't buy it. Book clubs won't take it. Everyone is too scared. The political climate has changed.
"I tried to make a case for why that brief moment in Davey's life was important. He asked me how important? Important enough to keep the book from reaching its audience? I willed myself not to give in to the tears of frustration and disappointment I felt coming. I thought about the ways a writer brings a character to life on the page, the same way an artist brings a face to life on canvas - through a series of brush strokes, each detail adding to the others, until we see the essence of the person.
"I floundered, uncertain. Ultimately, not strong enough or brave enough to defy the editor I trusted and respected, I caved in and took out those lines. I still remember how alone I felt at that moment."
This small but key moment occurred because of a confluence of delicate yet brutal circumstances that caused one very strong author to waver. Today, in the atmosphere of severe censorship that is racing toward us as we consider war abroad, the battle for freedom of speech will be waged even more ferociously on every page, with every line published, at home.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You might add to your excellent list of alternet news website sources the following: http://www.globalspin.org. This site provides links to more than 100 newspapers worldwide, which makes it easy to gather the views of diverse areas.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
There is another site that has been doing a wonderful job of gathering stories about how writers and publishers are dealing with last week's events — Mobylives.com (http://www.mobylives.com) run by Dennis Loy Johnson. It has a particular emphasis on the literary community in NYC. I,in fact,found you through his newslog link to your Tamim Ansary interview — which I was delighted to see. Johnson's own column on the World Trade tragedy, which he witnessed, is also quite moving.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Here are three other sites of interest to your readers:
Zmag.com (znet) is an unbelievably rich source of progressive information. Those who are trying to justify their own liberal stances, as I am, can refer particularly to a document called "talking points" on the first page which goes some way toward answering just about every question I had.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Bookmark http://www.counterpunch.org, too. (They bill themselves as "America's Best Political Newsletter." Be that as it may, they're a good source of information.)
Dear Holt Uncensored:
[Regarding your quote of Michael Moore's reference to "the stench" of those who died during the attack on the World Trade Center:] We really can smell the bodies, and some of them belonged to people we knew. I saw it happen last Tuesday, and it wasn't an abstraction. Give us a week to catch our breaths; we're still reeling. It's not the substance of these strings - it's just a matter of tone.
Holt responds: I agree with you about the tone. That certainly wasn't my intention, and I apologize if it sounded disrespectful or remote in any way. Read on.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As someone who watched the reprehensible acts of terror that took place in Manhattan - live - with a horrified group of my colleagues, I can only say that if you had been here in Manhattan at that moment, if you had seen the second plane slam into that tower as it was happening, I don't think your rhetoric would be quite so strong, nor do I think you would give such credence to vile filth like that which was spewed by Michael Moore on his website (which I did see, by the way).
Michael Moore and his ilk would feel a whole lot differently if they had been in NYC, and like all of us in NYC were, standing in the smoke and rubble and breathing in the dust of concrete, and steel, walking through the ash of thousands of incinerated bodies.
It is ten days later. To many others in this country, it may seem to be yesterday's news, and it may seem the appropriate time to start jumping all over the government and whatever official agencies you happen to have a beef with, and talk about what horrible things our government has done to third-world countries in the past.
But for those of us still here, it isn't yesterday's news; it is still YESTERDAY. And nobody in the World Trade Center was guilty of oppressing anyone in a third-world country, so to quote left-wing pundits who somehow imply that these people "deserved" what they got because of the actions of their country is just so much bullshit, and I am unspeakably angry...
Why aren't you writing about the amazing way the book industry and the publishing industry has been responding? PW Daily and Publishers Lunch both have been doing a tremendous job covering this angle.
You deride the chains for closing their stores while independent bookstores stayed open. Well, independent stores sometimes cannot afford to close, even for a national tragedy. They are small businesses with employees to take care of, and staying opne is the best way for a small business to do that. The large chain stores happen to have the luxury of extra cash flow, so they can afford to let their employees take a day to be with friends and family, and to make sure that all of their loved ones were accounted for. They all also arranged for grief counseling for their employees on an enormous scale.
Borders, lest you forget, lost a store - a store that the employees were very proud of - in the World Trade Center, and feared - until about 24 hours later - that one of their employees may have been killed. I read the emails that went out immediately to their staff around the country, giving them updates at every possible opportunity, and I saw the great joy in the email that went out announcing that their missing employee had indeed been found safe and sound.
Many publishers immediately pledged huge sums of money to the city of New York. They arranged for grief counselors on-site for their employees. Some of them have started matching funds, so that their employees can contribute monies to the relief effort and have their donation matched by their employer. Some of them have adopted out-of-state seach and rescue teams, providing the men and their dogs with food, clothing and even hometown newspapers. Many of them have refrained from taking advantage of the situation by publicizing books that are somehow relevant; it is considered to be in poor taste.
Publicists and travel agents at every publishing house in the country - large and small - had to scramble to make sure their touring authors were safe; to house the ones who were stranded and try to wade through the amazing airline mess in the days afterward to get their authors home safe. Yes, some tours were cancelled because of this and some booksellers were inconvenienced but, really, so what?
Since so many of your readers ARE in the publishing industry and ARE in New York City, and ARE still in shock and in pain and grieving, you might have thought to wait a few weeks before writing such inflammatory and insensitive columns.
Holt responds: I think in retrospect you're right - I handled the Michael Moore quote too lightly. While he did not say the people who perished deserved to die, his remarks were despicable. I should have stated that more clearly before making the point, which I still believe, that this was Moore's way of being patriotic. I also think that when dissent finally emerges, much of it is going to be just that ugly.
At the same time, perhaps ironically to you, setting up this column as a media watchdog was my way of honoring those who perished and those who survived. In the period of severe censorship we are about to enter, it seems to me this kind of vigilance, initiated instantly after the attack, is our only hope of protecting a free and open debate. .
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Sandy DeWine wrote:
Just to set the record straight, Lambda Rising closed for the day on Sept. 11th too. As soon as we realized that we were dealing with a major terrorist offensive, and that they had struck just across the river at the Pentagon, we posted a sign on our door and sent our employees home to be with their spouses, families and friends.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I was pleased to see your August 14th bulletin (#258) on manuscript consultants. I would like to point out that there is a third group of seasoned New York City book publishing professionals who now work as independent editors and consultants. The group is called Words into Print. Details on our members can be found on our Web site: http://www.wordsintoprint.org
We would be grateful if you would pass this information along to your readers.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I just had to comment on all this - "to say that we should understand Osama Bin Laden is to say that we should understand Hitler" - stuff [see Tamim Ansary's letter, #265]. People who say this kind of simplistic stuff really do need to take a look at history themselves and at the fact that, just as the U.S. government was only too happy to consider Bin Laden an ally against the Soviet Union and give him lots of support, so too did the U.S. government respond gleefully when Hitler came to power in Germany - well after Mein Kampf had been published with clear statements of his view of the world.
I don't want to make any overly simplistic comment here myself, but I certainly feel that we need to examine the use-and-discard view that the U.S. government has brought to all kinds of despots through the years, including (in recent years) Duvalier in Haiti, Noriega in Panama, Hussein in Iraq, Bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan - all of whom were lauded by U.S. officials as good friends and given all kinds of military equipment and training and then were targeted as major criminals that needed to be gotten rid of immediately.
Sadly, this has not been examined in the major media, that I've seen. Instead we hear such deep analyses as Sen John McCain's statement that "they hate us because we're good."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You have indeed provided an open forum for ideas from all sides of the situation; kudos to you for that.
Having read the various opinions, I can find points on both sides to agree with, although my initial reaction, as a native New Yorker, was to let the bombers fly and turn Afghanistan into a parking lot. Mr. Ansary makes a good point when he says that the issue at hand is not the killing of Afghanis, but Americans.
What Mr. Ansary and others who would caution America to use restraint have not brought to the table, is a viable alternative to a massive military campaign.
We have no diplomatic relations with the Taliban, making a political solution difficult. I would also argue that we have at best, a meager understanding of the various cultures and problems in the Middle East. My question, therefore, to Mr. Ansary and others, is, what are we to do?
If we can't respond militarily, we have no diplomatic means to resolve this, the Taliban will not extradite bin Laden so that we may prosecute him, and Afghanistan has "no economy", according to Mr. Ansary, that we may use economic means, what options do we have?
As horrible as it is to think of a holy war with Islamic fundamentalists, it is far preferable to turning the other cheek and wondering when the next bomb is going to explode in a movie theater or office building. America was born of a war, and with one exception we have one every war we've ever been engaged in, and hard as this struggle will be, we will win this one too.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I am surprised at some of the vehement reactions to Tamim Ansary's well-circulated e-mail concerning Afghanistan. Some are convinced that his e-mail is part of a conspiracy to weaken America's resolve, and others are convinced that his understanding of the situation is less than he claims to possess. I don't know Mr. Ansary, and I cannot vouch for his possession of special insights that should elevate him to the status of expert on Afghanistan, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and other items of interest. On the other hand, I did not read his letter to imply that he was such an expert. I was grateful to read what he had to say, not because I believed that I was receiving accurate military intelligence, but because I was exposed to his viewpoint, nothing more than that.
I find it absurd that what he wrote has been taken to be the work of nefarious agents. Supposedly, they are trying to deter us from attacking Afghanistan out of misplaced concern for civilian casualties (that constant weakener of America's resolve!), and risks to our own military forces. Better to leave Afghanistan alone? That's not how I read Ansary's letter. The work of a Taliban provocateur? He attributed the terrorist attacks to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. He recognized both as evil and with much bigger plans. The message I received was that we will eventually have to deal with them militarily, inside Afghanistan and on the ground. As far as the futility of vague bombing campaigns is concerned, we only have to look at the cruise missile strike in 1998, not to mention Russia's failures in Afghanistan and now Chechnya. It's easy to blow up a lot of nothing.
Others find reason to dismiss Ansary because recent events appear to refute his claims. Trouble with Pakistan? Apparently not, the military dictator has thrown his support behind us. However, Gallup Pakistan yesterday reported that 62 percent of Pakistanis oppose an American presence in their country. Actually, I'm optimistic about that: 38 percent are on our side, and of the other 62 percent, many are undoubtedly sympathetic but don't want to risk a civil war. But many Pakistanis do hate us, and they tend to be concentrated in areas of the country that will be vital to U.S. military operations. We don't have a single American soldier there yet, so it's far too early to dismiss Ansary's warning about Pakistan. However, it's all to the good that we will base ourselves in Pakistan, in spite of the risks, because the real war against Osama bin Laden may end up being there rather than in Afghanistan. You don't have to rely on Ansary to know that losing Pakistan to the dark side (140 million people plus nuclear weapons) would be a big blow to our being able to achieve our aims.
Is Tamim Ansary right or wrong? Only time will tell, just as it will for any of our current perceptions.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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