Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, November 5, 2002


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What a treat it is to sit down with Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), and talk about the state of the First Amendment, the health of bookstores and libraries today and the latest news on lawsuits brought by ABFFE and other groups against the USA Patriot Act.

So far the notorious Section #215 of the Patriot Act continues to give FBI agents the power to barge into libraries, newspapers and booksellers with easy-to-get subpoenas and demand records of customers and patrons.

Once these agents are in the door, Section #215 places a gag order on librarians and booksellers from speaking publicly about such demands. As a consequence librarians have been dumping records, and some booksellers have put up signs warning customers to use cash only when purchasing books.

What a fine state of events *this* is, as Oliver Hardy used to say. Thank heaven for groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Media Coalition and other groups with which ABFFE has joined in trying to get a bead on how much damage Section #215 is doing to Constitutional protections dealing with privacy and freedom of expression.

The latest series of lawsuits, Finan says, has been filed under the Freedom of Information Act simply to find out how many subpoenas have been issued to bookstores, libraries and newspapers by the Department of Justice, which doesn't want to tell.

But as Finan asks, what harm can it do to release a few numbers? "Revealing how many subpoenas have been issued will not threaten national security," he has stated. "It will tell us how often the Justice Department is using the very broad power it received in the Patriot Act to monitor First Amendment-protected activity."

A similar demand for this information was sent to Attorney General John Ashcroft by the House Committee on the Judiciary, which oversees the Department of Justice. The DOJ took a while to respond - 2 months - and said it would "grant an expedited processing."

But guess what? Nothing happened as a result of *any* of these lawsuits, letters or acknowledgments. So last week, ABFFE and other organizations sued again to expedite matters for real.

Any possibility that information about the number of Patriot Act subpoenas will be released this time?

"Oh, I think there's an excellent chance of winning the suit to *expedite* the process," Chris said, smiling resignedly. "Government lawyers have told us, 'You've got a really good case here. It's important information you're after - and we're not going to give it to you."

Great, back where we started. But as Finan says: "Whatever happens in the courts is important for public education. It's especially important for booksellers and librarians to know these provisions exist in laws like the USA Patriot Act, and that we need to mobilize against them. Section #215 is supposed to 'sunset' [expire] in 2005, so at very least we're going to try to ensure it won't be reenacted."

Egad, we've got to wait another three years before #215 has gone out of commission, and even then it might be renewed? "That's the challenge," says Finan with a grimace.

Chris knows the historical context of so many First Amendment rulings that he's like a walking bridge of information spanning from early threats to the First Amendment to the current post-9/11 crisis. As bleak as civil liberties protections seem right now, he suggests, we can count our blessings.

"There was a time in this country when booksellers had to go to the police and ask what books they could sell," he explains. "This was in the 1920s, when the question was wide open as to whether books could be considered a source of corruption. At the time, people were still fighting over whether 'Ulysses' was obscene or not. So we've come a long way."

Even more relevant to this discussion is Finan's new book, "Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior" (Hill & Wang; 396 pages; $26).

There we learn that a "Red Scare" about Communism and Socialism erupted after World War I that was equally damaging to Constitutional protections as the Red Scare that emerged during the McCarthyism era after World War II.

"Hysteria in the early '20s gave rise to the infamous 'Lusk laws' in New York state," Chris says. Passed by an overzealous legislature, "the Lusk laws required a loyalty oath of all teachers, gave the Secretary of State the power to deny a place on the ballot to any 'disloyal' political party, handed the head of the Education Department the right to deny accreditation to Socialist schools. Happily, Al Smith vetoed the Lusk laws when he was governor."

What I love about interviewing people like Finan is not only uncovering fresh insights on First Amendment history but also discovering a book that is wonderfully absorbing and informative regardless of its relevance to contemporary issues.

Alfred E. Smith may be fading as a political presence in history, but pages into this book, I forgot all about the reason I was reading it and found myself riveted to the story of this former truck driver who had left school after the 7th grade, found his way into saloon politics and made a reputation as a leader whose roots were always with the common man.

If you think, as I did, that anybody climbing up the political ladder via patronage jobs with Tammany Hall had to be corrupt, it's quite an education to see how complicated were the layers of reform and bribery - indeed, there was a difference between "honest graft" and "dishonest graft" - that brought Smith to the governor's mansion in Albany.

Once entrenched there, Smith declared his faith in the ability of "the American ideal triumphantly to resist Bolshevism." While "every sane American relinquished some freedom" when the country was at war, now that WWI had ended, "we should return to a normal state of mind, and keep our balance, and an even keel" in making sure the country would again be ruled democratically.

But Smith worried that "the attack on Communism was becoming an assault on all Americans of immigrant birth." Instead of going on the attack, he said, Americans should bring to the issue a "sympathetic understanding and a fearless and courageous meeting of [immigrants'] needs."

Yet no sooner had Smith made that declaration and walked out of the Assembly chamber, Finan writes, than the Speaker called the members who were Socialists to the center of the floor and "moved to suspend them until the Judiciary Committee could decide whether they should be expelled." The motion won almost unanimously, 140 to 6.

You just want to stand up and cheer at how beautifully Finan lays out the way Smith fought the Socialists' suspension. He acknowledged that he was "inalterably opposed to the fundamental principles of the Socialist party." Nevertheless, Smith declared, "the people rule negatively as well as affirmatively, and a good, healthy, vigorous minority is the necessary check on great power."

As Finan notes, "For Smith there was nothing theoretical about the importance of free speech." He knew how important it was to preserve a variety of viewpoints regardless of the currency of the times.

"Law, in a democracy, means the protection of the rights and liberties of the minority," Smith said. "their rights, when properly exercised, and their liberties, when not abused, should be safeguarded."

What makes Smith's stand even more impressive today, Finan says, is that "he was acting almost without any precedent. The Supreme Court all through World War I supported all measures of the [Woodrow] Wilson administration to suppress Socialist antiwar periodicals sent through the mails. They sent Eugene Debs to jail for 10 years for criticizing the war.

"Even Oliver Wendell Holmes supported such legislation until November of 1919, which was a critical moment, really the start of First Amendment history as we understand it. For the first time, he referred to "the marketplace of ideas" - the notion that we have to allow ideas to find their own place in society without restriction. Only three months later, Smith was drawing on that language and taking very strong stand against legislature."

The lesson we can learn from Al Smith in this context, Finan says, is that Smith didn't suffer from standing up for free speech when he was very much in the minority. "He went on to become a steady critic of movie censorship," Finan says, "during which he disagreed with his own [Catholic] church. It's a very important chapter in the history of the First Amendment, but most people don't know anything about it because we don't know much about Al Smith."

Well, that may change if this book is any indication. Plus there are modern-day parallels, says Finan, as we learn from the increased popularity of Russ Feingold, the only Senator to vote against the USA Patriot Act.

But what about the political climate in the United States - has it shifted since ABFFE's stand against the USA Patriot Act last year?

"People seem to have a much higher level of concern about the Patriot Act now than a year ago," Chris says. "We sent out a letter about the Patriot Act in November of 2001 in which we opposed Section #215 and outlined procedures that booksellers could follow to resist FBI agents who might demand store records. Some booksellers told us, 'If anybody from the FBI asks me for records, they'll get them.', It seemed to me that this was more a reaction to the catastrophe of 9/11 than to the Patriot Act per se.

"I felt the majority of booksellers felt differently, but we were concerned about it. We didn't want to run too far out in front of our membership because we didn't want to lose our leverage. And anyway, the more that booksellers learned about #215 and thought about it, the more they wondered, 'What the hell relevance do our records have to do with terrorists, and what are we going to do about it?'

"Of course, the irony of free speech is that it allows people to advocate censorship, to express anger at ideas they don't like, and inevitably that's going to be reflected in legislation. But I think if you compare the Red Scare of 1920 to what's happened in America since 9/11, you find a lot more tolerance of speech of all kinds."



Thanks to Rohinton Mistry for reminding us, albeit in painful circumstances, what this country is still struggling to stand for.

Mistry, who has had three books short-listed for the Booker Prize, including "Family Matters" (published this year), is best known for "A Fine Balance," the novel that continues to mesmerize readers and rise up on bestseller lists around the county.

He is by now an international celebrity but hardly treated as one in American airports. Mistry's publisher at Alfred A. Knopf, Sonny Mehta, told the press that at the Booker Prize dinner in England last month, Mistry "said that he had a terrible time traveling in the U.S. He was really upset."

The memo sent to bookstores from Knopf states that Mistry "as a person of color was stopped repeatedly and rudely at each airport along the way - to the point where the humiliation for both he and his wife has become unbearable."

(Okay, correct usage would be "for both *him* and his wife," but let's forgive the haste with which the memo was written, "to the point where" even nouns and conjunctions got confused.)

What hasn't been given too much attention is that Mistry is accustomed to this kind of rude treatment and has been enduring it in U.S. airports ever since his tour for "A Fine Balance" hit a glitch after 9/11/01. Even then, he was "taking it in stride," as the British newspaper The Globe and Mail reported.

"I did feel for the first few weeks [after 9/11/01], right through to December, when I was traveling, that a brown skin and a beard were not a felicitous combination," Mistry said. "I could feel the looks from the security personnel. That is okay; it is part or their job."

So what a nice guy is Mr. Mistry. And here's a good sign: Since 9/11, "the ugly face of America," as Canadian Natural Resources Minister Herb Dhaliwal called it, has been given a little facelift.

American airport security officers have been given a list of 20 "dangerous countries" to check against foreign passports. Those born in those countries may be detained, photographed, fingerprinted or investigated.

The irony in all this is that Rohinton Mistry was born in India, which is *not* on the list of dangerous countries, so it's clear nobody has been checking his passport against the list.

There's just no way around it: Although some authorities agree that "racial profiling" is necessary and can be controlled by guidelines and lists, security and law enforcement personnel in U.S. airports are still eye-balling suspects on the basis of skin color and facial hair alone.

Even the sympathetic Mistry has had it, but maybe there's a lesson to be learned from his tour's cancellation: Now more than ever, Americans have the chance to take a lesson from civil libertarians like Al Smith who certainly knew the dangers of the majority in threatening times.

"It is a confession of the weakness of our own faith in the righteousness of our cause," Smith stated, "when we attempt to suppress by law those who do not agree with us." Safeguarding the rights of minorities, then as now, means safeguarding the rights of everyone.



Dear Holt Uncensored,

My condolences to Susan Grant on the Wal-Mart debacle [in which her fourth romance novel, "Contact," was not seen as "appropriate" and therefore not stocked by Wal-Mart's buyer even though the airplane Grant describes is not hijacked by terrorists but "swallowed whole" by a monster ship from another planet].

I had a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" novel set to be released 2 weeks after Columbine. It was printed, distributed, and waiting for sale day. Problem was, my story opened with a guy shooting fellow students in the quad...and dying in the library. My editor, publisher (Simon & Schuster), and I agreed to hold the book, and luckily with some editing, it was released the following year. In that case, I think all the decisions that were made were justified. I had a friend whose daughter was at Columbine, and I would have hated to look as if I were riding the coattails of a tragedy...a lot of people have no idea how long most books are in production.

But Grant's situation...that's just plain weird. Mondo weird. Best wishes to her.

Nancy Holder (purposely withholding the title of the Buffy book)

Dear Holt Uncensored:

This matter of Wal-Mart "censoring" a book is old news.

Ever since entrepreneurs have been displaying goods for sale in their establishments, [Wal-Mart's buyers] have been making decisions about what to offer for sale and what items they do not want to display.

7-11 Stores decided more then 20 years ago to stop selling Penthouse magazines. B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, back in the 60s or even earlier, refused to purchase books with visible nipples on the cover or dust jacket. Many independent bookstores, today, refuse to stock "The AntiRacist Cookbook."

Wal-Mart is simply responding what its buyers view as a plot line that will offend their customers. Today no retailer can, willingly, afford to offend their customers, as we all know customers are too few and far between.

Wal-Mart exercised Astute Marketing acumen, and they are to be congratulated for taking steps to maintain their customer base.

Allan Lang

Holt responds: Nobody is saying Wal-Mart doesn't have the right to make a decision like this. Reference in the article is made to discussions between the buyer and publishers about racy jacket illustration covers all the time. It's just that here the buyer didnt say the book was offensive but rather that it wasn't "appropriate." The buyer decided what people should buy instead of letting readers choose for themselves. If this is a decision that was geared to "maintain customer base," it doesn't say much for Wal-Mart customers.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

"Contact" by Susan Grant. Lordy, Lordy, somebody get that poor flygirl a handful of titles of her own. Cripes, if there are not billions and billions of star books out there called "Contact," then there is at least Carl Sagan's, from which a heavily televised film was made. I'm just a mild-mannered insignificant flyspeck of an independent book shop owner, but if the sod-for-brains who name horses can think up with unique names for their holes in the turf, then why can't educated, talented, edited and published authors find book titles that have not been worn smooth.

I have used some rather clever Pavlovian conditioning technique, such as putting same-titled books in the front window upside-down, to train the local authors. Several of them, whose agents and editors cannot be bothered, come to me with a list of the favorite picks for their next book's title and have me run them through Books-In-Print. Now if I can get them to check their final picks with BOOP, ABE (Advanced Book Exchange), or LC (Library of Congress). Nice to know with whose book yours will be confused. Amen sister. Amen.

Penis flytrap that swallows a 747? Gimme a break. But to keep Grant from starving, as a slap at old DullMart, I'll carry the book. Maybe I'll retitle it with a chunk of masking tape. It's quiet, and customers need something to talk about until the snow starts seriously. When Banned Books week threatens to become banal, then the box stores really do win.

Rick Rayfield
Tempest Book Shop
Waitsfield VT 05673

Dear Holt Uncensored:

About your Wal-Mart story and the 747 pilot who writes romance novels: The author is quoted: "Wal-Mart has been good to us. If you consider 5-6,000 Wal-Mart stores multiplied by 3 books a store, you can see how powerful they are in launching a book."

THREE copies per store??

Further down the column, Wallace Kuralt says that 6,000 independent bookstores have closed over the years.

THREE books per 6,000 independents is equal to or greater than THREE books for each of the 5-6,000 Wal-Mart stores.

Sarah Pishko

Holt responds: Remember, Wallace Kuralt said 6,000 independents (selling new and used books) have *closed.* Let's say about 3500 remain. I think Susan Grant means that because independent bookstores may or may not take romance paperbacks (and when they do you can never tell how many each store will take or when, and even then you have to start counting, say, 2 copies here, 3 copies there), the immediate sale to Wal-Mart of 18,000-20,000 copies to an audience that can be measured as it buys more and more copies of each book is simply a meaningful buy. Within a few weeks or months that number could double, then triple, while meantime you're still counting 2 reorders from this independent and 4 reorders from that. Any veteran of the trade knows that sometimes a seemingly sketchy buy from independents can be very meaningful too. Your letter reflects the fact that publishers often move so fast they think time permits only a glance at the data that's easiest to read. I think that's why Book Sense is so helpful - it's a service that shows the collective buying power of independents, though so far it has not measured sales of romance novels specifically.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

If Wal-Mart decided to not sell "Little Black Sambo," the Politically Correct group would be singing the praises of how wonderful it was that Wal-Mart was forgoing big bucks for strength of courage. How come it doesn't work here? Does that mean that Wal-Mart has to sell ALL books, otherwise it is censorship? Libraries don't buy all books; isn't that a form of censorship? If Wal-Mart didn't buy this book but didn't tell anyone why, would that have been better? Don't forget, Wal-Mart is losing sales here.

Holt responds: The difference here is that the buyer wanted editorial changes, which in the "Little Black Sambo" example would have been the equivalent of changing the title to "Little White Sambo."

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Gold makes the case: "What if Wal-Mart decides not to sell a Spike Lee DVD because of a disturbing theme, or won't sell any more 'Harry Potter' books because some find the magic theme subversive, antiChristian, or somehow Satanist?"

In fact, Wal-Mart makes that decision all the time. It regularly sells specially edited versions of popular CD's, for example.

If Gold has a problem with retailers not stocking titles because of content, then she will have to contend with every buyer of every retail outlet and website in the country. My dictionaries (Webster's New World and American Heritage) indicate that the words "censor" and "censorship" refer to government-run or government-sanctioned bodies, not private businesses.

I find it odd to be defending Wal-Mart, but maybe if Gold and her romance-writing cohorts and their friends and families and fans stopped shopping there, Wal-Mart would find that it no longer has a market for $1.78 romances that don't pay royalties.

Daniel Goldin Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops

Holt responds: I just want to say that Wal-Mart has become so big, it *acts* like the government, and censors like the government, and breaks just like a little girl.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Wal-Mart, you may have noticed is a company that is in business. Business by most persons' definition is to make a profit. It behooves most business to make decisions based upon their profitability.

I'm a novel writer (romance, suspense, adventure, comedy, etc.- very cross genre) and also a farmer's wife. Our main business is growing and selling seed wheat. 3/4 of our business is the growing and selling of inferior strains of wheat. Did I say INFERIOR? Yes, I did. Why? Because that is what our customers demand. We feel it is not only our job to give the customers what they ask for but to try to provide better choices and educate them toward the better choices. However, we will not force them to. Do you note the connection?

I have a tough time moving my novels because they don't have a "recognized" genre. So what? I have the option of writing something more in keeping with customer expectations, or I can hope to influence a small circle of contented readers and hope that pool grows. OR, I can do both! Just, don't blame it on the retailers.

By the way, when someone big comes and asks us for a seed wheat discount, we don't give them one for size of order. Why? Because ALL of our customers are important to us - regardless of size. We believe that the surest way to cut your own throat in business is to treat customers differently. It doesn't matter whether you pull into our place with 6 semi-trailers or a cleaned out trash dumpster - we'll load either. The farm and seed wheat sales have been operational for over 75 years and four generations. (I've not been around that long - I married into the third).

On that note it would seem to me that two large powers can come into play in this situation. Either writers can refuse to sign contracts that they deem inferior, or publishers could notice that paying attention to fair pricing to independents would leave them in a better bargaining position when dealing with recalcitrant giants like Wal-Mart. Just one woman's opinion.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

[Note: In corresponding with this reader, I mentioned that romance fans had written to say they were going to take my column into Wal-Mart and demand that the company stock Susan Grant's book. I asked them not to do this because I had heard from people in the romance field that once a novelist was branded a "troublemaker," future books by that author could be blackballed. (Of course, then I heard the reverse.)]

It never occurred to me that more publicity on the buying decisions of Wal-Mart/Anderson Merchandising could harm Susan Grant. My hope is that all the booksellers who get wind of this - either through you, [Internet romance columnist] Laurie Gold, or any of the many list-serves now carrying the news - will order "Contact" as well as Susan's backlist.

It would also be great if those who up to now have turned up their noses to romance fiction will read Susan's book (and others) with a new perspective. It's always better for a bookseller to have read a good cross section of a genre before making a judgment as to its literary value. Actually, are booksellers who refuse to stock a respectable selection of "those books" (meaning romance) any less guilty than Wal-Mart/Anderson Merchandising?

What makes one book enjoyable to me may be the very thing that repels another reader. Choice of reading material is very subjective entertainment. There are many best-selling authors whose works I'd read only under torture, but that doesn't mean they're poorly written or unworthy of publication. It just means that I don't enjoy them.

Ever since I was a little girl (many moons ago) I've been an avid reader, and it's rare for me to go anywhere without a book in hand; after all, one never knows when a few free minutes may come up. In those many years I've read a variety of genres and have settled on Romance Fiction - especially Romantic Suspense - as what I most enjoy. Does that mean that I'm running on fewer brain cells than one who reads and enjoys literary fiction? No. Just as it doesn't mean an author of literary fiction is running on more brain cells than an author of romance fiction.

Let's hope your readers will support Susan Grant with their buying dollars, because that's what seems to have the loudest voice.

Dee Clingman

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Have you run anything on Print-on-Demand (for publishers, not self-publishers)? Specifically, I'm interested in knowing how booksellers feel about ordering books from Lightningsource (Ingram) and BookSurge (Bowker). These companies seem to have the ability to make my life easier as a publisher in terms of keeping books in print, but I need to know how booksellers feel about ordering from them. If they learn the book is no longer available from say, BookPeople, but is available as a POD from one of these sources, would they order it?

Susan Vogel
Pince-Nez Press

Holt responds: This would be welcome information indeed. Are any independents out there ordering from Ingram or Bowker's POD companies? Or from any other POD outlets? Have discounts at any POD publisher been brought in line with standard trade discounts?

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding "THE NEW 'GOOGLE NEWS' - REVOLUTIONARY OR ORWELLIAN?" in #347, I must say that I'm amused to see you declare Google News "Orwellian," while simultaneously bemoaning Time attributing "superior services" to corporate bookstores, in the same column. The adjective "Orwellian" implies a despotism of some sort, which is ridiculous, given that Google is not holding a gun to anyone's heads while they're using its services.

Focusing on the issue at hand, a search for "George Bush" at 10/19/02, 6:56 AM reveals the Oregonian, Pravda, Progressive.org, the Orlando Sentinel and the Minneapolis Star Tribune within the first five results. Three midtown newspapers, an infamous Russian newspaper, long post-glasnost, and a progressive news site -- with no mention of CNN, MSNBC, or the Washington Post -- is, for my money, a fairly egalitarian run for a general search term.

In addition, I find it strange that you would not observe Alternet's agenda in putting the Rubenstein article at the top of the heap. Alternet offers a similar newswire service, albeit one that concentrates upon a progressive sliver of the spectrum. In a seemingly aloof sense, Google News has, in expanding its sources and recalibrating its algorithims, become directly competitive with Alternet. Human editors may guide Alternet's invisible hand towards a certain political spectrum, but, being humans, they are just as incorrigible in denying us the complete picture as the New York Times' editors are in deciding which news is "fit to print." (See http://www.narconews.com/alternetpapers.html for some insights into Alternet's ethics -- quite fascinating in their similarities to big media.)

Now that Google News has been expanded from its initial 150 or so newspapers to include 4,000+ sources (including AlterNet, I might add) and included just above the main Google search bar, more people have access to ideas, thoughts and opinions that they may have not otherwise read or taken in. Someone hooked up in the Iowa cornfields, curious about the Iraq elections or the North Korean nuclear bomb threat, can now compare what the New York Times and the Village Voice says about the situation with only a few search terms.

Only a fool would see that development as anything less than democratic. Democracy doesn't involve battering someone's heads into submission and nodding over viewpoints, as some of the articles featured on Alternet are loath to do in typical alt-weekly fashion. It involves providing a wide spectrum for an individual to select articles, think about issues and form their own opinions. Indeed, the "Orwellian" thing to do is to shove a vegetarian feminist socialist down somebody's throat rather than present it side-by-side with a gun-toting Nazi, along with the wonted corporate saunterers. Or do you not have faith in the lay reader to look at the Motley Fool's pro-capitalist barb and see it as anything but news?

Edward Champion

Holt responds: The use of the word "Orwellian" in the headline was a reference to the fact that Google News is entirely automated. It would take only a flip of a switch to direct the news toward one bias or another, and a new kind of Big Brother would win. Of course, if the bias were vegetarian feminist socialist, we'd all be better off.

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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