by Pat Holt
Monday, July 14, 2003
AN OVERLOOKED TYRANNY
I was so incensed about the shameful Supreme Court decision to uphold CIPA, the Children's Internet Protection Act (see #370), that I neglected to detect a new tyranny that's taking shape behind the scenes.
CIPA requires libraries to install filters that screen out "bad" words and "obscenity" websites so tha t children passing by don't break out in acne before adolescence.
The Supreme Court says it realizes that filters often screen out the "wrong" things (Super Bowl XXX, Dick Cheny, poet Anne Sexton, young adult books for "Boys Under 12" and thousands of other vocab mixtures). Thus the second part of CIPA's ruling: If a patron complains about filters, librarians can just pull the plug.
So this was my worry last time: The Supreme Court has not only removed First Amendment protections from the public's freedom to read, it has negated its own decision and placed the burden of enforcement on the shoulders of librarians, who are going to be caught in the crossfire of conservative and liberal agendas.
But now a more insidious danger has emerged with the "humorous and twisted recent case" of tiny Beaver College in Pennsylvania. Founded in 1853 in the town of Beaver, the college, which has since moved across state near Philadelphia, has long been the subject of "ridicule in the form of derogatory remarks pertaining to...sexual vulgarities," according to its president, Bette Landman.
So ha ha, Beaver College has simply lived with and ignored the adolescent jokes made by such famous 12-year-olds as Howard Stern and Conan O'Brien (according to Wired News). Until now.
With the entrance of filters, which decide what is dirty and what is not, the word "beaver" suddenly became one of those "blocked" words that Internet users with filter systems on their computers would not see. This meant that high school students online, searching for prospective colleges in their school or public library, could never consider Beaver College. It had simply been erased from the Internet.
So that was the last straw. Facing a drop in enrollment, Beaver College, after 75 years of building a respected academic reputation, decided to change its name to Arcadia College.
What gripes me is that a perfectly decent college ends up supporting censorship and thus caving in to elements in society that should never have such power. And despite the fact that Beaver College acted for its own survival, its decision acts for all of us. Now you'd have to be a fool to name a college or any other respected institution "beaver."
Then I got to thinking about the word "beaver," a fine name for our toothy, industrious, river-dwelling, dam-constructing friends in the animal world. When and how did this term come to mean .... to mean .... well, you know. If I said what it means, you couldn't read it if you're reading this in, of all places, a library.
And you want to know why it's said that feminists have no sense of humor? (In this case you shouldn't either, Bub.) Because every part of the female body has been made obscene and snickered over by somebody, or groups of somebody. This was acceptable because the First Amendment protects them just as it protects you and me.
But let's not empower the fringe element, for heaven's sake. Let's not officialize or legitimize 'em with filtering machines. And honest to Pete, let's not violate the Constitution by making censorship legal. The whole point to free speech is that you never, ever open the door to arbitrary censorship as the Supreme Court has with its CIPA decision. The only result is the emergence of a new tyranny that takes the decision about what to read away from all of us.
So: Is there a way to defang the filters? Read on.
THE MOVEMENT AGAINST FILTERS
Thanks to growing activism against filters and the CIPA decision, library patrons can use computers at the library to click on allowed websites (that aren't subject to filters) and find a channel that will take them to prohibited sites. To see how this works, go to http://www.Peacefire.org, an anti-censorship group that specializes in the First Amendment rights of minors.
The eye-opening webpage on this site offers updates on filtering systems such as BESS, Cyber Patrol, Net Nanny, WebSENSE, SmartFilter, X-Stop and others, plus news about CIPA, libraries and censorship. Find this at:
Here we discover that filters have already gone berserk with their built-in fanaticism over language cleansing. For example, the Peacefire folks tell us:
But I like Peacefire best for its investigative undercover work. In one case, after reading Cyber Patrol's reasons for blocking "hate speech" sites, Peacefire anonymously created "anti-gay" webpages and put them on free sites such as GeoCities.
These "anti-gay" pages weren't filled with hate speech from just anywhere. Each "consist(ed) entirely of quotes taken from the Web site of a prominent conservative group such as Focus on the Family," according to Peacefire.
Then, through anonymous HotMail accounts, Peacefire "submitted each of these pages to Cyber Patrol for review," never stating that the hate speech came from conservative websites. Not knowing where they came from, "Cyber Patrol agreed to block each of these pages as 'hate speech.' "
At that point, Peacefire "then told Cyber Patrol that four prominent right-wing Web sites were the sources of all the anti-gay quotes on the four Web sites that we created, and asked whether those sites would be blocked as well. Cyber Patrol did not respond, and did not block the four conservative groups' home pages." You can read the archives of these communications at http://www.peacefire.org/BaitAndSwitch/.
GOOGLE HUMOR COMES OF AGE
I'm not the only one who believes the traditional press is so afraid of being attacked by conservatives that it's lost its eye for news and humor.
Increasingly, readers have shifted over to the Internet for uncensored news stories and humorous commentary. In recent weeks even the venerable Google search machine unexpectedly hooked up to a little treasure that made fun of the Bush administration - with no apology or explanation - through its "I Feel Lucky" feature.
All it took was to put "weapons of mass destruction" (without quotation marks) in the Google search line and click on "I Feel Lucky." Here's what you'd see:
"These Weapons of Mass Destruction cannot be displayed.
It turns out this parody came from the British site, Blue Yonder, and you can still find it by clicking http://www.coxar.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/.
Thanks to the many readers who have inquired about the recent slowdown of columns from Holt Uncensored (now in an every-two-weeks cycle at best).
The reason involves a recent flood that hit our subsidiary, Manuscript Express, which occupies the same two floors of high-tech downtown big mortgage real estate. Just when we thought the deluge had ended, the manuscripts kept pouring in, occupying every bit of space on carpet, tables and couch, and for a while there (thank heaven), it felt like we were drowning.
To my astonishment, work on these projects has yielded a new understanding of patterns I'm going to call "Ten Mistakes Writers Don't See (But Can Fix Easily When They Do)" in a future column. It doesn't give away any staff secrets, but gad, what a happy way to spread the word on obvious problems that too often go undetected. I'm going to send the column to people who query Manuscript Express so that writers can spiff up the manuscript beforehand and not end up spending money on the easy stuff.
Also, thanks to interviews at BEA a century ago with novelist and former Internet columnist M.J. Rose and self-publisher Fern Reiss, I've stopped saying that writers are the worst victims of publishing merger-mania. Looking at the manuscripts here and talking with published authors has convinced me that an unofficial movement among writers may finally take the industry by the tail.
So we'll see you as soon as I can get some of these sponges on staff to suck up the overload. And by the way, to all those writers out there, thanks for the overload.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
As a great fan of J.R.R. Tokien, Lois Lowry, Philip Pullman, *and* J.K. Rowling, including her latest release (at an even more "phenomenal length" of 870 pages, not the 750 pages you report), I think you should be careful about saying that the other authors' books are "a little bit, you know, just a little bit higher in terms of literary quality" if indeed you have not read "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."
I believe Rowling is brilliant in her newest installment, and for perhaps the first time in eons I agree with the Wall Street Journal, which compared her to Charles Dickens. Just because she is a successful author of series fiction for children (and in-the-know adults) who gets kids excited about reading does not mean her books are not literary.
Holt responds: I certainly am appalled at my mistake about the number of pages and am grateful to use your letter as a correction. And you're right, I read only the first Harry Potter and thought it fun but not at all as inventive, intricate, witty or suspenseful as it was trying to be. I've heard that other Harry Potter novels are more complex, but if they're *better* than the first, I'll be the first - no, the 9 millionth - to go git it. More to come on this soon.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You know the thing I like best about Harry Potter? The author is British. If an American author had written this juggernaut of a series, all the Earth would be grumbling about its success. Instead, it comes from the former world dominator, now a genteel and (mostly) contained beast on the other side of the Atlantic. (With any luck, we can have that kind of future.) It's sort of like seeing some bruiser's forgotten mother win the lottery.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Here's an interesting story from the New York Times called "Book Buyers Stay Busy but Forsake Bookstores": http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/30/business/media/30BOOK.html?ex=1057994437&ei=1&en=69319e8260992ef8
On the one hand, it talks about books selling in record-breaking numbers. On the other, bookstores lament that they are losing market share to Wal-Mart, Costco, Amazon, etc.
While they may indeed be losing market share, I'll just bet that their smaller piece of the pie is still a whole plateload of pie. My guess is that Wal-Mart, etc. is merely increasing the size of the pie and not so much stealing a piece of it, and that's good for everyone.
When a Wal-Mart moves into town, many small businesses (especially the ones that gauge or just aren't economically viable) complain that Wal-Mart will drive them out of business. When I was a pet retailer, I thought that, too -- until a Wal-Mart moved in a few blocks down the street. Yes, for a month, my business was down as everyone in town checked out the new Wal-Mart and spent their money there.
But then a funny thing happened. My business took a big jump! It seems that people who would never walk into a pet store were suddenly exposed to fish and aquariums at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart sold a cheap tank, but they don't carry many fish and they aren't in all that great of shape. So, I sold a tankload of fish and supplies -- fish and supplies I would never have sold, otherwise.
So, while the story worries that "shoppers may be picking up a potted plant with the book instead of another book," it may very well be that shoppers are picking up a book with that potted plant, instead of another potted plant!
Holt responds: Gee, those poor fish! How I wish the books sold at Wal-Mart were in such bad shape that customers would drift back to bookstores because the inventory is in better physical condition. But I know what you mean. There's no doubt that the huge discounts at Costco and Wal-Mart AND Amazon have robbed bookstores of bestseller sales. What readers often don't realize is that publishers often hike up the retail price so they can absorb these discounts, which means that customers are not saving a penny. (And by the way, do you really think many years of flat sales lead to a fuller "plateload"? I have heard that *used* bookstores may benefit from physical proximity to chain bookstores and the Wal-Mart/Costco crowd, but not by much.)
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Is it my imagination, or are most people with cockeyed (!) opinions on abortion/birth control/sex education men? Like that Jeffrey Caldwell. Like that silly old geezer who used to stand in front of the Transbay (Bus) Terminal with his huge poster. Like the intern I once interviewed for a health survey who told me (without batting an eye) that one of the most awful facts of life was female unchastity and (still steady of glance) that he took penicillin "prophylactically--when I go on dates." Really. Ulp...
Some other good children's books that those who like the Harry Potter series might enjoy were written by the little-known British author Beverley Nichols: "The Tree that Sat Down"; "The Stream that Stood Still"; "The Mountain of Magic"; and "The Wickedest Witch in the World." They are excellent--and have nothing of the (to me) narrowness of the Narnia chronicles.
Which reminds me of the excellent film version of "The Wind in the Willows" --just super, with Eric Idle and others, live and animation mixed. Dropped without a trace--distribution problems, I heard. Pity.
Thanks again for all your work and please keep it up -- including the politics.
Holt responds: We do know, as Gloria Feldt shows in her book, "Behind Every Choice Is a Story" (see #369), that one reason the anti-abortion movement started was that midwives knew how to abort herbally and quietly, thus "robbing" doctors (still male at this time) of their fee - ergo the stigma of midwives as illiterate primitives using witchcraft. But the GREAT THING I learned from Feldt's book is how many men are working for and with clinics like Planned Parenthood, not only as doctors and clinic staffers but as escorts who gently and firmly accompany often-terrified young women past the gauntlet of screaming anti-abortion foes (men and women) calling them "baby killers" and trying to step front of them with pictures of bloody fetuses. Indeed, the men in Feldt's book prove that this is not just a woman's struggle; it's everybody's fight to enforce laws that do exist, such as every woman's Constitutionally protected right to have an abortion.
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
To subscribe, send a blank email to:
To unsubscribe, send a blank email to: