I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, June 06, 2010

What I Should Have Said...

I just arrived back in Hillsborough from ConCarolinas. I'll write more about the con on my other blog when I have the time, but right now I want to continue making an argument that I took part in during my last panel at the con. The panel in question was on censorship. I was making the deliberately provocative statement that there was no true censorship in America, not compared to the censorship you would find in China, Germany, or even Canada, where the government can step in and put you in jail for what you say or publish.

Now, it might seem like censorship takes place all the time. For instance, Comedy Central made South Park censor their depiciton of the prophet Mohommed. There are plenty of books that school libraries remove from their stacks because of parental complaints. The FCC will slap you with fines for saying certain words on television. Also, you have the whole movie rating system where you have restrictions on your audience if you show certain body parts or depict certain acts.

However, in all these cases, the underlying speach or art could still be legally published by the artists. A filmaker can release his film without seeking a rating. The makers of South Park could have quit in protest, and posted cartoons of the prophet Mohammed on their various blogs and other media till they were sick of drawing him. If the local school library won't carry "Susie has Two Mommies," any parent who wants their kid to read the book is free to order it off Amazon.

In none of these cases is the government going to come and put you in jail.

Where the panel went horribly off topic, however, is that another panel member told me how she'd been investigated by social services for being a witch. Someone in the audience chimed in and told me they knew someone whose children had been taken away because they were witches. I expressed an extreme amount of skepticism. First, I believe that social service workers are perfectly capable of abusing their power and taking children away from loving parents for reasons that are wrong or mistaken. But, the law plainly prohibits the government discriminating against the religion. You cannot have your kids taken from you because of your religion. Now, actions you take because of your religion might be a different thing: The fundamentalist Mormon's who were having their 14 year old daughters "marry" their 80 year old prophet a few years back are an obvious case where religion lay at the root of removing the children, but the actual laws broken were statuatory rape, not the belief in wierd crap.

The panel closed with the last word going to somone who told the tale of a topless dancer who's kids were taken from her even though her profession was legal. I had no time to respond to this. I'm certain that such things happen; no doubt topless dancers have children taken away all the time. But, I don't think this constitutes censorship; presumably, even if her child is taken away, a topless dancer is free to keep on dancing. And, I'm reminded of the very famous case of Courtney Love losing custody of her daughter. One could argue that it was to prosecute her for her famously foul-mouthed lyrics, but I suspect that the judge was moved far more by the fact that Ms. Love was also an ill-tempered drug adict. (Whose music I admire, by the way.) At the risk of slandering all topless dancers, I suspect that, in the cases where children are removed, there are other facts at hand arguing for the removal of the children.

Sure, there are actual cases of governmental censorship where some prosecutor with a name to make is going to go after some gay bookstore selling a racy calendar or comic book shop selling japanese tentacle porn. Standing up and defending the free speech rights of these people is important. But, I feel like most arguments of censorship amount to little more than whining and/or promotion. For instance, any list of books banned in recent history is going to include the Harry Potter series, removed from many a school library for promoting witchcraft. I don't think any statistics could possibly drawn to prove this, but I suspect that in schools that ban the book, you'll wind up with more kids reading it than you do in schools that just allow it the book to go onto the shelf. It's hard for me to accept the notion that a book is "banned" if I can walk into my local grocery store and buy a copy. Complaining about censorship on a book that sells millions of copies simply devalues the word.

Am I missing something here? Is there some horrible wave of oppressive silencing of free speech going on that I'm missing? Are our prison's filled with writers, artists, and musicians guilty of nothing more than expressing unapproved thoughts?


Mr. Cavin said...

Hear hear. I am frequently annoyed by the misuse of these terms. Especially when it comes to the concept of banning. In a democracy, a group of people have the right to decide which books are provided by public funds within their community. It is not my business to tell them what they can have in their libraries. And when they decide against books based on their own community criteria, well, then that is not a "ban." No books are ever banned in the USA.

Same for censorship. We have laws against certain types of communication. The communication of threats, for example, is assault. The communication of prejudicial harassment in the workplace is a crime. Any communication that involves harm or exploitation to articulate (like if you have to film or record people committing crimes). Also, it is frequently a legal offense to use obscenities. Otherwise, the government does not step in and limit anyone's ability to express themselves based on what they are trying to say (and only occasionally based on how they choose to say it).

What Comedy Central chooses to show of their own product is up to them entirely, right?

Thing is that, unlike lots of places, when the US government steps in and stops someone short of their full freedom to speak, they then have the recourse to officially challenge that decision. When the creator of Boiled Angel gets arrested for his zine, or that guy in Texas for his child porn manga collection, there are machinations in place to legally fight back. This is not true everywhere. Some places it is perfectly within the rights of the government to disappear a citizen's message for good, no reason needed. They can come in an edit everything about you with their black marker till you've retroactively said the things they want you to have said. Arguments can lead to jail or worse. That's censorship.

I fail to understand what the hell those custody examples have to do with anything. I'm pretty sure your panel would have infuriated me.

Gray Rinehart said...

I concur, but these waters are muddier than most. In my view, "censorship" is not so much the government telling you what you can't write, but telling you what you can -- i.e., you having to pass your stories through an official who edits them according to the government line. In the U.S., only those of us who, by virtue of holding certain security clearances, are subject to those kinds of rules (and not for everything we write).

Many books are challenged, but people have come to conflate challenging with banning. In fact, the 2008 "banned books" report stated that "Individuals may restrict what they themselves or their children read, but they must not call on governmental or public agencies to prevent others from reading or seeing that material." MUST not? I find that stunning, since I thought free speech worked both ways.

It was good to see you this weekend, James, and I'm sorry I didn't get to stay to see this panel. All the best!

Gray Rinehart said...

Sorry for the poor grammar in my comment, James. I should have written, "Only those of us who held certain security clearances are subject to those kinds of rules."

Loren Eaton said...

I was making the deliberately provocative statement that there was no true censorship in America, not compared to the censorship you would find in China, Germany, or even Canada, where the government can step in and put you in jail for what you say or publish.

Preach it, bruthah!

The Wall Street Journal made much the same point last year when talking about Banned Books Week.

James Maxey said...

Cavin, your comment about the Boiled Angels case made me look up the final resolution of that case, and I was suprised to find that his conviction was never overturned. So, I will concede that this is a genuine case of governmental censorship. However, I will also note that, while the government succeeded in punishing the artist for creating his work, it takes about ten seconds to google the work, click a link, and be in possession of a digital copy of the comic book. (Quite possibly in violation of the artist's copyright; it would be an interesting case if the artist turned to the same government that wrecked his life to protect his legal right to control the distribution of his own work.)

Gray, I do think there are some horrible abuses of governmental control of information. Too many things are classified as "top secret" and redacted to the point of being useless. But, in most cases, these are documents generated by individuals in the employment of the government. And I went into the panel focusing on censorship of fiction and art; I confess that journalistic censorship never crossed my mind.

Loren, thanks for the link. Reading the article made me think of one more distinction I'd like to make, which is that I'm talking about censorship in America as a whole, and will readily admit that there are places in the US like, say, small town Texas, where a community could probably band together with such uniformity that they could create a hundred mile bubble where you really couldn't lay your hands on a copy of a given book if you were a teenager with no credit card and no car. They could make your life miserable for being gay, atheistic, or left handed, and if you were under 18, you'd probably just have to suffer the abuse. But, if you're an adult and find yourself in such a community, you can stay and fight the bigots, which is admirable, or you can also take the perfectly acceptable step of hopping on the Greyhound and scooting off to San Francisco or New York or Boston, where being a gay lefthanded atheist is so boring that you'll need to get your tongue split in two and a tattoo of a penis on your forehead just to get people to notice you.

Of course, when such a person then goes to get a job at Starbucks, and is asked to wear a band-aid over his forehead penis tattoo while serving coffee, he will no doubt feel a warm sense of self-satisfaction, knowing he's once more a victim of censorship.

Mr. Cavin said...

James: but I wasn't arguing that the Boiled Angel case was censorship. I was arguing that it was not. No matter where your opinion falls on the legal outcome there (and I think its a clear violation of Diana's rights), here was an example of the usual process in which the government had to defend its decision to make an arrest, where the defense was given all the amenities of due process, etc. Diana's work was not condemned because of policy or ideology but obscenity, under the pretense that it may do harm to others. Nobody was penalized for championing Diana's cause. And ultimately, people were not penalized for reading, owning, or even producing Diana's apparently illegal content--only Diana was penalized for creating it. I think the whole arrest was a fiasco and the ruling(s) a mistake and it galls me to see US rights eroded in this way, but I certainly would never call it censorship.

ShilaLong嘉雯 said...