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?