Originally published in two parts of a proposed five part essay on the Internet by Gabriel Thy, writing for the Scenewash Project in 1997, but is now undergoing a rewrite. Please bear with me.
AFTER FORTY YEARS OF STUMBLING around like a drunken beggar among the same strategies and tactics this American desert of cultural chaos has subjected its entire population to more or less under the guise of truth and consequences, I pause for breath. From a minority perspective (that is to say, of one man, one vote, and theoretically, one voice) I am compelled by conscience to admit in writing that while I comprehend this often ruthless subjection of the populations to old stratagems of censorship which seem more suggestive of an insane carte blanche rape of both the individual genius and the collective cause by some well-entrenched intellectual forces that work merely to gain and protect turf, I also must acknowledge that no idea can set men free when holstered by anti-individualistic political forces acting against populations differing in collective character and individual resolve than the straw men they create. A "one size fits all" binder is rarely a competent plea for morality or ethics, but it is a game played ineptly by both the Left and the Right in the battle between individual liberty and social control.
Understanding that a few paragraphs here will never contain the full length, breadth, and volume of this issue, I nevertheless am persuaded to attempt a working hypothesis in dealing with that peculiar language which WE, THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, call the Freedom of Speech clause of the First Amendment to our Constitutiona document penned by the founding fathers which was immediately declared good and necessary in the struggle against the long grievous dynamic of official oppression previous ages had witnessed, with its sharpening effect upon the human spirit, peculiar language now under serious assault by diabolical forces emanating from various fronts pushing political correctness schemes in the name of freedom to match those who unabashedly tout totalitarian mechanisms to squash any and all human expression that does not regard the party line as sacrosanct.
I am neither trained in law or literature, religion or government, and have no special accommodations in any field save my blue collar, thank God. I am a working man working, working without bail, prestige, or grandiose hope of financial compensation for my artistic toils, working with my own feeble hands, working from my own knotted gut, and have little choice as a willing slave to the only mind I can bring to this argument but to consider the damp eyes of disenchanted generations lost in the frauds, treacheries, and deceptions of free speech as we have learned to practice it, and to argue from that simple perspective as only the powerless can argue.
The strong in this country place great faith in their own ability to interpret the past, the present, and the future in terms of what they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it. Despite all pretensions to the contrary the United States Supreme Court seems to operate as the highbrow puppetshow of these antagonistic political bands of strong movers and shakers, legitimizing or muddying each line drawn in the sand of an issue, a court consisting of mere flesh and blood, millions of musty words ratioed by changing tides of popular opinion impetuously tempered with an almost predictable jurisprudence as evidenced by the political cat and mouse games played with the court's occasional vacancies in the way of highly controversial party-line presidential appointments.
The First Amendment is the intimate friend of far left wingers and far right wingers alike. But of course they each find it within their own stormy biases the urgency to define both their own and their opponent's objectives, each accusing the other of evil, usually one of perpetuating evil via oppression by filth, the other of perpetuating evil via the oppression of propriety.
Having recently sought insight in a 700-page hardcover called "Girls Lean Back Everywhere, The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius" beautifully researched and compiled by Edward de Grazia, an attorney practicing communications and First Amendment law here in Washington, DC, I am still nevertheless profanely distressed by the situation on both sides of this political equation. Mr. de Grazia comes with many prestigious credentials, was victoriously integral in the landmark Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs literary publishing cases, as well as the "I am CuriousYellow" Swedish film breakthrough.
The title of his book is drawn from a quote a small magazine editor named Jane Heap made at the James Joyce/Ulysses judicial hearing concerning some text in question. Her publication, "The Little Review" was the first to publish excerpts from what she sensed was the first 20th century literary novel masterpiece, and as such immediately felt the strong arm of the public decency law bearers reach out in fierce rebuttal in an attempt to smack down her own artistic sensibilities.
The book thoroughly covers all of the major court battles from Zola in 1868 England to all the 20th century debates including Joyce, Lawrence, Nabakov, Miller, Burroughs, Karen Finley, 2 Live Crew, Playboy, Penthouse, and the Seven-Eleven Wars, and right on up through Mapplethorpe and Serrano in an exquisite commentary bulked up by full first hand accounts of the noted judiciary principals, and their hodge-podge of so-called principles. And yet I am still unsure how to approach this position paper.
While I believe in an artist's rights to exploit the tools of language and all media according to his and her own peculiar vision, I am also dead set against the public funding of this area of life. Zilch. Rock music and stand-up comedy get along without public grants. So can photographers, writers, and painters. If not prepared to give it all, or convince a private source for sustenance, then sorry charlie, tastes good, less filling. A paradigm shift of the ways in which we view both art and its marketplace may be required, but public funding is a sham and a scandal to both artlover and artloather. And while I believe that the artist should be as free to draw from real life as he sees fit, I am also certain that the media, specifically films, TV, and music have detrimentally contributed to the chaos of the past several generations with the sickening decline of the individual consciousness in regards to morals as they pertain to the rights and responsibilities of each human taking part in the great plan America once proclaimed to be, despite all the tax dollars thrown at so-called studies which deliver nothing but party line after party line of inconclusive evidence. Idealistic art is no better.
Jealousy and envy are perpetuated on a very large scale now due to the proliferation of a media which shows how others however mythically portrayed are living better off than they perceive themselves to be living. I would suggest that this everpresent barrage of images, advertisements, storylines, handsome bodies, has made us a very unhappy population, malcontented, bored, and yearning for something more, when in fact even the poorest among us live far better than most throughout the long rattling chains of history.
Understanding that I am adamantly against the right wing pontifications and falsifications with their feeble interpretations of Man, and God, and Law, the issue is not easily thumbnailed. Every thought I render butchers another one a few minutes later. For all the threading of the needle that the Supreme Court has managed through such definitive principles (protections on speech vs. what is not speech, universally obscene and utterly without redeeming social value vs. the community standards or the greatest good test, the unabridged rights of an adult vs. the protection of children), it has proven nothing but its own profound confusion and yet the fear of government reprisal remains as an omnipresent suffocating blanket on artists who have given up on the phoney Walt Disney approach to improving intellectual and political conditions eons ago. Clichés only soothe the uninspired. Every mythshattering inspiration is punished by the authorities of the hour. Wasn't Jesus the Nazarene also a mythbreaker, spearing holes into the puffed up morality of the religious establishment of his day? And look how he was paid for his efforts.
No, Jesus did not advocate unbridled degeneracy. Quite the contrary. But he held hypocrisy to tough standards. And he knew how to prick a stuffed shirt, and he did so with great strides and quiet enthusiasm. American novelist Norman Mailer is quoted by de Grazia:
Every gain of freedom carries its price. There's a wonderful moment when you go from oppression to freedom, there in the middle, when one's still oppressed but one's achieved the first freedoms. There's an extraordinary period that goes from there until the freedoms begin to outweigh the oppression. By the time you get over to complete freedom, you begin to look back almost nostalgically on the days of oppression, because in those days you were ready to become a martyr, you had a sense of importance, you could take yourself seriously, and you were fighting the good fight. Now, you get to the point where people don't even know what these freedoms are worth, are using them and abusing them. You've gotten older. You've gotten more conservative. You're not using your freedoms. And there's a comedy in that, in the long swing of the pendulum...
And a second excerpt I found fascinating, fetching pretty much the same conclusions I had also drawn after considering the obvious.
While certainly not wholly congruent with my own resolve on this topic, quite the contrary, this echo came from none other than that much maligned 37th presidentRichard Milhous Nixon, who shared this rather tacit insight after reading the controversial Lockhart National Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, which he had commissioned in 1970:
The Commission contends that the proliferation of filthy books and plays has no lasting effect on a man's character. If that were true, it must be also true that great books, great paintings, and great plays have no ennobling effect on a man's conduct . . . The commission calls for the repeal of laws controlling smut for adultswhile recommending continued restrictions on smut for children. In an open society this proposal is untenable. If the level of filth rises in the adult community, the young . . . cannot help but also be inundated. The warped and brutal portrayals of sex . . . could poison the wellsprings of American and Western culture and civilization...the pollution of our civilization with smut and filth is as serious a situation as the pollution of our once pure air and water . . . if an attitude of permissiveness were to be adopted regarding pornography, this would contribute to an atmosphere condoning anarchy in every other field.
Where does this inexplicable conundrum leave this discussion? As a law and order advocate how can I distinguish between what is allowable in a free society and what should be strictly and swiftly squashed or punished to the full extent a civil society has availed itself? I think for most civil libertarians, and I count myself intellectually among this group with a few notable reservations while refraining from membership or advocacy of any political party, public or private organization or sect, perhaps these distinctions are easier to make than for those who abide within religious and political cages vying for prestige and jobs, laboring for some ill-conceived hand-me-down god, or worse, such a restrictive a code of ethics hoisted in the name of freedom as to leave the modern psyche atrophied and floating off unattentive in a thoroughly pathetic and bewitched masquerade of what is known in this country as liberty and justice for all. We wish merely to embrace the unquestionable truth of reality and the unanswerable reality of truth. Freedom of expression is not about simple solutions. It is about the struggle to ask the most expressive questions.
Considering another angle in approaching this nation's sticky and intricate questions of freedom and censorship might be useful. Let's fluff recent moves to introduce into the American jurisprudence the concept of hate crimes. While the printed wordon the heels of the William S. Burroughs/Naked Lunch decisionhad once been considered effectively freed from judicial interference, a new spin by the liberal lobby with their eagerness to please themselves has cast another dark shadow upon the common sense and equal protection of the law wings of the American populations with the progressive installation of a puerile litmus called political correctness with its neverending roll call of special interests and considerations.In an opposition article published in a small press magazine called "Gauntlet" (no.6), Barbara Beebe, a self-professed "bald-headed, butch, leather jacket-bearing dyke" takes to task this recent wave of anti-crime legislation. Ms. Beebe is also black, and has been a victim of gay-bashing, and so is no stranger to the unfathomable wiles of law enforcement. Noting that everything from cross-burning to verbal bigotry uttered during the commission of a real crime can be and already has entered into various court histories, she nevertheless recognizes a faulty premise when she is confronted by one.
While several higher courts have struck down some of these laws in certain jurisdictions as ordinances "violating free speech because it sought to ban certain viewpoints", the perspective Beebe, a freelance writer with a B.S. in Criminal Justice, brings to this issue is both clarifying and in this author's humble opinion, quite on target. By dubbing this recent wave of hate crime legislation a typical, liberal cover-up, she suspects misplaced motives and simply poor judgement by those who seek to assuage their own consciences or real ability to change the social and economic fabric of the oppressed, but by attempting to placate the masses with more laws in an already over-litigated society, the waters of true freedom only become murkier. She writes:
"Proponents of hate crime legislation assume that one can actually attest and lay claim to hatred or bias by words expressed during the commission of a crime. The fact of the matter is, all crimes are motivated (whether expressed or not) by a form of bias, prejudice or hatred. Dr. Patricia J. Williams is correct when she states that the "attempt to split bias from violence has been society's most enduring and fatal rationalization." What else could motivate crime? What is greed, but the bias toward those who have what you want? There is the well-known modus operandi of robbing the old. They are perceived (as a group) as being physically weak and not well-sighted. If some young punk robs an old lady, in the process calling her an old decrpit hag, is he guilty of a hate crime?
Is something wrong with simply charging him with robbery and calling him the creep he is? Rapists generally rape women they perceive as weak...we're already aware of the possible lurid profanities expressed during a rape. Does what rapists say matter as much as what they've done? Hate crime legislation attempts to punish the motivations and not the crime. The St. Paul, Minnesota case in point: a white kid burns a cross in the yard of the only black people in the neighborhood. What is he charged with? Not trespassing, vandalism, or destruction of property. The poor fool is charged with a hate crime. Fortunately the Supreme Court ruled the ordinance unconstitutional. However, to now charge that same fool with vandalism or trespassing reeks of double jeopardy."
This St. Paul, MN example of the complete absence of social insight in the courts is further exposed to ridicule by the ruling that people who commit "hate crimes" motivated by bigotry may be sentenced to extra punishment without violating their free-speech rights, rendering a foul logic that you can say what you want, but not while committing a crime! Ms. Beebe:
"As ethnic minorities, women, and gay groups scramble to support such legislation, they assumed that they were above reproach due to their status as the oppressed. However, hate crime legislation is being applied to Afrro-Americans, artists, and the poor with a fervor that is frightening. Nineteen-year-old Todd Mitchell, who is black, received a double sentence for inciting the beating of a 14-year-old white youth. The ordinance he was convicted under permits longer prison terms for crimes motivated by racial or other bias. So, what has our fellow learned? The next time you beat whitey, just beat himdon't say a damn thing to him! This is not a viable solution to racial antagonisms."
Thus, Beebe sums up her analysis of these bogus laws by declaring her desire for a judicial system that does not pander to some "high-faluting, legal mumbo-jumbo that requires people to call me a nigger dyke while they kick my ass before I can get some justice." Too often the police merely look the other way when minorities or any disfavored class of crime victim has been assaulted or had a well-legislated crime perpetrated against them. This undoubtedly needs to stop, bringing sense to the laws we already have, and removing the clutter from our system which only confuses the issue, which always remains, liberty and justice for all.
Can we use these arguments against hate crime legislation in the discussion against artistic censorship? I believe we can. Just as any man may be thinking to himself while standing on a crowded streetcorner, in an elevator, or strolling down a beach, that "Man what wouldn't I give to dog that peach over there?", he has committed nothing more than what is at worst a lamentable lust in his heart, and other than an unwelcomed, or depending on the very real physical and psychological features of both parties, the welcomed leer, nothing has transpired. His reaction to that beautiful woman may however work in such a fashion that he is prompted to meet and later marry this wonderful specimen of feminine grace. A verbal rendering of those same thoughts while to a greater degree opens both parties to any number of physical or psychological repercussions, one cannot expect to live in a vacuum created in our own likeness.
Invariably we encounter disagreeable notions perpetrated by the natures of things and the natures of people. The sheer variety of these notions precludes anything but a generalized mechanism for maintaining civic and personal freedoms and responsibilities. Mere legislation, particularly ill conceived legislation does not automatically create serendipity in a hostile environment preserved alone by magistrates and billy clubs without the consent of the governed. Into today's rapidly changing cultural environment, fragmented and aggregate powerful new subcultures are emerging, and it is inevitable that clashes of faith where new sensibilities show themselves laden with conflict should inflict themselves upon the whole.
But aside from the recent pendulum swing of the hate crime movement, and one glaring exception which I shall discuss later, the First Amendment ultilities of free artistic, political, and personal freedom of expression, go unchallenged and its debate has almost been completely removed from the whittling and hairsplitting of censorship judges and lawyers. However, as witnessed by the piercing of the envelope on cable television and the recent spate of ideological skirmishes concerning privacy considerations during transmission of information over the Internet, these concerns have opened up these arguments to new limits on who owns what and under what conditions should individual privacy give sway to the concerns of the perceived greater goodeven to the point of to lying the general public.
And let's not forget that conservatives refused to rollover and accept the sudden erosion and ultimate loss of what they consider their eminent domain, that is to say, the constitutional power of the government to take private property for government use after the 2005 Supreme Court surprised almost everyone with their ruling in Kelo vs. Kelo v. City of New London. Yet a year later, after many states passed laws rejecting the jurisprudence of that court decision, President George W. Bush issued an executive order which stated in Section I that the federal government must limit its use of taking private property for "public use" with "just compensation," which is also stated in the constitution, for the "purpose of benefiting the general public." The order limits this use by stating that it may not be used "for the purpose of advancing the economic interest of private parties to be given ownership or use of the property taken." Guess that cleared things up for everyone.
National defense is a ruthless job. Somebody's got to do it. The conservatives are not only willing, but demand to step up to the plate in this matter. As any schoolchild will tell you, war is hell. Bad things happen in war. Even the good guys do bad things. And yet very little is made by these conservatives concerning atrosities, real or imagined, great or small, by these same exact well-positioned conservatives right down to their name, rank, and serial number, of mind, body, and spirit perpetrated in the unimpeachable war for capitalism, or the frigging' holy war in the name of strategic land, mining rights, and oil reserves. And today's Liberal? They all seem to have one leg down the rabbit hole and the other in the briar patch. A nasty bunch. Is there any wonder we are a confused and nearly hapless society when it comes to knowing ourselves and our special birthrights as free citizens of a free nation?
The fact that the Conservatives act in one direction calls the liberals to the front lines to act in an opposite and equal reaction. The First Amendment suffers when one side seeks nothing but to uphold a basketful of Pollyanna fairy tale criteria as the watermark of what art is supposed to be, and the other side thrives merely by mocking all restraint and traditional standards armed only with flimsy transparent concoctions nearly always presented as art theory while stroking themselves as great liberators of the soul. Am I advocating a watered-down compromise of artistic integrity? No I am not. Integrity must exist before it can be compromised. Two paramount questions come to mind which I must answer with a full dose of integrity in order to resolve this issue within the framework of my own artistic yearnings. By what criteria do I suggest art be judged, and how would I define obscenity as the measure by which a work of art should be rejected?