Monday, December 20, 2004


There is an interesting article in the NY Times about censorship in general and the Treasury Department in particular. When the essay was written the Treasury Department had not yet changed the rules to allow publication of works from "enemy" countries as long as publishers do not deal with government representatives there. But even given this change (a note about it is appended to the article), the question Rachel Donadio asks, "is there censorship?" is still relevant. Donadio mentions Judy Blume's speech at the National Book Awards recently. In it Blume implies that it isn't just individual libraries and schools placing resrtictions on books that is a problem, but also the specter of government harassment. Donadio wonders if this is really the case. Everyone is up in arms over the Patriot Act but no one has been able to cite examples of how it has been used to the detriment of readers, writers or publishers. Are we making a big deal out of nothing? Yes and no according to Donadio. Part of the problem is

The definition of censorship has loosened so much that the word has become nearly devoid of meaning. Long gone are the days when the government banned racy books like D. H. Lawrence's ''Lady Chatterley's Lover,'' Henry Miller's ''Tropic of Cancer'' or James Joyce's ''Ulysses.'' When it comes to the written word, censorship debates are no longer about taste and decency -- although those issues are much in the news concerning the visual arts, television and radio. Instead, the debate over books tends to center on geopolitics, national security and foreign policy.
The Treausury Department bruhaha gave people something to sink their teeth into, something concrete to protest, unlike the Patriot Act which remains slippery. I disagree with Donadio that the definition of censorship has loosened so much that it "has become nearly devoid of meaning." I think the government has learned that it cannot ban books outright and so it has turned to different means of censorship. The definition of censorship has not loosened, but the subtely by which censorship is accomplished has become more difficult to pin down. Even if the Patriot Act itself is not directly censorious, if it causes someone to censor herself at the library for fear of the government finding out she is interested in Islam, if it stops someone from buying a book about terrorism because someone might be watching, then the Patriot Act is censorship. But how does one know if this is happening? One doesn't, but that doesn't make it okay either. The fact that it could happen is reason enough for concern. Thoughts of Philip Roth's book The Plot Against America dance in my head. In that book seemingly good programs and laws were enacted that affected mainly the Jews. Some of the Jews said the programs were good while others who looked at the accumulation of the programs saw what the ultimate results would be if something wasn't done. It is the same with censorship today. The Patriot Act, the Treasury Department, warning stickers on textbooks, these are all pieces of something bigger. I am not crying doom and gloom and by no means do I think there is a conspiracy afoot. But as readers I think we have to be vigilant to all forms censorship might take. We need to question fellow citizens, school boards, local and federal governments, and ourselves. Donadio ends her essay quoting Azar Nafisi, author of the very good book, Reading Lolita in Tehran,
"There's always a clash, an underlying tension, between politics, which is basically trying to keep the status quo, and literature, which is constantly questioning the status quo,'' Nafisi says. ''This tension between politics and culture is healthy. Each of us are playing our roles.''
Donadio concludes, "You might say that all this conflict about infringements -- both real and perceived -- on free expression bodes well for free expression." I agree. I'd really worry if no one was saying anything; complacency would mean we really were in trouble.