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Monday, December 01, 2008

Why defend freedom of icky speech?

This is a bit long. Apologies. I'd meant to talk about other things, but I started writing a reply this morning to the letter that follows and I got a bit carried away.

I have questions about the Handley case. What makes lolicon something worth defending? Yaoi, as I understand it, isn't necessarily child porn, but the lolicon stuff is all about sexualizing prepubescent girls, yes? And haven't there been lots of credible psych studies saying that if you find a support community for a fetish, belief or behavior, you're more likely to indulge in it? That's why social movements are so important for oppressed or non-mainstream groups (meaning everything from the fetish community to free-market libertarianism) -and why NAMBLA is so very, very scary (they are, essentially, a support group for baby-rapists.)

The question, for me, is even if we only save ONE child from rape or attempted rape, or even just lots of uncomfortable hugs from Creepy Uncle Dave, is that not worth leaving a couple naked bodies out of a comic? It is, after all, more than possible to imply and discuss these issues (ex. if someone loses their virginity at 14, and chooses to write a comic about it) without having a big ol' pic of 14 yr. old poon being penetrated as the graphic. I also think there's a world of difference between the Sandman story-which depicts child rape as the horrific thing it is (and, I believe, also ends with a horrific death for the pervert, doesn't it?) and depicting child rape as a sexy and titillating thing. I think there is also a difference between acknowledging children's sexuality, and pornography about children that is created for adults. Where on this spectrum does something like lolicon fall? And, again, why do you, personally, think that it should be defended?

Thanks for reading my ramble, and for being accessible to us, and engaged in things like CBLDF. Mostly, they are a fantastic org., but I'm really on the fence with this case...

Jess


Let me see if I can push you off the fence, a little, Jess. I'm afraid it's going to be a long, and probably a bit rambly answer -- a credo, and how I arrived at that.

If you accept -- and I do -- that freedom of speech is important, then you are going to have to defend the indefensible. That means you are going to be defending the right of people to read, or to write, or to say, what you don't say or like or want said.

The Law is a huge blunt weapon that does not and will not make distinctions between what you find acceptable and what you don't. This is how the Law is made.

People making art find out where the limits of free expression are by going beyond them and getting into trouble.

LOST GIRLS, by Melinda Gebbie and Alan Moore is several hundred pages long. I posted the full-length review I did for Publishers Weekly here. Describing Lost Girls, I said,

The boundary between pornography and erotica is an ambiguous one, and it changes depending on where you're standing. For some, perhaps, it's a matter of whatever turns you on (my erotica, your pornography), for some the distinction occurs in class (i.e. erotica is pornography for rich people). Perhaps it's also something to do with the means of distribution – internet pornography is unquestionably porn, while an Edwardian publication, on creamy paper, bought by connoisseurs, part works bound into expensive volumes, must be erotica.
and I went on to say, of Lost Girls,
It's the kind of smut that would have no difficulty in demonstrating to an overzealous prosecutor that it has unquestionable artistic validity beyond its simple first amendment right to exist.
(Which is the kind of thing you put in a review suspecting that its real purpose may be, one day in the future, to persuade a prosecutor that the case is already lost, and not to bother.)

In with Lost Girls' many permutations of sexuality, we find some content featuring fictional characters under the current age of consent. It's a story about sexual awakenings, after all, and few of us wake exactly on our eighteenth birthdays (or whatever your local age of consent or representation happens to be). At one point we find ourselves reading a book within a book, a Beardsleyesque fantasia in which fictional characters discuss the fact that they are lines on paper, metafictional fantasies, while having underage, incestuous, sex. It's art, and it's brilliant, it's deeply problematic and it makes you think about what porn is and what art is, and where the boundaries are.

The Law is a blunt instrument. It's not a scalpel. It's a club. If there is something you consider indefensible, and there is something you consider defensible, and the same laws can take them both out, you are going to find yourself defending the indefensible.

I was born the day of the conclusion of the Lady Chatterley trial in England, the day it was decided that Lady Chatterley's Lover, with its swearing, buggery and raw sex between the classes, was fit to be published and read in a cheap edition that poor people and servants could read. This was the same England in which, some years earlier, the director of public prosecutions had threatened to prosecute Professor F R Leavis if he so much as referred to James Joyce's Ulysses in a lecture (the DPP was Archibald Bodkin, who also banned The Well of Loneliness) , in which, when I was sixteen and listening to the Sex Pistols, the publisher of Gay News was sentenced to prison for the crime of Criminal Blasphemy, for publishing an erotic poem featuring a fantasy about Jesus.

When I was writing Sandman, about eighteen years ago, I had thought that the Marquis de Sade would make a fine character for my French Revolution story (I loved the fact that at the time he was a tubby, asthmatic imprisoned for his refusal to sentence people to death) and realised I ought to read his books, rather than commentaries on them, if I was going to put him in my story. I discovered that the works of DeSade were, at that time, considered obscene and not available in the UK, and that UK Customs had declared them un-importable. I bought them in a Borders the next time I was in the US, and brought them through customs looking guilty. (You can now get De Sade in the UK. The arrival of internet porn in the UK meant that the police stopped chasing things like that.)

The first time I got involved in fund-raising for comics freedom of speech was in late 1983 or early 1984 -- Knockabout Comics were having one of their frequent battles with UK Customs over what could and could not be imported into the UK. Some comics contained rude words, sex, or the use of marijuana in them, and UK Customs would seize any comics they objected to, and often other comics in the same shipment, forcing Knockabout to fight long, expensive, court cases to get their comics back. (I remember the outrage when, in 1996, Knockabout imported some Robert Crumb books to accompany a major BBC TV documentary on Crumb, and UK Customs confiscated the books, forcing yet another court case. I'm pretty sure that it was over some autobiographical Crumb work which contained drawings of sexual fantasies including characters who were under 18. As Tony Bennett, from Knockabout said in a recent interview, "The other case was with HM Customs in 1996 over Robert Crumb’s comics and explicit sexual imagery. We won this overwhelmingly as well and Customs were kind enough to write to me after the case setting out a list of what sex acts might be shown in comics. I haven’t actually framed it but it is a precious document.")

The first time I ever came close actually to sending a publisher to prison for something I had written was about 1986 or 1987, for Knockabout's Outrageous Tales From The Old Testament: I'd retold a story from the Book of Judges that contained a rape and murder, and this was held to have contravened a Swedish law depicting images of violence against women. The case was only won when the defense pointed out that the words were from the King James version of the bible, and that the images were a fair representation thereof...

(For those of you who are a bit shaky on your Book of Judges, here's an online Bible version of the scene that caused the prosecution.

While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, "Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him."

The owner of the house went outside and said to them, "No, my friends, don't be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don't do this disgraceful thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don't do such a disgraceful thing."

But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, "Get up; let's go." But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.

When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel.)

And in each case I've mentioned so far, you could rewrite Jess's letter above, explaining that only perverts would want to read Lady Chatterley, or see images of women being abused, or read Lost Girls or the works of Robert Crumb, and mentioning that if only one person was saved from a hug from a creepy uncle, or indeed, being raped in the streets, that banning them or prosecuting those who write, draw, publish, sell or -- now -- own them, is worth it. Because that was the point of view of the people who were banning these works or stopping people reading them. They thought they were doing a good thing. They thought they were defending other people from something they needed to be protected from.

I loved coming to the US in 1992, mostly because I loved the idea that freedom of speech was paramount. I still do. With all its faults, the US has Freedom of Speech. The First Amendment states that you can't be arrested for saying things the government doesn't like. You can say what you like, write what you like, and know that the remedy to someone saying or writing or showing something that offends you is not to read it, or to speak out against it. I loved that I could read and make my own mind up about something.

(It's worth noting that the UK, for example, has no such law, and that even the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that interference with free speech was "necessary in a democratic society" in order to guarantee the rights of others "to protection from gratuitous insults to their religious feelings.")

So when Mike Diana was prosecuted -- and, in 1996, found guilty -- of obscenity for the comics in his Zine "Boiled Angel", and sentenced to a host of things, including (if memory serves) a three year suspended prison sentence, a three thousand dollar fine, not being allowed to be in the same room as anyone under eighteen, over a thousand hours of community service, and was forbidden to draw anything else that anyone might consider obscene, with the local police ordered to make 24 hour unannounced spot checks to make sure Mike wasn't secretly committing Art in the small hours of the morning... that was the point I decided that I knew what was Obscene, and it was prosecuting artists for having ideas and making lines on paper, and that I was henceforth going to do everything I could to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Whether I liked or approved of what Mike Diana did was utterly irrelevant. (For the record, I didn't like the text parts of Boiled Angel, but did like the comics, which were personal and had a raw power to them. And somewhere in the sprawling basement magazine collection I have Boiled Angel 7 and 8, which I read back then to find out what was being prosecuted, and for owning which I could, I assume, now be arrested...)

The first time the CBLDF did anything to defend one of my comics, it was the Death Talks About Life comic at the back of DEATH: THE HIGH COST OF LIVING, in which we see Death putting a condom on a banana and talking about how not to get pregnant, diseased, or dead. The Chief of Police in (if memory serves) Jacksonville Florida ordered a comic shop not to sell it, because she thought it was obscene and encouraged teen sex. In this case, it only took a letter from the CBLDF legal counsel, Burton Joseph, to the Jacksonville Police Department, explaining the concept of the First Amendment (and, by implication, that there was an organisation prepared to defend this stuff) and they shut up and went away. (That's what most of the CBLDF activity consists of -- small, quiet things that stop the threats to stores or creators ever getting to a court of law.) From the police chief's point of view, Death Talks About Life was obscene. She wanted it off the shelves. She wanted people protected from it.

In this case you obviously have read lolicon, and I haven't. I don't know whether you're writing from personal experience here, and whether you have personally been incited to rape children or give inappropriate hugs by reading it. (I assume you haven't. I assume that Chris Handley, with his huge manga collection, wasn't either. I've read books that claimed that exposure to porn causes rape, but have seen no statistical evidence that porn causes rape -- and indeed have seen claims that the declining number of US rapes may be due to the wider availability of porn. Honestly, I think it's a red herring in First Amendment matters, and I'll leave it for other people to argue about.) Still, you seem to want lolicon banned, and people prosecuted for owning it, and I don't. You ask, What makes it worth defending? and the only answer I can give is this: Freedom to write, freedom to read, freedom to own material that you believe is worth defending means you're going to have to stand up for stuff you don't believe is worth defending, even stuff you find actively distasteful, because laws are big blunt instruments that do not differentiate between what you like and what you don't, because prosecutors are humans and bear grudges and fight for re-election, because one person's obscenity is another person's art.

Because if you don't stand up for the stuff you don't like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you've already lost.

The CBLDF will defend your First Amendment right as an adult to make lines on paper, to draw, to write, to sell, to publish, and now, to own comics. And that's what makes the kind of work you don't like, or don't read, or work that you do not feel has artistic worth or redeeming features worth defending. It's because the same laws cover the stuff you like and the stuff you find icky, wherever your icky line happens to be: the law is a big blunt instrument that makes no fine distinctions, and because you only realise how wonderful absolute freedom of speech is the day you lose it.

(And let it be understood that I think that child pornography, and the exploitation of actual children for porn or for sex is utterly wrong and bad, because actual children are being directly harmed. And also that I think that prosecuting as "child pornographers" a 16 and 17 year old who were legally able to have sex, because they took a sexual photograph of themselves and emailed it to themselves is utterly, insanely wrong, and a nice example of the law as blunt instrument.)

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