Is There Censorship?

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Sat Dec 18 10:25:21 PST 2004


The New York Times

December 19, 2004

Is There Censorship?

In accepting a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation
at a black-tie gala in Manhattan last month, Judy Blume, the doyenne of
young-adult fiction, delivered herself of the following admonition: ''Your
favorite teacher -- the one who made literature come alive for you, the one
who helped you find exactly the book you needed when you were curious, or
hurting, the one who was there to listen to you when you felt alone --
could become the next target.''

 A target, that is, of censorship. Blume's books, which address sexuality
and religion with a frankness that has made many a grown-up squeamish, have
been among the books most frequently banned from public school libraries
over the years, and so the author certainly knows whereof she speaks. Yet
there was something slightly alarmist in Blume's remarks. In somber,
insistent tones, she spoke as if the authorities were lurking behind the
doors of the Marriott Marquis ballroom ready to burst in at any moment and
break up the party.

 Blume's speech perfectly captured the mood in certain literary circles
these days, where air once thick with now banned cigarette smoke instead
hangs heavy with talk of the C-word. But the kind of censorship Blume has
faced concerns individual libraries choosing not to lend her books, or
placing restrictions on who can borrow them. It isn't about government
harassment, even though that's what Blume seemed to be implying.

 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.

 Today, most defenders of the written word are focusing their energies on
opposing certain sections of the USA Patriot Act, chief among them Section
215, which states that federal investigators can review library and
bookstore records under certain circumstances in terrorism investigations.
Larry Siems, the director of international programs at the PEN American
Center, strikes an oft-heard chorus when he denounces ''the growing use of
government surveillance and government intrusion into your creative
space.'' This, in turn, feeds a concern ''that the government is able to
see more deeply into our intellectual lives,'' Siems says.

 Where there is smoke, there may very well be fire, but there may also be
mirrors. It's often hard to draw the line between perception and practice,
between how certain government regulations are viewed and how they're
actually being enforced. The very mention of the Patriot Act is enough to
drive many publishers, writers, librarians, bookstore owners, readers and
concerned citizens into a near-paranoid frenzy at the idea that the
government is intruding into their personal business, although few can cite
specific instances in which that is the case.

 Indeed, the marketing department of any given publishing house probably
has far more power over free expression in America than any government
office; if it decides a smart book won't sell, the publisher may not sign
it. Attitudes are rampant, but facts are harder to find. And ultimately,
grandstanding and self-righteousness obscure the fact that some cases do
approach government censorship.

 Consider two recent lawsuits. This fall, a group of publishers and Shirin
Ebadi, a lawyer and leading women's rights advocate in Iran who won the
Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, filed two separate lawsuits against the Treasury
Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, which places
serious restrictions on importing written work by authors in Iran, Sudan,
Cuba and other countries under United States trade embargo. Under these
regulations, buying the rights to unwritten books or making significant
editorial changes to written works without a license is considered
''providing a service,'' and therefore akin to trading with the enemy,
something punishable with jail time and fines of up to $1 million.
Publishers argue that this regulation violates the First Amendment.

 OFAC devotes most of its resources to investigating terrorist financing
and narcotics trafficking, and the regulations are largely intended for
those aims. Some of the regulations at issue have been on the books for
decades -- the Trading With the Enemy Act dates to 1917 -- and since the
80's amendments have been added to exempt ''informational materials'' from
being subject to sanctions. But the current fuss dates back to this spring,
when the Office of Foreign Assets Control issued a particularly stiff
response to a query from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic
Engineers, which wanted to publish papers by scientists from countries
under embargo. The Treasury office ruled that the institute could edit a
manuscript from a country under embargo, and engage in peer review, but
that making any ''substantive or artistic alterations or enhancements of
the manuscript'' would be illegal without a license. Likewise, no publisher
could market a book and no literary agent could sign an author from an
embargoed country without a license.

 This sent the publishers through the roof. In September, Arcade, an
independent publisher; the international writers' organization PEN; the
Association of American University Presses; and a division of the
Association of American Publishers filed suit against the foreign assets
office. ''I think that censorship is the biggest danger that could confront
this country, aside from physical attack,'' Richard Seaver, the editor in
chief of Arcade Publishing, said in a recent interview in his comfortably
cluttered Manhattan office. ''Censorship is never dead. It can always rear
its ugly head. The danger is greater today than in the past 30 years.''

 A month later, Ebadi -- the Iranian human rights lawyer (and Iran's first
Nobelist), who under the rules can't sell her memoir to an American
publisher -- filed her own suit, along with the Strothman Agency of Boston,
which can't officially represent her. Ebadi raised the censorship question
in an Op-Ed article in The Times last month (which she could publish
because newspapers are exempt from some of the regulations). ''If even
people like me -- those who advocate peace and dialogue -- are denied the
right to publish their books in the United States with the assistance of
Americans, then people will seriously question the view of the United
States as a country that advocates democracy and freedom everywhere,'' she
wrote. ''What is the difference between the censorship in Iran and this
censorship in the United States? Is it not better to encourage a dialogue
between Iranians and the American public?''

 Salman Rushdie, the president of the board of trustees of the PEN American
Center and an old hand at such debates, wrote in a declaration as part of
the suit: ''Writers in Iran, Cuba and Sudan cannot publish freely in their
own countries. It is a tragic and dangerous irony that Americans may not
freely publish the works of those writers here, either.'' Publishers say
several books have been suspended or canceled pending the ruling, including
''City of Columns: Historic Architecture of Havana'' by Alejo Carpentier
(Smithsonian Institution Press), ''The Encyclopedia of Cuban Music''
(Temple University Press) and a paper by geologists at Shiraz University in
Iran for an issue of the journal Mathematical Geology. ''Even if there
isn't a single case where they actually prosecuted, there's a famous
chilling effect,'' says Leon Friedman, a lawyer for PEN and Arcade who
helped bring the lawsuit. ''Publishers just won't take a chance.''

 Molly Millerwise, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, declined to
comment on the lawsuits. She says that over the years, no more than a dozen
license applications have been submitted, most of them since last year, and
none have been denied, although some are still pending. She says the
department encourages publishers to approach them with queries.

 So why don't the publishers simply apply for a license? Just ask any
self-respecting publisher. ''I'm not going to ask permission,'' Seaver
says. ''That's the Iranian way of doing things.'' He says Arcade is going
full speed ahead with ''Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of
Contemporary Iranian Literature,'' which is due out in April. He
acknowledges that the lawsuit might help draw attention to the book. ''I
think libraries will be more attentive because they will have to be.
Booksellers, too.''

 You can't help getting the sense that there is a certain amount of public
relations going on here. Ebadi could conceivably have sold the rights to
her memoirs in Britain, and the British publisher could have subsequently
sold the American rights. But that wasn't the point. ''American readers
deserve to be hearing directly from someone like Ebadi,'' says Wendy
Strothman, the literary agent and former publishing executive who is
informally representing Ebadi. Strothman says Ebadi might well have been
able to get a license ''because of her stature as a Nobel laureate,'' but
the lawsuit was ''a matter of principle.'' It's also not entirely clear
whether the Treasury Department would allow an American publisher to import
such a work from Britain. ''There are so many weighing factors,''
Millerwise says.

 Ebadi hasn't yet written her memoir. In her statement to the court, which
reads a little like a book proposal, Ebadi says her book would discuss
''how I became a lawyer, a judge and a law professor despite the obvious
and often official obstacles women in Iran have had to face.''

 There certainly does seem to be a market for Iranian women's memoirs. Both
lawsuits cite the success of Azar Nafisi's best-selling ''Reading Lolita in
Tehran,'' about a group of women who met weekly in secret to read forbidden
works of Western literature, and of ''Persepolis,'' Marjane Satrapi's
graphic novel about growing up during the Iranian revolution. Nafisi
emigrated to Washington in 1997, and Satrapi now lives in France; neither
could have published her book in Iran. For her part, Nafisi says she finds
the Treasury Department regulations ''mind-boggling,'' and has written a
letter to the court supporting Ebadi's suit. ''I understand sometimes there
might be sanctions,'' Nafisi says. ''The point about this law is the people
it will hurt are the people who have been suppressed in that country
anyway.'' She continues: ''The principle of publishing should be
understanding, should be more knowledge. On principle I think you have to
publish even Ayatollah Khomeni!''

 Although the Treasury rules have been on the books for ages, the lawsuits
play into the literary world's general dislike of the Bush administration.
When the regulations ''reached international ears, it was a very clear
example to the international community of a kind of American cultural
closed-mindedness,'' Larry Siems of PEN says. ''I spent a lot of time
explaining to my international colleagues that this was not this
administration's doing.''

 Both lawsuits may very well be settled in the coming months. In November
the Treasury Department asked for a one-month extension so it could file
its response to the suits in January. ''The reason for the requested
extension is that the parties anticipate that there may be developments
with a possibly significant effect on the posture of the case, such that
the briefing may need to be refocused or may even prove unnecessary,'' the
Treasury Department's attorney wrote to the judge, according to a copy of
the letter provided by the Strothman Agency's lawyer. The group of
publishers received a similar letter, one of its lawyers said. Both sets of
plaintiffs agreed to the extension. It remains to be seen whether the
Treasury Department will adjust its regulations or rule only on those
specific cases.

 Meanwhile, these lawsuits have provided many in the literary and
publishing world with a cause -- one that's far more concrete than nebulous
fears about the Bush administration or the Patriot Act. And it's certainly
more satisfying to focus on censorship than on the future of publishing. It
also seems to get the creative juices flowing. ''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.'' You might say that all this conflict
about infringements -- both real and perceived -- on free expression bodes
well for free expression.

 Rachel Donadio is a writer and editor at the Book Review.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

More information about the cypherpunks-legacy mailing list