Wednesday, February 26, 2014
All Hail Freedom of Speech
Before we get into this week’s blog, I’d like to devote a few lines in tribute to Harold Ramis (shown above, right, with Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd), who passed away earlier this week. If you don’t know the name, you know the movies he wrote or co-wrote: Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and Analyze This, among others. If you went to a movie comedy in the late 1970s-early 1980s, you probably either saw him or heard his dialogue in the mouths of John Belushi, Rodney Dangerfield or Bill Murray. He was a member of the legendary Second City comedy troupe and, as time has demonstrated, a writer of comedy classics. Thank you, Dr. Spengler. You were a man of rare talent and you will be missed.
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As you may remember, a couple months back, before all the snow closed the roads, I conducted an experiment in localized censorship by visiting libraries in different counties to test what their content filters deemed too “adult” for me to look at. This was sparked by Lancaster County’s library system blocking my publisher’s site, shielding my innocent eyes from “adult content” I myself had written. Because we’ve got a large, conservative religious population of Amish and Mennonites in the area, it didn’t surprise me at all that Lancaster would block anything with even a whiff of the nasty on it. The system still allowed me access to a site that showed me how to build a pipe bomb. I suppose as long as you don’t try to have sex with it, the filter considers that okay.
Well, talk about your 180s. The other week I discovered, quite by accident, that the ban has been lifted. I doubt if customer protests or First Amendment rights had anything to do with it. Lancaster County recently upgraded their library computer system. I’m betting the content filter had to be reset, and hasn’t caught up with all the dirty sites yet. It even let me onto Ellora’s Cave! That proves the filter’s not working. It’ll probably get back to blocking erotica publishers eventually. Until then, I’d better do a lot of research and download a ton of submission guidelines. And look at porn, but I can do that on my laptop. The library doesn’t need to know.
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I’m almost done with my reread of all 1100+ pages of Stephen King’s It. That’s the one about an evil entity lurking in the sewers beneath a small New England town, killing children and promoting all things malevolent. (Which got me to wondering what’s lurking in the sewers under Peyton Place. Anybody want to write that one?)
What does a ten-pound horror novel have to do with freedom of speech? I’m glad you asked. This book, written and published in the more lax era of the 1980s, features a character who freely uses a certain word with, shall we say, negative racial connotations. Because even alluding to the word in question has resulted in legal action in the past, I’m not going to repeat it. I’m pretty sure you can guess which one I mean.
Now, I’m sure Mr. King is not a racist or a bigot. If he is, he knows enough to keep his mouth shut on the subject when in public. But he is a writer, and writers feel compelled to tell the truth as they see it. The truth is, people like the bad guys in It (at least the human ones) do exist in the real world, and they’re going to use that word, or similar words, against the people or groups they don’t like, regardless of political correctness or racial/sexual/whatnot connotations. You know, like what happened with Duck Dynasty.
Here’s what I got thinking about: my edition of the book dates back to 1985, before political correctness tightened its stranglehold on freedom of expression. Have modern editions been cleaned up—filtered for content, if you will—to protect the sensibilities of the modern reader?
That’s my next mission. Next time I’m in a bookstore, I’m going to look for a more recent edition of It and see if the book still exists the way King originally wrote it, or if it’s been cleansed for modern consumption. I should check current editions of Huckleberry Finn while I’m at it. That book ran into problems over the same word a while back. Wonder what it looks like today? If I own an early, pre-PC edition of Huckleberry Finn, am I in possession of offensive material?
One thing I’m certain of: the words bitch, cunt, cooze and fuck will still be in there, in all their offensive glory. Y’know, I’ll bet if the B-word ever becomes as big of a no-no as that other word, it’ll mean the end of literature as we know it. Half the movies in existence will be yanked from the shelves, and rap music will become extinct. And what will the women on almost all of Bravo’s reality shows call each other? We really need some unisex, ethnicity-neutral insults. Any writers out there up to the challenge?
Oh, and hey, Amazon: I understand depictions of underage sex violate your terms of service. It has a scene where an 11-year-old girl does the deed with all six of her little buddies. Plan on deleting one of Stevie’s bestsellers from your catalog any time soon? Look on the bright side: she doesn’t use the no-no word. Trying to earn a living as a writer gets trickier every day.