Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Obscenity, the Department of Justice, the Patriot Act, and Tony Blair as Jack Bauer

The US Department of Justice is using the Patriot Act (Orwell would have loved those names) to start a quest to protect Americans from obscenity.

Here is a link to a speech by Sara Paretsky called “Truth, Lies and Duct-tape” that talks about the implications of this from point of view of being a mainstream writer in America

I’ve also written an article – it should be on shortly, called “Porn Again Christians” that I’ve included at the end of this entry.

This week the DoJ closed its first, text only, website – Red Rose. The site seems to have had some stuff on it that many people would find obscene and which, if done in reality, would be illegal, stories involving children, animals, and forced sex. It also looks to have been a membership site so it could be that the DoJ are just on a fishing trip to catch some paedophiles – yey for the DoJ.

The more interesting part is that they have de facto extended obscenity to include text, removing the 1st Amendment protections that are usually relied upon. They appear also to have used the Patriot act to enter without notice and remove computer equipment in the absence of the owner.

If there are any Americans reading this who want to write to their congressman or woman and say they think the patriot act is a greater threat to America freedom than any terrorist attack, please feel free, just expect a visit from the FBI shortly after you press send on the email.

Blair has been pushing similar legislation to the Patriot Act in the UK. The UK’s laws on secrecy and obscenity and terrorism are already far more restrictive than in the US so there wasn’t a lot left to do but the UK Parliament is still opposing what some are calling the “Jack Bauer” approach to saving the UK from terrorism. They oppose the idea of locking people up for 3 months without telling anyone that you’ve done it, without explaining – even to the individual – why you’ve done it, and without having produced any evidence. Yet this would be mild by comparison to the Patriot Act.

Of course the Brits are suffering from the embarrassment of having shot an innocent man that they followed, held down, shot six times and then lied about. For the first time in a long time it looks as if UK policemen may actually be charged with murder or unlawful killing. This is not a great confidence builder just before you extend police powers. And it was made even less likely when the head of police in London suggested that armed soldiers should be used instead of armed police because it is cheaper. The problem here is that, while British troops are trained not to use their weapons unless the rules of engagement permit, when they use them they always shoot to kill. This is not yet palatable to the British public, bless their intransigent hearts.

So, in these times when governments are lead by men who use fear as substitute for argument, lies as a substitute for evidence and force as a substitute for agreement, it is not a comfortable thing to be a soft target.

If you are writing anything that those nice people in the FBI or their masters in the DoJ think is obscene, be prepared for the knock on the door.

Actually, once they knock, there’s not much you can do about it. So I recommend that, before they get here, you make sure as many people as possible know what you think and what you want.

I agree with Paretsky that silence is then enemy. As an annoying foreigner type, I think that laughter and derision is part of the answer.

With that in mind, take a look at my article “Porn Again Christians”.

Porn Again, Christians?

If, like me, you grew up reading American books, watching American films and television, eating American fast-food and listening to American music, you might start to believe that the boundary between your culture and theirs is membrane thin – just another colour-way of the same design.

You’d be wrong of course. America has a unique and complex culture that no outsider can ever really understand.

The differences are disguised by language and the globalization of American icons but when one of those differences shrugs off the camouflage and displays itself, all you can do is shake your head in disbelief.

One of those points where several differences come together is in the American way of combining sex, religion and politics.

As an example, let me quote from a recent article:

“When FBI supervisors in Miami met with new interim U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta last month, they wondered what the top enforcement priority for Acosta and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would be. Would it be terrorism? Organized crime? Narcotics trafficking? Immigration? Or maybe public corruption? The agents were stunned to learn that a top prosecutorial priority of Acosta and the Department of Justice was none of the above. Instead, Acosta told them, it's obscenity. Not pornography involving children, but pornographic material featuring consenting adults.”

The article explains that Gonzales, despite criticism that prioritising the prosecution of obscenity will take resources away from violent crime, child pornography and anti-terrorism, has created an Obscenity Prosecution Task Force (which gives rise to a job title that would never survive the withering mockery it would evoke in the UK: “Deputy Chief for Obscenity”) that will shut down pornstores and go after “peer-to-peer” distributors of obscenity over the internet.

The article rehearses the arguments of the “liberals” that this is a waste of money and of Christian organisations who say it should be a priority because it is a form of corruption that has an impact on children.

Now, I come from the UK, which is a very secular society. Only 6% of the population in the UK go to Church on a regular basis. In the last census 20% of respondents self-identified as having no religion. Half of all first-born children are born outside marriage (although the parents often marry afterwards). I live in Switzerland where religious allegiance is part of everyday life (a tax payable to your church is deducted directly from your salary) violent crime is low (although there are the same number of guns per head of population as the US) and there is a sex shop in most high streets (my nearby 50,000 population town has two sex shops in the main shopping area) and an erotic hypermarket in many out of town shopping centres. So for me the American attitude to porn is as alien as it gets.

One of the sexshops in my town belongs to a chain called “Beate Uhse”. When the woman who founded and ran that chain died recently, there where obituaries in the all the serious papers. She was a colourful character: at 18 she was a pilot in the Luftwaffe. When the Allies permanently grounded Luftwaffe Pilots after the war, Beate got involved in producing pamphlets on the appropriate use of the rhythm method for contraception. This expanded into marital aids.

Today, her shops sell clothes and toys, contraceptives, gels, oils, books and videos. Occasionally I get fliers in my letterbox (together with coupons from Supermarkets) telling me of the latest offers to improve my sex life. This is not the way it works in America.

Now I don’t want to mislead here. Beate Uhse may be viewed with tolerance now but she was prosecuted hundreds of times in Germany. She made a habit of winning her cases and she set out to win the hearts, minds and various other bits of the general public.

But to come back to the Department of Justice and their campaign on obscenity. It is easy to portray Gonzales as an idiot who doesn’t understand the impact of his choices or a zealot who doesn’t care, but I think the reality is that he’s a politician who believes that his job is to win the maximum possible number of votes.

Now this is still a slightly alien concept for me. UK politics is a little more patrician than that. One wouldn’t want to subject the judiciary to the democratic process, as that would be to substitute the tyranny of the uninformed majority over the judgement of good chaps from the right background who’ve been trained in all that sort of thing and probably know what they’re doing. Swiss politicians take a different approach to controversial decisions; they step to one side and let them be resolved by referendums.

But in America it seems that votes are the currency of the political economy and God (or at least Government) is on the side of those who are vote rich.

I think Gonzales wants to prosecute obscenity because it will win him more votes than prosecuting other things. He knows this because the Christians are organised and they tell him regularly and clearly, what they will vote for.

The rest of the voters, even though they might be the majority, are not organized and so they have no affect on Gonzales’ priorities.

If I was American, I might now write a little plea for the rest of America to get organized. I might point out that those who are not prepared to govern must be prepared to be governed by their inferiors. I might write a manifesto and start an ad campaign. Hell, I might even run for Congress (well I might if I was independently wealthly and came from the right kind of family).

But I am a Brit and we Brits tend to muddle through rather than rally around an ideology. The greatest weapon in British democracy is not organization but ridicule. In Britain, no idea that is ridiculous, no matter how attractive to a block of voters, can long survive.

So let me take you on a little British flight of fantasy in response to Mr. Gonzales and all those others who fight obscenity because Christian voters have told them it would be a jolly good idea.
Wouldn’t it be nice if…

  • It could be demonstrated that cutting off people's access to porn was as unpopular as putting up the price of gas

  • The Federal Government took a large slice of the porn profits (as they do in Germany) and decided that Christians are a voice to be mollified but not really listened to.

  • Jay Leno led a campaign to defend the right of Americans to free access to sexual relief: it’s good for your cardio, reduces the incidence of violence and builds the muscles in the right wrist.

  • Microsoft used the banner "where would you like to get off today"

  • Actors wore cute little ribbons to the Oscars defending the freedom to masturbate to images of your choice

  • Soccer Moms had bumper stickers that read “Porn Free or Die”

  • Statistics where published by ISPs showing the number of American households that access porn sites: frequency, duration, top topics, as a means of driving advertising revenue

  • Talk shows ran phone-ins asking for counseling for Christians who practice a faith founded on the importance of love in human redemption and end up focused on a fear of (other people's) sexuality.

Ah well, back to the real world where more energy is put into regulating porn than to prosecuting rapists and child molesters.


Anonymous said...
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rg said...

Witty, intelligent and insightful, Mike.

Sadly, I can't see my way to believing anything will make a difference, at this stage.

I'm just lucky live in a country that most Americans think is repressive, backward and undemocratic.

In Vietnam, the government is too poor and too busy dealing with real things, like flooding, to worry about who's accessing porn, or who's writing naughty stuff.

It's not that they don't have laws against pornography, they do. It's just that in the midst of an impending bird flu epidemic, they're too practical and too pragmatic to bother enforcing it.

Sunday's Hangover said...

Mike - thanks for a great rant. I am more than shocked at the direction this is taking. It's always good to have a Brit - in comment.

Keziah Hill said...

Nicely argued Mike. If only the people who should read it would read it. Our government has just passed some repressive terrorism laws, given our obsession with copying all things American, new obscentiy laws are only a matter of time.

DLK said...

Brilliant Mike, I loved it. The thing about Brits is that they're so civilised. Americans, having broken away from the English yoke of oppression, are as a rule, not. The idea that no idea that is ridiculous can long survive is a perfect example of civilisation.

If I may be permitted one small correction: Mr Gonzales' position is not contingent on anyone voting for him; it is an appointment so he is not a vote getter. He is the lacky of a vote getter.

Now, just in case I dissappear, those of you who might miss me can start asking questions...


JD Hall said...

Good article, Mike.

Frankly, the whole thing makes me so angry that I have trouble dealing with it.

I'm from New England, originally, where freedom of speech is practiced and revered, almost a religion in itself.

I'm also appalled by the seeming lack of outrage by my fellow citizens over torture, illegal war the Patriot Act and all of the other nasty pranks this adminstration has played on our freedoms and way of life.

I've made an attempt to contact the owner of Red Rose but she hasn't responded.

I'd like to know more about the case. The story may never get to mainstream media. They wouldn't even let me post it on Talking Points Memo.

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