Thursday, December 10, 2015


Hi folks,

Recently, I began a discussion on Facebook about censorship and the current malignant culture of Political Correctness. The responses obtained have convinced me that perhaps it's a good time to repost a lecture I delivered in 1997 at Vermont College and which was later published in several publications, including my story collection, GUMBO YA-YA, published by Spinetingler Press. Although I've published it here several times, it just seems like now a repost might be timely. I think if you read it, the signs of where PCism was heading were evident even back then. What I didn't foreseee at the time is the extent that politicians, academia and the mainstream press would kowtow to the culture of being "politically correct." It's simply astounding... and frightening--at least to me.

Anyway, here's the whole article. I've bolded a few areas I feel particularly relevant. Be forewarned: There are instances of cursing, etc. Here goes:



Les Edgerton

(Lecture Delivered to MFA in Writing Students & Faculty at Vermont College, January 8, 1997. Later published in Circle K Magazine. Included in the story collection, Gumbo Ya—Ya, Snubnose Press.)

            Like most of you in this room, I’ve always written, always had to write. I had this thing inside me that said I had to be a writer. Notice, I said had to be. Not “wanted” or “yearned to be”. Had to be. There was no choice in the matter. God looked down and saw this little runty red thing laying in his bassinet, sucking down a PBR with a formula chaser, and He said, “I need another writer for my Grand Scheme,” and Bingo! There I was. A writer. When God Himself says you’re gonna be a writer, then, boy, you better be a writer. You play the hand you’re dealt.
            I didn’t have any argument with that. I mean, who argues with God? Except, maybe Francois Camoin. But I didn’t have the advantage of being French and cynical and all that like Francois did- I didn’t even know where to begin to buy a beret or a black painter’s smock or an attitude. I mean, for Christ’s sake, I was a kid in Texas. None of those things could be gotten in Texas. If you couldn’t barbecue it or shoot it, fuck it or ride it, forget it. Not available west of the Pecos.
            So I had to be a writer who grew up in Texas and my opportunities were pretty limited because of that.
            Unfortunately, I was the product of a traditional American education. I say “unfortunately” because the literature I was exposed to in that system included what might be termed “safe” writers. Thackery, Milton, Shakespeare, Melville, Whitman, Steinbeck, know the list. It’s the list we’ve all been exposed to.
            I tried. Believe me, I tried. But my models for writing were all wrong, in a way. They were guys like Balzac and Dickens, Henry James and Jonathon Swift. Ladies like Louisa May Alcot. Great writers, sure, but from another planet as far as I was concerned. I grew up in a bar, saw my first man killed when I was twelve - shot six feet in front of me. I was the night dispatcher for my grandmother’s cab company when that happened and had to phone the police. Nothing like that ever happened in Little Women, near as I could tell.
            One by one, I tried all the genres and styles I became exposed to and one thing or the other doomed each experiment. I mean, I loved the books I read and of course I tried imitating them in style and content, but even though they were wonderful books, they weren’t about worlds I inhabited. I guess I assumed you weren’t allowed to write about the planet I happened to find myself on.
            I just didn’t realize you were allowed to write about real life, at least life as I knew it. It was my first brush with censorship, although I didn’t know it. Our local public library, which was my only source of reading material just didn’t carry anything in the contemporary realism category. Looking back, I know now the head librarian hauncho probably felt those kinds of books would damage my tender and developing character, so even if they had such books on their shelves, they were kept from youngsters like myself.
            So, for years, I continued writing what I thought was the only kind of stuff that could get published and little by little became more and more disillusioned with writing and literature in general. Perhaps if I had gone to college at an earlier age, I might have discovered there were books out there to which I could relate, but I didn’t. I was in the Navy and then in prison, and in those kinds of environments you just don’t run across literature that’s much different than what you’d find on your average high school English recommended reading list.
            I quit writing for a number of years, because, frankly, I was bored. It was by chance only that I came upon a writer who relit the literary fires.
            Charles Bukowski.
            Lights went off.
            This guy was doing things I didn’t know you were allowed to do. He was writing about life, about real life. Nitty-gritty, down and dirty life. Lots of it was funny, most of it was sad, but it all touched me, way down deep there in that literary G-spot all writers (and readers) are forever trying to connect with.
            I read another guy about the same time that turned me on fire inside as well. Kurt Vonnegut. I read this interview in the Paris Review in which he said, “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.” Big spark of understanding there. Ol’ Kurt said exactly what I had been unable to articulate for a long time, ever since I started reading the “masters.” The old boys (and girls) had some good stuff going for them, but it seems like literary sphincterism had set in by the time I came along, all these deified contemporary writers were sitting around contemplating their own navels, it seemed. I was reading all this stuff about upper-middle class angst. Really jazzy stuff, like how some guy was sorrowing because all he had out of life was his Chrysler agency and ten million bucks and was searching his soul and was in this big blue funk because he hadn’t gone off with Easy Sally that time at the senior prom way back in H.S. Every book I picked up at that period seemed to have a similar theme. I just couldn’t identify. Hell, I never was able to afford a used Chrysler, let alone an entire agency, and I had run off with Easy Sally--yeah, I was that guy, the one in the leather jacket and the slicked-back hair--really! I had hair, back then--and believe me there isn’t a lot of angst to be used for material in the writing trade when you’re sitting in the trailer and Easy Sally is looking like Even Easier Sally and you don’t know where your next PBR is coming from and the TV is flashing those little tornado warnings across the bottom of the screen and you’re trying to quiet the little rascal on your knee that has your last name but the propane delivery man’s hook nose. I just knew somewhere deep inside my bones I couldn’t fake writing a whole, entire book out of what it meant to be the Executive Vice President in Charge of Sales for Southeastern Florida for the Tidy Bowl Corp and sorrowing over the lost babe of his childhood or the sad fact that he’d chucked it all and gone off to paint Tahitian sunsets. Or that his wife had. Crap like that.
            All of a sudden, here’s this guy Bukowski writing about shit I knew about. About whores and hustlers, winos and fathead bosses who were always worried their wives would go to bed with the help so they got their mad out in the open right away.
            I picked up a book of his, a collection of stories called “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town and Other Stories.” I loved those other stories. It was like sitting down with a homeboy or your rap partner in the joint and swapping lies. Better yet; it was entertaining. All of a sudden, I remembered why I had first started writing. To make someone laugh. Or cry. Learn something about another human being. Just feel something. Feel what I was feeling. Here was this guy, Bukowski, and he was doing exactly what I’d always wanted to do.
            Bukowski’s stories weren’t about middle-aged English professors who were all in a fret because their wives no longer get excited sitting around listening to them conjugate French verbs and deducing that their lives, the meaningful portions of them, anyway, were over. Some of these guys, it seemed, took 400 pages to figure out why the major babe in their life was leaving. They were bored, Jack.
*                                                          *                                                          *
            I know this was billed as a lecture on censorship and you may be wondering where the censorship angle comes in. Well, where it comes in is that not only were folks like Bukowski not being published by so-called “respectable” presses in this country, but other books by writers like him were not generally available to people like myself. They weren’t talked about by our English teachers, they weren’t on the shelves of our hometown libraries--or if they were, they were kept from our view and knowledge. In other words, there was a form of censorship operating that kept this kind of book from me and others that exists today and it is this and other forms of censorship, overt and covert, that I’ll get to, by and by. I want to show what it is about Bukowski that turned my whole life around. Well, not my life--I mean, I still have to mow the grass on Saturday and take out the garbage--but this story saved my writing life, which is, after all, the only life worth having.
            The story was The Fiend. You may have read it. If you did, you either became a fan of Bukowski’s or you hated his guts. Personally, I became a fan.
            Basically, it’s a story about a middle-aged guy named Martin Blanchard, who’s been defeated by alcohol. He’s lost his wife and family, two wives, two families, actually, his job, everything. Twenty-seven jobs he’s gone through. That’s a lot of jobs. This guy’s just your basic average slob who can’t leave the juice alone. He’s reduced to living in this squalid apartment, four flights up, and drinking wine. His only source of income is his unemployment checks and money left in parking meters. Badly educated, yet he listens to classical music, preferring Mahler.
            He begins to notice this little girl outside playing. He begins to notice she has on these interesting panties...and... you guessed it, he finds himself masturbating. Afterwards, he feels relief. It’s out of my mind, he thinks after he gets off. I’m free again. Only, he’s not. It’s just the beginning of a new obsession, a perversion. For the first time in months, perhaps years, he has an interest. It repels him, but he can’t resist it, either.
            At first, he thinks it’s just something weird that overtook him and now it’s out of his system, but after he drinks his last bottle of wine, he sees the little girl outside in the street and begins to get hard again. He decides to go to the store to replenish his wine supply and as he walks outside he notices the little girl and the two little boys have gone into the garage across the street. He finds himself walking into the garage behind them and shutting the doors.
            He then proceeds to rape the little girl, in very graphic detail. When you read this part, if it doesn’t make you sick, you’re probably beyond the kind of help counseling can give you at this late date. All the while he’s committing this heinous act, the two boys are asking him questions. They express genuine curiosity and don’t seem to be overly-frightened, exhibiting more of an amoral attitude than anything. Bukowski does something quite skillful here. Instead of having the two young boys be scared shitless, he shows them to be mainly curious about what Martin is doing to their friend. These kids are witnessing something pretty horrible, but then they’re just kids, and there’s an amoral innocence about their reaction that blurs the morality. Raping a child is without doubt a truly horrible crime, with no redemption in such an act, but since it’s hard to wholeheartedly condemn the two boys the reader is moved into an area of moral ambiguity that creates a kind of complicity with the boys. The reader then becomes, like the boys, a kind of voyeur to Martin’s act. This also helps humanize the monster Martin is, inasmuch as any such person could be seen as having human qualities.
            The kicker for me in this story was a line a little earlier on in the story, as Martin is kissing the child, just before he rapes her, and the narrator says, “Martin’s eyes looked into her eyes and it was a communication between two hells--one hers, the other his.” When I read this line, it was as if I’d been struck by literary lightening.
            What I have always thought good writing was about was people, all kinds of folks, and what made writing about people good, was that it showed you something about them. Something you didn’t know or were confused on or were ignorant of. And not just politically correct folks, either. In fact, preferably not politically correct folks. Is there a more boring bunch in the Solar System? You see, I was in jail, I was an alcoholic, I was a drug user, I was all those kinds of dudes that aren’t allowed to buy a house in Westchester County--well, that’s not right, exactly, according to my New York friends, most of the citizens in Westchester fit that description--but you know what I mean--and I knew they weren’t all weak or stupid or worthless. They didn’t all start out that way. Something happened along the road. Some of the most intellectual conversations I’ve ever heard were in soup kitchens. I met a guy once who used to teach physics at M.I.T., one fine Thanksgiving Day at the free turkey blowout the Salvation Army was hosting in Baltimore. This guy could make hydrogen bombs in his sleep and probably cure cancer if he got a year off the sauce.
            Anyway, back to Bukowski and his story about the child rapist. Bukowski doesn’t excuse this motherfucker, nor make him out to be anything but the monster he is, but he does show us something about the guy which we probably wouldn’t have known in any other way. He shows us there’s a human being running around inside the guy someplace. A somewhat troubled human being, but one of us at any rate. And this is what literature should be all about. Showing us to one another. The good, the bad, the ugly as well as the downright perverts.
            All his stuff isn’t good. In fact, a lot of it stinks. Kind of masturbation-on-the-page type of stuff. He considers himself a genius--well, he is, actually--and Bukowski seems to have thought that everything he had a thought on was important because it came out of his brain. Not true. That virtually everything he wrote got printed may not have been his fault, but more the fault of publishers who bought into his self-created myth.
            Almost any other writer that this same story would have occurred to, would have taken the point of view of anyone but Martin’s. The little girl herself, the boys, the cops who came and arrested him, the parents. An adult who discovered the crime. A fly on the wall. To write this kind of story from the pov of the perp, in my mind, is the stuff of literary courage. It’s very dangerous stuff. It you don’t bring it off, it almost makes the writer appear as if he excused Martin for what he’s done, which would have made Bukowski an even bigger monster than his character. What he’s been able to do is present Martin exactly as he is - a hideous member of the human race...but amazingly, yet...still a member of humanity. It’s interesting in one respect, too, in that Bukowski wrote this story in the third person, while most of his other writing is first person and confessional autobiography. It looks as if he wanted to make sure readers didn’t confuse the narrator with the author, which, if he did, renders him just a little less courageous. I don’t want to think of him that way, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
            With that one little sentence, “Martin’s eyes looked into her eyes and it was a communication between two hells--one hers, the other his.”, Bukowski gives us an insight that is deeply profound. And that, in my opinion, is what great writing is all about.
            It takes enormous courage to be able to write about the kinds of people Bukowski does. Readers, even intelligent readers, tend to associate the writer with the narrator. In my first semester, I wrote a story about a character who was a criminal, and I had the concern that the reader of the piece would want to know if I had been a criminal myself. I addressed my concern to my first advisor here, Phyllis Barber, and she said, “an intelligent reader will never ask if a piece of writing is autobiographical, so don’t worry about it.” Well, Phyllis meant well, and in a perfect world, this would be true, but believe me, even very intelligent readers at least wonder if the stuff they’re reading comes from the writer’s own experience and even the brightest of readers will wonder if very negative or dark stuff is what the author really thinks and feels. It’s just human nature. It’d be nice if readers accepted work labeled as fiction as just that--fiction--but the truth of the matter is, there’s something of the prurient in all of us that makes us hope that the stuff on the page--especially the dark, forbidden stuff--is derived from the real experience of its creator. It gives most of us a delicious little shiver of horror to be standing this close to depravity without actually having to get any of it on ourselves. There is some part of almost all our souls that craves the darker side of life. We are alternately titillated and repulsed by immoral behavior and I think that is the reason books and stories and movies about bad guys are so well-attended. We can satisfy this baser part of our souls in a safe and acceptable manner, so long as they get put in their places in the end.
            Most of my own writing output has been about such people, and without exception, those who read it and are acquainted with me, will come up and ask, in almost an embarrassed fashion, “Was that yourself you were writing about?” Up until just recently, I would usually answer that, uh, no, I just know some people like that. I’ve usually taken the coward’s way out. Just recently, I’ve begun to admit that, yes, I’ve done many of the things that show up in my stories. I’ve been a criminal, done time, sold drugs, been involved in various sexual aberrations, broken many and diverse laws. I don’t do them any more--well, not as many--I’d be room temperature by now if I’d continued doing some of the things I used to. And, I’m a different person than I was when I was involved in those things. That’s why I’ve usually lied when asked if the author of my work was the same as the narrator. Most folks, no matter what they say, will assume you’re still that kind of person and that kind of reputation will keep you from getting some of the nicer rewards of our civilization.
            The thing that writers like Bukowski represent to me is truth. As a group of animals endowed with a superior intellect--as compared with, say, monkeys or tse-flies--and if we do indeed have this intelligence, then what we ought to be about primarily is the pursuit of truth. This is what education should be about, although sadly, it seems not to be the Holy Grail it once was. Back in “my day” which was the nineteen-sixties, that’s what a lot of us were interested in. Truth. We were into toppling institutions. Institutions we felt were based on lies. And, I guess that’s why writers like Bukowski appeal to me so much. The one thing we weren’t being in the sixties was safe. Although, that’s not entirely true. There was a large contingent of folks that were concerned mainly with making sure they didn’t go to Vietnam and get shot at. A lot of the hyperbole in that era was, in fact, centered around changing a system that could put one’s physical unit in jeopardy. But for many of us, especially those of us who had been in the military at the time, the things we were involved in were anything but safe. That’s what seems to be missing today. Most of the stuff I pick up and read, while quite good in many instances, is for the most part, safe writing. The mood has changed, as it always does, but the direction it has moved to is a dangerous one.
            I’m speaking here of the phenomenon sweeping through this country referred to as being “politically correct.” Like many grandiose ideas, there is a noble intent at the center of this outlook, but also like many other popular notions, it has been perverted until it is the antithesis of what it originated as. Being PC nowadays amounts to out and out censorship in my opinion. For every writer like Bukowski, William Vollmann, and David Sedaris who breaks through and becomes a cult hero, there are hundreds of writers who are being stifled, vilified, and destroyed, simply because they do not preach the party’s message nor do they conform to the parameters set up by the PC folks who seem to be in charge. Too often they are stifling themselves by trying to placate society. What used to be considered simply bad taste nowadays takes on a more sinister connotation and that is dangerous if we value freedom of thought and value the time-honored tradition of the debate of ideas which is the only viable method for advancing knowledge and understanding.
            Plato himself spoke about political correctness in The Republic, when he said:
            “Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorized ones only.” How about that.
            In another of Bukowski’s stories, 3 Chickens, he continually beats his girlfriend. Definitely not a PC story. Here are some direct quotes from the story:
            once she was screaming these insanities from the fold-down bed in our apartment. I begged her to stop, but she wouldn’t. finally, I just walked over, lifted up the bed with her in it and folded everything into the wall.
            then I went over and sat down and listened to her scream.
            but she kept screaming so I walked over and pulled the bed out of the wall again there she lay, holding her arm, claiming it was broken.
            now, another time she angered me and I slapped her but it was across the mouth and it broke her false teeth.
            I was surprised that it broke her false teeth and I went out and got this super cement glue and I glued her teeth together for her. it worked for awhile and then one night as she sat there drinking her wine she suddenly had a mouthful of broken teeth.
            the wine was so strong it undid the glue. it was disgusting. we had to get her some new teeth, how we did it, I don’t quite remember, but she claimed they made her look like a horse.
            the bar was full, every seat taken. I lifted my hand. I swung. I backhanded her off that god damned stool. she fell to the floor and screamed.
            There are more abusive incidents in the story. This is horrible stuff to anyone--and I imagine that’s most of us--who is interested in consciousness-raising about spouse abuse and battering--but there is a value to being exposed to this kind of material. How else can we understand anything about violence unless we observe and portray it accurately? It exists, just as surely as serial killers exist, and how can one combat evil unless one understands its nature?
            Gordon Weaver, who was on the faculty here at Vermont until a few years ago, told me in an interview, that, “If our special interest, as writers and/or editors, is the precise use of language toward the end of a viable perception of and effect on reality, we may argue there is some virtue implicit in any utterance (written or oral) that confronts the consensus of any gathering.” He gives an example. “There is a cost that will be paid by all concerned if one tells a Polack joke in the presence of Poles, but I contend the cost is greater if one stifles or sanitizes the anecdote.” Gordon has something here, I think. Weaver also told me that academicians are perhaps the newest bullies on the censorship block and perhaps the most dangerous of all. He stated that, “There is a greater danger, it seems to me, when the censors come from the ranks of the presumably ‘enlightened’. It is not surprising that a number of college and university communities nurture factions who wish to control free speech; it is unsettling when more sophisticated citizens (faculty) add their clout to movements desiring to police our utterance in the interests of what minority or another deems politically incorrect.”
            Whether or not you agree with writers like Bukowski, or Weaver for that matter, is unimportant. What is important is that they and others of diverse opinions have a forum to be heard and read. That forum is disintegrating under the onslaught of those who wish to stifle speech that disagrees with theirs. Truth is in danger of being extinguished, and it may fall to us who write to be the last vanguard of free speech. That is why writers such as Bukowski need to be published and need to be read by establishment presses and before they’re dead. There are some of us who feel we are plunging back into a Dark Age. History would confirm that to be so. After nearly every period of enlightenment, anarchy prevails again for awhile, and this is what I see us heading toward, as a nation and as a world.
            It is the nature of groups to want to stifle opposing viewpoints. In this country, supposedly the land of free speech, attempts at suppression have been with us since the adoption of the First Amendment, but the preponderance of that type of activity has been traditionally borne by extremists of the far right and far left political and societal spectrum. Those with the hot fire of righteousness in their bellies have been the usual standard-bearers for the termination of ideas contrary to their agenda and such should probably be expected.
            Gordon Weaver told me that although he dislikes boorish and bigoted expressions, he sees a greater danger in disallowing their spokesmen an opportunity to be heard.
            “The censors will always be with us,” he said. “It is the nature of both institutions and individuals to desire the silence of those they wish to suppress. Institutions with political power or ambitions for same (government, churches, schools) can probably be fended off--as they have been in modern times at least--by organized responses. The American Civil Liberties Union has a pretty good record in this regard. Simple crackpots (racists, militant feminists, and other self-appointed arbiters of community morality) seem to wither away if studiously ignored.”
            Repression comes in many forms, not always overt. Kathleen M. Sullivan, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, in talking about the censorship issue as it affects funding for the NEA, says of the PC issue, “An artist who receives a check in the mail (from the NEA) with a ‘hit list’ of forbidden ideas attached will forego too much valuable and innovative expression for fear it will come too close to the line. As (US Supreme Court) Justice Thurgood Marshall once put it, the problem with a ‘sword of Damocles is that it hangs--not that it drops.’”
            Fred Grandy, former actor on the Love Boat and now a Congressman from Iowa, says, “I am no artist and have 10 years on TV to prove it. But I have spent enough of my life around creative minds to know that you cannot have art without risk. You cannot write language proscribing the human imagination that will not turn artists away in droves.”
            Speaking of Congress in terms that could be applied to college professors and publishers as well, Grandy said, “Trying to eliminate smut by allowing Congress to tell America what is and is not artistic is as misguided as attempting to legislate patriotism by amending the Constitution to prohibit flag burning.”
            And publishers. How do they, as deciders of what news is fit to print, view the censorship debate? Reactions range from the moderately perplexed to the horrified doomsayers.
            Robert McDowell, who publishes the Story Line Press, wrote an opinion piece for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, which perhaps synopsizes the publisher’s view. “The debate pits a democratic majority believing in our First Amendment rights of free speech against a well-financed and well-organized minority extolling the virtues of all that is wholesome and the government’s right to control the subject matter of the books we read, the music we enjoy, the paintings and plays we experience.” McDowell calls Senator Jesse Helms and other individuals and groups’ efforts to censor materials funded by the NEA, “the most severe legalized censorship in this country since the McCarthy era,” and labels such censorship efforts as being “shameful attacks on free speech and the artist’s right to represent the truth as he or she perceives it.”
            Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist, Larry McMurtry, in a Washington Post article, accused the Jesse Helms-led forces of attempting to “eliminate all sex from American art if they can. Rembrandt’s sketch of a fully clothed heterosexual couple attempting the missionary position behind a bush would likely not be thought fund-worthy by Helms, whose stated preferences would limit us to snow scenes, pictures of bird dogs or romantic landscapes involving, if possible, humble tobacco farms.” McMurtry goes on, “The narrative as these individuals see it, in their determination to tell Americans what they need and don’t need in the way of publicly funded art, is rigidly chaste: no public money for anything with sex in it! (They may claim that (they) only want to withhold public money from art that depicts or describes ‘wrong’ sex-- i.e., homeoerotic (no grants to Leonardo or Proust!) sadomasochistic (no Westerns, no film noir), exploitive of children (no Lolita, no Lewis Carroll), but it’s clear that they really mean to eliminate all sex from American art if they can.”
            Kathleen Sullivan puts it even more succinctly, when she says, “A free society can have no official orthodoxy in art any more than in religion or politics. And in a free society, such orthodoxy can no more be purchased by power of the purse than compelled by power of the sword.”
            Just a couple of years ago, Stanley Banks, Kansas City playwright and poet, offered the balance of such cost: “We will begin to see dull art which has no freshness of vision. Certain points of view will be silenced. When that happens our society will be seriously threatened without a bomb being blasted.” He warns us not to “call for laws to censor artists who challenge our consciousness in ways that might be uncomfortable, irritating, risqué, etc. For those who don’t want to see or hear or read about acts or points of view contrary to their own, he advises, “simply don’t look, buy it or let the kids have access to it!”
            Banks’ “dull art which has no freshness of vision” is already upon us. It has always been with us, since censorship in one form or another has always been around--it has only increased mightily in the past few years. The result is art which is becoming blander and blander, much resembling the “art” that was allowed to surface in totalitarian governments such as the USSR of a few years past and in many other governments. America is not yet at that stage, but if current developments continue in publishing, in the university, and in government, we are not far from achieving total censorship, imposed by the group in control.
            What scares me the most is that universities should be the bastion of free thought but the state of the matter is that free debate of ideas is rapidly disappearing from the college campus. As more and more writers come out of university settings and are being influenced by teachers with a decided political bent, the writing they produce becomes more and more insipid. These same writers take over the litmags and editor positions at publishing houses and impose their political beliefs on those who submit, publishing only those that can pass the PC test in the content of their creative material. As Kurt Vonnegut said in a quote cited earlier, “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.” Well, it’s in great danger of doing just that. It’s about halfway up the anus.
            In interviewing folks for an article I wrote on censorship for Circle K Magazine, I was referred to the brother-in-law of a friend of mine, an Australian, who was teaching physics and doing research at one of America’s leading universities which I cannot name because I’ve promised him anonymity. This man says, “I think it’s a myth that censorship doesn’t exist on college campuses. I believe universities should be places where anybody can say whatever they want and everybody should be very tolerant, but it’s just not true. Students are punished for saying certain things. You could say whatever you wanted at the University of Sydney (where he’s from). They were much more tolerant there. In student publications there was much less concern about libel, for example. The litigation aspect puts a lot of pressure on what ideas you can express.” This man only agreed to give me his views when I swore several times I wouldn’t use his name or even tell what university he was at, for fear of losing his job. It’s a sad day when a person from another country is allowed a greater freedom of expression there than in his adopted country which professes to be the freest nation on earth.
            This professor went on to say, “I think there’s more of a tradition in European-style universities for freedom of speech--that that’s what universities are for. In America, the impression I get is that universities are for other purposes...for training professionals and for football games. It’s not about intellectual freedom. You pay us (educators) your money and you want something at the end. You want a guaranteed elite job in society, and it has nothing to do with expanding your mind. You’re buying a product. It’s more of a consumer orientation.”
            He adds, “The government is trying to censor more and more science that they are actually paying for. For example, on sensitive subjects as global warming, the government wants to see research results first, because of the possible political consequences.”
            Americans should be ashamed when they have prided themselves on theirs being the leading example of a free society, when others in the world community may be seeing us very differently, as evidenced by my anonymous critic and source.
            Anita Manning, writing for USA Today, says that the issue is different in colleges than it is in the lower levels of education.
            “In K through 12, there is a school board or some sort of governing body that chooses what books are included in the curriculum...whereas in the college setting, the individual professor or instructor chooses the books for that course and students choose whether or not to take the course, leading to entire different issues.”
            In June, 1992, Brenda Suderman, acting media relations officer for The Bulletin, the student newspaper at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, reported that the university deleted about 170 files containing material on sexual bondage and pornography from the Internet computer system the university subscribes to. Gerry Miller, Director of Computer Services, made the decision in consultation with Terry Falconer, Vice-President (administration), saying the material was removed because “we felt they (the deleted files) didn’t support the mission of the university and we felt they were objectionable.”
            Alisa Smith, co-editor of The Marlet, the student newspaper at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, published what university officials deemed objectionable material as exampled by a lesbian, gay, bisexual issue put out in 1991 which featured male and female genitalia on the cover. About 2,000 copies were thrown into dumpsters by campus traffic and security functionaries upon administrative order. Even so, Smith feels the press is becoming a bit freer. (Yeah, well--go figure…)
            She says, “The mainstream media is covering a lot of issues that only the alternative press used to cover. I suppose the backlash against political correctness is sort of an attempted censorship, like trying to silence people, but not by directly shutting down their newspapers. (Universities) are trying to shut down thought, rather than newspapers. All the articles that you see are about how PC’s have sort of gotten a grip on society and how people can’t say what they want anymore. I guess it’s like a left-wing phenomenon.”
            Let money talk, though, and censorship takes on yet another clever form: the economic kind.
            “Personally,” says Smith, “I think the biggest form of censorship right now is the fact that the economy is so bad, making advertising really hard to come by. A lot of papers used to have a fairly idealistic boycott list for advertising that they wouldn’t use because of things those advertisers were funding--like nuclear systems contracting or because they were pro-apartheid in South Africa. Editors are finding they can’t make ideological choices any more because of monetary pressure. If you’re really dependent on advertising dollars, you have to basically write the kinds of things that won’t offend your advertisers and don’t disagree with their stances.”
            This latter statement seems to contrast with her earlier one that “the press is becoming a bit freer,” and is perhaps a good example of why censorship is unnecessary. If you allow anyone to talk freely long enough, they may provide sufficient evidence by their own words that they should not be taken that seriously when giving us the benefit of their opinion.
            Fearful of bad publicity during stressful economic times, it is not so surprising college and university administrations are increasingly acting to suppress anything that might bring adverse publicity to their campuses. What is surprising is that faculty members are increasingly joining in, even in the supercharged Politically Correct environment that has permeated most higher-education campuses in one way or another.
            A 1992 incident at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, exemplifies the debate and poses difficult and perplexing arguments for both sides of the issue.
            A cartoon ran in the student newspaper, the Nicholls Worth, poking fun at three black singers in a rap group that had performed on campus. Black students who were offended, protested by burning about 150 copies of the paper publicly. Their complaint was that they were greatly upset by the exaggerated features of the cartoon figures and the stereotypes it reinforced. Eric Knott, president of a black fraternity denied that the protest had anything to do with being politically correct.
            “I’m not one to hide behind racism and claim that everything in society is racist, (but) the cartoon clearly degraded the black race,” Knott says.
            Marty Authement, student editor of the paper, said that he “used poor judgment” in allowing the cartoon to be published, but was also concerned that “political correctness is limiting what journalists can do. These days you have to be more sensitive than you usually would be. If you live by the strict law of political correctness, there’s not much left.”
            I had a very jarring and dismaying experience with PCism with my own novel The Death of Tarpons. A few years before it actually got published, a regional publisher in the Southwest wanted to buy it. A very few months before this offer, I was sleeping on a garage floor in California and eating out of a Bob’s Big Boy dumpster, so the money he offered had the same value as a million dollars to me. I almost signed the contract until the publisher said, “Well, we have to change a lot of this. There’s stuff in here that might make certain folks upset.” He gave as an example a scene in which the boy’s father whips him with a live king snake. This might offend the snake lovers, he said. That’s got to be what?--seven or eight in the U.S.A.? Not counting, of course, the folks who use them in church services. He cited about twenty other scenes I’d have to change because they might offend this person or that. Reluctantly, I withdrew the book, not knowing if it would ever be published, and indeed, it was another five years before I found a publisher who wasn’t as concerned about snake lovers’ feelings and was more concerned with putting out a book that she felt had literary value.
            Mind you, this was several years before the wholesale PC attitude took over the country. This asshole--and I don’t excuse myself from the term--was merely the forerunner of what is a terrifying fact of life today.
            If you believe this to be the ravings of a paranoid mind, consider these facts:
            A record 348 incidents of attempted censorship occurred in the 1991-92 school year, according to The American Way, a liberal watchdog group. That’s an increase of 20% over the previous high, a figure they claim poses an alarming advance in assaults on a basic Constitutional right--a right almost universally assured in most of the free world.
            The Literary Network, a project jointly administered by Poets&Writers, Inc. and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses report over 6,000 attempts to remove books from shelves in American libraries in the 1980’s and ‘the number of incidents is noticeably on the rise.”
            Concerned Women for America, a conservative, pro-family group asserts all censorship attempts are not necessarily bad. Caia Mockaitis, speaking for the organization, says the issue is one of selection, not censorship, many times, in that “there are some materials that are appropriate for kids and some that are not,” no matter what adults’ political bias, liberal or conservative.
            Mockaitis has plenty of like-minded supporters. Censorship attempts at banning outright or restricting access to books and magazines in secondary school libraries were successful in nearly one-half of instances between 1987 and 1990, reports a University of Wisconsin survey of 6,600 schools. Challenged publications were removed 26 percent of the time, restricted by age or grade level 22 percent of the time, and more likely to occur at small schools.
            The book challenged most? Judy Blume’s Forever, a story of a teenage girl who loses her virginity. Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue and Rolling Stone were the most-challenged magazines at secondary schools, according to USA Today, Jan. 20, 1992.
            Consider this item: “Pornography Victims Compensation Act” was a bill on the U.S. Senate floor that would enable victims of sex crimes to file civil suits in an effort to recover damages from producers and distributors of obscene materials (including publishers, wholesalers, and booksellers) if the victims can show that the materials “caused” the crimes. This “third-party liability” bill is a way of imposing censorship through a back door. This item was reported by the American Booksellers Association.
            Here’s another: In May, 1990, Ferris Alexander, operator of a chain of bookstores, theaters and video stores in the Minneapolis area, was found guilty of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) obscenity forfeiture law. His crime? Selling four magazines and three videotapes found to be obscene and valued at less than $200. Alexander was sentenced to six years in prison, fined $200,000 and forfeited a $25 million dollar business. This was reported by The Media Coalition.
            Here’s another. Three editors of the Ohio State University student newspaper, The Lantern, resign when members of the journalism faculty issue a policy statement that the faculty advisor had the authority to review articles for libel before they were published. This story from The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 4, 1992.
            Censorship is everywhere and rising in attempts and more frightening, in successful attempts.
            Free speech advocate Nat Hentoff, the author of Free Speech for Me - But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other from HarperCollins, feels that in too many cases, publishers, school boards and principals remove or change material for students rather than face the wrath of militant parent groups. Seeing authorities suppress ideas in some cases, and being in a school in which books keep disappearing, gives a graphic lesson to students, Hentoff feels, in that they may have doubts that theirs is a country of intellectual freedom.
            And it appears it is special-interest groups that are behind these efforts and that the majority of Americans are against censorship. A survey conducted by Louis Harris for the American Council for the Arts and sponsored by Phillip Morris Companies, Inc., in February, 1992, polled 1,500 adults over the age of 18 by telephone. Part of the findings were that 91% felt it important for school children to be exposed to and participate in the arts; 67% felt learning about the arts as important as learning about history and geography, 60% say as important as math and science, and 53% believe the arts are important as learning to read and write. It’s evident that it’s a small but vocal and politically-powerful group of minorities who are succeeding in censorship activities and these groups emerge from both ends of the political and societal spectrum.
            Virtually every publisher in the country, from the smallest litmag to the largest publishing conglomerate, is terrified of antagonizing any reader whatsoever, unless the person offended is not part of a highly-organized, highly-vocal political group. This includes both right and left-wingers. It seems everybody in America has now organized, has a group with a slogan, a newsletter, a home page on the Internet, and a secret handshake. The battle is being waged over who gets ultimate control of the presses. And it doesn’t matter who wins. We all lose. What we lose is freedom of expression. And once that happens, we are done as a free society. I go to Gordon Weaver once again, who said it as best as it can be said. “Censorship from without is bad for the language, bad for those who speak or write it; self-imposed censorship, whatever the motive is worse. If you won’t say what you think, you run the risk of losing the powers of both speech and thought. I suspect we’ll be safe just as long as we refuse to accept censorship for anyone.”
            Again, I quote Gordon Weaver for perhaps the best take on the situation. “If the king is naked, we’re all (including the king) better served if someone says so.”
            Well, the king is indeed, naked. The only problem is not enough of us are saying so, preferring to remain safe, keep our jobs, get our material published and so we go on, giving silent tacit agreement to what is happening. This is an understandable position for many in our society; it is unforgivable for writers, at least in my opinion. Writers should be like the canaries in coal mines, the warning system that things are not right and that danger looms. As a group, we have many of us become complacent, intent only on saving our professional selves at the expense of freedom of thought. Maybe we understand too well that although the canary in the coal mine provided a valuable service, in doing so he ended up room temperature.
            I cannot count the numbers of instances acquaintances of mine have said to me, “I cannot say certain things I believe in, to my class, my teachers, my peers, or in my writing, because I would lose my job or be censured or not see my work in print, etc. What’s wrong with us? What kinds of writers are we producing in this country that are fearful to take stands on issues they believe fervently about simply because they risk disapproval? What kind of chickenshit writer is it that the little squiggles he or she puts down on paper consist of half-truths and integrity that is compromised regularly? We are surrendering something precious more by what we don’t do than what we do. Are we so enamored of safety and comfort that we are willing to give up the freedom to express ourselves honestly? It seems that we are. It is a growing malaise that is sweeping the country and I hold that the only ones that can stem the tide are the writers in our society. But where are they?
            Some are out there. There are a few. William Vollmann. Brian Everson. Michael Tolkin. Bukowski. There are others that we’ll never know of because they can’t find a forum. There need to be a lot more such voices. What is really needed is for establishment forums to begin looking more at the quality of the writing than the content. To give an ear to voices that refuse to be influenced by a job, a smile from an empty-headed bureaucrat, publication in a white-bread magazine or by a bottom-line mentality of a publishing conglomerate.
            I think back to when I began writing as a grade school kid. One of the things I used to do was write humorous sketches of some of the more terrifying individuals I faced daily. Individuals like the bullies I and others faced, from the schoolyard rowdy to the teacher who thought her job was to intimidate her class into submission. I’d show these “pieces” to friends, they’d be passed around, and in some cases, public opinion ended those offenders’ bullying careers. Nobody likes to push someone around if he’s going to get laughed at by everyone else. It just plain takes all the power out of it, not to mention the fun.
            The problem today is, the bullies have taken over not only the schoolyard, but the university, the Congress, and the publishing house. Many of us in this room became writers because of a bully somewhere in their past. Maybe it was another kid, or a group of kids, or maybe it was a parent or a teacher. We found we could effectively combat these kinds of folks by the written word. If we were physically weaker we possessed a strength that was virtually indefensible against. The power of ideas, expressed upon the page and in open debate. Do we want to give up our only weapon against tyranny? I hope not.
            And by the way--those writers I mentioned at the beginning of this lecture--Whitman, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Thackery, Milton, Shakespeare, Melville, Alcott--and that I described as “safe”, were anything but that when they were being published. They were almost all rogues in their time and were, by turns, either censored, vilified, viewed with shock, attacked by those in power, or even unpublished in their lifetimes because of the content of their writing. It is only after many years had passed and the political climate had shifted, that the original perceptions of them and their work were considered nonthreatening enough to exist in our libraries and schools. Although many of them are still censored, even today. Steinbeck routinely makes his appearance at book-burnings and other censorship attempts, along with Faulkner, Whitman and even Shakespeare. They were “safe” to me when I read them, simply because I was reading them in a different, more removed era, but in fact, those writers who have become what we call “immortal” have largely been the risk-takers of their time, who wrote in line with their conscience, rather than the political and social mores of their period. Many of them endured great distress because what they were writing was politically incorrect at the time. The thing was, there were then and still are now, publishers who gave them a forum, often at great risk, and there were those who read them, and so the world has been enriched through those individuals’ courage. Knowing this, it would be easy to say, “well, hey, those folks got published and there are those today being published who don’t parrot the party line, so what’s the problem? The problem is, once we as writers and future editors and educators begin to think like that, complacency sets in and we get the attitude to “let someone else worry about it” and that’s when our freedom of expression becomes seriously eroded and in danger of disappearing. Freedom of expression is a value that must be continuously fought for, over and over. That war is never finished unless one side or the other lays down its arms. As part of this generation of writers, it is our duty to take up the battle.
            There is another point of view that says that it’s not the job of an artist to express a viewpoint or an opinion at all. While I respect the right of those who feel that way, I disagree. Indeed, is it possible to find a writer of note who hasn’t expressed his point-of-view, politically, through his or her writings? What else was Steinbeck commenting on in “The Grapes of Wrath” if not a political system? Perhaps he didn’t stand on a stump and proclaim to the world his political views but they sure are right there in his fiction. There are countless others I could give as examples and I’m sure you have your own list. Some artists feel it is their job to present a vision of the world, not a political opinion. I don’t see a difference. It seems to be a matter of semantics. What is a “vision of the world” except a political opinion? Or you might call such a view a “philosophy” but again, philosophies (in my opinion) are nothing but political ideologies dressed up in a tuxedo. I believe it all comes down to politics and I mean politics in the purest sense, as in I want mine and you want yours and I’d kill you for yours if we hadn’t agreed that we’re civilized and have figured out a way for both of us to keep our stuff and not worry about the other taking it. And, for me, that’s what censorship finally boils down to. It’s refuting the principle that I can have mine and you can’t take it and you can have yours and I can’t have it either. You can just substitute the word “opinion” for a particular possession. What I object to is the closing down of forums for all but those who agree with the body politic, not in an overt way but by more subtle and insidious means.
            Thank you for your time. I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. I hope you’ll read some Charles Bukowski, some William Vollmann. I don’t even care if you don’t like or agree with them. In fact, the only way this little talk will be a success if people go out of here arguing with each other. Personally, I’m like Robert Duvall in The Apocalypse Now - I love the smell of a good argument in the morning. I’d like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes. In the preface to the infamous Story of O, Jean Paulhan wrote, “Dangerous books are those that restore us to our natural state of danger.”

Thanks for reading. This essay is available in my collection, GUMBO YA-YA, along with some short stories you might enjoy reading.

Blue skies,