I suppose there’s nothing worse than posting something late for a special event, but what I’m posting about was likely unknown to many of you last week (it was to me until someone told me), and…well, I’m on a once-weekly posting schedule here, so you’ll have to look over it.

Last week was National Banned Book Week in the U.S., an event sponsored by the American Library Association and other organizations to draw attention to the harm done by censorship and the still unbelievably common practice of banning books in certain schools and communities. You would be amazed at the books that have been banned in the U.S.: titles and authors ranging from Harry Potter to Shel Silverstein have been deemed dangerous or unfit for reading by children. My imagination immediately invokes images of book burnings through the course of history (I saw a video presentation for National Banned Book Week that contained images of Nazi book burnings), and I immediately leap to frustration at efforts to close down freedom of inquiry and expression. I think it is important to read opposing and unpopular viewpoints, because I’m not sure how one disagrees with something until one understands what that something is.

In fact, I groan at how, very recently, history has repeated itself at some level, this time in the name of protecting state secrets.

As a scholar, as a thinker, as an artist, I will scream from the hilltops that censorship is never, ever okay. I’ll also cry that the public has a right to know, whatever the dirty laundry of our leaders. Banning books and keeping them from the hands of inquisitive readers causes all sorts of adrenaline-laced exasperation to course through me, because it smacks of mind control and propaganda. Everyone should be able to read everything whenever they want. Literature and scholarship must be open to all, and is the property of all.


Someone vocalized a rational, opposing viewpoint during a conversation at the end of the week.  That would be that children of certain ages should be prevented from reading certain material in order to protect their innocence. I spat and sputtered for a moment upon hearing that, but when you think of it…none of us would argue against protecting a child’s innocence, would we? The person taking this stance wasn’t advocating for books to be banned, but merely withheld until a certain age…more of a parental function than a governmental function, I think, and perhaps as a tactic of the educational system.

Now, I don’t for a moment think that this metaphor extends to governments keeping secrets from their people, but I can suddenly see the logic of protecting names of vulnerable people that could meet harm or lose their lives should their names be published.

Still, does that merit censorship? I can’t agree that it should. A higher burden of responsibility on the writer, perhaps, and a recognition that servants who place themselves in harm’s way assume the risk that such a thing could happen. Similarly, in the vein of the other argument, I’m not sorry I read anything from my childhood, although I can see how I certainly lost a level of innocence by reading some of the authors that I did.

L’Engle once said that only books with something to say get banned. Franklin spoke against the concept of giving away liberty for the sake of security. I can’t sleep well at night with the idea of advocating the restriction of thought in the name of security or protection. Yet, I can’t sleep well at night with the idea of robbing anyone of whatever innocence they might have left in our bent and industrialized culture. National Banned Book Week leaves me in a bit of a conundrum.

What do you think?

If It Isn’t Broken…

Shhhh. Be vewy, vewy qwiet. We’re hunting the wabbit of normalcy.

I guess that’s easy for me to say because I would be, by some standards, sort of deviant. After all, I’m riddled with angst, most especially every time I schedule myself to write. I had serious anger outbursts as a freshman while practicing piano (imagine flying sheet music). I have unprofessional moments of expressing intense verbal displeasure with obvious stupidity that  fits in just fine backstage, but tends to not be received all that well in most office environments. Thus, try as I might to meet enough societal expectations to keep my day job, I am emotionally unbalanced, I question authority, I am a proud nonconformist, and, by our culture’s definition of the word, not entirely normal.

Of course, as my wife’s end of the family is fond of pointing out, “normal” is merely a setting on one’s dryer.

Here’s my defense: the very personality characteristics that  brand me as not normal, different, and outside of the status quo, are what make me creative. They are what make me an independent thinker. If an industrialized society has taught us anything, its that a sanitized culture of balance and recognition of the need for treatment of such…dysfunctions…is necessary for a productive society. We tolerate an eccentric few that serve us in the “entertainment industry,” along with the occasional absent-minded professor or scientist, and the rest of us are expected to conform. Dress codes, codes of conduct…resistance is futile. Welcome to the Borg.

I had an immediately harsh knee-jerk reaction to this article when I read it last week. Moscow’s new metro rail station has been named in memory of the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Artwork on display in the station portray scenes of Dostvoesky’s novels, which were frequently dark in their subject matter (the article cites specifically a grisly murder scene from Crime and Punishment). According to the CNN article, mental health experts are questioning whether or not this is dangerous, in essence, to the public health, because it will encourage actions such as suicide. Essentially, psychological experts desire to censor the art in the station in order to encourage good emotional health among the general population, and we are once again thrown backward into the “life imitating art” controversy. 

I’m not even going to get started on the censorship argument against this, nor the point that quality art is critical for a society’s emotional health. I sincerely hope that goes without saying. I want to trace a line of thought that I’ve followed through two science fiction works over the last few weeks. I recently finished reading The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks. Hawks sets his story in a surveillance society only slightly more drastic than our current culture, controlled by a secret brotherhood that demand compliance with expectations of normalcy from citizens, and systematically track down and kill those who cross to other realms and return with divergent perspectives. All in the name of order.

Almost immediately after finishing the book, Karen and I watched Equilibrium this weekend, a 2003 movie in which society has made feeling illegal in the name of preventing war, and thus art and pets are not only illegal, but destroyed on sight in order to prevent humans from viewing it and subsequently feeling emotion (ironically, this law is enforced by violence…thus nothing has been accomplished because what makes us human is sacrificed in the name of humanity). 

Good science fiction, while doing other things, presents a warning as to where we might go and what we might do with our powers of human innovation. I see the potential for us to travel the roads presented in these two pieces, and I see the discipline of psychology contributing progressively more to the problem. Everything outside of an arbitrarily defined societal norm becomes deviant. With this label, artists who express feelings and function in eccentric ways, also are labeled deviant. Professors who are so enamored with academic knowledge as to lose a bit of common sense, scientists who are absorbed in their discoveries at the expense of basic interpersonal functioning, risk being labeled as dysfunctional. Those who are too absorbed in their creativity to be bothered by the people around them provide us with some of the greatest discoveries and explorations of what it means to be human. Yet, we in our narcissism have decided that they are afflicted by a problem that needs to be “cured.” 

So, have we forgotten that all humanity is somehow dysfunctional? Do we lose sight of the joy of coloring outside of the lines that brings disorder to order? Don’t we understand that a certain amount of disorder is necessary to birth new creativity in the human spirit? 

I’m not arguing that all psychological ventures alienate the arts. To the contrary, very good integrations of the two exist. I think, however, that perhaps we’ve become too confident in our rudimentary understanding of the human mind. Creative personalities, passionate academics, and people of faith can all too easily be labeled as psychologically troubled people. In fact, statistically, we all can be labeled as such, as nearly all of us will experience some level of clinical depression at some point in our lives, for example. That will occur whether or not we view subway art in Moscow. 

Absorbing all of mankind into a definition of normalcy is not conducive to a healthy society. If anything, the constraints brought about by this, the expectations of constant self-control,  lead to even more of what psychology labels “antisocial behavior,” to say nothing of stifling a creative impulse or spiritual experience.

Not everything that falls outside of the realm of our perceived normalcy necessitates a cure. In short, not every clock that ticks differently needs to be fixed.  If we truly find individuality to be beautiful and something to be cherished, then perhaps we can stop concerning ourselves with how many negative implications might result from quality works of art in a metro rail station?  Perhaps there is an element of danger to it. There is an element of danger to all art, and to most of life that is worth living (ask any skydiver). We can’t be afraid of danger, or of walking outside the lines of what those around us do.

In fact, without taking these risks, we cannot move forward with what makes us beautifully human at all. 

Photo Attribution:

Not-So Intellectual Propriety

Is it me, or does the ferocity with which the battle to protect intellectual property make the entire situation…well, less than intellectual?

This story broke over the weekend. In essence, someone in a meeting in L.A. heard some commotion, looked out of a window, and saw what was apparently a scene from Transformers 3 being filmed. He shot a quick video with his phone, and uploaded it to YouTube. The motion picture studio complained of copyright violation, and pressured YouTube to subsequently take down the video.

So, by this logic, filming the people filming the movie is now a copyright violation? Explain this to me, please?

Copyright law exists (in Dave language) to prevent unauthorized copies of a work being made. When I copyright a project, that is to prevent someone from making copies and distributing them without my permission, or from claiming it as their own. The second is always the primary motivator for me: I register my work for either copyright protection, or under a Creative Commons license, in order to prevent someone from claiming my work as their own. As recent attempts to lock down every conceivable form of media imaginable in insanely counter-productive ways by groups such as the RIAA, MPAA, and many book publishers has shown us of late, however, this can be taken to such an extreme that lawful users have difficulty legally obtaining copies of the work. 

A slightly grey area exists in the so-called doctrine of fair use, which permits certain uses of copyrighted material without permission, but not for profit, such as in the case of educators using material for instructional examples in their classrooms. When you use someone’s material as support in an argument in an academic paper, for example, you are using it under fair use, citing the source on your bibliography page.

Here’s the issue: I don’t understand how one could claim that the guy filming the filming of this movie scene was attempting to steal part of the plot from the Transformers 3 screenplay (after all, he apparently identified it as exactly that, thus effectively citing the source). In fact, I see nothing here that would indicate that he was even distributing a part of the movie without permission. He was making a brief, obviously amateur video of a movie crew shooting part of a film on a public street. How do you copyright the act of creating part of a creative work in public? That could easily have been a different movie, and the segment he posted to YouTube could well end up on the cutting room floor. By the same logic, if I encountered a famous novelist in a coffee shop writing his next great work, and snapped a quick picture with my phone for Twitter, could I then be sued for copyright violation if a few words on his laptop screen happened to end up in the photo?

Paranoia is a sad thing. We live in an age of YouTube, Flickr, and multiple other ways in which video and photos of average individuals walking through public areas may end up on the Internet. We are filmed at intersections by traffic cameras frequently. We may end up in the background of someone’s vacation photo. If anything, privacy issues may be at stake. Perhaps the film crew could object to their images being uploaded without their consent, but on the grounds of privacy, not copyright. Even on privacy grounds, I doubt this would be a viable claim. The only way to ensure you will not end up on the Internet today is to not leave your home.

I’ve mused here before that the only way to be true to one’s art may be to not make a living creating said art. All too often, corporations are permitted to own the art, or at least it’s production channels, in order for the artist to make any sort of income from their work. When corporations fear that their precious profits may be lost, this sort of over-reaction becomes rampant, making the world a smaller place for everyone. In fact, clips such as these could well result in better box office performance, as some will go to the movie in order to see if the scene they watched on YouTube is in the final product.

So, hold on. I’m about to do something crazy:

There. I’ve filmed myself writing. Now I can sue myself for copyright violation, right? I’ve infringed on my own intellectual property!!

Oh, wait. I suppose that wouldn’t make much sense.

Would it?

The Italian Job

There was always that one person in your class that ruined it for everyone else. You know, the one who took advantage of a privilege that the class had been given, and abused it, and thus everyone lost said privilege. Of course, classrooms are monarchies, and that is the price for abusing the monarch’s trust.

Even worse is the occurrence of a similar phenomenon outside of a monarchical setting, when someone with poor taste or no common sense abuses the freedom due all men and women, and governments become involved with all of their bureaucracies and laws. And, as we know, once the bureaucracies become involved, common sense takes its leave.
That’s what I think has happened with an Italian court’s ruling that executives from Google are criminally responsible for permitting a video to be uploaded to a Google video service (a predecessor to YouTube) that involved the bullying of a disabled youth. Google claims to have removed the offending video within two hours of receiving an official complaint, but certain executives are nonetheless guilty of breaching what the Italian judge apparently felt is a legal duty to filter out such content before it is was permitted to be viewable on their video hosting engine (the actual conviction was for violating privacy laws).

As this op-ed piece from CNN aptly articulates, this is where Americans have become used to our freedom of speech. The expectation of this Italian judge is just as ludicrous as the offending video was (apparently…I didn’t view it) reprehensible. Google provides a medium for content to be posted and opinions to be expressed. They cannot be held responsible for the content posted to their medium, and cannot be expected to pre-approve every video or blog post that is uploaded to their services. Neither can any other video host or blog engine. Google acted responsibly to remove the video once notified, as they should have. However, they are no more responsible for the video that ignorant and uncultured bullies posted than they would be if I went on some complaining tirade against government policies in this blog (I think that’s still legal). I am responsible for what I write, not Blogger. The persons filming their depraved acts and posting them are responsible for their video, not Google or YouTube. America has a law known as Section 230. This leads to what Jeff Jarvis refers to as the “lowest common denominator” endangering the Internet for all  of us. The worst conceived ruling makes it too dangerous for any social network, blog host, or other platform to take the legal or financial risk of permitting users such as you and I to post anything to their services. Thus, freedom of speech is crippled if not dead, and with it freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, and artistic expression. This leads to further social depravity, and does not move us forward.

The Internet has become so indispensable to the social development, global awareness, and business functions of the world that it is very nearly a right of every human being to have access (your local library likely provides access to the Internet free of charge alongside the world’s literature). Short-sighted rulings like this one from Italy seem to be a way to strike back blindly to find recompense for the wrong done to an individual, without stopping to consider the damage that can be done with such large brushstrokes.

Such is life in a world with attorneys. Permit me to say, if I might be so bold, that making something illegal doesn’t always fix the problem. And, sometimes, it leaves a bigger problem in its wake.

Quality, Not Censorship

Its no secret that I was a comic book fanatic when I was a kid. Had I a bit more time on my hands now, I likely would be still. I was primarily a Marvel Comics collector: X-Men, more than any of the rest. DC characters seems a bit too…traditional….to me at the time. DC Comics, however, pioneered the first superheroes. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman…all were borne from the DC Universe. The only one of these that I ever gravitated toward, however, was Batman. 

I think the reason that I liked Batman so much at the time was the same reason I like James Bond so much: I’ve always been a sucker for cool technology, and both of these characters had plenty of that to go around. The current incarnation of Batman movies have returned the Dark Knight to his appropriately dark and menacing persona, nearly an anti-hero, and appeal to me a great deal. What occurs to me, though, is that I grew up with a post-television-series Batman, with memories of “pow!” and “bam!” and campy music still in the air, and so even Tim Burton’s Batman films were refreshingly dark for me. 
I watched the anime Batman: Gotham Knight last night, and it launched me into this research. Is it that we’ve made the characters darker in modern incarnations, or just that we’ve stopped running in fear from good storytelling and returned to the original character concepts? 
Actually, the latter is occurring (even the current James Bond is much closer to Ian Fleming’s original character than have been any previous film versions). You see, when I grew up snatching new issues of Marvel comics from the shelves on weekends, I was reading material approved by the Comics Code Authority (CCA). I remember very well the seal appearing prominently in the upper left corner. What I didn’t realize, however, was how much the CCA actually censored in the publications bearing their seal. 
It turns out that a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham was to thank for this, as he was possibly the first to lead to the cultural panic that life imitates art. In his rush to assume that children’s minds could not stand to see life portrayed vividly with all of the junk accompanying it, he launched into a personal war against media in general, and comic books in specific, to prevent them from printing violence, gore, and any number of other story elements. 
Except that all of these things are just that: story elements. Are we to say that, because many writers and film-makers portray them gratuitously and in poor taste, that they are not useful for progressing the story? Scriptural narrative contains a significant amount of sex, violence, and other vices. Instead of attempting to with-hold them from story altogether (its amazing to me how the CCA managed to exist in a country valuing freedom of speech), we should concentrate on producing quality art, where the sex and violence and addiction necessary to move the story line is not presented gratuitously, or inserted where it is not necessary to move the story line. Perhaps artistic quality is what should be in question here, not the assumption that life imitates art. Because, even if it did, shouldn’t we want it to imitate quality art? 
I suppose, in retrospect, that I was shielded from a great deal of this, as Marvel Comics phased out of submitting their material for CCA approval, and because I gravitated toward other publishers who didn’t bother with approval in the first place. Knowing that I was unwittingly exposed to censorship, though, leaves me profoundly disappointed in many ways. 
Even more disappointing is realizing what I would have been effectively shielded from had artists focused on presenting “questionable subject matter” is artistically substantive ways, and those who refused to do so were not able to win over such an audience. That, of course, would involve the taste of American audiences leaning toward substance. 
Some days, I’m even optimistic enough to think that might happen.