UnCommon Sense: The War on Words and Images

Sam Hamill

It’s that time when responsible citizens pinch their nostrils tightly, hold their collective breaths, and vote for the lesser of many unsavory evils. Most of us have listened to enough empty rhetoric in this presidential year to gag a maggot.

But the real political battlegrounds are not so much at the national level as in underground skirmishes over - speaking of empty rhetoric - something called “family values” and various forms of censorship. The following are a few examples drawn from a recent issue of the quarterly national Campaign for Freedom of Expression.

The Thomas Jefferson Center for Free Expression at the University of Virginia announced its annual “muzzle awards” last summer, citing among others the Library of Congress for closing an exhibition on slavery because of complaints by staff members; CBS News for caving in to the tobacco cartel and canceling an interview with a whistle-blower; an Ohio computer crimes task force for seizing 5,000 personal e-mail accounts in an attempt to locate 45 “pornographic” files.

National Public Radio should have received a dubious distinction award for canceling a contracted series of commentaries by Pennsylvania death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, author of Live from Death Row and an international cause celebre. NPR yanked the project after complaints by the Fraternal Order of Police and a senate floor attack by Bob Dole last spring.

Another should go to the House of Representatives for passing the “Military Honor and Decency Act,” banning any magazine, recording, or video that “depicts or describes nudity in a lascivious way” from sale or rental on any military base. Training young people to kill people efficiently is one thing, apparently, while seeing or reading descriptions of people fucking is another. We certainly don’t want to encourage masturbation in our military. Ain’t honorable.

In Utah, that bastion of free thought, the state legislature voted to require local school boards to ban gay, lesbian, and bisexual student clubs from school grounds. Gayle Ruzicka of the Eagle Forum exulted, “Homosexuals can’t reproduce, so they recruit. And they are not going to use Utah high school and junior high school campuses to recruit.” Unlike the Mormon Church.

While the Communications Decency Act banning “indecent” material from the Internet was found by the courts to be unconstitutional, the battle over censorship continues to escalate at local levels. Artist and former University of Northern Kentucky instructor Ellen Zahorec withdrew her multiartist show “Immaculate Misconceptions,” from the university gallery after Kentucky legislators threatened to cut off funding to the university, charging her, sight unseen, with blasphemy. Zahorec, a practicing Catholic, said her show was “for the purpose of promoting a healing and reconciliation through the arts,” and included Christian devotional iconography. The city of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, removed Maxine Henderson’s painting Gwen from City Hall, saying a partially exposed nipple constituted sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, the National Endowment for the Arts has cut half its staff and its programs have been slashed. During May hearings of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, Senator Slade Gorton of Washington, co-sponsor with Jesse Helms of the “content restrictions clause” on NEA funding, added more restrictions, including “material or performance that denigrates religious objects or beliefs.” Does this apply to Kokopelli and to Buddha? What about Japanese demons, those devilish little oni? Dante’s in trouble! Ikkyu’s blasphemous!

At present, the total national budget in support of the arts comes to a total of about 38 cents per person per year. Of the tens of thousands of small grants the NEA has made in its nearly thirty-year history, about two dozen have stirred controversy.

It’s not just the fringe loonies like Gorton and Helms who have a little apoplexy over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or a disturbing Robert Mapplethorpe photo. You can bet that the protectors of family values and higher moral calling will do everything possible to eliminate the NEA (and the National Endowment for the Humanities) altogether when Congress reconvenes in the new year. From the loony politically correct lefties to the right-wing propagandists of the Heritage Foundation, the free exchange of ideas in this country will be challenged again and again.

The First Amendment to our Constitution is what saves us from the barbarians as much as we can be saved. As long as greed rules, injustice will prevail. Meanwhile, our best defense is free access to ideas - from the Lotus Sutra to the Marquis de Sade. From the unsavory to the salacious, from the sanctimonious to the righteous, we have a right to speak. And an obligation to read. How else will we learn to call things by their proper names?

 

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