Riding Shotgun: US vs. THEM

Oppressive censorship — the ticket to better understanding?

I wrote a column about censorship. It was called “Insert Title Here,” and it was a steaming pile of donkey feces. Crunchable’s editor-formerly-known-as-Mike did not call it “donkey feces”, per se. He said, “I know you’re a lot funnier than this,” which is a nice way of saying “This is so dull it makes me long for a fork with which to pry out my own eyeballs.” Mike will deny this, but I know it to be true. I knew it to be true when I handed the column in.

“Christ,” I thought. “How utterly, utterly boring. Now, where did I put that fork?”

Instead of tracking down the absent cutlery, I decided to examine just why my column, despite its forever-timely topic of censorship, fell flat.

It lacked passion. Fire. What the French would call “oomph!” One week and several brain farts later, I realized why: Because I am not censored.

Not really.

“But,” you might protest, “This column that I am reading right now on my computer screen has been through an editorial process! Doesn’t that mean it has undergone some sort of censoring?”

“No,” I would answer. “You’re an idiot. That’s the dumbest idea I’ve heard today.”

I have a ridiculous amount of free rein in these columns. Just last month, I made references to violent homophobia, racism and the Holocaust in making a point about genetic engineering. I have every confidence that, should a column require that I use a word like, say, “cunt,” Mike would allow it. Just as long as it was absolutely necessary. And if I should need to describe a graphic sexual act — such as, “Marsha was pegging her boyfriend when the phone rang ” — that description would make it in.

I’ve written professionally for over five years now, and I can remember only one instance where an editor asked me to rephrase something for content purposes, in a review for Scary Movie 2. I felt that the phrase “orally raped by a poltergeist” was necessary in describing the film, but it turns out “starring Tori Spelling” was all I really needed.

I am not censored. Not in that respect.

This whole idea of writing about censorship came out of a theater student discussion group. The conversation centered on a recent decision by university administrators to prevent performances of a particular play on campus. The talk wandered for a while, eventually touching on censorship in society in general. One assistant professor pointed out that rules and regulations were not needed in order for censorship to exist. Merely the fear of speaking-believing that voicing your opinion or belief will cause retribution, discrimination or bigotry-is enough to constitute censorship.

But just as interestingly, the general consensus was that most students couldn’t be roused enough to protest censorship in any form. They were, in the words of one freshman, “totally apathetic to it.”

With that conversation running through my brain, along with that complete failure of a column and my quest for a new angle on the issue, I saw Citizen 13559, The Journal of Ben Uchida at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The play by Naomi Iizuka is an adaptation of a book about a young Japanese boy whose parents are taken from their home in San Francisco in 1942 and imprisoned at the Japanese internment camp in Mirror Lake, CA. Written to be performed for children, it ‘s a beautiful, potent piece of theater that lets kids see the story through the eyes of someone their own age while allowing adults to draw parallels between the war then and the war now. Children come out wondering how something like that could happen, how such an all-American boy, a Yankee fan even, could be thrown in what was essentially a prison camp for two years because his grandparents hadn’t been born in the U.S. Adults come out wondering how such a shameful part of American history gets overlooked so often, and for so long. How come more people don’t get worked up about this?

Let me toss out an idea. People didn’t get worked up about Japanese-Americans being imprisoned, and still don’t, for the same reason that your average college student can’t be bothered to get out of bed to go to a sit-in, or a rally, or write a letter to the dean about what they really do honestly think is an injustice, one involving censorship or otherwise.

Because it isn’t happening to them.

I couldn’t write a decent column on censorship because I’m not being censored.

You don’t give a crap about Danish cartoonists because, odds are, you aren’t one.

And your grandparents didn’t give a crap about Japanese-Americans being tossed into internment camps for no good reason because, chances are, they weren’t one, they weren’t friends with one, they didn’t even know one.

The lesson is one we’ve learned over and over again since the beginning of human existence: The smaller the minority whose rights you’re trampling, the longer you can get away with it. Don’t believe me? Ask an American Indian. Ask an illegal Mexican immigrant. Ask a woman looking to get an abortion in South Dakota.

There’s US and THEM, and we don’t know THEM very well.

An optimist might ponder whether we’ll ever grow enough as a society and a species to be able to truly empathize with people different from us, to take their troubles up as our own and defend them as we would defend our own family.

But I am not an optimist. Nor do I have that kind of patience, at least not on such an evolutionary scale.

So my solution is this: We need more censorship. Not just a little bit more. Tons and tons and tons more. And not just censorship, but the trampling of Constitutional rights on a grand scale. For everybody.

Every e-mail should be filtered and edited for content. Web sites should be screened. You used the word “cunt?” Here’s a five hundred dollar fine and a year in prison. You gave $30 dollars to a charity not approved by your supervisor? I’m sorry, we have to let you go. Your investment portfolio is suspicious; we’re going to have to seize it. You’ve been text-messaging an awful lot; hand over that phone.

Sure you’re allowed to speak a foreign language, but we’re allowed to haul you in for questioning for not knowing what you’re saying. Freedom of speech is great, say whatever you want — but that’s a flagged word you said just now. Do you mind if we frisk you?

You’re too fat to use this sidewalk. You’re too poor to be in this church. You’re too young to read that newspaper.

Excuse us. You’re a Caucasian male making more than $40,000 a year, with a wife and one child, and a dog and a split-level townhouse in the ’burbs. You fit our profile. We’re not allowed to tell you what it is, but you need to come with us.

It’s like that old adage: You don’t pay attention to local politics until you’re a homeowner. And you don’t pay attention to civil rights until yours are the ones getting firebombed.

George Orwell wasn’t giving us a worst-case scenario; he was proposing the best way to unite the citizenry. Oppress everyone equally. Give everybody a taste of what it’s like to be THEM, and then maybe we’ll stop thinking of it in those terms.

Article © 2006 by Steve Spotswood