A portrait of censorship in our own country. Our own legal and cultural moment has swung so decidedly in the way of free expression (though challenges persist) and our national story has been one of freedom contrasted with the tyranny of fascist countries. I knew Ulysses was once banned for over a decade in America and I assumed it was a bureaucratic matter, a negotiation between the government and publishers, something like television today with the FCC.
What it actually took to get a modern classic into America, and the risks many took along the way to make that happen is the subject of Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses. A good bit of set-up is required for the story, and much of the book details the operations of early 20th century publishing house and their challengers in the vice societies which policed obscene material, along with biography of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach and other colleagues in the defense of literature. Birmingham writes about the sting operations on bookshops, publishers going to jail, publications shut down over the printing of shit or fuck or descriptions of bodies and sexuality. It is, at times, accidentally comical how joyless the societies are in how reluctant they are even in carving out exemptions for classics. Birmingham quotes a decision by Judge Augustus Hand asserting the authority of the US Postal Service to declare material obscene and take action which exempts classics, "because they have the sanction of age and fame and usually appeal to a comparatively limited number of readers."
It seems amazing today that a man who had to watch his own eye surgery while awake(a spine-chilling episode in a book which dwells on Joyce's litany of health problems) would face a decade-long court battle over frank discussions of the body and sex. In a world with real problems (throughout this book I thought back to the show Scrubs where the character Turk, while getting ready for the birth of his daughter, warns his coworkers not to tell her that she has a vagina until she is 18).
The Most Dangerous Book is an interesting story and a good read, particularly for fans of Joyce. It does a good job answering the questions it wants to address, but that framing is very specific. Birmingham is definitely more interested in the biographical elements than in constitutional history. He provides the required background the context we are given for battle for Ulysses is the development of Modern literature more than the legal battles toward free expression.
This is one of those books that I have known about for quite a while but never got around to reading it until quite recently. In fact it wasn't until I was browsing a bookshop in Sydney that I came across a copy of it, and it didn't take me all that long (in fact it was instantaneous) to add this book to the pile that I was already planning on purchasing (and the owner was pretty impressed that it took me less that a couple of minutes to have made my selection – I'm a bit like that in bookshops). Anyway, I first heard about this book when I was a kid, namely because there was an adventure game for the Commodore 64 with the same name (and I had no idea what it was about at the time). However, seeing it sitting on my bookshelf for the last couple of months finally prompted me to take it down and read it.
Anyway, I'm sure many of you know what this book is about – a future society where books are illegal and there is an elite squad that goes out raiding houses they believe have a secret stash of books, and then burn the house, the books, and arrest the occupants. Not surprisingly this elite squad are called the fireman, though unlike the firemen of today their job is to start fires, not put them out. The reason for this is because houses don't burn down anymore, unless they are given a bit of a push by the fireman (who run around with flamethrowers by the way).
The protagonist of the story, Guy Montag, happens to be a fireman and one day he is out for a walk (which is also technically illegal because people who walk tend to think, and thinking is bad) when he meets a young lady named Clarice. This encounter changes his life and instead of burning books he starts collecting them. However his little hobby (which is very much on the illegal side) soon gets him into trouble, and he very quickly finds himself on the run. Mind you, being a fireman gives him a bit of an advantage because he actually knows all of their tricks and tactics so he is able to avoid them.
Okay, the modern world may not be anywhere like Bradbury's world, however one of the ideas behind this book was that he could see it heading this way, especially with the advent of the television. The thing with the television is that as a form of mass media it can very easily be used to control the thoughts and beliefs of the population. Cinema plays the same role, and in many cases the only things that we see on television is that which the government and industry wants us to see. The thing is that the cost to set up television stations, and to also produce content, is prohibitive, meaning that only governments, and major corporations, are able to do so.
However we are beginning to see the power of the mass media provider under attack with the rise of the internet. In fact these days anybody with a smartphone, a computer, and an internet connection, can create content. However the catch is that there is so much content out there that it can be really difficult attracting people to view (or read) it. Still, the power of the internet is able to undermine the dominance for the mass media providers, however we still have a problem in that the infrastructure is controlled by powerful corporations who are constantly seeking the power to restrict access to sites that they don't particularly like (through undermining concepts such as Net Neutrality).
As for books, well people still read them, and it isn't illegal to own your own library, however there is still some subtle pressure against people who spend too much time reading books. For instance it seems to be okay for people to walk down the street reading their smartphones, however do that with a book and you seem a little odd. Also, while I feel comfortable reading books in the inner-city pubs and bars, when I go out to the suburbs I begin to feel out of place. In fact while I may not have been hugely challenged, I do tend to attract the wrong sort of attention. However, things have always been like that, and in the past intellectuals generally didn't wander into working class pubs and sit in a corner and read a book. Another thing that struck me is that I am surprised nobody has ever come up to me in one of those pubs and ask if they could buy any drugs – I don't know but reading a book in a working class pub makes me feel as if I'm a drug dealer of sorts.
So, I guess the question arises – why do they burn books. Easy – books and cheap to produce and distribute, and it can be very difficult to control the content. While the television stations acted as gateways for content, anybody with a type writer and photocopier can produce literature. In fact with the rise of mass publication also saw the rise of underground newspapers, something you still see very much today. Printing also allows rebellious ideas to be spread – Martin Luther did that with regards to the reformation – at it also has the ability to undermine government control. Books make us think, and thinking is dangerous because it means that we question authority and realise that we have a choice to say no. The ruling class does not like people saying no, or challenging their authority, which is why in the past (and in many cases still are) book burnings.
The problem that I find with some books, especially these non-fiction books, is that there is so much in them that it can be difficult to remember all of the points that the author has made without having to write copious notes. The other problem is that since I am incredibly time poor I really have little time to craft a brilliant and concise review based upon these notes, so in the end I generally just read through the book and hope for the best when I come to writing the review (usually the day that I have finished it because if I end up leaving it too long I'll end up having a huge backlog of reviews that I'll never get through).
I have to say that it was been quite a while since I have read a good non-fiction book, though I have to say that this particular one did drag on a bit, especially when he was describing in minutae conversations that occurred between editors, journalists, and their leaks. He also went into great detail of the stress and the decisions on whether to publish and when, which once again I found that it cause the book not only to drag on a bit, but to also make it sound like some form of soap opera. However, we must remember that these decisions weren't taken lightly because the media, even the left leaning newspapers such as the Guardian and the Fairfax newspapers, are still very much under the heal of what are becoming quite tyrannical governments. However, there are a few things that I wish to discuss that I got out of this book.
The Conservative Right to Rule
A couple of chapters of this book talks about how the media went to war against a couple of left wing governments in the past (and even in the present). For instance the government of Howard Wilson in England and the government of Gough Whitlam in Australia, found themselves in the wrong side of an angry media. This I suspect is what has caused the labour party to shift dangerously to the right, which has in turn pushed conservative parties further to the right. This is not surprising because the conservative governments have always represented the wealthy elite (well, not always, but generally). The thing with conservative governments is that they like the status quo – which is why they are conservative – and the status quo generally means that the rich can continue to make money, no matter what the consequences. The problem is that if the voting public actually knew what the conservative governments were about then nobody would vote for them, which is why they resort to getting elected through deceit, propaganda, and the use of the media.
The thing with the media is that they are, in all cases, controlled by the wealthy elite. Even the journalists who write for them tend to inhabit the upper crust of society. I have read a number of articles in various newspapers (including the left leaning Fairfax) where the journalists are bragging about how they are in the highest income tax bracket and how they fly business class everywhere while us plebs have to put up being squeezed like sardines into economy class (not that I could actually justify paying the exorbitant fees that business class charges). As such there is generally a bias in favour of governments that support the status quo.
However, it is not the wealthy that also support the status quo – the unions do as well. There was an interesting point Fowler made when he spoke about how Rupert Murdoch was attempting to transform his London newspapers into a more technologically efficient production by creating a sophisticated computer network that would eliminate the need for a typing pool and and printers. This angered the unions because it meant that a lot of their workforce would be made redundant. Now, I'm no big fan of Murdoch, and I do support the unions in some cases, but in this instance what we are seeing is that the working class is actually working against innovation (which I believe is a good thing).
However, that doesn't let the conservatives off the hook because we have other areas where they are acting against innovation because of the effect that it will have on their profits. Take Murdoch once again. In Australia he has a joint monopoly over the pay TV network Foxtel (in Australia you have only one pay TV network). In 2007 the Labor government was elected on a platform of installing superfast internet connections straight to the home, which meant that Murdoch would suddenly find himself in competition with online streaming services such as Netflix (Foxtel also offers an online service as well). Seeing his monopolistic position under threat he then turned against the Labor government, and when the Coalition was re-elected in 2013 they ended up scrapping Labor's internet plan to put in place a much more limited, and in turn much more costly, alternative.
It goes without saying that government's don't like leaks – it embarrasses them and exposes their criminal acts. Poor Tony Abbott, in the weeks before he was knifed in the back, didn't just have to deal with leaks, but with a gushing torrent that flowed out of the cabinet room and into the nation's media. However his problem was only embarrassment and provided ever more evidence of his incompetency as a prime minister. The leaks go much deeper when we are talking about illegal acts being committed by a government during wartime. It is interesting that the Nazi's were able to keep their final solution quiet for so long while atrocities such as the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam and the scandal at Abu Graib were released for the world to see (though it may have something to do with them having a much tighter control over the media than does the modern democracy).
Fowler talks about a number of important leaks, beginning with the Pentagon Papers up to the revelations released by Edward Snowden. Elsberg actually got off really lightly, namely because the government's case against him was thrown out due to illegal wire taps. This is not the case these days as Chelsea Manning is now serving a 30 year prison sentence, Julian Assange is holed up in the Equadorian embassy, and Edward Snowden is living on borrowed time in Russia. The government has learned from its mistakes with Elsberg and are getting ever more serious in threatening would be whistle blowers and attempting to make examples of those who have taken the courage to stand up, produce evidence, and say to the world 'this is wrong'.
Fowler refers to protections in the United States and Europe, such as the 4th Amendment and the European Charter of Human Rights, that seeks to protect such whistle blowers, though governments nethertheless resort to Espionage Acts and claim that such revelations work to aid the enemy. Thus it is not surprising that Bush created an endless war on terror since this not only creates an enemy, but also provides an excuse to punish the release of such sensitive information. Further, it also puts pressure on newspapers to be very circumspect in what they print, because if the government deems that a publication is going to hurt it's war efforts then they can have the paper shut down. Fowler even tells a story of how British Intelligence entered the offices of the Guardian and destroyed all of the harddrives that contained the information provided to them by Snowdon.
Australia has gone one step further. The only freedom of speech that we have is the freedom of political speech which is implied in the constitution. This has enabled the government to enact laws that not only punishes whistle blowers, but also punishes journalists for publishing the information that they have released.
The Changing Landscape
The internet has changed the world in an incredible way and has hit many traditional businesses incredibly hard – no more so than the newspapers, and the print media has struggled ever since to attempt to remain relevant in its onslaught. The thing about the internet is that it has made access to information not just easy, but cheap. As such people have turned away from the print media and onto the internet in droves, and many of the traditional newspapers have struggled to make a profit. It is even suggested that some papers in the Murdoch Empire have to be supported by other papers because they are operating at a loss.
A number of newspapers have succeeded in creating paywalls, such as the Wall Street Journal and the Australian Financial Review. However these newspapers generally target a niche market, which means that when it went online their niche market followed them (and having an interest in the stock market, I have to say that the free publications tend to be of pretty poor quality). However, this didn't work with the traditional papers because people simply weren't interested in paying for the content. Sure, paying $1.00 for some saucy tales in the local rag was okay a decade ago, but these days there are so many websites that offer the same sordid offerings for free, nobody sees the need to fork out that $1.00 anymore (let alone pay for access).
These papers used to stay afloat through advertising however the internet changed all that. People don't buy newspapers anymore to peruse the classifieds, they go to the internet. If you want to buy a car, a house, second hand goods, or even look for a job, this is now all on the internet. When we bought our house we found it by perusing the internet. I don't buy the paper to look for jobs anymore because, once again, they are all on the internet. In fact if I want some second hand goods, once again I go to the internet. The newspapers no longer have a monopoly on ads, and this has hurt them substantially. In fact the ads that they gain on the internet does not make them anywhere as much money as they did before. Furthermore, some paywalls are actually very easy to defeat (especially the ones that give you a limited number of free articles) – just clear your cookies every so often.
The Security State
The thing about the War on Terrorism is that the government has actually done a very good job in convincing us that terrorists could strike any place and at any time. The catch is that not all that many people have actually died of a terrorist attack in a western nation. However they have convinced us that not only do we need to be vigilant, but that they need greater powers to fight this threat. The problem is that they have already had those powers, it's just that they weren't used all that well. Take for instance the Sydney siege – the nutter that was responsible had been on the watch list for years, but they then decided to take him off. If they had kept watching him they might have stopped him before he killed two innocent victims.
Then there is the mandatory collection of data (not just metadata, but the data that the NSA has been collecting). Once again it is actually very easy to circumvent it. Fowler speaks of how a couple of journalists (and Manning) were caught through their slack use of the internet, and that is something that we need to be aware of. Okay, I'm not writing this anomalously, and really have no desire to start becoming invisible on the net (particularly since I would prefer people to know that I am the author).
The concerning thing is the suggestion that the NSA actually has the power to activate and hijack our smartphones, even if they are turned off. This is all done through the SIM card. The thing with smartphones is that you need to register to get a SIM card. Once again there are ways around this, even if it involves only using WiFi hotspots (though a number of them require you to pre-register, and pay by credit card, beforehand, which means that they are able to track you, though once again there are ways around this). Mind you, even back in the days of the old clunky phones that could only send texts and make phone calls, I knew that the government could track you, however with modern technology they can be much more precise.
As I was reading this book, a friend asked if the author wasn’t a bit boy who cried wolf.
Maybe, but maybe not.
Freedom of Speech issues really interest me, especially when at times I have seen a double standard (for instance a student refusing to state an opinion on anything or a student being mocked because she wanted to change her name when she got married).
This is basically a Project Fire handbook. Fire focuses on freedom of speech issues, and it has more to do with the student view of freedom of speech as opposed to the teacher’s view of Academic Freedom. I found the part about speech and moral codes on campuses to be the most interesting and disturbing. At times the structure of imagine you are student, bored me but the book is thought provoking.