Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fighting the Good Fight II: Vigilance and Freedom of Squick

For all of you who don't already read Neil Gaiman's blog, I recommend you check out this post on freedom of speech, especially and including the icky stuff.

The issue is this (and I'm probably late to the party - I bet you've all been following this case for weeks already): according to an article on the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's website, Christopher Handley, 38, of Iowa, faces up to 20 years in prison. For more details, I'll just quote. It's better that way.

"Mr. Handley's case began in May 2006 when he received an express mail package from Japan that contained seven Japanese comic books. That package was intercepted by the Postal Inspector, who applied for a search warrant after determining that the package contained cartoon images of objectionable content. Unaware that his materials were searched, Handley drove away from the post office and was followed by various law enforcement officers, who pulled him over and followed him to his home. Once there, agents from the Postal Inspector's office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, Special Agents from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, and officers from the Glenwood Police Department seized Handley's collection of over 1,200 manga books or publications; and hundreds of DVDs, VHS tapes, laser disks; seven computers, and other documents. Though Handley's collection was comprised of hundreds of comics covering a wide spectrum of manga, the government is prosecuting images appearing in a small handful."

Now, admittedly, what this quote isn't getting into is what, exactly, was objectionable about Handley's manga. What Handley had is what's called lolicon and yaoi. The first is creepy by design: cartoon stories featuring little girls in sexualized situations. The latter - homosexual romances starring beautiful, androgynous men - is sometimes creepy by accident, as pubic hair is a major taboo in Japan and many characters are drawn without it, making them appear younger than they actually are.

Having read Neil Gaiman's blog, I'm going to weigh in as well.

I think it's terrible that Christopher Handley is being prosecuted for owning these comic books. I don't approve of them - I certainly wouldn't read them - but he has the same right to them that I do to whatever interests me.

How can I say this? Why do I think people should be allowed to distribute and purchase stuff I don't like and don't approve of? Because the law has to be principled, it has to function according to abstract ideals, otherwise it's just a matter of who's on top.

I think this matter is larger than just weird, icky sexual preferences. It applies to all kinds of literature, and politics as well. Furthermore, I am perfectly willing to protect the rights of everyone.

I firmly believe that if you ban lolicon today, we'll be banning ordinary pornography tomorrow, and next week, we'll be banning classic novels and new works that are a little too sexy for some people's tastes. If we stop the Nazis from marching today, we'll be stopping the Communists from marching tomorrow, and who knows? Maybe we'll be stopping the Democrats from marching next month. This is not a slippery slope argument - they fail, because all lines are arbitrary, and a line must be drawn somewhere - it's an argument based on the fact that if the law is not impartial and principled, it will simply be at the whim of whoever is in charge, and in America, a change of government is just one election away.

But, I hear you ask, how can we protect ourselves and our children? How can we protect our children from media we think is harmful (or stupid, I'm looking at you, Twilight) How can we protect a town full of Holocause survivors from the Nazis marching down their main drag or a military funeral from the hate-filled preaching of a fundamentalist maniac?


The Wiktionary defines Vigilance as:

Alert watchfulness.

Close and continuous attention.

"But you must remember, my fellow-citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing." Andrew Jackson, Farewell Address, March 4, 1837

We all need to be on the lookout for harmful speech that the law nonetheless allows and do our best to mitigate the damage it causes. When maniacs and morons want to demonstrate, we need to stage counter-demonstrations. When books are on the shelves that we don't want our children to read, we need to have frank talks about the topic with our children and lead by example. I am always surprised by how often people I know - good, active, moral people - fall into the trap of wanting to ban things they don't like rather than accepting the burden of vigilance.

Fortunately, in this case, the Comic Book Defense Fund has taken up the responsibility for defending Christopher Handley. Unfortunately, when a ban-happy government persecutes private citizens for their purchases, a different kind of vigilance is necessary.

You can donate to the Comic Book Defense Fund here.

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