Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Changing Face of Censorship

Censorship was a big subject again this year. With the internet still being a relatively new venue for expression, expect this to continue to be a hot button issue for years to come. Off the top of my head, I can think of the following stories from the past year about censorship: the blocking of Google in China and Iran, software being developed to circumvent that blocking software, NPR firing Juan Williams, Net Neutrality or Wikileaks. It is a great time to be alive if you love this subject like I do. I almost always come down on the side against censorship.

The Wikileaks story seems an awful lot like situation with the the Pentagon Papers in 1971. When the NY Times published leaked documents from the Pentagon almost 40 years ago, the reporters and leakers were thought of and portrayed to be heroes by many. They leaked confidential documents about the Vietnam War and most Americans responded positively to the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg and to the NY Times publishing of them. This is a sharp contrast to how Julian Assange is being received in regards to Wikileaks now. One has to wonder if the country is going backward on the censorship subject.

It is a good time to reflect on how far we have come. One good example of outrageous censorship in the past is 1950's television. April 16, 1959 CBS's Playhouse 90 did the first production ever of "Judgment at Nuremberg" in the form of a teleplay. Two years later it would be made into a major motion picture starring Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster. After the teleplay was filmed, the sponsor, American Gas Association, took offense to the many reference to the "gas" chambers. Since the film was about the holocaust and Nuremberg trials, they really couldn't change that. So as a compromise, they edited the word "gas" out of the film so that silence would replace it. So if someone in the film said "they were marched into the gas chambers," the film that played on television said, "they were marched into the ... chambers." I can't imagine this happening nowadays. Sponsors don't have that much power anymore. The explosion in media outlets might have a lot to do with that. Also, the public probably wouldn't let them get away with it.

Enough evidence exists that censorship almost always backfires. Rod Serling (one of my personal heroes) was infuriated over a lot of the changes he had to make on scripts. On his famous, Requiem for a Heavyweight, he had to remove the line "Got a match?" because Ronson Lighters was the sponsor. In 1956, he wrote a script called “Noon on Doomsday” for ABC's The United States Steel Hour based on the Emitt Till story, a 14 year old black boy in Mississippi who was recently killed by white supremacists for whistling at a white woman. ABC and the sponsor were flooded with thousands of letters and phone calls protesting about the script from members of the White Citizens Councils. Serling had to change his story from a black boy in Mississippi to a Jewish man in New England. He was so maddened by this experience he decided to start writing science fiction where you could easily hide controversial subjects in a Mars landscape or in a robot's gaze. So The Twilight Zone was born in anger and spite.

Watch two minutes of South Park ... that's all you need to do to see how far we have come in this situation. Writers and producers can pretty much do what they want on television these days. It is not perfect, obviously. You can't say "fuck" along with a slew of other words. We are more likely to censor due to politically correct reasons rather than for ... well ... the other side of the equation. Television networks no longer play the Seinfeld episode where Kramer accidentally burned a Puerto Rican flag. We are not perfect, but we are certainly better. As long as Julian Assange is not giving away launch codes or the positions of troops, I find him quite heroic. It is too bad the television media doesn't portray him that way.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Dickens and My Xmas Spirit

Xmas is probably my least favorite time of the year. You can think of me as one of those people with seasonal blues. It is much better than it used to be. I used to get completely depressed this time of year and just want to hide the entire month. It wasn't until a Unitarian minister, Andrea, once suggested that I find the good things about the season and celebrate them. The bad: throw them out. I have been perfecting this holiday culling ever since.

The rampant materialism of the season is one of the biggest downers. I not only avoid big box stores this time of year, but towns that have big box stores in them. I try to buy gifts that have some meaning to me and hopefully to the recipient. . I also try to go as green and as local as possible. I can't deal with buying something that will just end up in a landfill a month later This year I bought my co-workers in NYC a bunch of Vermont made products. They will enjoy these and think of me while doing so. I also helped the local economy in the process. We decorate our tree tastefully and minimally and compost it in the yard afterwards. The amount of energy and resources being wasted on Xmas lights and lawn ornaments is soul crushing. I cannot go for a drive without shuttering ... and the music, don't get me going about the awful music that takes over the world.

I have stopped travelling for the holidays. The undertaking was too complicated and did nothing to bring any positive spirits into my life. Travelling to see my relatives usually had the opposite effect on my mood. So we stay home here in Vermont and have a quiet holiday. Since I hate most traditional holiday music I have compiled a good list of MP3's that I can deal with. Now I have a nice collection of holiday favorites by Bruce Cockburn, Gandalf Murphy and Shawn Colvin et al. On Xmas Eve we listen to some music, get a little toasted and then listen to the Grinch on CD (the audio is better than the video). It is quiet and simple and I am no longer depressed during the season. Thank you Andrea. Taking charge of your life rarely has a bad result.

It occurred to me today that one of the things I do enjoy about the holiday season is the sudden interest in Charles Dickens. I do realize it is only one book, The Christmas Carol, but it is a great book and it does seem to appear everywhere during December whether it is Patrick Stewart's reading of it or The Six Million Dollar Man's version ... the story is so canonized, it is everywhere. (Here is a good list of adaptations.) If just a small portion of the folks that are exposed to this classic during December decide to pick up one of his other books, this is enough to make me happy.

Dickens spent three months of his childhood working in a shoe polish factory pasting labels on bottles while his father resided in debtors prison. This experience had a deep impact on Charles' work. Much of his work involves the plight of the poor with some underlying socialistic themes which give an ironic twist to the largely materialistic holiday season. Much of Dickens' stuff was published in serial form but The Christmas Carol was only a novella so it was published without ever appearing in the newspaper. It was originally published in October 1843 with 6,000 copies in the original printing. They were all sold out by Xmas. He had published it entirely with his own money and barely made his money back. Since it was published, charitable giving has become apart of the holidays and it has shifted from a church holiday to a family holiday. That is quite an impressive legacy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Kuril Islands

I sometimes forget how close Japan is to Russia. The only thing between the island of Hokkaido and the Kamchatka Peninsula is a line of Pacific Islands called the Kuril Islands. If you look at the map they look like stepping stones. This is probably why they have been the object of dispute between the two nations for a very long time.

In 1945, while Americans were settling into their post-war lives, the Soviet Union continued fighting taking the four most northern islands (Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and the Habomia rocks) from Japan. We tend to be Euro-centric in our study of world history. We only hear about the land grab that occurred in Eastern Europe, but this is the first time I ever heard of this. Technically, the peace treaty between the two nations was never signed. As part of the Yalta Agreement the USSR was promised the islands south of Kamchatka, but thanks to some ambiguous language and disagreement between some geographers, no one agreed which islands this meant. During the summer of 1945 USSR troops invaded and took the islands. Two years later, all Japanese residents of the island were expelled.

This are is still disputed. When President Medvedev visited the island in November of this year he was met with a slew of protesters. He even posted his pictures on Twitter and he made it clear on who he believe owned the islands here are some of his twitter postings:
  • "It's the president's duty to control the development of all Russian regions, including the remotest ones"
  • "How many beautiful places there are in Russia!"