Monthly Archives: February 2012

Barney Rosset: A free-speech warrior passes away

It’s always sad to be introduced to a remarkable life through an obituary. This week, it happened again.

Book publisher Barney Rosset, whose Grove Press pushed the limits of free expression by giving a home to controversial works of literature by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and William Burroughs, died on Tuesday. He was 89.

I had never heard of him until USA TODAY published the extensive, well-written AP obituary, which revealed how important Rosset was to the First Amendment:

Rosset waged a long and costly war on behalf of free expression. When he started Grove, his wish list included two erotic books, both decades old, that had never been distributed unexpurgated in the United States: Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

In 1954 a copy of Chatterley was mailed from Paris to New York. Officials seized it and charged Rosset with promoting “indecent and lascivious thoughts,” a policy that dated back to obscenity legislation passed in the 1870s. Rosset sued the U.S. Post Office in 1959 and his attorney, Charles Rembar, crafted a defense based on a Supreme Court decision written two years earlier by Justice William Brennan that “all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance — unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion — have the full protection of the guarantees.”

A federal judge, Frederick van Pelt Bryan, ruled in Rosset’s favor. An appeals court upheld Judge Bryan and the government declined to take the case to the Supreme Court. The Post Office’s ability to declare a work obscene had effectively been ended.

Reason‘s Nick Gillespie also reminds us that beyond his efforts on behalf of free speech, Rosset also broadened America’s literary palate:

If you grew up interested in literature and writing and a world bigger than the one you were immediately born into, you owe a debt to Rossett and people like him …  In a pre-Internet, pre-everything-at-your-fingertips-world, books weren’t just frigates (as Emily Dickinson would have it), they were battleships and aircraft carriers, capable of completely rescuing you from whatever isolated bunker you called home.

Very true. Thanks again, Barney.

Project Censored loves … Cuba?

Does anybody still care about Project Censored?

If you’re unfamiliar with the name, they’re the media watchdogs whose annual list of  the “top 25 censored stories” is a year-end staple of alternative and free-weekly newspapers.

Project Censored started being irrelevant around 2000, as this Mother Jones article makes clear. (A lot of the stories they say are underreported or ignored are anything but, among other offenses.)

PC slipped deeper into irrelevance in 2007 when it embraced 9/11 conspiracy theories. Two of the biggest names on its masthead resigned in protest.

That record is sorry enough to make most right-thinking people write off Project Censored for good, but if you need another one, try this: those indefatigable guardians of press freedom absolutely adore Cuba, a totalitarian society with one of the most oppressive media environments on earth.

The latest example appeared this week on Project Censored’s website. The author, Peter Phillips, recently attended a conference in Havana, and his piece includes you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me lines such as this: “These are multi-generations of people who have never suffered media advertisements.”

Indeed they haven’t. Or “suffered media” of any kind that wasn’t first approved by the government.

Glowing reports about Cuba are pretty standard for Project Censored. Here’s Phillips again in an especially Walter Duranty-espue dispatch, “Cuba Supports Press Freedom”:

I toured the two main radio stations in Havana, Radio Rebelde and Radio Havana. Both have Internet access to multiple global news sources including CNN, Reuters, Associated Press and BBC with several newscasters pulling stories for public broadcast.

It’s good to know that a few dozen members of Cuba’s official state media can access some news sites on the Web.

Unfortunately, they can’t Google anything.

In 2008, the same year Phillips went on his stage-managed tour and posted that report, Reporters Without Borders revealed that “The Internet in Cuba is highly controlled.”:

There is a “national” network which gives users an email address and allows them to send emails abroad but not to surf the net. The “international” network, which costs three times as much, gives access to foreign news websites like the BBC, Le Monde, and Nuevo Herald (Miami-based Spanish-language daily). But if you type in “google.fr”, for example, you are redirected to the pages of the official Cuban newspaper Granma or the news agency Prensa Latina.

Phillips also pays respect to Cuba’s brave, state-controlled journalists and their role as vigilant defenders of La Revolucion:

In the context of this external threat (from the U.S.), Cuban journalists quietly acknowledge that some self-censorship will undoubtedly occur regarding news stories that could be used by the “enemy” against the Cuban people. Nonetheless, Cuban journalists strongly value freedom of the press and there was no evidence of overt restriction or government control.

No government control? Phillips seems to be unaware of  Cuba’s harsh “Black Spring” crackdown on independent media.

During a three-day span in March 2003, as the world focused on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Cuban government ordered the abrupt arrest of 75 dissidents–29 of them independent journalists. All of the reporters and editors were convicted in one-day trials and handed sentences that could leave some in prison for the rest of their lives. They were accused of acting against the “integrity and sovereignty of the state” or of collaborating with foreign media for the purpose of “destabilizing the country.” Under Cuban law, that meant any journalist who published abroad, particularly in the United States, had no defense.

Here in the early 21st century, it’s hard to understand the moral and intellectual obtuseness of people like Phillips. But someone like Malcolm Muggeridge, an early supporter of communism whose eyes were opened to the terrible truth after a visit to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, understood them well.

These dupes, Muggeridge wrote, are “resolved, come what might, to believe anything, however preposterous …  to approve anything, however obscurantist and brutally authoritarian, in order to be able to preserve intact the confident expectation that one of the most thorough-going, ruthless and bloody tyrannies ever to exist on earth could be relied on to champion human freedom.”

Would it surprise anyone to learn that Phillips is a sociology professor at a state-funded college in California?

‘It is an immense human idea’

Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul on the pursuit of happiness:

So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”

More wisdom here.