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Geeks With Books
by Rick Klaw

Other Geeks With Books Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
The Progressive article on The New McCarthyism
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
American Booksellers Association
ABFFE letter to booksellers
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
Bill of Rights (First Ten Amendments to the U.S. Constitution)
The Hacker Crackdown
Steve Jackson Games
Fantastic Metropolis

Censorship Is a Four Letter Word

"You have the right to free speech as long as you are not dumb enough to actually try it"
The Clash, "Know Your Rights"
"...I have to warn you: Anything you think may be held against you."
Philip K. Dick, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"

Ever since the events of September 11 I've been scared, but not for the reasons you might suspect. Flying doesn't scare me. There is still a much better chance of getting hit by a car than dying on an airplane. And let's not even discuss the odds of a terrorist taking over a plane. If I'm to die that way then so be it. I'm not particularly worried about a plane hitting a building either.

This isn't meant to belittle the terrorist acts. It was a tragedy beyond the imaginings of our finest horror writers. In this arena, Lovecraft is a lightweight. You want to know what really scares me? An administration that seems bent on ignoring the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights by crushing any vocal opposition to what is quickly becoming an authoritarian regime. Men like George W. Bush and John Ashcroft have forgotten the very document upon which our government is founded.

1984 Brave New World In the name of protecting American citizens from Terrorists (the label has attained the same status as Communist in the 50s) professors are being censured, student dorms are being searched, and journalists are getting blacklisted. The censorship of writing cannot be far behind. This specter scares all creative people, but should absolutely terrify science fiction writers. Dating back to the turn of the previous century with H.G. Wells and M.P. Shiel, SF writers have often been very political creatures. Classics such as George Orwell's 1984 (now would be the time for Ashcroft and Bush to read it) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World challenged traditional governments in an SF setting. Authors such as Michael Moorcock, Bruce Sterling, Norman Spinrad, Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, L. Ron Hubbard, Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury have all presented either alternative versions or satires of contemporary politics, sometimes both. Censorship and SF do NOT mix. Remove free thought from science fiction and all you have left is phat phantasy and a bunch of boring space operas. The very nature of the genre is to push beyond the limits of what we think we know.

But it surely it can't get that bad, can it?

It can. It has already started. The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) recently sent a letter to all American Booksellers Association members. It began like this:

Last week, President Bush signed into law an anti-terrorism bill that gives the federal government expanded authority to search your business records, including the titles of the books purchased by your customers. This letter contains our best legal judgment on what you should do if you are served with a court order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Under the new law, the director of the FBI may seek an order "for any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities." The request for such an order is made to a judge who sits in a special court that is sometimes called the "spy court." The judge makes his decision "ex parte," meaning there is no opportunity for you or your lawyer to object in court. You cannot object publicly either. The new law includes a gag order that prevents you from disclosing "to any other person" the fact that you have received an order to produce documents.

The letter goes on to outline what a bookseller rights are and what to do if they receive a subpoena. This law counters the first1 and sixth2 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

It doesn't matter as long as we catch the terrorists, right? Besides, if you have nothing to hide, what's the problem?

Who, exactly, is a terrorist? Following to the inane logic of the federal government, if you own a copy of the Anarchists' Cookbook, you must be a terrorist. Just because you think about blowing something up doesn't make you guilty. It's a lot like cheating on your partner. Are you guilty because you thought about sex with another? I think not. If so, then almost everyone is guilty of infidelity. Just because someone has what the government considers "subversive" material doesn't make them a terrorist.

Catcher in the Rye Mark David Chapman was carrying a copy of J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye when he killed John Lennon. I'm sure many of you reading this column own a copy. I doubt that any but a mere fraction of you are killers. I own a copy of Bruce Sterling's Hacker Crackdown. The government probably labels me both an anarchist and a hacker.

No one could be that stupid.

Hacker Crackdown Yes, they can. Here is a great example. Take the aforementioned Hacker Crackdown. One of the pivotal events of this non-fiction book is the 1990 federal raid of the Austin, Texas Steve Jackson Games headquarters. (SJGames is a longtime producer of role-playing games.) One of their senior employees had been fingered during a Secret Service investigation of a hacker threat to the E911 system. The trail led to SJGames and their bulletin board system Illuminati Online. (Back in the bad old days before the World Wide Web, people usually dialed into individual systems. Think of it like dialing into one web page at a time.) On the SJGames computers, the feds found the plans for the Cyberpunk supplement to the popular GURPS role playing game. The book was nearly complete and read like a how-to for computer crime and hacking. The feds seized all of the SJGames computers. Steve Jackson himself confronted the feds demanding his book back. They called it a "manual for computer crime" and refused to give it back. At no point did the Secret Service identify the reason for the raid. There is a lot more to this story (check out Sterling's book for all the details), but the fact remains that the feds couldn't/wouldn't tell the difference between a fictional game manual and the real thing. (They ignored several civil liberties. The raid was accomplished with an UNSIGNED search warrant!)

Fueled by misconceptions and fear of legal action, bookstores could eventually refuse to carry anything controversial. It is usually much easier for people to avoid trouble than to do the right thing. I can envision a time in the near future when bookstores are investigated for the materials they carry, never mind who buys it.

Fantastic Metropolis Something must be done about this travesty-in-progress. The first and most obvious is to vote. Removing people from power who enact such nonsense should be the highest priority. On a day-to-day basis, the best course of action is to continue to purchase science fiction especially by some of our current progressives: Michael Moorcock, Bruce Sterling, China Miéville, Jeff Vandermeer, Steve Aylett, and a host of others. (Basically any of the contributors to Fantastic Metropolis.). Where you buy your books is important as well. Independent bookshops are much more likely to support free-thinking fiction. Most booksellers will continue to carry and support anything that sells, regardless of politics or ideology.

The best thing you can do is to THINK for yourself. The government is not always right. Terrorism maybe one of the great problems of the 21st century, but is it worth giving up our individual rights to stop it? Under Mussolini the trains ran on time. Without individualism, without freedom of expression, without the arts, the battle to combat terrorism is pointless.

"Those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."
Benjamin Franklin

1 "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

2 "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to... be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him;.. and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense."

Copyright © 2002 Rick Klaw

Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw is also the fiction editor for RevolutionSF. A former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experienced most aspects of the book business.

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