This week's column is an amended and abbreviated version of the introduction I gave before moderating a February panel discussion at the Santa Fe Art Institute on censorship. The panel was conceived in the wake of the removal from the Smithsonian Institution of a film by the wonderful, potent, deeply honest writer and artist David Wojnarowicz.
Among the ideas I learned from the smart and thoughtful panelists—activist and Tucson Pima Arts Council Executive Director Roberto Bedoya, insightful writer Robert Atkins and forthright artist Harmony Hammond—was to view a great many machinations of the conservative right in the US under the broad rubric of attempting to “regulate difference.”
Censorship is not, as we here in the United States often believe, primarily a practice of totalitarian regimes or the Chinese government or imagined enemies who don’t fight fair. Rather, censorship is one of the most pervasive and defining characteristics of our own culture.
We think of ourselves as living in an age of free information, in which the individual's voice may be published alongside the governmental voice and the corporate voice. To a large extent, this perception is true. Barriers of communication and expression currently have porosity that is mind-boggling to ponder. But within this increase in potential voice, censorship, too, blossoms.
Apple computer is all the rage with its app store of tools and games and all manner of customized software for telephones and tablets, but it has taken upon itself the role of deciding what content is appropriate for its customers.
Facebook has changed the sociopolitical dynamics of the planet. But it also is pushing so much information into the world that people are feeling in unexpected ways the repercussions of a sudden loss of privacy. Gay students are harassed, sometimes to the point of suicide. Teachers are fired because of comments or photographs judged by someone, somewhere to be inappropriate. People seeking employment are filtered through social networks as character assessments. The result is self-censorship enacted by a broader portion of the population than ever before: a deep personal dread of saying or doing or revealing the wrong thing.
What is the difference between a Chinese activist imprisoned for speaking against the state and Pvt. Bradley Manning, imprisoned by this country under blatantly inhumane conditions for maybe or maybe not leaking military and State Department documents to WikiLeaks? The government has not been forthcoming with its evidence against Manning, and the only other evidence we might have access to is being withheld—you might say "censored"—by Wired Magazine, for reasons of its own, probably in expectation of a future "scoop."
WikiLeaks itself has become the victim of economic censorship. All of its avenues for fundraising and support are being systematically shut down through collusion between governments and private corporations—many of those corporations at the vanguard of our cherished new information age.
The dream of maintaining net neutrality appears to be disappearing as well, with another cabal of government and private sector interests letting companies choose to which kind of content paying customers have easy, streamlined access and which kind of content needs to be swept under the rug or simply made too difficult to find. As a system builds in which spiraling levels of payment are required for different tiers of access to information, the larger problem of universal access—where poor and minority communities are already censored from participating because of social and economic policies—will only compound.
This state, New Mexico, is one of many where quite a few lawmakers and politicians are trying to censor the voices of voters by imposing unneeded identification requirements (while simultaneously restricting access to identification documents). Some of our states are doing their best to censor entire populations and ethnicities from view.
If we can call collective bargaining democracy in the workplace, and we can call silencing the democratic voice censorship—and I think we can make those leaps—the current right wing, corporate attack on labor is, essentially, a censorship campaign.
Whenever and wherever and however access to information and to expression—whether it be art or voting or a voice in the workplace—is controlled or distorted through opacity or misdirection, there is essentially some form of censorship at work. The examples are not only numerous enough to be pervasive, but ubiquitous enough to be defining.
In the midst of Sunshine Week, when we have occasion to ponder the idea of freedom of information, we might want to examine the contrary and suppressive attitudes toward freedom that we cannot escape in any honest mirror.
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