I must confess to a change of mind. There was a time when I believed that the freedom of individuals to read whatever they liked was paramount and that the state had little if any right to censor or limit the publication of the written word. But any personal ideology is formed by the experience of that person within a moral wave-band. When the limits, the extremes, of an ethical world are distended beyond recognition, one's original attitude is bound to change. A 1914 pacifism in the face of the Kaiser's foolishness, for example, was completely different from a 1939 pacifism in the face of the Führer's Nazism.
Which brings me on to the recently staged Freedom to Read Week. Various Canadian celebrities took to public stages to read from previously banned books, delighting in condemning the myopia that prevented Lady Chatterley's Lover or even Tintin from entering the country. They are right, of course. Single customs officers should not be given the authority to ban books from Canada. But someone should. I wonder, for example, if Jay Ingram or Buzz Hargrove would have been willing to read from Dennis Cooper's Frisk. In this story a man is murdered for sexual kicks, he is humiliated and hit, he is tortured, and his rectum is used for gruesome and grotesque purposes. "He opened his eyes very wide," writes Fisk. "Otherwise he didn't fight me at all. It takes a lot longer to strangle someone than you'd think." The victim is fifteen.
Or, from the same piece, an account of the rape, sexual beating, and murder of a boy whose excrement the author has just eaten. The victim's penis is cut in two and he is decapitated. The narrator masturbates over this. Friends arrive. "They kicked the corpse around for a while. This created a pretty hilarious fireworks display of blood."
Or would, I wonder, Sam Sniderman or Sandra Shamas be willing to read a repugnantly graphic story about incestuous rape by Ann Wertheim? In this elaborately constructed lesbian fantasy the victim is shown as enjoying herself as she welcomes agonizing penetration, oral sex, and physical violence from her father. As a father and as a responsible journalist, I shall not quote from the piece.
Both of these extracts come from Forbidden Passages, a collection of banned writings that, paradoxically, is now available in Canada. Of the last piece, one of the compilers of the anthology wrote that when it came into her office "several of us nearly fainted from intense levels of sexual heat." Now imagine if we read of a group of Klansmen describing the beating, torture, and murder of a young black man, with graphic detail and description, and then read in an introduction to a collection of banned writings that one of the editorial staff almost fainted over this particular story because of the racist passion in the office. Both involve an innocent, bewildered victim, both involve breaking both the moral and the civil law, both would be repugnant to societal standards and both would be very badly written.
I know that many of the people, and even most of the celebrities, involved in the current defence of supposed freedom of expression are decent and well-meaning. I also know that they are simply misinformed. I interviewed the manager of Little Sister's bookstore in Vancouver about censorship. This store is currently a highly fashionable cause because some of the books it has ordered have been banned from the country. The manager defended the writings I have quoted. That is her right. And it is my right to condemn them and fight to maintain an intelligent censorship in Canada.
With hate literature, Holocaust denial, and the like, we can at least defeat these rancid ideas with simple fact. But the literary depiction of the sadistic pedophilia and the sexual torture of children is not about fact but about a basic immoral stance. This is much harder to control, partly because these things involve intellectual as well as physical masturbation. None of us, surely, still believes that there is no link between pornography and crime. The collected works of Paul Bernardo provided the last word on that subject.
The questions often asked are, Where do we draw the line? and, Who is to do the drawing? The answers are not as complex as some would have us believe, and need not be extreme or even noticeable to the overwhelming majority of people. We draw lines of limitation every day and give MPs, judges, police officers, and teachers the authority to use ethical pencils. Individual customs officers, overworked and underqualified, are not the most suitable guardians of our literary borders, but there is no reason why a panel of judges should not decide on what is allowed to enter the country. We allow, after all, such a system to control the flow of people into Canada and it is surely axiomatic that one book is capable of much more harm than a single man or woman. l
A collection of Michael Coren's columns, essays, and profiles, Setting It Right, has just been published by Stoddart.