Is it not better to encourage a dialogue between Iranians and the American public?
In accepting a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation at a black-tie gala in Manhattan last month, Judy Blume, the doyenne of young-adult fiction, delivered herself of the following admonition: "Your favorite teacher -- the one who made literature come alive for you, the one who helped you find exactly the book you needed when you were curious, or hurting, the one who was there to listen to you when you felt alone -- could become the next target."A target, that is, of censorship.
Blume's books, which address sexuality and religion with a frankness that has made many a grown-up squeamish, have been among the books most frequently banned from public school libraries over the years, and so the author certainly knows whereof she speaks.
Today, most defenders of the written word are focusing their energies on opposing certain sections of the USA Patriot Act, chief among them Section 215, which states that federal investigators can review library and bookstore records under certain circumstances in terrorism investigations.
Larry Siems, the director of international programs at the PEN American Center, strikes an oft-heard chorus when he denounces "the growing use of government surveillance and government intrusion into your creative space." This, in turn, feeds a concern "that the government is able to see more deeply into our intellectual lives," Siems says.
It is a tragic and dangerous irony that Americans may not freely publish the works of those writers here, either." Publishers say several books have been suspended or canceled pending the ruling, including "City of Columns: Historic Architecture of Havana" by Alejo Carpentier (Smithsonian Institution Press), "The Encyclopedia of Cuban Music" (Temple University Press) and a paper by geologists at Shiraz University in Iran for an issue of the journal Mathematical Geology.
"Even if there isn't a single case where they actually prosecuted, there's a famous chilling effect," says Leon Friedman, a lawyer for PEN and Arcade who helped bring the lawsuit.OFAC devotes most of its resources to investigating terrorist financing and narcotics trafficking, and the regulations are largely intended for those aims.Some of the regulations at issue have been on the books for decades -- the Trading With the Enemy Act dates to 1917 -- and since the 80's amendments have been added to exempt "informational materials" from being subject to sanctions."I think libraries will be more attentive because they will have to be.Booksellers, too."You can't help getting the sense that there is a certain amount of public relations going on here."Publishers just won't take a chance."Molly Millerwise, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, declined to comment on the lawsuits.She says that over the years, no more than a dozen license applications have been submitted, most of them since last year, and none have been denied, although some are still pending.Likewise, no publisher could market a book and no literary agent could sign an author from an embargoed country without a license. In September, Arcade, an independent publisher; the international writers' organization PEN; the Association of American University Presses; and a division of the Association of American Publishers filed suit against the foreign assets office. The danger is greater today than in the past 30 years."A month later, Ebadi -- the Iranian human rights lawyer (and Iran's first Nobelist), who under the rules can't sell her memoir to an American publisher -- filed her own suit, along with the Strothman Agency of Boston, which can't officially represent her."I think that censorship is the biggest danger that could confront this country, aside from physical attack," Richard Seaver, the editor in chief of Arcade Publishing, said in a recent interview in his comfortably cluttered Manhattan office. Ebadi raised the censorship question in an Op-Ed article in The Times last month (which she could publish because newspapers are exempt from some of the regulations).Long gone are the days when the government banned racy books like D. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" or James Joyce's "Ulysses." When it comes to the written word, censorship debates are no longer about taste and decency -- although those issues are much in the news concerning the visual arts, television and radio.Instead, the debate over books tends to center on geopolitics, national security and foreign policy.