The Thing About Today – January 23

January 23, 2020
Day 23 of 366

January 23rd is the twenty-third day of the year. It is Bounty Day on the Pitcairn Islands, the destination of the HMS Bounty mutineers.

In the United States, it is “celebrated” as National Handwriting Day and National Pie Day, not to be confused with National Pi Day which happens on March 14.

Historical items of note:

  • In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang was coronated as the Hongwu Emperor, thus starting the Ming dynasty rule over China for the next three centuries.
  • In 1570, James Stewart, the 1st Earl of Moray and regent for the infant King James VI of Scotland, was assassinated by firearm. This was the first recorded instance of such an event.
  • In 1571, the Royal Exchange opened in London.
  • In 1737, John Hancock was born. He was an American general, politician, first Governor of Massachusetts, and owner of the largest signature on the Declaration of Independence.
  • In 1846, slavery was abolished in Tunisia.
  • In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell was awarded her M.D. by the Geneva Medical College in Geneva, New York. She was the first female doctor in the United States.
  • In 1909, the RMS Republic became the first ship to use the CQD distress signal after colliding with the SS Florida off the coast of Massachusetts. The Republic was a White Star Line passenger ship and it sank the next day. Six people died in the event.
  • In 1941, Charles Lindbergh testified before the United States Congress in support of a neutrality pact with Adolf Hitler. As an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve and a Medal of Honor recipient, he was publicly rebuked by President Franklin Roosevelt for his actions, prompting Lindbergh to resign his commission. He later supported the war as a civilian flight consultant after the attack on Pearl Harbor but did not take up arms.
  • In 1943, actor Gil Gerard was born. He portrayed Buck Rogers in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
  • In 1944, actor Rutger Hauer was born.
  • In 1950, Richard Dean Anderson was born. His best-known roles are in MacGyver and the Stargate franchise.
  • In 1957, Walter Frederick Morrison sold the rights to his flying disc to the Wham-O toy company. It was later marketed as the Frisbee.
  • In 1975, Barney Miller premiered on ABC.
  • In 1960, the bathyscape USS Trieste broke depth records by descending to 35,797 feet (10,911 meters) in the Pacific Ocean.
  • In 1962, English composer David Arnold was born.
  • In 1964, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified. It prohibited the use of poll taxes in national elections.
  • Also in 1964, actress Mariska Hargitay was born.
  • In 1973, President Richard Nixon announced a peace accord with Vietnam.
  • In 1974, actress Tiffani Thiessen was born.
  • In 1977, Roots premiered on ABC.
  • In 1983, The A-Team premiered on NBC.
  • In 1986, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted its first members: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley.
  • In 1997, Madeline Albright became the first woman to serve as United States Secretary of State.
  • In 2002, American journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan. He was later murdered by his captors.
  • In 2003, a very weak signal was detected from Pioneer 10. No usable data could be extracted from this final message.

In 1961, the United States Supreme Court ruled that cities and states had the right to censor films.

Wait… what?

To explain this, we need to go back to the 1950s when a Chicago ordinance required that, before being permitted to screen any film in the city, exhibitors submit the film to the police commissioner’s office and pay a license fee. If the film did not meet certain standards, the permit would be denied. A single appeal could be made to the Office of the Mayor, but the mayor’s decision was final.

On May 6, 1955, an exhibitor requested permission to screen Le blé en herbe (The Game of Love), a French film directed by Claude Autant-Lara (based on a novel by Collete) that depicted a sexual relationship between an adult woman and a teenage boy. Unsurprisingly, the police commissioner denied the permit due to indecent content, and the subsequent appeal to Mayor Richard Daley failed. So, the petitioner sued the city in federal court while alleging infringement of First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The case eventually reached the Supreme Court as Times Film Corporation v. City of Chicago, 355 U.S. 35 (1957), and the Court sided with Chicago by citing Alberts v. California from 1957 where Justice William J. Brennan Jr. stated that obscenity was “not within the area of constitutionally protected speech or press” and that the First Amendment was not intended to protect materials that were “utterly without redeeming social importance.”

The Times Film Corporation returned to the scene when they tried to screen Don Juan but refused to submit the film for examination. When the permit was denied, the corporation went back to court on terms of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court eventually took up the case in Times Film Corporation v. City of Chicago, 365 U.S. 43 (1961), and ruled in a similar fashion as the previous case by a 5-4 decision.

Cities and states maintained their ability to censor films.

By 1973, the Court shifted toward a broader interpretation of the First Amendment. Marvin Miller, the owner/operator of a California-based adult film and book company, was arrested in 1971 for sending out brochures to advertise his wares. His case was eventually decided in Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), where the Supreme Court redefined its definition of obscenity from that of “utterly without socially redeeming value” to that which lacks “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

As a result, while finding that the sale and distribution of obscene material was not protected under the First Amendment, the three-prong standard (the “Miller test”) was developed to determine if a work should be legitimately subject to state regulation:

  1. whether the average person, applying contemporary “community standards”, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
  2. whether the work depicts or describes, in an offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions, as specifically defined by applicable state law; and
  3. whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

The Miller case provided states greater freedom in prosecuting obscenity cases and has spurred decades of discussion and litigation on the topic, but it also forced the Supreme Court to legally define the term, making it a landmark case on the topic.

The Thing About Today is an effort to look at each day of 2020 with respect to its historical context.

For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.

Amazon’s Latest Follies

This post covers both sides of the issue after a day of critical thought about this issue.  If you disagree with me, leave me a note in the comments and I’ll be glad to discuss it with you.

Oh, Amazon, you are quite the hotbed of controversy, aren’t you? You had my brain wrestling over some fairly important issues yesterday with your little fracas, and it took a little while to figure out where I stood on this. I’ll get back to you at the end of this musing.

If you haven’t seen the news yet, take some time to read about it. I know several smaller outlets have picked it up, along with CNN and MSNBC. Amazon recently started selling a Kindle-based e-book entitled The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-Lover’s Code of Conduct, which has been taken down as of late Wednesday. The outrage was furious, up to and including folks boycotting Amazon until the offending book was removed.

This is where I jumped off the train. I think we can reach a near unanimous agreement that pedophilia is not acceptable by any means. A how-to guide on the subject is equally unacceptable to me. However, at my core, I do not support censorship on any level. I do not believe that the information or entertainment I choose to enjoy should be filtered by any government organization or corporation. Such activity creates public animosity and backdoor trading sessions, and only serves to increase interest in the subject matter. Governments have tried in the past with religion, homosexuality, philosophy, pornography, alcohol, and even political ideologies themselves. We’re even doing it now every time someone refers to someone else as a “commie”.

Reading this guide would not directly make one a pedophile or even force them to conduct the illegal acts. Last I checked, human beings still have free agency to choose their own paths and actions. Do you seriously believe that reading the Bible instantly makes you Christian? Does watching Saw make you a torture aficionado and force you to kill? Does reading Harry Potter make you a witch or a fan of the occult? Does reading Mein Kampf make you a Nazi or a fan of genocide?  No, they do not.

Similarly, owning a gun does not make you a murderer or bank robber, nor does it enable you to be one.  Amazon is not responsible for acts conducted after purchasing this book any more than a car dealer is responsible for paying your speeding fines.

While the mob mentality can accomplish a great many things, some of those things are bad. I consider banning books and censorship to be one of those things. Remember that this same mob mentality has lead to very horrific acts in our past, including lynching of minorities, burning of witches, destruction of property, and outright warfare.

Information should be free within the confines of the creative rights of the artists. Only through careful interpretation and discussion do we find the true power of that information, the message it tries to convey, and how it will affect our lives.

Don’t censor. Don’t ban. Analyze, interpret, and discuss with an open mind, and then decide if the material is useful or utter dreck.

Hang on, Amazon!  I’m not done yet.

To you, I urge caution and mindful consideration of your future projects. After the homosexual censorship debacle last April, you’re under watch and on notice with me.  While you and I share the philosophy against censorship, you also need to consider good taste in your publishing and sales choices.  You can only make so many bad choices before your faithful walk out the door.  Good luck getting them back.

Your choice with marketing that book is disgusting and disappointing. You had to know that this uproar would occur, and you know what the mob is capable of when fueled by anger, rage, and pain.  If you didn’t know that your choice would go this far, you need to change out your marketing department.

I refuse to boycott you because your customer service has been nothing but exemplary in my book.  I want you remember that just because someone submits something to you for publishing doesn’t mean it deserves to be published in your store.  That’s a marketing decision more than it is a call to censorship, and it should be common sense.