Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Three Vectors Concerning the Soul of a City

It is easy to be hard on a place when you first arrive. There is a subtle effect, not quite a "culture shock," but a bit more than "new kid in the class." It gives everything an odd and uncomfortable tone. You feel like you don't belong. You are the stranger.

Reminds me of when I was staying in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just off Harvard Square, on a wall facing the cafe that I frequented, there was this beautiful graffiti slogan: "Xenophobes Go Home!"

Personally, I thrive on this. I am always suspicious of anything that makes me feel more "comfortable." I figure it is when you start to relax, stop questioning, "go with the flow," that you start to die. Odysseus on Aiaa, Circe's Island, forgetting about Ithaca as his men degenerate into pigs. Or Dorothy and crew in the Poppy Fields. One minute you are all happy and dreamy, the next minute the sky is full of Flying Monkees.

I have been living in Bellingham now just over three months. I like the place a lot. Of course, it's has the problems of any 21st century city. But somehow these problems seem - and I hate to use this word in the context of Bellingham - but, yes, more subdued, low-key. There have been a few issues where I have expected glaring oversight or obvious neglect only to discover that there were people in Bellingham that "were on it." (Recent issues with the water quality in Lake Whatcom are a case in point.) I get the sense that there is a core group of concerned individuals and practical organizations that are looking out for the "Soul of the City." Coming from Austin where the prevailing attitude is that "someone is probably taking care of it," this is more than a little reassuring.

The three items below are old news to anyone who lives here, but I just recently stumbled upon them. Two of them I was aware of - they made national news - but did not register that they happened here in Bellingham. I'm hesitant to say it like this but they make me proud to live here.

  • June 2004 - From Library Journal (emphasis mine): a patron of the Whatcom County Library System, Bellingham, WA, borrowed a copy of Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America (Prima, 2001) by Yossef Bodansky, a former senior consultant for the U.S. Departments of Defense and State. In the margins of the book, the patron saw a handwritten note stating, "If the things I'm doing is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God."

    The patron called the FBI. An FBI agent asked the library for further information on the borrowers of the book; library attorney Deborra Garrett said a subpoena was needed. The library then received a subpoena to appear before a grand jury.

    The quote, Garrett determined after an online search, came from Bin Laden himself. The subpoena asked the library to disclose the names and addresses of anyone who had borrowed the book since 2001, said library director Joan Airoldi. Resisting, the library filed a motion to quash the subpoena.

    The library argued that previous borrower information is retained for only 90 days (longer only if there's an unresolved fine); also, the library contracts with the Bellingham Public Library to maintain its database, and the Bellingham library was not served with a subpoena. Moreover, the library argued that there was no "substantial connection"—as required for such an investigation—between writing a quote from Bin Laden in a book and any act of terrorism.

    On July 15, the U.S. Attorney withdrew the subpoena, noting that the library did not have custody of the data sought. Is the case continuing? Emily Langlie, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle, said that Department of Justice policy "is not to comment on an ongoing investigation or completion of investigations." While the library was initially asked not to discuss the matter—there was no official gag order, since the case was not brought under the USA PATRIOT Act—Airoldi said both she and the library board believe the issue should be made public.

    "The person who read this thought possibly someone was plotting something," Airoldi said. And what might the writer have been doing? "Who's to say?" she mused. "They could've been writing a research paper. It seems that every copy [of that book] we get has writing in it." Borrower records are now kept only for a week.

    • January 1995 - From the New York Times (emphasis mine): Two decades after Justice Potter Stewart of the United States Supreme Court defined obscenity by saying, simply, "I know it when I see it," a pair of Washington shopkeepers will stand trial for seeing satire where prosecutors saw smut.

      Ira Stohl, the owner of The Newsstand, a magazine shop and coffee bar here, and the shop's manager, Kristena Hjelsand, are scheduled for trial Jan. 22 in Whatcom County Superior Court, charged with selling an issue of the alternative magazine Answer Me, that graphically discussed rape. The shopkeepers say they were given an odd choice: either submit to arrest or promise to never sell Answer Me or anything like it in the future.

      After deciding they could not make that pledge, Mr. Stohl, 45, and Ms. Hjelsand, 25, were charged with one felony count each of promoting pornography, a violation of state obscenity laws. Both have pleaded not guilty, saying that their First Amendment rights have been violated and that The Newsstand carries too many publications to screen in advance. If convicted they face a maximum of five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

      "How can I read all 5,000 magazines to make sure somebody, somewhere doesn't think something's obscene?" Mr. Stohl said one morning at the store, a gathering spot for this college town's intellectuals. "And how do I know what obscenity is anyway?"

      But the Whatcom County prosecutor, David S. McEachran, who brought the charges, said the rape issue of Answer Me, was unacceptable to the majority of Bellingham's 20,000 citizens. He cited the issue of Answer Me that features stories of a rape from the rapist's perspective, a fictional account of a man torturing a girl with Down syndrome, photographs of decapitated crime victims and a pull-out section called "The Rape Game."

      "I told them they couldn't sell it or anything like it," Mr. McEachran said in an interview. "Look at the publication. It's disgusting." As to the constitutionality of his action, he said only, "No comment."

      The arrests have been a hot topic for nearly a year in this town, nestled between Mount Baker and Puget Sound, while raising volatile issues of free speech and prior restraint. The case has also put feminist groups on the defensive and free speech activists in the spotlight.

      Katy Casey, the executive director of the Whatcom County Women's Crisis Center, said: "It's not just offensive, it's destructive. It relates a glorified violence to sex. This magazine normalizes something we don't think is normal."

      "I believe in the First Amendment," she added, "but this is dangerous."

      But First Amendment lawyers nationwide rendered a different verdict. Elizabeth Schneider, a professor of women's law at Brooklyn Law School, said, "There's a ton of case law saying what this prosecutor has done is simply wrong."

      Charles F. Hinkle, a constitutional lawyer in Portland, added: "As disgusting as the publication is, it's probably protected. You cannot suppress speech that might incite violence unless the danger is imminent. You can't ban the Bible just because it might be used to crucify a man."

      Jim and Debbie Goad of Portland, Ore., who publish Answer Me, say it is designed to shock. But rather than glorify violence, Mr. Goad said, the disputed issue of the magazine tried to offer as grisly a portrait of depravity as possible to underscore the horror of rape. "We present rape in all its ugliness," Mr. Goad said.

      The magazine is described by its owners as having "a National Lampoon-style sensibility fused with a snuff-film esthetic" that takes a satirical approach to a different topic in each issue. An upcoming issue will address race, Mr. Goad said.

      Arguing that the magazine is far from titillating but rather scathing political and social satire, Ms. Hjelsand said Answer Me "lays down in brutal detail how sick and violent the world is; I certainly don't feel it's a how-to magazine."

      Neither do the more than 3,000 Bellinghamites who signed a petition asking the prosecutor to drop the charges against The Newsstand.

      Those charges were born of an incident last January in which, Mr. Stohl said, an English major at Western Washington University here threatened a student boycott of The Newsstand unless its owners yanked the publication. The merchants did not budge. But when a criminal complaint was filed by the Women's Crisis Center -- to which the student had also complained -- and the case was referred to local prosecutors, the shop's owners stopped selling Answer Me. In its place, they erected a shrine, of sorts, to free speech: a copy of the magazine bound in chains and a padlock, with a sign that reads "not for sale." The shrine is still in place and includes newspaper articles reporting on the case.

      On Feb. 7, The Newsstand owners were ordered by Mr. McEachran to dismantle the shrine and to promise not to sell Answer Me or anything as salacious ever again. They refused, citing the First Amendment.

      "We have no political agenda," said Mr. Stohl, a Brooklyn native who opened the shop five years ago. "We just want to run our business," which comprises mostly specialized publications like Al-Ahram, an Egyptian weekly; On Our Backs, a lesbian magazine; Hothead Paisan, an alternative comic book; Bird Watcher's Digest; Svenska Dagblabet, a Swedish daily, and Women and Guns.

      On Feb. 14, The Newsstand's lawyer, Breean Beggs, filed a complaint in Federal court charging that Mr. McEachran had violated the civil rights of Mr. Stohl and Ms. Hjelsand. Two days later, Mr. Stohl and Ms. Hjelsand gave themselves up at the county jail.

      These days, as the case meanders through the court system, habitues of The Newsstand wonder if any of their favorite periodicals will come under attack next.

      "The Newsstand is the focal point of my daily life," said Ted Rosen, a television repairman who publishes his own magazine called Smelly Hamster, a left-leaning grab bag of political writings.

      "It gives me access to a world I can't get to otherwise from Bellingham," Mr. Rosen said.

      Bellingham residents can go elsewhere, however, for indisputable pornography. Great Northern Books, just two blocks away with its unabashedly hard-core trade, does not sell Answer Me. "It's sad," said Ross Rowell, the store's proprietor, musing about The Newsstand's woes. "But I guess I should just be thankful that the county's not after me."

      From The National Coalition Against Censorship: In a stunning rebuke to overzealous prosecutors, the owner and manager of Bellingham, Washington's Newstand store were awarded $1.3 million for prior restraint and for retaliatory prosecution by a U.S. District Court in Seattle. The judgment was awarded to Ira Stohl and Kristina Hjelsand, who had been charged with obscenity for selling a 'zine called Answer Me! and found not guilty by a jury. In awarding the judgment in the Newstand's counter-suit, the district court jury found that Whatcom County had violated Stohl and Hjelsand's First Amendment rights, caused emotional suffering, and damaged their business.

      • May 1989 - From The Daily Gazette (emphasis mine): A recent case in point was Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., where feminist activist Nikki Craft has been campaigning to remove the current issue of Esquire, with its cover package on "The Secret Life of the American Wife," which includes such material as "Your Wife: An Owner's Manual."

        In late May, Village Books owner Chuck Robinson said, Craft entered the store and tore up four copies of the magazine. Village had her arrested, and Craft, now in jail, won't post bond until the bookstore capitulates and sends the offending issue back to Esquire.

        Robinson, who says he has since been visited be zealous Craft partisans, allowed as how Esquire might have "a few things that don't seem to be quite in tune with the '90s," but even though the ideas are offensive to many people, "they are nonetheless ideas." If suppressing objectionable material amounts to "civil disobedience," as Craft has claimed, Robinson said, "Mr. Thoreau, Mr. Gandhi and Dr. King ... are rolling over in their graves."

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