Not in Front of the Children: “Indecency,” Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth. By Marjorie Heins. Hill and Wang. 374 pages. $27.
As Danny Sorenson and Diane Russell began undressing each other, it occurred to me that perhaps my son shouldn’t be watching “NYPD Blue.” I used to gloss over the warning that precedes each episode: “This police drama contains adult language. Viewer discretion is advised.” But now that I’m a father, I’m beginning to understand the anxiety that motivates an ever-broader spectrum of parents—and the politicians who seek our favor—to support restrictions on children’s access to television, music, and the Internet. Not in Front of the Children, by ACLU veteran Marjorie Heins, is a timely appeal to our better judgment.
Heins traces the history of our illusions about juvenile innocence, as well as our endeavors to preserve that myth through censorship. She explores the political and legal battles provoked by Ulysses, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jerry Garcia, George Carlin, and Howard Stern, among others. Drawing from more recent history, she dissects the effort to restrict material “harmful to minors,” which has become the favorite conservative cause of moderate politicians, ranging from Bill Clinton to Al Gore to Joe Lieberman.
Against this juggernaut, Heins presents two cogent criticisms. First, she dismantles the new rationale for age-based censorship. In 1996, Congress made it illegal to display “indecent” or “patently offensive” material on the Internet where children might see it. When the Supreme Court struck down that law, its supporters returned with legislation restricting material “harmful to minors.” Why the change of terms? Because harmfulness sounds tangible. It’s an attempt to end-run freedom of speech by pretending that what we’re squelching is a physical rather than an intellectual threat.
Heins does her best to debunk this harm-to-minors argument, writing that the studies purporting to identify “harmful” material have shown that exposure to some of this material correlates in some circumstances with some behaviors that in some children can sometimes be negative in some ways. These studies rely, in Heins’ words, on “simplistic theories of causation” and are, at best, “ambiguous, disparate, and modest in their results.”
This leads to Heins’ second point: that indecency, the moral concept disguised by this bogus language of harmfulness, is itself disparate, subtle, and subjective. The “humorless overliteralism of so much censorship,” Heins writes, fails to distinguish among the myriad ways in which the same potentially “indecent” material—be it sexual, violent, or vulgar—can be presented. The same two actors, for example, could depict the same sex act as casual and degrading or as profoundly serious. That crucial difference can’t be captured in scientific terms because seriousness isn’t a physical attribute—it’s an idea. Today’s censors pretend otherwise because they know they can’t constitutionally suppress ideas. What would my son learn from watching “NYPD Blue”? He would see Russell and Sorenson spend the night together and regret it. He would see Sorenson beat an inmate bloody and lose his badge for it. He would see a black detective accuse a black prosecutor of betraying the race. He would see Sorenson’s partner grudgingly accept a baby-sitting offer from “Gay John,” the office administrative aide. Political groups on both the left and right might find some of this material objectionable. But I suspect that watching these characters grapple with their flaws and face the consequences of their mistakes would do my son far more good than harm. Each program, album, or Web site requires precisely this kind of case-specific, child-specific decision, the kind that no censor—and no smut-classification czar—is competent to administer. The best policy for raising children is the one we’ve already got: Viewer discretion is advised. —William Saletan
Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadow of Affluence. By Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo. University of California Press. $19.95.
In the debate raging over globalization, most of the attention goes to faraway sweatshops, to coffee plantations and oil pipelines on foreign shores. Yet some of the most glaring inequities of the new economy take place much closer to home, in the homes, even, of middle- and upper-class Americans who employ domestic servants. Because most employers consider domestic employment a private arrangement more than a real job (see Zoë Baird, Linda Chavez), this work, done almost entirely by poor Latinas, remains “in the shadows,” outside the reach of labor laws.
In Doméstica, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo examines this “New World Domestic Order” in great detail, drawing on dozens of interviews with Mexican and Central American nannies and housekeepers in Los Angeles, and with the largely white women who employ them. We find domestics working long hours, many for less than minimum wage, others in emotionally exploitative situations. Hondagneu-Sotelo ably shifts between the specific dramas unfolding behind “manicured lawns and residential facades” and the global economic trends those dramas reflect. Hampered by a style that is at times stiffly academic, Doméstica is nonetheless a thoughtful, nuanced account of a troubled world so close to home that it’s become almost invisible. —Ben Ehrenreich
Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña. By David Hajdu. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $25.
Despite its illustrious subjects, David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street is the furthest thing from fawning celebrity biography. Author of the acclaimed 1996 jazz bio, Lush Life, about gay pianist and “A-Train” composer Billy Strayhorn, Hajdu here traces the interwoven lives of his four protagonists, painting an impeccably detailed portrait of the 1960s folk movement—from the first time Joan Baez heard Pete Seeger play, to Dylan’s famous 1965 Newport Folk Festival performance, when he decisively broke his ties to the folk world. (Hajdu’s title is taken from Dylan’s acerbic song of the same name in which he said goodbye to the Greenwich Village scene.)
Mimi Baez, a singer in her own right, always under her big sister’s shadow, married the brilliant, reckless novelist and poet Fariña, who had palled around with Dylan—and with Thomas Pynchon, interviewed here for the first time—before the scruffy singer became Joan’s beau and the reigning prince of folk. Equally adept at avoiding nostalgia and sensationalism, Hajdu doesn’t shy away from his subjects’ many failings—Joan’s flakiness, Mimi’s passivity, Fariña’s opportunism, Dylan’s disloyalty. 4th Street re-creates a world so engagingly alive it’s certain to appeal even to folk’s detractors. —Ben Ehrenreich
Breeder: Real-Life Stories From the New Generation of Mothers. Edited by Ariel Gore and Bee Lavender. Seal Press. $16.
The contributors to this standout anthology from the editors of Hip Mama: The Parenting Zine are welfare moms, journalists, television writers, poets, and “social justice ninjas”—women who “choose to have our kids while, not instead of, following our other dreams.”
The writers approach the task of parenting with determination, wit, self-awareness, and a serious dose of heterodoxy. The result is a kaleidoscopic look at life as a mother, with essays about a road trip; the neonatal ICU; battling depression and contemplating suicide; teaching your kid to fly a plane; even being 15 years old and having to fight an adoption counselor to keep your son. Whether you’re a parent, parent-to-be, or nonparent, Breeder promises a satisfying and illuminating look at the latest reinventions of motherhood. —Lisa Miya-Jervis
Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly. Sue Halpern. Pantheon Books. $23.
Mother Jones columnist Sue Halpern poses a question in the very beginning of Four Wings and a Prayer: “How did monarch butterflies from the eastern United States and Canada, millions of them, end up every year in the same unlikely spot, a remote and largely inhospitable fifty acres of oyamelis pine forest ten thousand feet up the southwestern flank of Mexico’s Transverse Neovolcanic Mountains?” She spends the next 200 pages not so much answering that question as asking who asks it, and what drives their asking.
Halpern wanders Mexico with a nomadic “cowboy entomologist,” rides in a glider over Ontario to learn how butterflies fly, chases rare white monarchs in Hawaii. She interviews professors and researchers; amateur butterfly taggers; environmentalists who want to make the monarchs’ “overwintering” sites off-limits to farming and logging; and peasants who complain that such restrictions will mean starvation for their families—people all variously obsessed with the mysterious habits of an insect weighing less than a gram. Halpern’s elegantly written book is less the story of these strange and beautiful bugs than a meditation on science and knowledge, on their inseparability from the very human passions that drive them. —Ben Ehrenreich
The Swimming Hour. Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire. Rykodisc.
Jivin’ violin ace Andrew Bird has expanded his palette to feature everything from primal blues to ’60s rock, without sacrificing any of his biting charm. “How Indiscreet” brusquely cranks cocktail-lounge jazz into overdrive, while “Core & Rind” recalls the flaky grooves of flower child Donovan(!). And for a white-hot blast, check out “Satisfied,” a glorious combo of John Lee Hooker’s low-down boogie and thundering rock ‘n’ roll. This vigorous style-hopping may make it hard to get a fix on Bird’s identity, but the artist’s contagious glee renders the issue moot.
Canto. Los Super Seven. Columbia/Legacy.
Rooted in traditions of Central and South America, Los Super Seven put on a dazzling variety show. David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos trade that band’s gritty rock for lively acoustic romps, while Peruvian chanteuse Susana Baca delivers a spooky lullaby on “Drumi Mobila.” Mavericks leader Raul Malo showcases his versatility, creating hushed melodrama with “Siboney,” then mixing breezy grooves on “Me Voy Pa’l Pueblo.” Best of all, Brazil’s Caetano Veloso recalls the Beach Boys at their most heavenly with “Baby.” Though not a coherent album, Canto serves up a delectable sample of artists deserving of wider U.S. exposure, particularly Veloso, who’s been recording sensual, seductive albums for three decades.
Revelling/Reckoning. Ani DiFranco. Righteous Babe Records.
Prolific folk rebel Ani DiFranco has turned in a massive (and exhausting) opus, comprising 29 songs running two hours on two CDs—but apart from some brief instrumental fragments, there’s no filler here. DiFranco consistently finds poetic ways to chart the collapse of damaged relationships. And while her vocals can echo those of Joni Mitchell, DiFranco’s richly textured acoustic guitar is a show unto itself—deceptively sophisticated music, carefully crafted to seem offhand. Among the all-stars lending a hand are steel guitarist Lloyd Maines and James Brown’s great sax man Maceo Parker. And is that DiFranco pal Prince singing backup on the funky “Ain’t That the Way”?
—Music reviews by Jon Young
RLaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton Susan Froemke, Deborah Dickson, Albert Maysles. 90 minutes. Maysles Films.
As George W. Bush stumps for “literacy” in the form of standardized testing, the time would seem ripe for this harrowing documentary portrait of a Mississippi Delta school’s efforts to raise its infamously low test scores. Cameraman Albert Maysles, the legendary pioneer (with his late brother David) of “direct cinema” documentary, here zooms in tight on one Delta family, whose African American matriarch, LaLee Wallace, does her best, despite extreme poverty, to keep several of her 15 great-grandchildren in the classroom.
The film renders the family’s struggles in indelible detail, connecting them to the titular “legacy” that has kept many black residents of the Delta both poor and illiterate almost a century and a half after slavery’s end. But what’s missing from this close-up is the big picture: a sense of how standardized testing inevitably fails those outside the system; an exploration of the political choices by which a vital workforce has become expendable; and an acknowledgment of how ironic it is that the subtitles used here to “translate” the Wallaces’ speech only accentuate the family’s remove from the dominant culture. LaLee’s Kin raises countless questions, among them whether some documentary subjects might be captured more vividly with a wide-angle lens.
Southern Comfort. Kate Davis. 90 minutes. Q-Ball Productions.
At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, movies about personal transformation—three of them featuring transgendered heroes—pulled a serious switch on the usual assortment of straight indie fare. And none of these proved more compelling than Davis’ documentary winner of the Grand Jury Prize, an unforgettable portrait of a tight-knit group of transsexuals living in the backwoods community of Toccoa, Georgia.
That one of the men—the camera-loving cowboy Robert Eads—is fighting terminal ovarian cancer after more than two dozen doctors have refused to treat him is what gives the film its pathos and its politics. (“It’s kind of a cruel joke,” surmises Eads, who gallantly refuses to hold a grudge against those in the medical profession. “That last, only part of me that was really female is killing me.”)
This isn’t merely a feel-good, preaching-to-the-converted “celebration of the human spirit.” In the end, Southern Comfort may not convince everyone that transsexuals have a right to health care, but it fulfills the documentary’s duty of illuminating a marginalized subculture and, with tender acuity, advocating for its survival.
—Film reviews by Rob Nelson