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Tom Head

All I Have is a Voice

By December 31, 2012

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My favorite of W.H. Auden's poems (and one of his least favorite) is the rightly famous "September 1, 1939," which includes these memorable lines:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky...
One of the central recurring themes on this site throughout 2012 has been the legacy of American censorship. As I've written about the history of government censorship in specific context and media--newspapers, banned books, schools, the Internet, comic books, music, art, and television--I've come to a better understanding of what I think censors have tried to accomplish, or at least what I think most citizen supporters of censorship have tried to accomplish. It's not so sinister, really--not on the level of intent. They want us to be better people. They want children to grow older without making the kinds of decisions that will come to haunt them as adults. They want to save our souls. As romantic as it is to present censors as people who are motivated solely by political concerns, or get some sort of erotic thrill out of power, most citizens who have supported restrictions on media have done so for decent reasons.

It's the public officials who represent this constituency who have had the sinister intentions, the dark urges, the cynical need for power. The rest of us, by and large, have just been caught up in the moment.

As we look at a new year full of new civil liberties controversies, the temptation to get caught up in the moment is one that we need to acknowledge and take into account when we make public policy decisions. That doesn't mean that we need to reject it--there are times when we should get caught up in the moment--but a careful inventory of our hopes and fears will help us avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Happy New Year, my friends.


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