Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Read No Evil

Censorship: “the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.”

What is so attractive about shutting down the ability of another to read, see, or hear what may be offensive to you but not to others?

I feel like we’re back in the 1980s when government attempted to shut down rap music, performance artists, photography by Robert Mapplethorpe, and books that had been banned in earlier decades.

President Reagan’s Attorney General, Edwin Meese, established the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography in 1986.  It was commonly known as The Meese Commission. “At the end, the commission issued a bulky two-volume report, much of it consisting of detailed narrations of the plots of pornographic movies dutifully set down by FBI agents who’d been assigned to view them – at taxpayers’ expense, of course.”  Not one of those FBI agents turned into a sexual predator.  However, the commissioners believed dysfunctional predators who had testified to the commission that “Porn made me do it.”  It was laughable.  More laughable was the fact that former Attorney General John Ashcroft had blue drapes made to cover the bare breasts of Lady Justice.

Recently, Toni Morrison’s book, Beloved, was the focus of a political advertisement in the campaign for governor in Virginia.  The novel, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is an “unflinchingly look into the abyss of slavery.”  A woman in the advertisement “describes how her 17-year-old [white] son was traumatized” by reading the book as it was assigned in a high school class.  The boy’s mother wants the book banned from the Fairfax, VA, schools.  Well, slavery wasn’t exactly as honorable as you might think.  It goes to show that not all books are banned because of sexual innuendo or content.  But most books are banned because of embarrassing sexual information.

Waukee, Iowa, parents are upset that books found in a school’s library are inappropriate for students of all ages [Des Moines Register, Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. Section C, Metro & Iowa].  Librarians choose books for a variety of reasons.  The Register article did not indicate where the questionable books were found.  It is very possible that the books were in the reference section.  And if you remember from high school, or even notice at public libraries, reference books are not available for check out.  Books that depict graphic images, explicit sexual content, and violent passages should be considered for viewing with assistance from an adult that can intellectually serve as a guide to the adolescent.

There are many ways to deal with printed material, movies, and music that may raise an eyebrow.  Adults are responsible for talking to their children about sex, their bodies, respect, and boundaries.  It’s not an easy task, but whoever said being a parent was a breeze?  In my day, we had to learn everything on the street.  And it wasn’t always pretty, nor was it explained in terms that were educational, respectful, and honest.  This matter is not like telling a kid there’s no such thing as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy.  No, snickering was an essential cog of the street learning process.

Curiosity has been around since cats evolved.  Adolescents should be able to bring questions to their parents without worrying about consequences.  In the Register article mentioned above, a parent found a book in his son’s backpack “about a boy who lives with his grandparents and is searching to discover the truth about his family.”  The parent said: “I cannot write what I saw but found 33 different pages that contained sexual and or slanderous/vulgar content that if spoken in my house would be grounds for immediate discipline.”  [Emphasis added.]  I pity that young man who lives in his father’s house and not his parents’ home.

When I was a young boy, a group of us (boys and girls) sat around a HiFi set and listened to a couple of LP albums found in a stack of a girl’s mother’s records.  One was recorded by Redd Foxx.  If you grew up in the 1960s you know how dirty Foxx could be, but funny.  Another album we listened to was “Banned in Boston.”  Funny as hell.  None of us had adverse reactions to the material in those LPs.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart is credited with saying: “I know pornography when I see it, but I cannot define it.”  He didn’t say that.  It has been paraphrased to mean that, however.  What he did say was “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”  [If you’re interested, the movie was The Lovers, a 1958 French film by director Louis Malle.]

When books, music, and films are censored, they go underground.  When anything goes underground, it’s impossible to control.  That’s where the devil lives, isn’t it?

I read Catcher in the Rye when I was young.  I didn’t think it was that great of a book.  I read it again later in life to see what I missed because it had been banned so many times.  I still didn’t get it.  Not only that, but once again, I didn’t think it was that great a piece of literature.  I’m surprised no adult stopped me from reading Wild in the Streets around the same time.  I loved that book, and it had more anti-authoritarian passages than Catcher in the Rye.

Decades ago, if a book, play, movie, or music was banned in Boston it was an indication that the material was on its way to being a best seller.

I’m sending my first book to Boston in hope that the Watch and Ward Society will recommend that it be banned.


Related blog:  Censorship Sucks!

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Driving Me Nuts

A recent article in the Des Moines Register, Iowa drivers are the worst in the nation, according to insurance comparison website QuoteWizard, was an interesting read.  I really didn’t have to read it; I know Iowa drivers are the worst.  I do, however, have trouble believing insurance companies.

A few weeks ago, I had a guy in a fairly new red pickup truck pass me on the passenger side of my car.  We were both traveling down a two-way three-lane street, the middle lane for left turns only.  He passed me while squeezing into the bicycle lane.  I didn’t think there was enough room between me and the curb, but he managed to avoid scratching either vehicle.  I saw him coming.  Not that long ago, the street was a four-lane street with two lanes going east and two going west.  No one likes this new traffic pattern, but the city road engineers claim it will slow down traffic in the neighborhood.  Their claim has been proven.  Now it’s time to change back to the original four-lane street before the boiling blood of road ragers have it out on the rest of us.

The worst experience on any Iowa road is a situation in which a driver pulls out in front of you, requiring you to slow down.  There was no one behind you.  She could have waited until you passed through the intersection.  But no, she now must slow down to make a left turn, and the traffic coming your way has no foreseeable end in sight.  So, you wait, and wait, and wait.  There is a vehicle in sight – about a half-mile away in the opposite lane, but be patient.  Sometime later in the day that opposite lane will be clear as a bell.  Meanwhile, twenty or thirty cars behind you are getting pissed.  Not at her – at you!

If the preceding experience is not the worst, how about the occasion where a person is behind you, passes you and immediately slams on the brakes to take a right turn that results in you having to hit your brakes?  Or a left turn?  It seems as though passing you gained them an extra eleven seconds.  Why does this happen all too often?

I often see a tailgater in my rear-view mirror who looks like he could take my head off, swerving back and forth to show me that he is going to pass me as soon as he sees an opening.  When he sees the opportunity, he guns it past me and practically runs me in the ditch as he cuts in front of me.  The next time I see him he is in the inside lane and I’m in the outside lane at the same traffic light.  I love it when the light turns green, and he is stuck behind a vehicle whose driver is one of the geeks described in a paragraph above; slowing down considerably to make a right or left turn or to get into the other lane.  Be prepared.  He will soon be swerving behind you again, ready to pass at the next chance he gets.  Don’t look.  He’ll probably be fingering you as he zooms past you.

Last week, as I entered a four-lane divided highway, the woman in a car that sped past me as I entered the freeway was on the phone.  She had no idea that I was coming up the ramp.  That’s okay, it happens frequently, and I am supposed to yield.  However, she began riding on the shoulder of the road, then back on the outside lane, then she ended up on the left shoulder of the road . . . You can’t pass people like that.  I don’t think she was drunk or high, her problem was controlling the vehicle with a phone in her hand.  I wasn’t the only one avoiding her.  Why do drivers like that get away with their dangerous antics?

Driving down Douglas Avenue on the north side of Des Moines, we witnessed two vehicles behind us who were side-bumping each other trying to be the lead car in the single lane after the road became a 3-lane road upon being a four-lane road.  This is another example of the city road engineers deciding what’s best for the commuters in Des Moines.  From the mirrors, we could see that it was like a demolition derby.  One car bouncing off the other.  One of the vehicles attempted to make the other stop after the incident by traveling at a higher rate of speed down the middle turn lane.  We had to suspect that the incident was caused because both drivers wanted to gain an advantage to be in front on the single lane road.  It was time to slow down, make a left turn, and get onto the back streets.  You never know when one of the vehicles’ occupants might have a loaded weapon.

I know I’m getting old.  I sound like one of the old people I once made fun of.  Damn!  I didn’t want to be like that, but I am.  I am the parent in the Progressive commercials that Dr. Rick warns us about.

Have I ever been one of “those” people above?  Apart from the Douglas Avenue incident, probably.  I live in Iowa.  We’re the worst drivers, don’t cha know?


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Picking Trouble

George Powers was a neighbor.  He lived on the southern end of our block, two houses away.  Johanna Scanlon lived between us.

George’s property contained a small orchard.  He had a pear tree, a peach tree, a couple of different apple trees, and two beautiful cherry trees.  I often climbed the cherry trees and sat in them, eating cherries with delight until George came out the back door and yelled, “you damn kids get out of those trees!”

I knew that what I was doing was wrong, but hey, that’s what confession was for.  “Bless me father for I have sinned.  I ate cherries from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in George’s backyard.”  What I didn’t know was that I could be imprisoned or be required to pay a fine.  The 1958 Iowa Code states (in part) that if “any person (I suppose that could be an 8 year old kid) . . . mischievously enter the inclosure [sic] of another with intent to knock off, pick, destroy, or carry away  . . . any fruit or flower of any tree, . . . he shall be fined for the first offense not less than five nor more than one hundred dollars, with the costs of conviction, or be imprisoned in the county jail not exceeded thirty days.”  Mom would be pissed.  However, it would be one less mouth to feed for a month, and in those days, that could have been a big savings.

My fruit pilfering didn’t end at George Powers’ orchid.  Johanna had some of the best rhubarb I have ever seen in my life.  I would pull a stalk of it occasionally, rip off the big leaf on one end, the bright red root from the other, and peel back the outer skin.  What was left was the sour tasting green fruit within.  It made me pucker, but I loved that stuff.  I was more afraid of George than Johanna.  Not until I was older would I realize how poor she was.  Looking back, I often wonder if she had electricity.  I never saw a light on in her home.  She once paid me something like a nickel to bring in some heating oil from a 50-gallon drum outside her back door.  Upon entering her kitchen, I noticed a lack of any furniture other than the table positioned up against the east window and a chair next to it.  I often saw her reading a newspaper at that window.  There were some stacked newspapers, but that was it.  I can’t recall seeing a refrigerator or range/oven.  I am going to assume that she used newspaper and other inflammable materials to burn in order to stay warm – or, as I believe now to keep from freezing.

Jail for carving initials on desks

Another 1958 law that caught my attention was one that was punished with a fine or imprisonment in the county jail for willfully writing, making marks, or drawing characters on any schoolhouse, or on any furniture, “or willfully injure or deface the same.”  I attended St. Ann’s Grade School.  Our desks were probably made in the 1800s.  Each desk had an inkwell.  How long has it been since you used a fountain pen?  The sides of the desks were heavy black wrought iron and the seats folded up when you didn’t need it.  You could easily fit two children in a desk at once, and it happened more than you think.

From grade one through eight, every desk I was assigned had carving from a previous student.  I imagine some of them were dead.  Those former students could have been imprisoned for defacing those desks.  It’s difficult to determine when those carvings were made, but when I was in school, none of us carried pocketknives, at least, not to my knowledge.  Besides, if the nun teaching the class caught you, the punishment could have been beyond corporal and close to capital.  It could have been worse if Father Clark was going to be involved.

Juvenile delinquency

Juveniles of 1958 didn’t have a chance.  Look at these definitions of a juvenile delinquent.  Habitually violating any “town or city ordinance?”  Curfews were meant to be violated.

Section 232.3 “Delinquent child” defined. The term “delinquent child” means any child:

    1. Who violates any law of this state punishable as a felony or indictable misdemeanor, or habitually violates any other state law or any town or city ordinance.
    2. Who is incorrigible.
    3. Who knowingly associates with thieves, or vicious or immoral persons.
    4. Who is growing up in idleness or crime.
    5. Who knowingly frequents a house of ill fame.
    6. Who patronizes any policy shop or place where any gaming device is located.
    7. Who habitually wanders about any railroad yards or tracks, gets upon any moving train, or enters any car or engine without lawful authority.

Some of those immoral persons (C) were relatives – uncles, cousins, parents.

That reference to “idleness” (D) must have been to encourage child labor.  And what Madam would allow a teenager to frequent a brothel (E)?  Maybe one with money and curiosity?

A policy shop (F) is defined as “a gambling place where one may bet on numbers which will be drawn in lotteries.”  No convenience store in Iowa would be safe for a kid today.

What kid in a town with railroad tracks (G) didn’t wander “about any railroad yards or tracks, get upon any moving train, or enter any car or engine without lawful authority?”  Every kid I knew in Vail had to put a penny on a rail to see it get smushed by a train traveling through.  We all played in empty boxcars, grain cars, and under the railroad bridge.

It was a rugged life in 1958.  Staying out of trouble was about as difficult in 1958 as Huckleberry Finn had it in the middle of the 19th Century.


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Flag Desecration and The Iowa Code

This is my favorite unconstitutional statute in the Iowa Code.  The Iowa Supreme Court has never ruled on Iowa Code Section 718A, but the Federal District Court of the Southern District of Iowa has.  In Phelps v. Powers, 63 F.Supp.3d 943 (2014), the ACLU of Iowa Foundation assisted Margie J. Phelps, an attorney and daughter of Fred Phelps, pastor and founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, in challenging the constitutionality of the statute, which prohibits desecration of the flag or insignia.

Flag burning statutes have never fared well in the federal courts.  Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), is the landmark case in which Justice William Brennan wrote: “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable. . . .” —Justice William Brennan, speaking for the majority. Johnson at 414.

 Justice Brennan believed that “the flag’s deservedly cherished place in our community will be strengthened, not weakened, by” the holding in Johnson.  Indeed, it has been a while since most of us can cite an activity in which the flag was treated with disrespect.  One of the biggest factors in stopping flag burning was the manufacturers’ change from cloth to a fire-retardant material.  It’s almost comical to see someone today attempting to burn a flag.

Congress has made several attempts to change the law regarding desecration of the flag, each attempt failing again and again in the courts. Acknowledging that they could no longer create a law that would satisfy the constitutionality of Free Speech applicability, several members of Congress attempted to amend the constitution.  At one point, the process failed by one vote.

Occasionally, we will see another feeble attempt at trying to amend the U.S. Constitution to incorporate contradictory language about the flag.  Hopefully, constituents will see through the politicizing of the issue and demand Congress work on worthwhile projects.

The Phelps v. Powers case is not the only Iowa-related flag desecration case that caught the eye of federal courts.  On June 4, 2006, an Ottumwa man, Scott Wayne Roe, a local musician playing rock music in his garage, was cited for playing the music too loud after neighbors complained.  In protest, he hung a flag upside down and wrote “Corruption of Blood” across it.  “Corruption of Blood” happens to be a part of the U.S. Constitution.  It came as a shock to those of us at the ACLU of Iowa.  Article III, Section 3, clause 2: “The Congress shall have power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person Attained.”

In another case, which occurred about the same time, a Corydon man was charged with displaying his flag upside down.  Dale Klyn was protesting what he believed to be an unfair bankruptcy proceeding and to call to mind the lack of mental health care services for veterans.

Charges against Roe and Klyn were dismissed.  Federal Judge Robert Pratt ruled that “Iowa laws violate a due process clause in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”  He did not go as far as to claim the laws also violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.  He did strike down the portion of Iowa’s disorderly conduct code, which makes it a simple misdemeanor to “knowingly and publicly use the flag as to show disrespect for the flag as a symbol of the United States,” and a state code that prohibits desecration of the flag.

Nonetheless, Iowa Code Section 718A not only remains in the Code, but it was amended in 2007, one year after the federal court struck portion of the statute, to include the following:

As used in this chapter:

    1. “Contempt” means an intentional lack of respect or reverence by treating in a rough manner.
    2. “Deface” means to intentionally mar the external appearance.
    3. “Defile” means to intentionally make physically unclean.
    4. “Mutilate” means to intentionally cut up or alter so as to make imperfect.
    5. “Trample” means to intentionally tread upon or intentionally cause a machine, vehicle, or animal to tread upon.

Since this new language was enacted, I see flags that are entirely blue, flags with blue stripes through the middle of them, used as window curtains, pasted onto auto bumpers with words running through them, but most of all, misused in political advertisements.

I can’t really tell if the statute is unconstitutional or not.  I guess it depends upon who is in power.

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It’s a Swede*

When I was a teenager, before I could drive, I ran errands on Saturdays for a shut-in just a few houses up the street from us.  Swede Chamberlain [his first name was Lester; Swede was a nickname] was a tall, large, elderly man.  His house must have been one of the best-looking houses in Vail at one time, maybe 100 years ago.  It was located on a corner lot; it had a nice porch, and large maple trees accented the perimeter, giving him a lot of shade in the summer.

Swede sold greeting cards out of his house.  The only entrance he had available was the large step up into the kitchen.  “Come on in,” he would yell to visitors/customers after knocking.  He would be sitting in his rocking chair in the room next to the kitchen, which may have been a dining room at one point, smoking his pipe.  He wore the same sweater every time I saw him.  The converted dining room had three walls of greeting cards in wooden display boxes lined up according to birthday, anniversary, sympathy, etc.  He sat in his chair looking out a window that overlooked the intersection where the Nelsons drove through without looking for kids sledding. He also had a very good view of the entire southeastern part of Vail, including our house.

Prince Albert pipe tobacco stinks.  But Swede lit his pipe and didn’t care if you liked it or not.  It may not have been a very good business decision, but then, I think the Ryan family was his only customer.  Mom would say, “someone go up to Swede’s and get a card for me.”  That person was me.  Perhaps Kathleen did a time or two.  We were the only ones who knew Swede on a first-name basis.

I inherited the job of getting groceries for Swede from my sister, Kathleen.  It would have been Carol’s turn, but Swede freaked her out.  The grocery list always had a quart of milk, a loaf of bread, a tin of Prince Albert pipe tobacco, and a package of either Juicy Fruit or Double Mint gum.  Occasionally, he would include a box of stick matches.   I can’t remember other items he may have purchased outside of some lunch meat or similar protein but being a kid with a huge appetite and an over-functioning metabolism, I often wondered how he survived.  As I mentioned, he was a large man.  He was over six feet tall and must have weighed close to 250 pounds.  When he did walk, I could see that his legs were probably swollen to more than twice the usual size.

Kathleen and I always had to go to Eddie’s E & J Market and give the list to Eddie.  He would compile the merchandise and take the ten-dollar bill, hand us the change and off we would go.  Upon bringing the groceries into Swede’s house, he would pay us thirty-five cents and a package of gum – the one in the bag of groceries.  I’m sure it was more than the price of one of the cards he sold.  And actually, he had some very good cards.  I’m guessing they cost a dime or quarter during that era.

I don’t know much about Swede.  I have no idea if he ever had a real job, a wife, a family, or a business.  Once a month, an ambulatory limousine would come from Sioux City with a person or two already in the car and pick up Swede to take him to Iowa City.  Swede was enrolled in the State Papers Program at the University of Iowa.  The program was a service provided by the U of I in which indigent persons across Iowa were admitted for a day to receive compassionate care and diagnoses for ailments not addressed by small town doctors, or unrealistic for certain people to pay.  The program offered patients for med students training to become doctors.  The limo would drop Swede off at the sidewalk of the intersection late in the day after it picked him up.  I watched him walk up the steep sidewalk with his cane several times.  It was painful to watch.

I remember the Legislature preparing for debate on the matter of the State Papers Program.  Although it wasn’t terminated through the Iowa legislative process, it was discontinued, eventually.

Swede died in 1988 at the age of 90 and is buried at the Vail Cemetery.  His house was razed, and the new owner built a fallout shelter in its place.  That’s another story for another time.

*  “It’s a Hallmark”

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Teen Curfews Can Be Comical

A recent blog was focused on how us Vail, Iowa, kids got our exercise during the day.  We didn’t stop there; we also exercised at night.  Nighttime exercise was more vigorous than daytime exercise.

The town of Vail hired nightwatchmen for years.  My grandfather, John Ryan, was a nightwatchman for Vail.  I’ve heard stories about him, but I never knew him.  Supposedly, he had a blackjack sap, a bludgeoning weapon, and he wasn’t afraid to use it.  But things were more peaceful as I was growing up.

Nightwatchmen’s principal duties were to make sure doors were locked, and to keep municipal ordinances from being violated.  One of the ordinances in Vail was a curfew for minors.  Every kid under 18-years of age was to be off the streets at 9:00 pm.

Curfew “comes from the Anglo-French ‘coverfeu,’ made from the words ‘coverir’ (“to cover”) and ‘feu’ (“fire”).”  In other words, put out the fires and go home.

Vail had some reasonable nightwatchmen that knew kids could do anything at 10:00 am as well as 10:00 pm.  They ignored the curfew and chatted with some of us boys.  One nightwatchman shared his dirty books with us.  He was a little on the pervert side, but he never touched a kid.  There were no problems while he was there.  Another nightwatchman was supplied with a car and had a uniform.  He would drive you home if you were too drunk to drive.  Vail was a quiet place in those days.

However, there was one nightwatchman who was intent on upholding the curfew ordinance.  J.C. McCullough was a retired heavy equipment operator.  He had a faded-blue Ford pickup with a topper.  He was the nightwatchman during the height of my early teens, and he provided a great source of entertainment and exercise for those of us who loved excitement.

On a good clear night, about 9:30 or 10:00 pm, some Vail kids would sneak out of the house and get together at a meeting point.  We had several.  We would head downtown where J.C. would have his pickup parked in front of the firehall/city hall.  Depending upon whether he was in the pickup or on his rounds would determine what our action was going to be.

If J.C. was on the rounds, one of us would run across the street close to where he was checking doors.  He would move fast (not run) to his pickup, get in it, start it up, and begin driving to where the kid crossed the street.  By that time, the kid was back on the other side.

We kept poking up like a whack-a-mole in certain places all over town, waiting for him to spot one of us and drive his pickup in that direction.  We knew where every clothesline and hole in a yard were situated.  He never caught any of us.  However, one night he was homing in on me.  I laid down in a shallow ditch near a few rows of sweet corn someone had planted behind the hardware store.  He drove his pickup within a couple feet of where I was lying.  You would think an incident like that would have adrenaline pumping.  No, I couldn’t keep from laughing.  I’m surprised he didn’t hear me.

On more than one occasion, J.C. would be in his pickup.  Often, he would be sleeping.  Once, while he was sleeping, one of us (not me) let the air out of two of his tires and tapped on his window.  If he wasn’t sleeping, you could count on one kid or more running past the front of his pickup and scattering up between buildings.

I don’t remember what occurred first.  Either J.C. quit or we stopped having fun with him.

The last nightwatchman Vail had long after my childhood was a real prick.  The town had furnished him with a cruiser that belonged to a real police force at one time.  I came into town one evening after working the night shift and saw the cruiser parked on the side of the road next to the park.  The front door was open, and no one was around.  I heard the next morning that someone had taken a shot at him with a shotgun.  After that, Vail entered into a contract with the county sheriff to patrol the streets of Vail.

I have often wondered what J.C. would have done to one of us kids if he actually caught one.  On the other hand, I can’t imagine that he would have stepped out of his pickup to actually chase one of us.  We would have had to jump into the passenger side of the pickup if the door was unlocked.

Someday, I will write about why I think someone fired a shotgun at the police cruiser, but that story is too painful to tell – even after all of these years.

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