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Ginsberg accuses neo-conservatives of political correctness
STANFORD --Under the rubric of "getting government off our backs," neo-conservatives have been recycling the ideas of Stalin, Hitler and Mao in their wars against art, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg told a Stanford audience at Cubberley Auditorium on Friday, Feb. 10.
Ginsberg made his critique of neo-conservative politics during a panel discussion on "Writing Out of Bounds," part of a series of events on the subject of formal and informal means of censorship sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center. His visit to campus, which included a poetry reading later that evening, was sponsored by Elliott Levinthal, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, and his wife, Rhoda.
Other participants on the panel, all from the Bay Area, were poets Carl Rakosi and Ronald Silliman, and writer Leslie Scalapino, who also runs a small press that publishes poetry. Stanford English Professor Marjorie Perloff served as moderator.
Stalin attacked art as "elitist individualism," Ginsberg said. Mao Ze- dong called it "spiritual corruption," and Hitler used the phrase "degenerate art" - descriptions that Ginsberg said have been picked up by neo-conservative commentators and politicians in the last decade to describe art they don't like.
In recent U.S. history, Ginsberg asserted, "the original speech-code puritanism came from the Heritage Foundation and Dinesh D'Souza, who founded the Stanford Review, which is constantly attacking speech codes.
"I emphasize them rather than left-wing political correctness because somehow the right wing has propagandized what was originally a joke in the left wing - self-criticism for the most part, an ironic accusation on the part of the left wing . . . that was then taken very seriously as a literal thing and reversed as an attack on the left, while the neo-conservatives and right-wing politicians were enacting law to prevent certain words from being said."
The law to which Ginsberg referred is the 1988 law introduced by Sen. Jesse Helms, adopted by Congress and signed by President Reagan, banning "indecent" language on radio and television, language deemed unsuitable for children age 12 or under. The ban meant, in effect, that high school students who can read Ginsberg's "Sunflower Sutra" in their school anthologies could not hear it on the radio, he said. Occasional news articles suggest that some conservatives would like to expand the ban to electronic mail, he said.
Ginsberg joined in a lawsuit that got the ban reduced to a part-time ban - from the hours of 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. The Federal Communications Commission appealed, and an appeals court in Washington, D.C., currently is considering whether to extend the ban to midnight, he said.
Ginsberg also attacked the conservative publication Accuracy in Academia for distorting the description of the archive he sold to Stanford University Libraries last fall. Reading first a detailed description of the archive from the Sept. 7 San Jose Mercury News, Ginsberg next read the shorter description in Accuracy in Academia. The latter mentioned his tennis shoes, beard clippings and old utility bills, but not his 400 notebook journals or 4,000 letters, including correspondence with Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, William S. Burroughs and Robert F. Kennedy.
"So the reductionism and the vulgarity of this so-called accuracy turns out to be this con of distortion and omission - the sin of omission parading as accuracy," he said.
According to Ginsberg, the archive was his attempt since the late 1940s to "keep track of this spiritual war for the liberation of speech and spirits in America, to keep an archive that would record all these battles back and forth, which involved not only LSD but literature, film, radio and television.”
Ginsberg said that during the 1950s and 1960s, there were steady victories for free speech through court decisions, including the famous battle over publication of his poem, "Howl."
The tide began turning in the 1980s, he said, when the first attacks were made against government funding of art. That was also the time, he said, when neo-conservatives began setting up local campus newspapers, borrowing the techniques of social critique used by an earlier generation of leftist students. "The impertinence of the left newspaper, the critique, the chutzpah, was not just simply taken over by the right wing but funded very wildly," he said.
"The first blow in this counterculture war that ended in real censorship," Ginsberg claimed, was leveled by D'Souza when he wrote articles for the Heritage Foundation Policy Review in 1982 denouncing grants to poets who used certain words in books of poetry funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.
"He had gone through all the books that had received grants from 1978 and then went back further . . . looking for what amounted to, in his mind, politically incorrect phrasing," Ginsberg said of D'Souza.
Asked later in the discussion to critique a call for censorship from the left - Andrea Dworkin's stand on pornography - Ginsberg noted that Dworkin's own book was seized by Canadian customs when that nation implemented a law based on her ideas for restrictions. At a bar mitzvah recently, he said, he told Dworkin, "I had some intergenerational friendships with younger men - 17, 18, 19 - legal and all that, . . . what are you going to do - put me in jail? and she said, 'You ought to be shot.' Her anger has gotten the best of her, and I don't think any literary program based just on anger can be helpful to anybody."
Popularity of poetry
Current efforts in Washington to cut back or eliminate grants by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities were the focus of many of the remarks by other poets on the panel. They agreed that censorship, rather than budget cutting per se, was the motive behind proposed cuts, but whether those cuts would ultimately hurt art or cause an artistic renaissance was a subject of debate.
Silliman and Scalapino said they were most concerned about the loss of small grants to publishers and distributors of innovative work rather than to artists themselves. Nonagenerian Rakosi, one of the objectivist poets of the '20s and '30s who were ignored by publishers until much later, said he was more concerned that true innovators today will get lost in what may be a flood of poetry. An estimated 1,000 poetry books were published in the past year, he said, including one by former President Jimmy Carter, and the Internet makes it possible for almost anyone to distribute a book instantly.
Ginsberg speculated that repression will bring a renaissance. "You are going to see in the immediate future on the platforms of poetry houses, slam clubs and coffee houses an enormous renaissance of poetry, once the poets are liberated from the idea that somehow they need to be subsidized."
Good American poetry has not shrunk in popularity, he said, citing the success of American blues throughout the world. "There has always been growth in interest in language, rhyme, poetry, rhythm, social critique, encapsulated, condensed speech." Some people may see current rap as "overly vulgar," he said, but like poet Robert Duncan, Ginsberg said, he believes that popular interest in poetry that poets themselves wouldn't read is "the compost pile out of which a poetry culture arises."
Scalapino urged university presses to help sustain the language arts if National Endowment for the Arts funding is eliminated or cut by Congress. Commercial publishers "require essentially format writing as a commodity,” she said.
Public broadcast funding
Conservatives also want to remove funding for public broadcasting, Scalapino said, "on the basis that it's giving a political point of view by giving alternative views" to a commercial news media that censors itself. "The news," as presented in America, she said, "is the nationalistic, jingoistic act of presenting itself, self-servingly reflecting itself as an organ of non-espousal, merely reality."
The academic presses also are restrictive of the form of writing, she said, not wanting essays and poems mixed in the same book. The word academic, she said, when applied to writing means "writing that has a certain accepted form," such as the position paper taught to students in critical writing. Poets also use the term academic to mean "dead" writing, she said. "It is not thought; it is format. My point is that some of the vital thought occurring in the country now is in the writing of poets."
Silliman also discussed "the relationship between censorship and canonization" and said he is "not convinced there is a big difference" between government censorship and the ability of a piece of art to survive in a mass-market culture. "The process of canonization is really the process of the disappearance of poets."
He spoke of "communities of poets who disappear from view because their work is not regularly published, distributed or reviewed by critics.” Sometimes they are represented by a token, he said. Such groups include street poets, whom he tried to publish when he was editor of the Tenderloin Times; African American avant garde poets; many women who may be published but are not included in anthologies used in universities; regional poets outside the major urban centers; special interest poets such as those who write about aging or disability; and those who write in languages other than English. The disappearance of such writers could accelerate, he said, as a result of the attack on the National Endowment for the Arts. It is not because of a conspiracy, he said, so much as because of the success of "the banality of the normal."
Perloff said she partly blames academics and the critical establishment for the political problems faced by art. Professional critics have a hard time defending Robert Mapplethorpe's work against attacks, she said, because they have abandoned aesthetic categories as criteria by which to judge art.
"We've got that puritan call for cultural studies. In the kinds of terms we have in the academy, cultural studies can be wonderful, but the way [they are] spoken about in our department and most departments around the country is, Heaven forbid that anybody would care about pleasure and anything aesthetic. So there's the obligatory move that we can read Chaucer because it deals with jurisprudence."
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