In Defense of Seth -- And Other Heresies

"Be awfully damn careful before you sacrifice principle on the altar of political expediency."
[Bob Chatelle co-runs the The Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression ]

[The irony of his message, is that a few years later, the anticensorware ideas for which I was being castigated, had nearly become civil-libertarian gospel]

Date: Sat, 22 Mar 1997 21:59:08 -0500
From: Bob Chatelle
To: [an anti-censorship mailing list]
Subject: In Defense of Seth -- And Other Heresies

As someone who almost invariably agrees with Seth, I'd like to take issue with the notion that fight-censorship is a Seth-versus-the-world forum. I know I'm not alone in my support of Seth, and I sometimes feel guilty for not coming to his defense more often. But Seth does such a splendid job of fighting his own battles. I know I couldn't possibly be as cogent and effective.

Since most of you aren't from Boston, you probably think Seth is the sort who never leaves his terminal. Not so. Since we formed last summer, Seth has been a key member of the New England Free Expression Network -- a group that includes representatives from the ACLU, the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition, the Massachusetts Library Association, the National Writers Union, the Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression, the Cambridge Women's Commission, and others. Although we do correspond by email, we actually come together and meet face-to-face. A much better way to get to know people, in my opinion. Seth is valued and treasured by all of us. We'd be lost without his expertise, knowledge, and willingness to help. Seth never is too busy to take the time to give a thoughtful critique to a proposed letter to the editor or a statement to be submitted as testimony. He's always willing to help any of us prepare for a radio or TV encounter. In the fight we've been waging in Boston, I can think of no one who's been more essential.

I hesitate to say anything to detract form Seth's well- earned reputation as a flame master, but in person Seth really is a bit of a pussycat. Gentle, polite, and soft- spoken.

On a somewhat related topic, I'd like to share a few thoughts about the whole notion of "being realistic" in activist politics.

Let me pause a moment to stroke my long white beard.

When I was in college (1959-1963) everyone knew that it was completely unrealistic to believe that a woman would ever be allowed to have an abortion because that was her choice. Thus people who wanted to "liberalize" abortion laws generally tried to take more "realistic" approaches. One liberal-backed proposal was to make abortion legal if it was recommended by a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist Thomas Szasz was ridiculed for opposing this "reform." His argument: abortion should be a woman's choice and the proposed legislation did not empower women, it empowered doctors. Szasz was derided for not being "realistic." Some (very damn few, actually) conceded that Szasz might be right in an "ideal" world, but what he was proposing was so unrealistic as to be absurd. The "reasonable" thing to do was to distance oneself as much as possible from Szasz's "radical" and "dangerous" ideas so that one wouldn't be "discredited" by them and so this reasonable and "realistic" piece of legislation could pass.

Granted, had Roe v. Wade not occurred, the struggle for reproductive freedom would be even longer and more difficult than it has been. But, in retrospect, were the "realists" who opposed Szasz correct? Would giving more power to doctors have done anything to empower women?

Another instructional issue is gay rights. (In this case, no help at all came from the Supreme Court.) When I was a student there were two "realistic" views about homosexuality: the conservative view (homosexuality is a sin) and the liberal view (homosexuality is an illness.) Thus the liberal approach to homosexuality was to change the laws so that gay people would be treated like sick people needing treatment and not criminals deserving punishment. To advocate any other point of view was "unrealistic." Certainly it was considered inconceivable that homosexuals might organize and speak for themselves. We were deemed incapable of speaking for ourselves. We were -- according to the liberals -- mentally ill, and nothing said by the mentally ill should be taken seriously. "Realistic" gays and lesbians sided with the liberals, and hoped for a "cure" for their illness. (Martin Duberman's chronicle, Cures, is a chilling document of these times.) Those who refused to side with the liberals were dismissed again as hopeless and (probably dangerous) radicals.

My point? Be awfully damn careful before you sacrifice principle on the altar of political expediency.


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