In its celebration of imagination, Dr. Seuss’s first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, from 1937, was more important to my development as a writer than my parents. So the recent news flash that it had been cancelled — pulled out of print by its own publisher — spun my mind back to the time the government of Canada cancelled me.
In April 1993, my first book with Beacon Press, the Unitarian Universalist non-profit that had published James Baldwin and the Pentagon Papers, was seized by Canada Customs as being in violation of federal obscenity laws. The obscenity in question appeared in “Knights, Young Men, Boys,” a chapter that I titled after the supernumeraries of Wagner’s Parsifal. Roughly halfway through the book, the chapter is illustrated with thirty-six images of knights, young men, and boys. There are two photos from the 1951 Bayreuth staging of the opera, for example, and several portraits from Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio, plus works by Tom of Finland, Rex, Lynn Davis, Man Ray, Duncan Grant, George Bellows, and George Luks. As the Library Journal put it at the time, this mix supported “the thesis that homosexuality offers society an ideal model for the principle of equality.”
After Oxford University Press welshed on its contractual arrangement with Beacon to distribute my book north of the border, one of its four Canadian book reps resigned in protest (I felt horrible), and a Vancouver LGBTQ bookstore, Little Sister’s, heroically tried to import the thing directly. But Canada Customs would have none of it. Yes, my manuscript had been rejected by nine university presses and twenty-three printers before finding a distributor, but this was the first time a government had gotten in the way.
The case against my book dragged through the courts for seven years. In the autumn of 1994, a bench trial in Vancouver had the carnivalesque air of obscenity trials past. Pierre Berton was the expert witness on behalf of my pages, and he brought down the house. An attorney asked this pillar of Canadiana how long he thought it would take the average citizen to determine that Professor Mohr’s little monograph was a scholarly effort rather than a masturbatory aid. Berton answered, “Thirty seconds.” The attorney then asked, “And how long do you think it would take the average Canada Customs agent to figure this out?” Berton’s answer: “Thirty minutes.” The judge had to call for order in the court! And although Berton’s witty testimony made a splash in newspapers, it nearly proved fatal.
When, six years on, the case finally reached the Supreme Court of Canada, liberals were hoping that it would serve as the vehicle to overturn the Butler decision, from 1992. In that case, the court had upheld bans on pornography, reasoning that porn is violence against women because it views women as degraded. That is, pornography can be banned because it expresses an incorrect political view. In 1986, this line of reasoning had been laughed out of the courts in the United States — without even reaching the Supreme Court in Washington. Why? Because in a deliberative democracy, the most obvious violations of rights to free speech are those that gag someone because of his or her political expression. At least that’s how it should be.
Well, on this score, Canadian liberals failed miserably — not one justice favoured overturning Butler, which remains the substantive law of the land. But my book did win its case on a technicality — an important one. The court ruled that customs officials had to be made smarter: their thirty minutes of indecision had to drop down to the thirty seconds of the common person. More specifically, the court shifted burdens of proof. Before the ruling, a book had to prove that it was not obscene before being allowed to cross the border; after, customs had to prove that something was indecent before seizing it. And this procedural reversal, as a practical matter, gutted Butler. Certain “extreme” materials are still occasionally stopped at the border, but there have been no significant prosecutions for adult porn in Canada since my book’s uncancelling in 2000 helped save from its better angels a country that means a great deal to me.