by John Dentinger


I attended a number of later meetings on the ordinance, some put on by FACT, some by the local ACLU. I drove downtown to hear MacKinnon debate a FACT representative, but MacKinnon had canceled at the last moment and had not provided a substitute.

The Herald-Examiner and even the staid, gray, "responsible" L.A. Times ran editorials opposing the ordinance. County counsel reported to the supervisors that the ordinance was a prior restraint on speech; it was unconstitutionally vague; and,it dealt with an area reserved to state law.

Wendy and I prepared speeches for another county hearing scheduled for March 26. The news cameras were there. Allred, Bogdanovich, and the women from the county commission were there. But this time there was a veritable horde of women from FACT to testify against the legislation.

Perhaps the presence -- before a voracious press -- of massive opposition, particularly by women, embarrassed the supervisors. In any case, they elected not to take any public testimony, but to hand the ordinance back to the Women's Commission for revision in conjunction with county attorneys. Now, they had had four months in which to examine Judge Sarah Barker's decision and to modify their ordinance accordingly. FACT leader Betty Brooks was incensed that the county was jerking us around. Opponents of the bill had taken time off work, while those who wished to burn books for a living were there as part of their jobs. However, the circus moved out into the hallways, and the massive opposition was duly noted.

Wendy and I were still the only ones whose names were on the public record as having testified against the ordinance. Consequently, we were invited to participate in a debate on the subject before the influential Los Angeles Professional Men's Association. Our opponents were members of the women's commission: June Dunbar and Betty Rosenstein, my counterpart on the Herald op-ed page. Over dinner, they were quite polite and friendly. Gary Meade mentioned to Mrs. Rosenstein that we had seen MacKinnon at the gay lawyers' group. "I heard that was a disaster," she said. She told of how, at a meeting at Rosenstein's house, MacKinnon had clammed up when a male -- Mrs. Rosenstein's son -- entered the room. Mrs. Rosenstein expressed her wonderment at why MacKinnon appeared to hate men so much.

Copies of the proposed ordinance were distributed to the audience. (At the gay lawyers meeting, MacKinnon had spared herself this kiss of death.) The proponents cited the usual pseudo scientific sources, made the usual disclaimer that this was only a civil law, not a criminal one, asserted that the 14th Amendment banned private discrimination, and so forth.

Before I attacked those contentions, I struck at the root. "The ordinance is so incoherent that I must translate it from Newspeak into English before I can criticize it. You will note that it defines pornography as the subordination of women through pictures and/or words. Now, you can define the moon as green cheese, but if you then wish to use the word `moon' in its original sense as well, you are committing a fraud upon your listeners -- a fraud which logicians call `persuasive definition'.

"The ordinance asserts at the outset that `Pornography is ... discrimination.' Logicians call this sort of statement a category error. Pornography is a thing; discrimination is is an action. This sort of serious mental confusion is both a cause and consequence of the destruction of our language by those with political axes to grind. As George Orwell puts it, `the English language ... becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.' And, we might add, foolish thoughts lead to even more foolish actions."

There was laughter from the audience, which included a number of lawyers and judges.

In my rebuttal, I noted that the behaviorist approach to law can cut both ways, citing the case of a judge who dismissed a rape charge on the basis that the victim had brought the rape on herself by her provocative manner of dress.

Wendy once again stressed the destruction of women's right to contract, and noted that similar laws in Canada have already been used to ban the feminist film "Not a Love Story," which, to illustrate its evils, is filled with clips of graphic sadomasoch- istic pornography. "I can understand the rage women can feel on this issue," she said, but "one thing which cannot be done is to legally treat women as rapists treat them -- which is to take from them the control of their own bodies."

She also noted the ludicrous vagueness of the ordinance. What is a portrayal of women as "whores by nature"? A picture of a women having sex with money clutched in her hand?

June Dunbar countered this with the remarkable argument that sexual harassment laws are also vague, and yet they remain on the books. Then she cited a story of a woman coerced into pornography by threats against her children (a violation of already existing laws against extortion). She wrapped up with a snappy, "Pornography is bigotry."

The questions after the debate were mostly directed to the proponents. One gentleman noted that his favorite play, the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, clearly fell within the pur- view of this ordinance. Mrs. Rosenstein said anyone wishing to sue would have to prove one of the criteria, such as trafficking, and "Man of La Mancha is a classic that goes way back in time." But production is trafficking. And as Wendy went on to note, if a mainstream magazine like Penthouse could be banned at the border by the Canadian equivalent of this ordinance, then five or ten years down the line, when we've been de-sensitized by this sort of repression, Man of La Mancha could easily be banned.

Another man noted that his father owned a restaurant with a shop which sold Playboy, and that if a woman sued Playboy for having been coerced into pornography, she could also sue his father and every seller of Playboy, though they could not have known of any such coercion. June Dunbar replied that there were women who had been coerced into pornographic movies who were "raped again" every time the movies were shown. Ms. Dunbar also, in response to questioning of their definition of pornography, proudly said, "What you find in the dictionary in no way resem- bles this new definition." Indeed.

The audience clearly thought Wendy and I had won the de- bate. This despite the fact that anti-pornographers generally have the upper hand over free-choicers in terms of public re- spect, and although Dunbar and Rosenstein, unlike MacKinnon, were not hostile or insulting. Rather, the groundwork had not been properly laid for their ideas to appear anything but surreal.


On June 4, the Board of Supervisors held another hearing on the proposed ordinance. Wendy was out of town. When Gary and I arrived, there were feminist opposed to the ordinance than be- fore, though once again we did not know if any of us, who had taken time off from work, would be allowed to testify.

MacKinnon was not present. She was back east, arguing for the Indianapolis ordinance before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The representative from the Women's Commission explained that during their over two-month reprieve, they had decided not to change a word of the ordinance. Thus the two-month delay had done nothing but waste the time of those who had come to testify previously.

Allred and Bogdanovich testified again. Allred could see which way the wind was blowing when one of the conservative supervisors asked her if she thought it would be financially responsible to enact this ordinance when the Indianapolis one had been stricken down.

The opponents were ushered out into the hallway to be sort- ed; only a limited number of us would be allowed to speak. Later, thanks to the assertiveness of Betty Brooks, everyone was allowed to testify, though some had to return in the afternoon to do so.

Ramona Ripston, of the ACLU, noted that the ordinance would not give women rights, but would take rights away -- as well as soaking county taxpayers for an expensive, futile, legal battle. A Jewish woman reminded us of the rise of Nazis in Germany, noting that programs that begin by burning books, end by burning people. Many others gave eloquent testimony as well, but after the Media Superstars finished testifying, the TV crews took their lights and cameras, leaving the action behind.

There were a number of speakers from less well-known groups: the U.S. Prostitutes' Collective, Black Women for Wages for Housework -- the list went on and on, most of the speakers using the forum to address their own concerns, and adding to the circus atmosphere. During the afternoon session, which I missed, there was even testimony from a topless dancer who identified herself only as "Jane." The papers all lapped that one up.

One old codger, who held a position on a county commission, was supposed to be speaking against the ordinance, and rambled on instead about the evils of pornography. He finished by holding up an implement which he announced had been used for greasing the wheels of covered wagons. This fascinated old Kenny Hahn, who had apparently never had his wheel greased in public before, and one of the other supervisors had to tell him, "Mr. Hahn, you can meet with him later."

This was further proof of what I had already discovered: that what you needed to get the supervisors' attention was not brilliant rhetoric. It was props: Twinkies, copies of Hustler decorated with a busty woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty, and so forth. So I brought the prop to end all props.

Though he did not testify himself, Gary was game enough to sit next to me while I testified, the prop having been his brain- storm in the first place.

"The law should protect rights," I explained, "real rights -- the rights to life, liberty, and property. Many others view the function of law as that of enforcing morality. To disguise the taste of this moral Mickey Finn, its promoters have spooned in a series of pseudo-rights -- most recently, the pseudo-right to be free from private discrimination, and the pseudo-right to censor unpopular literature."

As in the debate, I criticized definitions. Then it came time for the prop. "What sort of literature would fall under the ax of this ordinance? Not just `Man of La Mancha' and other classics. I have a book here which is so misogynistic that I have covered it with brown paper, so that I can still smuggle it out in case this ordinance is passed before I leave." There was laughter from the audience, and some of the supervisors. Kenny Hahn was yakking with a clerk at this point -- making a mockery of the pretense that such hearings are indeed anything but a circus -- but now I got his attention.

"l quote from the Book of Judges, Chapter 19, verses 25 and 29: '(T]he man took his concubine, and brought her forth unto them; and they knew her, and abused her all the night until the morning.... And when he was come into his house, he took a knife, and laid hold on his concubine, and divided her, together with her bones, into twelve pieces, and sent her into all the coasts of Israel.' "

Some people were quite shocked that this was in the Bible. "Brian DePalma," I continued, "has never done anything so grisly." As late in the speech as that, I got some laughter.

"What will the ordinance do to the Bible?" I asked. "This" -- I tore several pages out of the book -- "and this" -- I tore out several more -- "and this." I tore out a few extra for good measure. The audience was silent at first, but then began to rumble. When a crowd of movie extras is supposed to provide "crowd noise," they may be told to repeat over and over some irrelevant word, such as "rutabaga." Hundreds of out-of-synch rutabagas provide a pretty impressive simulation of spontaneous crowd noise. I was hearing a lot of rutabagas. They were not happy rutabagas.

However, I forged ahead, attempting to place this rhetori- cal flourish in context. "Supporters of book burning can't see that if you give them a book, they'll take a library. But how will they take this book, you ask? Even if actual damage must be proven -- which it need not be, according to the `trafficking' provision -- the next time some nut blows up an abortion clinic and claims this book as inspiration, any number of women thus injured or intimidated may sue the traffickers in and publishers of this book. I say to proponents of the moral monstrosity of book burning: think twice before supporting this -- the book you burn may be your own."

Hahn was outraged. Face red, jowls a-quiver, he said, "l think what you did was repugnant." I talked over him: "l think what you're doing is repugnant."

"Millions of people revere that book and you're tearing pages out of it...." The weaselly politician was trying to make me out to be the book burner.

"I'm just trying to show what will happen if people like you prevail." Not the most intellectual of answers, but this was Kenny Hahn I was dealing with.

On the way to sit down, I passed Gloria Allred, and I let go of several of the loose pages from the Bible. She scarcely moved, and uttered not a word, perhaps wishing to avoid the attention of the press as the pages fluttered into her lap.

From the tone of the rutabagas, I knew that the stunt had gone over poorly with most of the audience. But unlike last time -- when I had been one of the only two opposition speakers -- I was not ignored by the press. Reporter after reporter came up and said, "What did you say your name was?"

When the testimony of the morning session ended, a woman came up to me and said that she was on the Women's Commission, and that she was glad she wasn't on my side, or she'd have changed sides after what I did, which I thought showed what kind of principles she had. Nevertheless, I had mixed emotions about the whole production. Despite the entertainment value of giving Kenny Hahn apoplexy, hundreds of hostile rutabagas can get you down. I just felt like going home.

Gary and I left quickly, but in the lobby another woman stopped me. But this one told me she was glad I had torn pages from the Bible. And in the parking lot, a third woman actually got out of her car to come over and tell me, "l liked that `repugnant' thing you did." Good, I thought -- always leave 'em laughing.

In the afternoon, the ordinance was voted down, three to two -- the two being the original Bible-bangers, Hahn and Antonovich. In its place, two watered-down ordinances were enacted which would not take effect without action by the state legislature -- action which was not forthcoming. The press coverage was ... interesting. The Times story was "responsible," and did not mention the Bible page-tearing. The Herald was sensationalistic, and mentioned it twice. The Daily News, whose reporter was in the habit of sitting in the press room and merely listening to the proceedings over the intercom, said that the pages had been not only torn out, but also set on fire. What better way to convey the inflammatory nature of my rhetoric?; his report was far truer than prosaic reality.

Shortly afterward, by a vote of 8-4, the City Council rejected a watered-down version of the ordinance. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Women's Alliance Against Pornography succeeded in obtaining a referendum on a Dworkin-MacKinnon-style ordinance. The vote in November, 1985, was 13,031 against vs. 9,419 in favor of the ordinance. MacKinnon, again exhibiting her flair for the surreal, declared, "This vote means the rights of pimps are still more important than those of women." But when 42% of those voting on the issue favor censorship, and when a great many others sympathize with the book burners' ends but disagree for the moment merely with their means, the vote is ominous indeed.

Later, the Seventh District Court of Appeals panel unani- mously upheld Judge Barker's rejection of the Indianapolis ordi- nance as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court later refused to hear an appeal.

Yet it cannot be said that a stake has been driven through the heart of censorship as an ideal of the left. When Edwin Meese decreed a study commission on pornography, who should turn up to testify at the hearings in Chicago but Catharine MacKinnon, dauntlessly singing the same old one-note tune. And, as mentioned above, the voters of Bellingham, Washington, in November, 1988, passed a Dworkin-MacKinnon initiative, which a federal court overturned the following year. As columnist Nat Hentoff put it, "The strategy ... is to keep bringing the ordinance into court until eventually the Supreme Court agrees to give it a full hearing.... So, even if this statute falls in Bellingham ... it will surely rise again in some other town or city. Like Excalibur rising from the lake." More like a faulty sewer backing up, I think, but then Mr. Hentoff writes for a family newspaper.

As the Supreme Court chisels away at Roe v. Wade -- and as the feds bulldoze the Bill of Rights in the name of the drug war -- we are entitled to doubt the longevity of Supreme Court prece- dent. The absurdity of Dworkin's and MacKinnon's claims is no protection against their eventual acceptance. The jokes of yes- terday are the truths of today. As Hume put it, "Fools are indus- trious in propagating the imposture, while the wise and learned are contented, in general, to deride its absurdity, without informing themselves of the particular facts by which it may be distinctly refuted."

"The wise and the learned" certainly have their work cut out for them.

Return to home page