SMITE SMUT, THEY SAY
By Jose F. Lacaba
Probable the cutest development on the protest scene since Lady Godiva rode through the empty streets of Coventry--to express her opposition to a particularly burdensome tax--was the recent demo against pornography. About 1,000 students and young professionals, according to the reports, took to the streets with placards on which were scrawled such inscriptions as "Help
Our Cause: Stop Buying Smutty Comics!" and "Is Decency Dead?"
Do your own thing, as the hippies like to say, and of course the young vigilantes, a clean-cut crowd, judging from the photographs, are well within their constitutional rights to go out there and denounce the abomination that offends their sensibilities. It's a free country. But though I grant them nobility of intentions and all that, I can't help but have misgivings about this crusade of theirs.
What particularly bothers me about it is that it seems like a manifestation of rank discrimination. For what is the specific target of this decency crusade? Those little magazines capitalizing on sex, locally produced, that have recently swamped Manila's sidewalks and stalls. They're cheap, costing from 35 to 40 centavos, therefore easily accessible; and they're known by such flip and vulgar titles as Pogi, Dyagan, Toro, Barako, Pil-Yeah, and what have you--they're proliferating so fast I can't keep track of them all. Their pages are replete with pictures of burlesque dancers and movie starlets in scanty costumes and provocative poses, comic-strip serials dealing with such taboo topics as impotence and venereal diseases, Tiktik-type crime stories, instructional articles on subjects such as masturbation, and cartoons this shade of green. Without exception these magazines are, no question about it, trash.
Pogi was the first of these magazines to appear, and when a friend of mine showed me its maiden issue, my initial reaction was to call it the poor man's Playboy. It lacked Playboy's gloss and sophistication but shared the same crusading zeal about the beauty of sex and the necessity of having a healthy attitude toward it. The very title of Pogi was evidently inspired by Playboy's.
That first issue I found amusing; the whole thing was low camp; and its humor was very very low (example; "I like my cigarettes king-size. Of course, I like my men the same way"). The latest issues of Pogi I've seen are toned down, have fewer cheesecake photos, and now for real vulgar humor you'll have to go to its imitators. To anybody's maiden aunt, I guess, Dyagan is the devil incarnate.
Now what I mean when I speak of discrimination is this: Playboy and its many variants have been around for I don't know how long, and though the post office has made a few confiscations nobody has ever marched against those American publications, nobody waved a placard asking "Is Decency Dead?" It's no use arguing that Playboy has been an intellectual magazine for quite some time, publishing interviews with Sartre and Fellini and Gore Vidal, and thoughtful dissertations on the Vietnam war and the American political conventions. That is not the point. The point is that Playboy puts out big glossy color photographs of naked women--Mr. Hugh Hefner himself will be the first to admit that it isn't Sartre but the Playmate of the Month that sells his magazine--while Pogi can only afford badly printed black-and-white photos of women who are at least partially covered by bikinis. Toro can only afford pirated photos from American magazines; and yet nobody but nobody has staged a 1,000-man demo against the American publication and others of its kind.
Is that a sign of a colonial mentality? Maybe not. The chief objection to Pogi and its relatives seems to be that they are cheap, in both senses of the term, but specifically in the sense that they are inexpensive. This is where discrimination comes in. Anybody with more than five pesos is free to go into a thoroughly respectable bookshop and get a copy of Playboy, but the jeepney driver with 40 centavos to spare can't go down the sidewalk to pick up Pogi without a horde of comstockians jumping on his neck.
I'm not being entirely facetious. The poor in this country are oppressed enough, and yet we won't even allow them the pleasure of indulging their little vices. "The law, in its majestic equality," in the words of Anatole France," forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." In this country, it forbids the rich as well as the poor to smoke in jeepneys and on buses. Of course, they can smoke in taxis and cars; if some poor bastard really wants to smoke his stick of Matamis that badly, he should get himself an air-conditioned Mercedes.
The double standard for the vices of the rich and the poor obtain in many areas. With the possible exception of the blackshirts of Cadiz, cops are usually loathe to accost a Mafia type with a hip that displays the bulge of what may be an unlicensed automatic; but they'll promptly pick up for questioning a gangly teenager from whose trousers pockets the sharpened handle of a comb sticks out. The cigar-smoking congressman can play roulette behind the massive steel doors of a casino on the boulevard, but the washerwoman who has left her baby with the next-door neighbor to play sakla at the corner isn't so sure that her favorite hangout won't be raided by the mayor himself. And who doesn't remember that salesgirl who got sentenced to how many years in jail for snitching a few pesos? The crooks in the government can put away in Swiss banks millions of dollars in kickbacks and still go on to higher positions and larger kickbacks.
If the neo-puritans really want to strike at the root of the immorality in this country, the place to look for it is not in the pages of the poor man's Playboy, nor in those of the real Playboy. If they want to restore decency to our society, they should go to where the real indecencies in our midst are. True smut is not in the photographs of nudes, but in the reality of social injustice, in the oppression and exploitation of man by man, in the degrading poverty that afflicts more than 90 percent of our population, the poverty that leads to crime and revolution.
Even in literature and the arts, decency and obscenity and pornography are relative and subjective terms. "What is pornography to one man is the laughter of genius to another," wrote D.H. Lawrence. And though it is patently absurd to mention the word genius in connection with a comic strip in Pogi, still it is necessary to come to the defense of that silly comic strip, because the unmistakable characteristic of the vigilante is that he cannot distinguish between what's good and what's bad, he cannot tell a D.H. Lawrence from a Mickey Spillane, a Roger Vadim from a fifth-rate maker of blue movies; and to allow him to suppress Pogi is to give him the power to ban from the mails a magazine carrying a reproduction of the Maja Desnuda. [P.S. 2009: I forgot to mention Botticelli's Birth of Venus. Subscription copies of the Free Press were confiscated in the mails when it used the Botticelli painting to illustrate an editorial.] The mind of the vigilante, however pure of heart he may be, is the middle-class mind that would kill what it cannot comprehend; it cannot understand what the benighted stevedore's son finds in dirty comic books, it cannot understand what the college intellectual sees in James Joyce's Ulysses; and being unable to recognize this hierarchy of taste, appalled by the taste of the proletariat below him and bewildered by the taste of the cognoscenti above him, he demands that everything be on his level, he would impose his taste by banning the taste of those above and below. He cannot stand the crap manufactured by those he considers his inferiors, nor the art that emanates from those whose superiority he is dimly aware of and unconsciously resents.
That is why we end up with paradox--that the crap must be allowed to exist if the art is to be preserved.
The question of literary pornography is certainly a bothersome one, especially to parents who have the moral health of their children to worry about, but I tend to agree with Bertrand Russell that "frank pornography would do less harm if it were open and unashamed than it does when it is rendered interesting by secrecy and stealth." The present campaign against smutty comics will only lead them underground, and make them doubly attractive, the way sex itself becomes more fascinating when it is invested with the dark mysteries of taboo. The taboo may succeed in becoming a law, but the law will only enhance the desirability of what's forbidden. Russell again: "Nine-tenths of the appeal of pornography is due to the indecent feelings concerning sex which moralists inculcate in the young; the other tenth is physiological, and will occur in one way or another whatever the state of the law may be."
That the attraction of pornography diminishes the moment it ceases to be forbidden is shown by the experience of Denmark. Two years ago the Danish Parliament abolished all censorship of anything written. The result? Bookshops and newsstands were suddenly swamped by a deluge of new pornographic books (one publishing house came out with a "Porno Series"), books so explicit and detailed in their descriptions of sexual practices as to make Mrs. Grundy turn in her grave and never stop turning. But did the expected buyers come running to the stores? That they did not. In fact, buyers grew fewer. "Four to six months before the law was changed," griped one publisher, "you would distribute 20,000 to 25,000 copies of a new pornographic title. Now only about half of that number are printed, and a third of them come back. I suppose we only print for onanists, and that's not youth, but mostly people from 45 to 65." Said another publisher: "There really is a very poor market in Denmark for erotic literature, now that it is no longer forbidden fruit." The government found the results of its experiment so encouraging it decided to abolish all censorship of movies and pictures.
All the fuss about the smut on Manila's sidewalks is really a case of making a mountain out of a molehill. It's reminiscent of the earlier hullabaloo that attended the advent hereabouts of the miniskirt. While the professional moralists go about measuring skirt lengths, and confiscating the dirty little magazines and arresting publishers, they do not see--or refuse to see--the real mountain before them, the true immorality. It is all around us, and it is what makes this country sick.
You want examples of true immorality, the pornography of reality? There is the politician throwing the people's money to the winds to win an election. There is the law enforcer concocting a tale of assassination or of gunbattle to cover up a cold-blooded murder. There is the newsman playing poker in his hotel in the capital and waiting for the press handouts from the candidates in the boondocks. There is the cleric who enthusiastically holds folk masses in his church and is not even aware that many of his parishioners hardly survive on rice and salt. There is the school administrator who charges exorbitant tuition fees but will not buy an extra book for the library or add an extra peso to the teacher's salary. There is the hacendero who puts up a so-called amelioration fund for his workers but will pay only one-third of the minimum wage due them.
Do the young want a crusade to take up, a cause to champion? Let me give them one.
There is this guy in Cadiz City in Negros: Reynaldo Mallari. He is accused of murder, and he is in jail. Perhaps he is guilty and deserves to be there, and then again he may be completely innocent. But he has not been tried yet, he has not been convicted, and therefore according to our laws he is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The terrible thing is that he is already being meted out a punishment that can only be described as medieval and inhuman: he has been placed in a dungeon, a cell below the ground, and this dungeon is dank, dreary, mosquito-ridden, and only about five feet high. Reynaldo Mallari is about five-feet-seven. There is no way he can stretch his legs. All day long he sits on the steps of his dungeon, staring into the void, his hands on his lap, securely manacled; in the beginning those hands were bound behind his back. At night he crawls down to a damp floor covered only by newspapers, to get what little sleep the mosquitoes will allow him to have; he cannot slap them without somehow bruising his handcuffed wrists.
This is the real obscenity.
There are many others in this country, not necessarily behind bars, who have been or are being given worse treatment than Reynaldo Mallari, who have suffered or are suffering worse travails than Reynaldo Mallari. But this is one case known to us, and it is one case you can do something about. Write to your congressmen and to newspaper editors, go out into the streets and demonstrate--do something to get him out of that dungeon, to get him the treatment that a human being deserves.
The dungeon he's in is the pornography that deserves to be condemned. What are miniskirts and Pogi magazine compared to the immorality of a society that permits such dungeons? It is the same dirty society that perpetuates the blight of poverty, the poverty that corrupts and degrades and kills.