Backspace trade wars

March 07, 2004

PUT DOWN those blue pencils and slowly step away, the Treasury Department has told U.S. editors and publishers. Don't change that paragraph, that comma - unless it's one penned by an author from an approved country.

Who are they trying to kid?

Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control has sent letters out warning that copy from Iranian authors cannot be edited without permission from the department because Iran is under a U.S. trade embargo. Other embargoed countries include Cuba, North Korea and Sudan.

It's all right to publish material from those countries; it just can't be edited, on the apparent notion that editing adds commercial value. The issue first came up in relation to scientific journals, which aren't really money-makers. Next to feel the Big Brother hand on their shoulder were fiction and poetry publishers.

The letters already have caused a chill. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is publishing some research reports from Iran in its journals, headed by an editor's note saying it didn't touch the piece, but the editors have rejected many more just because they aren't in proper style. And some book publishers now won't consider publishing Iranian writers, whether they be authors of memoirs or fiction or fact.

Whatever happened to the free flow of ideas? The sharing of science and technology finds? Or next year's PEN Anthology of Contemporary Persian Literature?

While it might be reasonable to limit trade in oil, guns and butter, it reeks of censorship to limit trade in commas, illustrations and page layouts.

Not to mention the 1988 and 1994 laws that bar the government from putting restrictions on informational material from embargoed nations.

Treasury's posture also contradicts Cold Warrior common wisdom, which suggests that printing the works of writers living in oppressive regimes and distributing the works of outside writers to them bring all people closer together and support the downtrodden in their effort to break the chains - and politicians - binding them.

The department should back off the blue-pencil crowd; its trade fight isn't with them.

And editors and publishers should continue to do their jobs, accepting and printing the best submissions no matter their origin. They should shape them to fit their pages, and modify them so they can be clearly understood. They should not have to apply for a non-censorship license for a right they won with the First Amendment.

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