More on Censorship
I’m planning to write a lengthy (sorry, I only do lengthy) response to some of the negative messages we’re getting, but I feel like I have to step in here to address this ‘mercenary’ theory that really shouldn’t be part of the debate.
Here’s the thing. I was a lawyer who went to a good law school, worked for a federal appeals court judge, and did time in a law firm in Washington D.C. I bring this up for two reasons. First, I’m hoping you’ll see that if I were simply ‘in it for the money,’ I would have continued to be a lawyer. I certainly wouldn’t have gone into the beer business. Second, I need to point out that, because of my background, I care deeply about our First Amendment, and I am very sensitive to the little ways in which it’s being attacked at different levels of government That’s what this lawsuit is about. Obviously I was aware that there would be publicity over the suit, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think it would help us a bit to get our name out in the market. (On the other hand, I’m not sure how much good this does us; we want to be known as importers of great beers, and that’s not what people are talking about now, is it?) But for us, this is entirely about the larger principles involved, and that’s what we want people who write to us on this blog to talk about. Your speculation about how we might benefit from all this financially is cheap, demeaning, and completely irrelevant. Furthermore, I have to tell you that you don’t know much about what’s really going on.
We thought up the idea for Santa’s Butt three years ago, and we’ve been selling the beer in most of the 50 states without any problem whatsoever. This fall marks the very first time that we’ve sold beer in Maine. To sell beer in Maine, and in most of the states, we have to submit the labels for any beer we want to sell for approval by state authorities. We didn’t know about Maine’s silly regulation prohibiting ‘undignified and improper’ illustrations on beer labels, and we never calculated that this label would fall afoul of any regulations in Maine. We just wanted to sell the beer. We didn’t create this grave crisis. The Maine authorities did. If they look silly to most people around the country, that’s not our fault, and it’s not our intention.
We’re suing now not so much to allow us to sell Santa’s Butt in Maine (thanks to this ban, which is still in place, it’s gotten rather too late in the season for that, hasn’t it?) but primarily to challenge this patently unconstitutional, unfair, and unworkable regulation concerning dignity and propriety on beer labels, and get it invalidated by a court, so that nobody ever has to contend with it again. The papers want to make a big deal out of Santa’s Butt because, obviously, the vision of state regulators busying themselves with this crusade to shield the poor people of Maine from this completely harmless image of Santa Claus gets a big laugh. (Who could be scandalized by something like Santa’s Butt in this day and age? How could such a person function in the outside world?) But our goal in the suit is to get that regulation knocked out, and that’s really about all there is to it for us. The Santa’s Butt thing is just plain silly, but the underlying issue is a very serious one that’s at the core of our American ideas of freedom and liberty. Keep in mind that Maine could simply approve this label, as almost everyone who’s written to us, including you, thinks they should, and all this publicity would go away instantly. If they had just approved it in the first place, as they should have, there would never have been any publicity.
I want to note, for the record, that we never even issued a press release about this case. The Maine Civil Liberties Union did, and now we’re battling to deal with all the calls and messages, requests for interviews, etc., just when we’d like to be winding down our Christmas season here at Shelton Brothers.
For your information, we weren’t sitting around three years ago trying to come up with the most outrageous, most offensive image we could think of in order to have it banned by the authorities, thereby making the beer an underground cult classic and a million-dollar enterprise in itself. What a terrific idea! It never occurred to us. We were thinking about Christmas, and we were thinking about the original name for Porter, which was ‘Entire Butt.’ (Please check out this online History of Porter, if you will. As has been well-documented in the news, the name Santa’s Butt is a small pun on the English word for a beer barrel — ‘butt’ — that is also part of the original name for Porter. It’s a pun meant for people who know something about beer, which is our clientele, normally. We sell a Porter called Entire Butt that no one has ever complained about — though there has been a little giggling from some of our less mature distributors.
You ought to know also that Saint Nicholas, who eventually morphed into the entirely secular figure of Santa Claus, was the patron saint of, among others, brewers and coopers — or, as I like to call them, butt-makers. The point: the reference to butts is not gratuitous, as you and a handful of right-wing Christian wingnuts who’ve written to us privately seem to think. Anyone who’s upset because we’re demeaning a saintly, religious figure should do a little research on the saints. Saint Nicholas loved a beer, and that beer in Santa Claus’s hand on the Santa’s Butt label belongs there.
To be honest, when the idea for Santa’s Butt popped out, some of us thought it was kinda funny, and some of us thought it was only mildy funny, and a little tacky. The English brewer, who surely knows more about butts (barrels, I mean) than the rest of us, thought it was hilarious, and we gave him the deciding vote. No one thought for a second that the idea was offensive in any way, and that it might be banned by some misguided state government official. Here’s something else that you probably don’t know: Before we can even bring a beer into the country, the label must be approved by the federal government. They will ban something that’s ‘obscene’ under normal First Amendment guidelines. They didn’t hesitate to approve this label, and that should have been the end of the matter. It is our opinion that the various states should not be independently reviewing labels that have already been approved by the federal government for the propriety of the words and images appearing on them. That, I can’t emphasize enough, is the purpose of this case. To repeat: We are not suing in order to stimulate sales of this beer. We are suing to get the state governments out of the business of banning beer labels for vague, undefined, and constitutionally unacceptable reasons. And we’re trying to make the point that it’s completely pointless and unworkable to subject labels that have been approved by the Feds to further review in 50 states, each using its own different, and often highly questionable, sets of standards.
I find it amusing but strange that you accuse us of coming up with this crafty and intriguing name, Santa’s Butt, just to call attention to the beer, and induce people to buy it. To that, I say, ‘Duh!’ It seems not to have occurred to you that this is the very point of any beer label: to make people want to buy the beer. That’s why beer doesn’t come in a plain brown paper wrapper with a generic name like ‘Porter’ stamped on the outside. If you look on the shelves, you’ll see lots of labels that vie for attention using edginess or shock value. That’s fine, but we’re not even doing that. This label just isn’t edgy and shocking — it’s merely amusing. The artist who did the label went straight down the traditional path with this Santa, and I think the result is quite tasteful, traditional, and, well, comforting. Seems to me that the problem for Maine is the name of the beer, but anyone who objects to that word ‘butt’ at this point in our cultural history is just out of touch and sad. Jeezes, I just read a story in the New Yorker about new children’s books on the market, and learned that there are some great works out there just in time for Christmas about peeing and farting. That doesn’t bother me. Does it bother everyone else? Most three year olds have heard the word ‘butt’ already. It’s true! We have to deal with reality here.
In my opinion, your focus on the publicity and the money we’re presumably raking in is not only entirely beside the point, but small-minded, and indicates to me that you’re not going to be so quick to see the big picture that I’ve laid out for you. But if you do think about it, I hope you’ll do us the courtesy of providing a little apology for questioning our sincerity about the issues involved here.
I think Santa’s Butt is a little bit funny, and I think it should be allowed to sit on store shelves in Maine. Most of all, I feel passionate about the First Amendment, and I am proud as hell that I’m doing something to defend it, and to get an offensive, troubling state regulation off the books. If you think I’m just making that up to mask my real interests here, then you don’t know who I am. And if you don’t know who I am, you have no business questioning my motives and impugning my character in the first place.
Why do we even tolerate this on our own website? Well, we believe absolutely in freedom of speech.
I’m not holding my breath waiting for that apology, but I would sure appreciate if you could find it in yourself to rethink all of this. With freedom of speech comes the duty to consider at least for a moment what you’re going to say.
- November 18th, 2006
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