The American Bystander was designed with all the usual pitfalls in mind: we avoid advertiser pressure by going direct to readers; we avoid mobbed-up newsstands with a book model rather than a magazine one; we avoid lowest-common-denominator material by inviting only the top people to contribute.
All that has worked beautifully. But there was one thing we couldn't predict: the election of Donald Trump.
Besides darkening the national mood immeasurably, Trump also makes it nearly impossible for us to use social media to sell subscriptions — but we'll crack that nut eventually. Now his anti-press animus has created another hurdle for us to jump: worried printers.
* * *
Last week, I called a printer in the suburbs of Chicago to get an estimate on printing the magazine. As some of you know, for the past three years we've been printed by a big outfit in Tennessee, but since the beginning of 2017, they've been acting strangely — jacking up our price, taking forever to print jobs, and in general acting like they didn't want my business — which is weird, because I've worked with them since 2003 and given them at least $50,000 in work.
But whatever. Relationships change. So I called a new printer, recommended by a colleague, to get a quote. I'd sent him a copy of one of our issues to see if he could match what we're doing.
When the guy picked up, he was as nice as pie. "I gotta tell you," he said, "this magazine looks great. Really funny, too."
"Thanks," I said. "We have some wonderful folks. New Yorker, SNL, Simpsons people."
"I saw that," he said. "Unfortunately, we can't print it."
"Why not? Is it the format?"
"No, our presses can do it, it's just — well, this is a family-owned business, and the family, they're really Christian, and... I don't think they'd approve."
I was really surprised. You guys know what we print: hardly controversial stuff, especially to anybody who's ever read R. Crumb or The National Lampoon — or, for that matter, browsed the internet for fifteen minutes. "Wow, [name hidden to preserve the innocent]. That is the first time anyone's ever said that. Was there anything in particular in issue #5 that — "
"No, no, it was nothing in particular," he said, audibly squirming. This wasn't any more fun for him than it was for me. "It's just...We have high school kids working here — I mean, I would print it. I thought it was great. It's just that the owners — if they found out, it would be my job." He paused, feeling lame. "The kids — "
He seemed like a good guy, so I put him out of his misery. I said I understood, and ended the call.
I remember the first printer I ever met, a fellow named Roland Hoover at Yale University Press. There was a sign in Roland's office, a beautifully typeset Benjamin Franklin quote: "If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed."
These were my type of people.
Through Roland I met other printers, and generally fell in with the letterpress/printing cult that existed at Yale at the time. At The Yale Herald newspaper and then The Yale Record humor magazine I met other printers, at presses throughout Connecticut.
I loved these guys. Some were intellectual, some were not; some were deeply embedded in Yale, others were third-generation Sicilian-Americans like me. But all of them shared one thing: they were clear about the role of printing in our history, and fiercely, fiercely protective of a free press in America. The idea that any of them would've turned down a job because it didn't fit with their religion was preposterous. They were printers, and as such, committed to the spread of ideas.
Perhaps more than any other common characteristic, Trump and Trumpists fear ideas. They couch this fear in a million ways — they hide behind propriety, they hide behind "what about the children?", they complain about libel and slander, they squawk that their religious freedom is being infringed upon. But the bottom line is, whether it's global warming data or a cartoon that shows a naked bottom, they believe that the proper response to an idea that makes you uncomfortable is to ignore it. Suppress it. Deny it.
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of history can tell you that this strategy is 1) impossible and 2) never ends well for anybody. But then again, that's easily solved: don't learn any history.
But printers? Now printers fear ideas? I've stewed about that phone call for a week now. It worries me.
* * *
Why am I telling you all this? Because this, my dear Bystanderisti, is how censorship starts — and your support is the only thing that will stop it dead. You might think that $20 a few times a year isn't that important, but believe me, it is.
Censorship never begins with overt laws. It begins with a fleeting thought that maybe saying or printing or even thinking a certain thing might cost you a little money. Why rock the boat? Let someone else do it. Once that reflex is in place, it gets stronger and stronger. The zone of safety — of acceptable thoughts — gets smaller and smaller.
I am a happy person who likes to make people laugh. I don't seek conflict, and frankly the idea of America having to fight this fight YET AGAIN bums me out. But these are the times we've been given, and as the editor of Bystander I am obliged to push back — not just for us now, but for others later.
Your subscription — in whatever amount — is what makes this fight worth fighting. Thank you. I'll be in touch soon, letting you know when you can expect your printed #8. #9 is half-done and will come soon after that. Until then, I'll save you a spot on the battlements, right next to Benjamin "Fart Proudly" Franklin.
(Or maybe a few spots down from him, if you prefer.)