legal 5.06

Stop Me Before I Pop My Top

On stage, the dancers cling to each other in a passionate kiss. The music rises to a climax. The second-act curtain comes down and the ballet patrons file out into the lobby of Civic Auditorium to get an intermission cocktail. They find agents of the Oregon State Liquor Control Commission closing up the bar. The chief agent explains that the combination of lewd activity on stage and the sale of alcohol poses an imminent threat to public order and that alcohol sales are therefore suspended. Police use tear gas to quell the mob as women in furs and men in tuxedos run amok.

Yet another nutso paranoid scenario? I guess the devil will be passing out cold beers in Hell before the OLCC screws with the tuxedo crowd, but out on Northeast Columbia Boulevard there’s a small tavern called the Pop-a-Top, which doesn’t have ballerinas, but does have dancers. One slow evening one dancer slipped another a hot tongue sandwich as part of their act. The OLCC filed a Proposed Final Order, finding this conduct to be a grave and dangerous thing. The owners’ license will be suspended because they permitted “lewd activity” to be conducted on “licensed premises.”

I've been thinking about this for days and I’ll be dipped in tartar sauce if I can figure out a meaningful difference between the two situations, except for the obvious: the bluenoses at the OLCC live for the day they can slap a penalty on a strip club, and would never stop to think about logic, consistency, or fundamental fairness if those things would get in the way of imposing Puritanical punishments on the owners of a business that Proper People don’t approve of.

The case illustrates a deep flaw in our whole approach to boozers and strippers and the connection between the two. The OLCC, and the Legislature which gives it power, believes that dancers walk a fine line: they can be allowed to strip and shake it, but if they act in a way which is too provocative, male customers will... what? Jump up on stage? Riot? Rape and murder the dancers, or maybe the neighbors? (Personally I think they might go home after an evening’s entertainment and give their wives and/or girlfriends a pleasant surprise.) The OLCC’s regulations are based on the principle that sex is a bad, dangerous force which needs to be kept on a short leash. If a dancer’s act might loosen the leash, the tavern has to be punished.

To call this philosophy a mediocre rehash of the silliest beliefs of the Massachusetts colonists is way too polite, but never mind. I want to point out something else about the case. The dancers were strippers, which means that their whole act is supposed to be sexy. Trying to draw a line between “taking your clothes off in a highly provocative manner” and “committing a prohibited lewd act" is an exercise in hairsplitting. Obeying rules like this is a tightrope act that would drive any club owner crazy. And that, I believe, is exactly what the High Sheriffs have in mind. If the OLCC adopts regulations which are mysterious, threatening, and vague at the same time, then (it hopes) club owners and dancers will censor themselves and tone down their acts voluntarily.

Self-censorship is the best kind because no one ever complains and no-one ever files lawsuits. And it’s the coming trend, folks. Is your favorite television show blander than it used to be? Is there a “parents advisory” label on the CD you bought today? Is the Internet newsgroup or World Wide Web site you wanted to look at gone or toned way down since you saw it last? Those things happen, but it isn’t always because the government imposes censorship on artists and writers. They also happen when people censor themselves first.

The real nightmare comes true when controversial communications wither away, unseen and unheard, and speech and art become tame and timid because of quiet government pressure rather than noisy government actions. The government gets its way in the darkness of people’s fears instead of defending its policies in the light of day. That’s bad news and it makes bad law. And it makes the OLCC much more of a threat to public order than any “lewd act” could ever be.

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