In the common law, the usual way of things is that two or more persons have a disagreement and resort to court proceedings to settle matters. These cases have names like “Plessy vs. Ferguson” or “Romer vs. Evans.” Sometimes one of the “persons” is a state, corporation, or other group collectively, giving us cases like “Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. vs. United States” and “Brown vs. Topeka, Kansas Board of Education.” However, we also have the concept of in rem jurisdiction: the power that the court exercises over property. In the US, state courts have the power to determine legal ownership of any real or personal property within the state’s boundaries, and federal courts may exercise in rem power over large items of immoveable property, or real property, located within the court’s jurisdiction. These cases are named after the property involved, instead of after people.
All of this is to say, there is a real legal case called “A Quantity of Books et al. v. Kansas”.
Let that roll around your head for a minute: not just a lawsuit about books, but a lawsuit against books. It went to the Supreme Court, too. “Quantity Of Books vs. Kansas.” The incident that precipitated the case happened in 1961, and the decision didn’t come down until 1964 - so that’s three full years of lawyers, clerks, and paralegals going around talking about “the Quantity of Books case” until it sounded normal for a “quantity” of books to be party to a lawsuit.
The vagueness of “quantity of books” gets weirder when you compare it to “United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins”, so pleasingly specific despite that picky “Approximately.” As well, people have written extensively citing “United States v. One Book Called Ulysses”. That one also made it to the Supremes; it was a landmark obscenity case. “Marcus v. Search Warrant of Property at 104 East Tenth Street, Kansas City, Missouri” was also a landmark case for the Supreme Court, touching both First and Fourth Amendment protections.
But the shark fins win: most of these case names are flat-out ridiculous. So in the manner of a Cracked article, here’s a list of 10 Real Legal Cases That Sound Absolutely Ridiculous.
- United States vs. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins
I just can’t let go of the shark fins. I’m imagining Clarence Thomas cross-examining a giant pile of shark fins.
- One 1958 Plymouth Sedan vs. Pennsylvania
“Some police officers followed the suspect vehicle, and pulled over the car because it was “riding low.”” I would love to hear Jay-Z name-drop this case in a “99 Problems” sequel.
- Quantity of Books vs. Kansas
I had to mention this again because of one very salient fact: Kansas did not win. In the Bush Years, people made fun of John Ashcroft for losing an election to a dead guy. This is the legal equivalent: you lost a lawsuit against a pile of books. Go to the bar association, apologize for letting them down, and drink yourself into a stupor.
- United States vs. 11¼ Dozen Packages of Articles Labeled in Part Mrs. Moffat’s Shoo-Fly Powders for Drunkenness
Again with the tension between specific and non-specific: eleven and a quarter dozen packages. So, fourteen? Or eleven and a quarter packages, each containing a dozen units? And what in the devil is a “Shoo-Fly Powder”? I would think that you’d have to be drunk before ingesting that, rather than using it to get drunk as the name implies.
- United States vs. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola
The federal government really, really wanted some decaffeinated Coca-Cola. No such luck.
- United States vs. 50 Acres of Land
The weird thing is, the more insane the case names sound, the more relevant they are. This case changed the way that eminent domain works - which is worth knowing about because eminent domain is the government asserting a right to take your land and give you what they think it’s worth. If you live in an urban area like San Francisco, LA, Chicago, or New York, there’s probably an ongoing eminent domain case about property within a mile of you.
- United States vs. $124,700 in U.S. Currency
Similarly, US Versus 125 Grand is a 2006 case that’s part of the War on Drugs. It’s one of the rulings that essentially gave police departments the right (called asset forfeiture) to take, keep, and profit from selling, material seized during drug cases. This is notable because the drug business is an all-cash business, and going after the guys with the money has always been a winning strategy.
- United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses
Apart from the Joyce angle, you should know about this case because it’s part of why porn is legal. It also tempts one to ask “well what about other copies of Ulysses?” Or maybe “Well the book is just called Ulysses, the name on the title page is actually Bobby McCarthy, this is just mistaken identity.”
- Marcus vs. Search Warrant of Property at 104 East Tenth Street, Kansas City, Missouri
All of the previous cases were, essentially, People Vs. Stuff; this one goes meta. From Wikipedia: “An unusual in rem case heard by the Supreme Court where the named object was not the seized property but the warrant under which it was seized. Since all the government agents involved were indisputably acting within the law as it stood, the only way for the petitioner to challenge the constitutionality of the seizure was to name the search warrant itself as defendant.” I have to admire the trolling skills of someone who sees the police come to his warehouse, shove a search warrant in his face, and seize thousands of magazines, only to turn around and sue the search warrant. Forcing someone else to defend a ridiculous position by buying into what seems like an even more ridiculous one is a bold move, and it’s pretty ridiculous to sue a piece of paper.
- R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. vs. The Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel, R.M.S. Titanic
What is there to say about this? Sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but the company is suing its own ship. In 2002, no less, nearly a century after the dang thing sank! The first cases were People Vs. Other People’s Stuff, then with the Marcus case there was People Vs. Other People’s Right To Take Stuff, and finally the pinnacle of absurdity: People Vs. Their Own Stuff. I hope we all know better than to go to court when you feel like your stuff is getting out of control. We have “Hoarders” for that now. At least until United States Vs. 577 Kittens And One 1982 Airstream Trailer.
A blog isn’t about the feelings of the company, but rather a personal look at the writer. You can’t assign a blogger a story and hope the audience doesn’t get the fact that they have no idea what they’re talking about or worse yet, they don’t really care.
Every one of those weird kinks is a shout of human individuality in a world that wants to reduce us down to buying patterns and demographic trends. “I am alive!” they cry. “I am not an emerging new style, I am not a market segment, I am not co-optable, I am not coming soon to a theater near you, I am not approved for all audiences, I am not available in stores, I am damn sure not fun for the whole family and I never will be.”
This is what I hope for in the furry subculture — that it continues to explore itself, that it never becomes safe, that it not be found in bones and rags and dessicated organs chewed up by the Hot Topic strip-mining operation.
So what if there are lots of prats, drama magnets, and schmucks? So what if the diaper-fetishists, the Nazi-uniform kinksters, and the voreaphiles disgust you? So what if we’re represented by the goddamn CSI episode, by guests on My Strange Addiction, by a clumsy young couple showing off their fursuits to a predatory talk-show host? By my lights, being radioactive to mainstream culture is perhaps the best thing we can be: it basically eliminates the risk of being chewed up and shat out by capitalism, left on the slag heap with the rest of yesterday’s fashions, picked over by carrion-eater fashionistas, and eventually recycled to be chewed up and shat out all over again.
You will not see a fursuit-wearing representative of Anthrocon shaking hands with the president. You will not see a candidate for the State Senate hitting up the local furmeet for endorsement. You will not see the Rotary Club making overtures to become the featured charity of a convention.
This is a Good Thing.
It’s important, at this point, that you understand where I’m coming from. Obscurity is not virtuous, it’s just an attribute, and I am not exalting it here. Let’s take a quick look at history: while the punks, goths, and ska kids all survived their encounters with Moloch, in every case the national exposure, media attention, and flock of commercial vultures attempting to cash in, are regarded as a community trauma, and there is a rock-solid consensus in the modern community that being regarded as passé, old, and non-newsworthy, is far better than being the Hot New Thing. I will bet you dollars to dinars that if we come back to dubstep in 2020, it will be (insh’allah and the creek don’t rise) quietly puttering along in a similar way, with a small and amiable community able to with wry humor express some bitterness about going through the wood-chipper of pop culture. My favorite example of this is the shirts you can find that say “Ska Isn’t Dead, It Just Sucks Now.”
At the risk of going all Hork & Dorno on you, pop culture is not your friend. Pop culture molds other things to fit its own needs, roughly sandpapering down edges, spikes, and cracks. Journalism is part of this process: journalism has an agenda, and that agenda is generally not compatible with “portray your group the way that the group perceives itself.” Politics is part of this process: politics definitely has an agenda, and if you’re not helping someone get elected by throwing lots of cash their way, you’re on their list of potential scapegoats for anything that troubles them. Movies and books are part of this process: part of what popular media does, is to tell and show people what’s acceptable, to define normalcy.
The good news is that these things can change, and do, and are changing. However, that change is a fickle emergent property of society as a whole, and certainly not to be counted on if you want your particular kink to be included in the definition of “normal” in time for Thanksgiving dinner with the family this year. The configuration of culture and power that we have now, is not the only possible one - which is great because improvement is possible, but on the other hand, it is still the one that we have now, and so we should work with what we have right now.
What we have right now is a predatory system of monetizing culture and care and creativity: that is my biggest objection. That’s the whole reason that we have this concept of “selling out” - because the system is predatory. If a punk rocker could transmute their Artistic Vision directly into talent times practice times audience receptivity equals money, the concept of “selling out” wouldn’t be so relevant because the creator could ask the world to directly judge their work. But the process is not direct: the music has to be recorded, distributed, and listened to - that last step being especially important. No-one who is unaware of your work can judge it. Bringing the work to their attention is required for them to judge it, and the infrastructure of doing so, is enormous. It’s really gobsmackingly huge, and like anything large and complicated made up of lots of humans, it’s become self-sustaining and self-interested.
Without even getting into the matter of “institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution,” we are confronted with the fact that the infrastructure of business understands all cultural inputs as numbers on one end of an equation, and on the other end, Profit. Profit is the game: making that number go up is the entire point of the corporate mind. Cultural and creative inputs are not judged for themselves: they are judged for their ability to make that number go up. The entity of the corporation itself, the infrastructure, the huge collections of humans that compose institutions about, for, and around, our culture, trends towards erasing individual judgments and replacing them with an average judgment. So our theoretical punk rocker’s work is presented - and judged on its ability to affect Profit. Sometimes the work is pulled in one and and pushed out the other with just a few little nicks on it. Sometimes it is put through the presses and the molds and the blades, taking on a new form before being pushed out.
Sometimes it is rejected.
The point is that cultural inputs to the commercial system become commercial objects. As commercial objects, they are presented to the vast menagerie of commercial actors who take commercial objects - could be anything! - and plug them into various profit-making machines that do not care what their input is. All cultural input is more or less homogeneous to them: they follow a formula, turn a crank, and produce iteration after iteration of shelf-fillers, t-shirts and coffee mugs and mouse pads, copying a million aspects of the form of that cultural input without the least bit of care for substance. This is the selling-out - that the differences between one input and another are brutally minimized, ground away, sandpapered out, leaving just what can be copied and sold.
That is a state that I wish on nobody’s fandom.
To repeat, though - fandoms and subcultures and affinities survive this sort of thing all of the time. Commercial culture is ravenous, and will gobble up everything it possibly can, this is taken for granted. I say, though, that if your subculture is, like furry, radioactive and indigestible to the Midgardsorm of commercial culture, then you should make the most of that. It has advantages: grab hold of them, get to know them, and, to use commercial culture’s language,leverage the fuck out of them.
It may inconvenience you that your tastes are not shared by the cultural mainstream. That’s fine. Find people who share them and enjoy that: create together, explore together, argue about The Thing We Do, dissect it, deconstruct it, love it earnestly. If you need the love of Moloch the commercializer to validate your love of whatever your fandom is about, then you are in a dangerous position. Moloch loves no-one. Loving something unmarketable, something disgusting, radioactive, and bizarre, is troublesome - but it offers safety from Moloch, and to me, that is all by itself a reason to consider loving something.
Socrates said, “The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.” He wasn’t talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth.
A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.
Ursula le Guin, “A Few Words To A Young Writer”