Sacramento writer’s book is at the center of a controversy over public funding for the arts
Robert Clark Young has seen some of the worst the world has to offer.
Once, while traveling in Egypt, Young saw a man who had been struck and killed by a truck left to rot all day on a highway because no one dared cross traffic to retrieve the body.
He’s seen young girls in Thailand who were sold into prostitution by their starving families. He’s seen the arrogance of American tourists who walk in those countries as if they were gods by virtue of having hard currency in their pockets.
It’s this poverty, and the cheapness of human life that Young has witnessed on his travels, which informs much of the Sacramento novelist’s writing. And yet nothing prepared Young for what happened after he published his first novel, One of the Guys, in 1999.
The book opens when the main character, a recovering alcoholic named Miles Derry, finds the corpse of a navy chaplain in a peep show booth in the adult bookstore where Derry works. Things take a turn for the worse when, on an impulse, Derry decides to assume the identity of the dead chaplain and report for duty aboard the USS Warren Harding.
Before he knows it, the imposter is swept along on a strange and sinister trip through the Far East and gets a disturbing view of Navy culture and the U.S. military’s involvement in the Asian skin trade.
The book is based on Young’s own experiences as a civilian college instructor on Navy ships that stopped in ports such as Subic Bay in the Philippines and the notorious sex resort of Pattaya Beach in Thailand.
Young intended the book to satirize the Navy. He wanted to condemn the sexual exploitation of Asian women and, to an alarming degree, young girls by members of the U.S. military.
The book was moderately successful, if not exactly an overnight sensation. But much to Young’s dismay, the book became a different sort of lightning rod more than a year after its initial publication. In September of last year, Young found himself caught in the middle of the fight over federal funding of the arts.
You see, in 1996 Young received a $5000 fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council (OAC), which he used to finish the book. The OAC in turn receives a good deal of its funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Art or pornography?
Somehow, the book came to the attention of the American Family Association (AFA), a national Christian conservative group that has crusaded against government funding for the NEA.
The AFA claimed that the book denigrated Christianity and labeled as pornography some of its more graphic passages, including a scene in which Young describes a sex show during which a teenage girl removes a string of razor blades from her vagina for the amusement of sailors and marines in the audience.
In a recent interview with the SN&R, AFA leader Allen Wildmon wouldn’t comment directly about One of the Guys, saying only that “I’m sure any further controversy would help him sell more books. I certainly don’t intend on doing that.”
But last fall, when an increase in NEA funding was before Congress, Wildmon had no problem stirring up controversy. In a Sept. 19 statement titled “NEA Funds Horror Art,” the group called the book “garbage” and urged House Speaker Dennis Hastert to stop a proposed $7 million increase for the agency.
Congress eventually approved the additional funding, but Wildmon said his group would continue to fight NEA funding. That is a fight that could continue this year when the Republican-controlled Congress and White House adopted a new federal budget.
“Here in my office, I’ve got a whole shelf full of hardcore pornography that was paid for by our tax dollars,” explained Wildmon, adding that the AFA is opposed to government funding of any art, but especially, “the small number of people who create extremist art that denigrates people’s religious beliefs.”
Wildmon was cagey about if and when the AFA would make another run at NEA funding, saying only that the issue was “on the back-burner” for now.
Young suspects that it could come up again later this year, and noted that in January the AFA listed cutting off NEA funding as one of six “special projects” that the group is working on. The group may have better luck this year with a Republican White House and a narrowly Republican Congress.
Young was shocked by the controversy his book generated. One of the Guys was no longer a book so much as a political football. He was angered that Wildmon admitted to reading only sections of his book before making him an anti-NEA poster boy.
“It was all out of whack. I didn’t sit down to write a piece of pornography,” he said. “I set out to write a book about institutional abuses,”
To make matters worse, the Ohio Arts Council, which gave Young the $5,000 fellowship, was putting its own spin on the book. The OAC seemed to be trying to distance itself from the book, and insisted that none of the money he received actually came from the NEA.
According to OAC spokeswoman Jami Goldstein, while the council received a $963,000 grant from the NEA in 1996, none of that was earmarked for the Individual Artist Fellowship that Young benefited from.
Furthermore, Goldstein said that the award was given based on a 30-page sample of the book while it was still in progress. It was awarded, she explained, because Young was a promising writer, not because the OAC was necessarily interested in, or knew much about, this particular book.
“We didn’t fund the book. We funded the artist,” Goldstein explained, adding, “I know it seems like splitting hairs. But we would hate for any misunderstanding to interfere with this very successful program.”
Young thinks Goldstein’s argument is a bit disingenuous, and said he felt the OAC had cut him loose when it should have been defending his book: “It’s like saying you can add salt to a bowl of soup and then eat only the portion that hasn’t been salted.”
Young’s initial shock gave way to anger, and then to a resolve to focus more energy on the issue of the military’s role in the trafficking of women and girls.
Young is working on a second, less controversial novel, a mystery based on his experiences in Egypt. But he is also now trying to raise public awareness of the horror that inspired One of the Guys. Billions of U.S. tax dollars, said Young, are going via military personnel to support the sex trade in the Far East, and yet the issue has received scant media attention.
Young suggested the AFA should stop worrying about the taxpayer funding of art and start worrying about taxpayer support of an industry that is both immoral and illegal in the United States and the countries which host U.S. military bases.
“I find it strange that an organization that claims to uphold family values and to oppose the federal funding of obscenity is not protesting the part of the military budget that goes to support pederasty in the Far East,” Young wrote in an Op-Ed for the Washington Post.
His condemnation of military involvement in child prostitution was met by silence from the U.S. Navy. When asked to respond to Young’s allegations, Naval information officer Lt. Jane Alexander replied that “the Navy regards any type of sexual exploitation as morally abhorrent, and any involvement by Navy personnel will not be tolerated.”
That doesn’t impress Carol Smolenski with the organization End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT), a group that is working against child prostitution and has only recently begun to look at the U.S. military’s involvement.
“It’s amazing that the Navy says it doesn’t think it’s a problem,” she said. “Does that mean they don’t think their sailors go to prostitutes. Or that they only go to prostitutes who are over 18?”
Smolenski added that she was skeptical about the Department of Defense’s educational program, which she characterized as “basically a slide show telling troops they shouldn’t have sex with children.”
The Navy’s official denial that there is a problem elicited a similar reaction from former Navy enlisted man Preston Jones.
“It’s a crock,” said Jones, a self-described family values conservative, who has written for conservative publications such as the Weekly Standard and First Things.
Jones served from 1986-90 aboard the now-mothballed aircraft carrier, the USS Ranger, which anchored at many of the same ports described in One of The Guys. He read Young’s book and said the descriptions were “completely accurate.”
“It was really mind boggling. I remember guys bragging about how they had bought themselves 13-, 14-, 15-year-old girls.”
The experience was sobering, and later when Jones became a history instructor at Sonoma State University, he decided to research the roots of the Asian sex trade. He labeled the AFA targetting of Young “the conservative version of political correctness.”
“My conservative credentials are absolutely solid. I’m pro-military, pro-America, and all of that. But if the family values folks—of which I am one—are serious about morality, then they should be concerned about American tax dollars going to fund the sex trade."