Censorship is an ongoing topic of debate affecting all forms of the media, and it has a lengthy, colorful history. Author Jay A. Gertzman‘s book, Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist, profiles a figurehead of censorship controversy during the height of modernism in America. Here, Gertzman provides his personal take on censorship and the issues surrounding it today.
The Censorship is Never Over
by Jay A. Gertzman
“Everything goes now—on cable TV, the Internet, in R or X-rated movies.”
It’s not quite true. One of the mysteries of the taboos—and the censorship that embodies them—is that they are like Proteus. They change form so often that wrestling with them is like that inert tar baby that trapped Brer Rabbit. The more vulnerable some creatures seem, the more you are stuck with them.
Restrictions on expressive speech, desire, and forms of conduct are essential to any social unit’s cohesion. It’s as if a politician or clergyman, and often, a lawmaker, is obsessed with making sure that subversive thoughts are linked in the imagination of the “sinner” with shame, and a need for keeping those thoughts to oneself. A culture cannot repress what is common to all humans. But it can make most people “control themselves,” even if their environment is saturated with sexual and violent words and pictures, which induce fear as well as prurient gazing. Look, but don’t touch, as much as you want, or you will get noticed. It takes an unusual person to ignore a reputation as “dirty minded,” a “freak,” “slacker,” “pig,” “sissy,” “skank,” “druggie,” “hippie,” “queer,” or “jerk off.”
Funny how respectable, established leaders never use these terms. Yet they are everywhere, loading loaners with guilt, resentment, or fear. As speech codes get more lax, these words are used more publically. The censorship is a knife that cuts both ways: less law can be more repression. As a great social observer once said, “People carry the censor around with them in their heads.” Adults are restrained from exposure to whatever is indecent by the informal censorship of “proper” speech codes, movie ratings, distribution of films to multiplexes, selection of network and cable programs based on time period, and “family viewing” criteria.
The worst part is that there is a common borderline between exploring the forbidden and creativity. Transgressors include Susan Sontag, Tony Kushner, Bob Dylan, Djuna Barnes, Langston Hughes, D. H. Lawrence, and Tupak Shakur. In the mainstream media, there are many hip, with-it posers whose watchword is (as Luc Sante observed) “be different, like everyone else.” But for general consumption there are no role models who have authentically subversive inclinations. Whenever that kind of thinker gets attention, the guardians of the moral consensus drop a curtain around the life-affirming, harsh sun he/she has produced, and replace it with a harmless, meretricious counterfeit. Less law but more repression. A strong example is the expurgations of and sequels to Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Within a few years of its 1928 first edition, there were Lady Chatterley’s Friends, Lady Chatterley’s Husbands (“will ever widen the circle of her admirers”) , and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, A Dramatization (a snoozer for your bedside).
These insults to a prophetic novelist were published by the man whose biography I have just written: Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist.
But Roth’s business was not just escapism. He fought with the Post Office for 15 years because it would not mail out his “indecent” books. The ultimate downshot for him was five years in federal prison. He advertised the same way film and night club entrepreneurs did, basing his business on prurient interest. Many of his books were by controversial writers whose subjects were infidelity, atheism, transvestitism, sexual compulsions, and prostitution. There were also booklets of nudes, which were available in book shops and newsstands (no full-frontal exposure). During his long career he had published books criticizing the powerful: a sitting President; the premier gossip columnist and friend of J Edgar Hoover, Walter Winchell; The Duke and Duchess of Windsor (which the British Board of Trade asked him to withdraw). All this, and the frustration of the postal inspectors, led to his conviction.
Of course, the prosecutors’ case was not made on the grounds of attacking the powerful. It focused on Roth’s books as encouraging juvenile delinquency and, beyond that, of destroying the innocence of America’s youth (even though the books were too expensive for them to purchase). “I can assure you,” said the government lawyer, that if you acquit him, “the sewers will open.” He was referring to one Beardsley illustration which included a child-angel with his penis showing. U.S. v. Roth, throughout which phrases such as “terrible connotations,” “filth,” and “we know who buys that” echoed, was based on maintaining family structure. “Where my son is concerned,” said one witness, “I am one mother out of [among] a million” who feel Roth’s books should be banned.
Parents, like postal inspectors, judges, clergy, and politicians, believe they should and can control young people’s reading habits. Judges and lawyers get to define “indecent,” “obscene,” and “lascivious.” Those without credentials and status, especially the underage, must not defy parents, be allowed to get “impure” materials, and imitate “dirty minded” rebels. Paternalism is obviously a form of censorship, and it works both by law and social engineering. As a useful by-product, it, now and in the 1950s, allows deep causes of unrest to remain unexplored. In Roth’s time, these included fear of the Reds, the bomb, the loss of one’s job as factories moved to the suburbs, blight and crime in the cities, alcoholism and divorce. He was given the role of scapegoat: an artist and publisher who seduces the innocent. This deleting of reality is guilt-induced bad faith.
Paternalism is more powerful than ever. Some of the best young adult novels of the last five years have been removed from school libraries: Persepolis (“graphic images of torture” and “obscene language”; The Hunger Games (“disturbingly violent,” “anti-ethnic, anti-family, and occult/satanic”) ; TTYL; TTFN; L8R; G8R (in which teens use scatology and experiment with sex and drugs); The Color of Earth (a coming-of-age graphic novel in which a Korean mother and daughter engage in “anti-social” and “indecent” behavior . . . unsuitable for age group”); Bridge to Terebithia (two pre-teens retreat from the contentious worlds of their parents and create their own Earth with its own non Judeo-Christian gods). The latter novel, and in fact all of the above, were scored because of “language and subject matter that set bad examples and give students negative views of life.” Paternalism, with the same language that sunk Roth.
Bad faith, so often a cause of censorship, seems to be law and custom. Last year, we had an egregious example in the Chicago Board of Education’s statement regarding their banning of Persepolis: due to students’ “lack of intellectual skills for taking full advantage of the marketplace of ideas . . . guidance from those better equipped” is in order. Set during the Iraq-Iran war, the graphic novel tells of the suffering of an Iranian family experiencing bombing, government-employed mercenaries, prejudice against Arabs, and the resultant breakup of the family unit– events students might, despite their presumed “lack of intellectual skills,” compare to what has happened in the Middle East since our own decade-old “war of choice” there. Paternalism. And bad faith.