The problem is really simple. You either close down a house of prostitution or you leave it open. You can’t satisfy both those who want it open and those who want it closed. - Fredric Wertham
Banned Books Week is usually the last week of September, but for some reason I’ve been unable to ascertain it is being held in the first week of October this year; it thus started yesterday and ends this coming Saturday. And though, as I said in last year’s column on the subject, “I’m usually pretty skeptical of ‘Official Whatchamacallit Week’ type things…I find the idea of a week specifically dedicated to reading books which busybodies want to stop people from reading to be irresistibly subversive.” Last year I specifically discussed book-banning and listed the most-challenged books of 2010; four of them (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Brave New World, The Hunger Games series and What My Mother Doesn’t Know) were back on 2011’s list, where they were joined by the Internet Girls series by Lauren Myracle, The Story of Life on the Golden Fields series by Kim Dong Hwa, My Mom’s Having a Baby by Dori Hillestad Butler, the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, the Gossip Girl series by Cecily Von Ziegesar and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. But this year, I’d rather talk briefly about the defective mind of the would-be censor, and how we as a culture have made it easier for him to get his way.
First of all, let’s make one thing clear: the urge to censor is a mental illness. No normal person wants to control what other people think, and no sane person could believe that he can control what anyone else thinks. Only a psychotic believes that he can be directly affected by the thoughts inside another person’s brain, yet time and again would-be censors attempt to circumvent the principles of liberty and individual rights by claiming exactly that; somehow, we are asked to believe, what individuals see and think can magically affect others and is therefore subject to the same sort of restrictions as violent actions are.
In earlier times, it was enough to say that books, pictures or thoughts were “sinful”, because people imagined “evil” as some sort of tangible thing that could affect everyone around it (presumably via invisible “evil rays”). And though that sort of booga-booga nonsense would be laughed out of the conversation now if expressed directly, it still sells quite well as long as it’s expressed indirectly by referring to unproven “negative secondary effects” or burbling inane and incomprehensible neofeminist drivel about how all women are as mystically interconnected as a hydra’s heads. And of course, just about anything (no matter how repressive and totalitarian) can be sold to the Great Unwashed if it’s depicted as being intended to “protect” children, with “protect” in this case being interpreted to mean “lock into a permanent passive and vegetative state”. Young people, we are told, can somehow be “harmed” by encountering ideas and concepts that they are “not ready for”, like the protagonist of an H.P. Lovecraft story driven mad by the blasphemous cosmic truths he discovers in some forbidden eldritch tome. Foremost among these “dangerous” truths are supposed to be facts about the functions of their own bodies, but considering that many of our laws declare that they don’t actually own those bodies until they’re 18, I suppose it all makes a kind of twisted sense once one accepts the outlandish initial premise.
Of course, demands to censor some content don’t even need these sorts of perverse mental gymnastics; those who wish to ban criticism of any given group need only point to the actions of some violent psycho who attacked a member of that group, then pretend that he was “incited” to the violence by the criticism; minority groups are the biggest perpetrators of this odious censorship tactic, but more recently politicians and religious fanatics have adopted it as well and fearful Europeans and Americans are listening. The problem with these people is that they fail to comprehend the principle of legal precedent; once one exception to free speech is made (whether for “obscenity”, “violent rhetoric”, “hate speech”, flag burning, Holocaust denial or whatever), it’s that much easier to make another exception, and another, and another…
The important thing to remember when listening to any demand for censorship is that no matter what excuse the censor presents to attain his goal, he is ultimately lying. It’s not really about “public safety”, or the “children”, or “community standards”, or whatever else he may claim; it’s about the fact that his leaky mind is unable to keep unwelcome thoughts out, so he demands that society do it for him. Fredric Wertham was a child psychiatrist who wrote Seduction of the Innocent, an attack on comic books in which he made the sort of claims which have since become de rigueur for anyone trying to censor music, movies, television, video games, the internet, etc: namely, that the “bad” item harms children and/or adolescents by giving them “bad thoughts” they wouldn’t otherwise have in their “innocent” Rousseauian state. Wertham’s book triggered the Kefauver Hearings which eventually resulted in over 15 years of stifling self-censorship under the repressive Comics Code, but this did not satisfy him; nothing less than a total ban on all comic books would have. My epigram is from “It’s Still Murder: What Parents Still Don’t Know About Comics Books”, a rant published in the April 9th, 1955 Saturday Review of Books (and quoted in an excellent article on the subject recently published on the website of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund); I chose it because it reveals not only Wertham’s real thought processes, but those of any prohibitionist. Set aside for a minute the absurdity of comparing comics to a brothel and recognize what he’s saying here: to the prohibitionist, it doesn’t matter if a brothel has no negative effects on its neighborhood; it doesn’t matter how it’s run or whether its employees and customers are happy; and it doesn’t even matter if he never goes there, doesn’t know anyone else who goes there and never even sees it. Just the very fact that it exists upsets him, and nothing short of its closure will satisfy him. This is why it’s impossible to negotiate with censors or to cede even the most insignificant-seeming patch of ground to them: they will view any compromise not as an end result, but as the first step toward their eventual goal of a total ban on whatever it is they don’t want to think about.