Stewardship of the Reading Eye

Originally published at

The central paradox of censorship, according to the historian Paul S. Boyer, is that however sane and fair-minded your set of standards, the people who end up doing the censoring will always be the last ones you’d trust with the responsibility. Considered in the abstract, Boyer’s rule makes sense. It is widely suspected that anyone attracted to a career in censorship must be some kind of pervert. Those with the sensitivity and good judgment to enforce such a code well are, as Boyer notes, “precisely the ones most unwilling to be identified with censorship.” Certainly such talented people usually have open to them more interesting careers than the publishing equivalent of sewage treatment.

Unfortunately for those who think Boyer’s paradox is probably true, when we try to test it against recent history to see if the censors of the past two centuries have really been so second-rate, we run into another paradox: A modern author who chooses to write a history of censorship will usually turn out to be the last person you’d trust to tell the story fairly.

Books on the subject are almost invariably written by the sort of historian or journalist for whom the Scopes Monkey Trial never ended, who suspects every PTA member of wanting to be a Comstock and every Comstock of wanting to be a Torquemada. The titles give some indication of this tendency: Liberty Denied: The Current Rise of Censorship in AmericaCensorship: A Threat to Reading, Learning, and Thinking; or Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius. Boyer himself is a lonely exception, with the even-handed Purity in Print (perhaps his upbringing in a Mennonite-like sect made him magnanimous toward outdated ideas).

As a result, the average person’s idea of the history of censorship in America is an almost parodically Whiggish fable in which it gradually dawns upon the nation what everyone should have known from the start, that no one should ever tell anyone what to read. This narrative omits to mention that until the mid-1920s, even civil libertarians accepted the basic legitimacy of censorship. “It is safe to assume that a liberal state would maintain a censorship . . . for the curbing of degrading influences,” a New Republic editorial reassured readers in 1923. As late as 1929, Boston progressive pillar Richard Clarke Cabot cautioned his friend Roger Baldwin against lending his famous organization’s aid to smut-peddlers as well as pacifists and political radicals, warning, “I should resign from the Civil Liberties Union if the proposed extension of its activities is carried out.”

Nor do we hear much about the early free-speech activists who later came to regret their part in the debauch of the public sphere. Donald Friede, who was prosecuted in 1928 for publishing Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness but cleared of all charges in a landmark appeal, eventually arrived at a very different perspective. “When I see some of the books published today, I cannot help but wonder if our fight against censorship in the twenties was really wise. . . . Fanny Hill in paper! AndNaked Lunch in any form! . . . But I suppose there are some people still willing to play the piano in the literary brothel. Certainly the pay is good.”

But by 1964, when Friede wrote the above, the public consensus had passed him by. Even within a year of his prosecution, censorship had lost all respect in the popular mind, partly as a result of its close connection to Prohibition (or “the censorship of beverages,” as The Christian Century called it). It all seemed to happen overnight. One moment, President Eliot of Harvard was praising the local Watch and Ward Society as “a thoroughly scientific charity” for aiming at “drying up the sources of immorality” rather than treating social evils after the fact. The next, a Boston D.A. was confidently declaring in court that “it is inconceivable, with all the misery that exists in every city, that contributors, instead of bestowing funds on the poor and unfortunate, consider it their duty to contribute to a private organization that hires paid snoopers to watch over the morals of the general public.”

In December 1929, a Massachusetts legislator introduced a cruel joke of a bill that would have required any would-be censor to pass “the standard Binet intelligence test for mentality of eighteen years” and to “submit to the state Department of Public Health satisfactory evidence of normal sex experience.” By that time, the likes of President Eliot no longer wished to be associated with such an unfashionable cause, so it fell to groups with less social cachet, like Catholics, to carry on the fight. “The Puritans forged the sword, and the Irish are wielding it,” as one journalist put it. Eventually the reversal of the late ’20s came to its natural conclusion in the First Amendment expansions of the ’60s, after which government censorship ceased to be much of a legal or political possibility.

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The compulsion to accompany the minutest dissent from free speech absolutism with the disclaimer that of course one does not favor book-banning seems to me one of the more irritating side effects of this rout. It is as if there were not an obvious difference between keeping Fifty Shades of Grey out of grade school libraries and confiscating all extant copies for a bonfire on the National Mall. Nevertheless, I should clarify that I am not in favor of bringing back state censorship. On balance, it is a good thing that Americans today say that the government should not censor. The problem is that no one today says just that.

In order to defend the perfectly modest claim that state censorship does more harm than good, we have for some reason found it necessary to promote the ridiculous claim that no restrictions on reading or viewing should ever be imposed by any authority of any kind. Furthermore, we have decided that if an unrestricted flow of ideas is the best way to arrive at truth at the level of a nation, the same free-for-all must also be best at the level of the individual. Whether you look at the #BannedBooksWeek hashtag or Buzzfeed or the Reading Rainbow website, you hardly ever see a sensible anti-censorship opinion offered without several crackpot corollaries attached. The most common of these are:

That no book ever corrupted anybody. Strangely, this fallacy is most popular among those who praise the power of reading to broaden horizons and influence minds, as if that power could only ever be used for good. At a recent PEN panel on “Sex and Violence in Children’s Literature,” according to one attendee “pretty much all the panelists agreed that denying children the freedom to fully inhabit this world, to examine their responses and react accordingly, can stunt them.” This is about like saying that all facts are salutary regardless of context, that no one ever suffered from getting knowledge too soon, that information can only persuade, never seduce.

That the effect of a corrupting book can easily be neutralized through counterargument. This is obviously false in the case of something like obscenity or pornography, where the damage is done not by persuasion but by coarsening. In the case of more elevated fare—say, some of the books on the old Index Librorum Prohibitorum—it amounts to saying that I, the modern reader, am far too smart to be outwitted by Hobbes, Gibbon, Comte, or Voltaire. There are geniuses who would not claim as much, and saints.

That, whatever its effects on a given individual, no book has ever harmed an entire society. The only thing about the French Revolution on which Voltaire and Joseph de Maistre agreed was that “books did it all.” The Salem witch craze started because “wretched Books had stolen into the Land, wherein Fools were instructed how to become able Fortune-Tellers,” and these books fell into the hands of the suggestible girls who were soon accusing their neighbors of bewitching them. If Harriet Beecher Stowe can make a war, then E. L. James can degrade a nation.

That the difficulty of enforcement makes condemning books not worth the bother. There is something to be said for withholding institutional approval of a title by refusing to assist in its distribution, even if the title is easy to obtain by other means. More importantly, this fallacy discounts the possibility that voluntary limitations on reading material might be worth something. In the United States, at least, the Catholic Index never put anyone in jail, yet it managed to matter.

Why is it important to call out these fallacies? For one thing, they encourage us in the bad habit of self-congratulation at the expense of people long dead, people who deserve better than to be made easy objects for our feelings of superiority. Was he really so contemptible, the General Manager of Editions for the Armed Services who had George Santayana’s Persons and Places removed from army libraries in 1944 on the grounds that “Mr. Santayana’s views, though brilliant, are dubious as to democracy”? I rather think he was a good man with an amusing wartime dilemma and not much time to resolve it in.

The perfect public sphere in which ideas compete freely until the truth emerges may be real or it may be mythical, but certainly that is not how it works in the individual human brain. I for one do not trust that my mind will arrive at the correct conclusion if I only jam it full of as many ideas as I can manage. Bad books are like bad company—they don’t make error inevitable, but they make it difficult to guard against. When the Index was abrogated in 1966, the assumption was that in the absence of a list of specific forbidden books, individuals would use the same basic rules to make their own judgments about what was prudent for them to read. How many of us can say we have been conscientious in that duty?