Chasing Smut In Every Medium

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Once again the voice of the censor is heard in the land, and so are the contesting arguments of the civil libertarian, the artist, and the businessman who markets entertainment. It’s an old fight with a new twist. The Supreme Court has struck down parts of a Communications Decency Act aimed at shielding young people from pornographic material on the Internet. Under threat of similar hostile legislation, the television industry has also been thrashing its way to a system of ratings (like those used by moviemakers) to guide parents in deciding what to let the children watch. It’s significant that while television has been coping with critics for some fifty years now, and movies for a hundred, it’s the Internet that actually drew a federal censorship law.

I think it’s because the Internet is newer, more wide open, and therefore more frightening. When new inventions multiply the dissemination of words and images, they refocus our attention on an old issue: Where is the proper boundary between freedom of expression and the requirements of social order? In the 1870s, during an explosion of cheap reading matter, these same sources produced a noted antismut crusader, Anthony Comstock, whose name passed into the language as a synonym for censorship of the printed word. Half a century later the battlefield was Hollywood, where movies, still a daring novelty, fell under attack and warded it off by self-censorship under the guidance of Will H. Hays, who thereby left his imprint on the public mind as the voice of “thou shalt not” on celluloid.

Comstock and Hays were actually very different types. Comstock, born a Connecticut Yankee in 1844, seems from boyhood onward to have been a zealous Christian. As a Civil War enlisted man in a quiet theater in Florida, he was sorely tried by the profanity, drinking, and blaspheming of his fellow soldiers. “It seems,” he recorded in his diary, “as though Satan were set loose to drag men to destruction.”

After the war Comstock moved to New York, married, and had one child, who died in infancy. His breadwinning duties as a dry goods salesman seemed from the start to absorb him less than his work in the YMCA. His specialty was dragging into court local saloonkeepers who defied Sunday closing laws. But Comstock’s most relentlessly pursued enemy would turn out not to be rum but lewd literature. Cheap pulp paper and high-powered printing presses were creating a new mass readership among the young men and women flocking to the cities. Along with the “yellow” dailies and dime novels that they consumed were publications described by the directors of the New York YMCA in 1866 as “feeders for brothels.” Technology had given Satan new weapons, and Comstock rose wholeheartedly to the challenge. He began to seek out booksellers who handled such smut, get the damning evidence against them by a purchase, and then make a citizen’s arrest under state obscenity statutes. He was so effective that the YMCA’s businessmen bankrollers set up and funded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, of which Comstock was made secretary. He soon gave up his business career to make a full-time calling out of cleansing literary stables. In 1873 he succeeded in lobbying a willing Congress to pass a federal statute (thereafter known as the Comstock Laws) against the use of the mails to distribute obscene matter, including information on contraception.

For the next forty-two years, Comstock made himself the nemesis of whatever he deemed obscene. He was tireless, bold, and physically brave. During one of his arrests the exasperated quarry lunged at him with a knife and severed two facial arteries, leaving a scar that Comstock hid behind side-whiskers. There were other assaults as well, but he gloried in the risk of martyrdom: “Jesus was never moved from the path of duty, however hard, by public opinion. Why should I be?” Though financially incorruptible and reputedly kind to children, he had a hard streak that belied his self-proclaimed humility. When one of his victims, a sixty-seven-year-old abortionist, cut her throat while awaiting trial, he merely commented, “A bloody ending to a bloody life.” Unswayed by charges of dishonesty and entrapment, he answered ads under false names or prowled bookstores in disguise, a necessity as he became a national figure whose bald head, muttonchops, and stocky body were widely caricatured.

He was the loser in the long run as the high tide of Victorianism subsided. He made himself ridiculous because he could not distinguish among really vile trash, harmless titillation, and genuine art. When he railed against George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession , Shaw coined the word Comstockery and called it “the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States.” Comstock in turn labeled the playwright “this Irish smut-dealer.”

Shaw coined a word, Comstockery , and defined it as “the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States.”

He died in 1915 soon after attending an International Purity Congress. Six years later a brand-new threat to purity was coming of age, generating a new struggle, in which a landmark shot was the 1921 appointment of Will Hays to clean up the new enchanter of the masses, the picture show.