Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do



What do you think
about pornography?

It helps. 

CENSORSHIP APPLIES TO basically three subjects: (1) Sex, (2) Violence, and (3) Ideas. Of the three, censorship of ideas is by far the most serious. It is also the most subtle.

A major motivation behind censorship is paternalism. "You are not able to handle this information," the censor says; "therefore—for your own protection—we will keep it from you." The variation on that, of course, is "You and I will not be corrupted by this, but they—those poor uneducated, unsophisticated, unwashed masses—will not be able to handle it, so for their own good and the good of the country, we'll ban it."

The other major motivation—far more pernicious—is to protect power. Here, someone or some group with power decides, "If this information got out, it might prove damaging to my (our) power, so I'd (we'd) better suppress it."

All censorship is a violation of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It was a brilliant move for the founding fathers to put all of these guarantees together in one amendment. Almost all censorship is based on the religious and/or political beliefs of those in power. The bottom-line justification for censorship is invariably (a) "It's immoral!" (meaning, of course, against their religious beliefs), and/or (b) "It's un-American!" (which means it doesn't agree with their view about the kind of government America should have and the way that government should be run). In addition to the obvious free speech and free press guarantees, most censorship violates our First Amendment rights to freedom of and from religion. Even if the "freedom of speech, or of the press" clause were not there, applying the remainder of the First Amendment would eliminate almost all censorship as we know it.

It is the function of speech
to free men
from the bondage
of irrational fears.

But just in case the primary justification for all censorship—that is, religious and political suppression—was missed, the founding fathers added the freedom of speech and press clause: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." As I've asked before, what could be clearer than that? The only limitation on this freedom is, as always, harming the person or property of nonconsenting others. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes expressed this in his famous example from 1919:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. [The] question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

One could not, then, in supervising the demolition of a building, give the order, "Blow it up," knowing that there still were people inside. The willful murder of those people cannot be protected by saying, "Well, I was just exercising my right of free speech." Unfortunately, over the years, the "clear and present danger" of "substantive evils" that Justice Holmes gave as the exception to the First Amendment rights has been interpreted beyond his obvious physical example of starting a panic by falsely yelling "Fire!" More and more, the "clear and present danger" has been interpreted as a potential danger to our national morality—and we've already established the source of most "morality."

If the First Amendment means
anything, it means that a state
has no business telling a man,
sitting alone in his own house,
what books he may read
or what films he may watch.
from a unanimous
Supreme Court decision, 1969

In 1991, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that nude dancing by women in a Las Vegas bar was not protected by the First Amendment. This dancing, the Court held, was on the level of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater. How retrograde we have gone from '19 to '91. This is considered a landmark decision. As Stanford University law professor Gerald Gunther explained,

The court is saying that public morality trumps legitimate rights of expression. That's never happened before.

In the past, one had to define the "clear and present danger" by comparing whether or not the censored material would potentially cause the same physical harm as shouting, "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Now, the "clear and present danger" need only be as potentially harmful as consenting adults dancing nude in front of other consenting adults, in a bar—in Las Vegas. What a wonderful gift the Supreme Court gave us in 1991 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the passage of the Bill of Rights.

I'll explore the censorship of political ideas more fully in the chapter, "Unpopular Political Views." For now, let me turn to the two other favorites of censorship: sex and violence.

With censorship, we find another conservative-liberal division. Conservatives usually want to censor the sexual; liberals generally want to censor violence. Neither camp uses the word censor—they use words such as curb, protect, control, modify, and limit.

God forbid that any book
should be banned.
The practice is as indefensible
as infanticide.

The Problem with Pornography

The problem with pornography is that it is done so poorly. "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book," said Oscar Wilde more than one hundred years ago. "Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." Nothing much has changed since then. In 1993, Calvin Tomkins wrote in the New Yorker:

Of all the minor art forms, pornography has remained the least developed. Certified pornographic masterworks, from Sappho to Nabokov, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The best-known critical theorists of the form, from Anthony Comstock to Jesse Helms, have had the disadvantage of being morons. The National Endowment for the Arts supports pornographic experiment unwillingly, at best, and our popular culture contents itself with unimaginative increases in the gross annual depiction of bare skin and earnest copulation.

"I don't think pornography is very harmful," Sir Nol Coward summed it up in 1972, "but it is terribly, terribly boring."
Violence has its artists—Sam Peckinpah, Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott. Where are pornography's artists? Twenty years ago, Deep Throat got publicity just because it had a plot. What have we got today? Mapplethorpe and Madonna?
Once upon a time, some of our best artists gave us our erotica. Today the Bible is used as a reason to censor. Not long ago, the Bible was used as a method to avoid the censor.

The arts are
the rain forests of society.
They produce
the oxygen of freedom,
and they are
the early warning system
when freedom is in danger.

Michelangelo was able to do a magnificent male nude statue by calling it David (the model's real name was probably something closer to Tadzio). Michelangelo was also able to place a reclining male nude in the very center of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (the pope's personal chapel, for heaven's sake) by calling it Adam.

Gustave Dor (1832–1883), who had a taste for subjects not acceptable in his own time (although his obvious love for sex and violence would be right at home in our time), was able to create some of the most bizarre art of the nineteenth century simply by illustrating Bible stories. Because he had the good sense to call his etchings The Deluge and Jehu's Companions Finding the Remains of Jezebel, his work was welcomed in the same Victorian parlors and praised by the same Victorian social leaders who probably would have put him in jail if he had accurately entitled his etchings Naked Man, Naked Woman, and Four Naked Children Writhing in the Water and on a Wet Rock and Selected Body Parts of an Attractive Young Woman Being Examined by Four Men prior to Her Being Eaten by Dogs. Because he was clever, however, Dor's Bible became so popular many people assumed that he wrote the text, too.

In 1967, Congress established and funded a National Commission on Pornography. Its report, published in 1970, found that it was not pornography, but the puritanical attitudes toward pornography that cause problems in America. The report said the problems stemmed "from the inability or reluctance of people in our society to be open and direct in dealing with sexual matters." In surveys, the commission found that only 2 percent of Americans thought sexually explicit material was a significant social problem. The report recommended that all legislation interfering with the right of adults to read, obtain, or view explicit sexual material be repealed.

We must never forget that
if the war in Vietnam is lost
the right of free speech
will be extinguished
throughout the world.
October 27, 1965

The findings of this exhaustive study did not happen to fit the personal morals of Washington's power structure—from President Nixon on down. Nothing was done about repealing the laws.

When President Reagan put together another commission to study pornogra-phy, he did it right—extreme right. Attorney General Edwin Meese carefully selected eleven God-fearing (and, apparently, sex-fearing) Americans. One of the Meese Commission members was James C. Dobson, who wrote:

That is what the pornographers are doing to my country. They are hammering down the supporting columns and blasting away the foundations. We must stop the devastation before the entire superstructure crashes to the earth! With the diligent prayers and personal involvement of God-fearing people, we can save the great edifice called America. But there is not a minute to lose. "But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death." (James 1:14–16, NASB) [italics in original]

Is there any doubt where his personal sense of morality comes from? And does the rhetoric sound familiar? This from Donna A. Demac in her book, Liberty Denied: The Current Rise of Censorship in America:

The antipornography movement of the 1980s represents yet another attempt by certain groups to impose their morals on the rest of society. What makes these efforts more threatening than those of the past is the extent to which they have been abetted by federal, state, and local authorities. The climate engendered by initiatives such as the Meese Commission has been described with only a bit of hyperbole by Hugh Hefner as "sexual McCarthyism."

Whenever they burn books,
they will also,
in the end,
burn people.

The Problem with Violence

The problem with violence is that it is not violent enough. According to the National Coalition on Television Violence, by the age of eighteen the average American will have seen 250,000 acts of violence and 40,000 attempted murders on television. And yet, how realistic will they be? Not very. When people are shot on TV, they grab the part of their body that is shot, fall over (if they are severely hurt), and continue with the written dialog. The dialog usually includes an obligatory "Ow" or "Ouch" or "Ahh" and then adds such stellar commentary (which must be a holdover from radio) as, "Why did you shoot me?" "My arm! [leg! chest! head!]" and the classic "I've been shot!" No matter how much dialog the victims have or how long it takes for the paramedics to arrive, we see very little blood. We seldom even see holes in clothing, and almost never see holes in flesh.

In real life, when someone is shot, blood is—to put it mildly—abundant. The victim goes into shock. Shock is not pretty: pasty face, severe trembling, eyes rolling toward the back of the head. Coherent dialog seldom passes the lips, but dinner frequently does—on the way out.

People want to know why I do this,
why I write such gross stuff.
I like to tell them
I have the heart of a small boy—
and I keep it in a jar on my desk.

[CAUTION: The next two paragraphs are going to get a little graphic. Skip them if you want to avoid explicit descriptions of violence. Now that I have your complete attention, I'll continue.]

Even movies famous for violence are not allowed to go as far as real life. In The Godfather, Part III, for example, one of the villains is killed by being stabbed in the throat with his own eyeglasses. As originally filmed, the character sprayed large quantities of blood from his mouth. In order to avoid an X rating, however, the scene had to be re-shot, sans spraying.

In The Godfather, Part II, when the Godfather (played by Robert DeNiro) becomes the Godfather by committing his first murder, he sticks the revolver in the mouth of his victim and, bang. In the movie, we see a little bit of brain and blood splatter on the door behind him. (The scene was shot for television sans even that little splattering.) In fact, even the movie version was incredibly tame. The AMOK Assault Video contains a news clip that was too graphic even for the evening news (if you can imagine that). It showed a politician who had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He called a press conference. There he proclaimed his innocence, protested the unfairness of his persecution, pulled out a .357 Magnum, put it in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. What the camera captured is certainly enough to convince anyone not to play with firearms—or enter into politics. After his head exploded (a look at the Zapruder film in the movie JFK will give you an idea), blood poured from his nose and mouth. Although he was clearly dead, the blood kept gushing. We didn't see this in The Godfather, Part II.

The other myth perpetrated in television and movies is how little people bruise and how quickly they heal. The day after a severe beating, the hero has a few red marks, wears a little white tape, and that's about it. In real life, he'd look terrible. Two days after a beating, in the movie, he's fine. In real life, two days after a beating you look worse than you did the day after the beating.

After seeing Rambo last night
I know what to do
next time this happens.
following the hijack of an airplane
carrying American passengers

All of this sanitized violence only makes real violence a more acceptable solution to problems. It's not that violence is shown, and that causes violence; it's that violence is shown as the solution to problems; that causes violence. "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic," said Joseph Stalin (who knew). If, however, the way in which each of those million died and the suffering each went through had to be viewed one at a time in great detail, perhaps it would no longer be a statistic, and perhaps such tragedies would happen less often.

Portraying violence in all its gory would probably have these positive effects:

1. Far fewer people would watch violent programs. In television, people vote with their remotes. In magazines, movies, and newspapers, they vote with their purchase. If enough people vote no, fewer violent acts would be depicted.

2. People would be less likely to take part in violence. In your own home, you'd be less likely to shoot someone because you wouldn't want all that blood, vomit, and other internal fluids on your floor (wall, ceiling, couch, fish tank, etc.). You would also assiduously avoid situations where violent harm to your own person was remotely possible. One California judge sentences teenage drunk driving offenders to witness an autopsy of a traffic fatality caused by a drunk driver. It's been remarkably effective. Such a cold, forensic reality of violence would remove any sense of glamour from either hurting or being hurt. It's the human equivalent of the idea, "If each person had to kill his or her own dinner, there would be a lot more vegetarians."

I am mortified to be told that,
in the United States of America,
the sale of a book can become
a subject of inquiry,
and of criminal inquiry too.

The Problem with Censorship

The problem with censorship can be summed up in two words: who decides?

If someone other than the end consumers—voting with their purchases, attendance, or remote controls—decides what should or should not, can or cannot, must or must not be said, depicted, or offered for sale, who should that person be? And who decides who that person should be? And who decides if those people are doing a good job deciding?

Ultimately, censorship comes down to taste. What offends me may enlighten you. Do you want me deciding—based on my taste—what you should or should not be exposed to?

Most censors don't stop at what offends them, of course: their overheated imaginations begin conjuring up what might offend this person or that group, and pretty soon almost everything is "pornographic." Many start sounding like Mervyn Griffiths-Jones, the prosecuting attorney in the 1960 trial to keep Lady Chatterly's Lover banned:

You may think one of the ways in which you can test this book is to ask yourself the question: would you approve of your own son and daughter, because girls can read as well as boys, reading this book? Is it a book you could have lying in your own house? Is it a book you would wish your wife or your servant to read?

So much of what we'd want to censor depends on where we stand, what we're standing on, and whom we're standing with. Shelley Winters, tongue well in cheek, pointed out,

I think nudity on the stage is disgusting, shameful and unpatriotic. But if I were twenty-two with a great body, it would be artistic, tasteful, patriotic and a progressive, religious experience.

Without censorship,
things can get terribly confused
in the public mind.

In addition, besides deciding what's good and what's bad, who decides what the punishment should be for violating these standards? For example, consider this comment from a young artist:

Anybody who sees and paints a sky green and pastures blue ought to be sterilized.

This may seem to be a trivial, even silly, comment for a young artist to make, but what if this young artist sets aside his art and turns to the art of politics? What if he gains enough power to fulfill not only his censorship dreams, but to inflict the punishments he finds appropriate? Well, that's precisely what happened. The artist-turned-politician who detested green skies and blue pastures had tens of thousands sterilized, and presided over the most sterile artistic period in the history of Europe—and these were the least of his crimes. As I'm sure you've guessed, the censor was Adolph Hitler. Which brings us to the F-WORD.


In our use of language, we go beyond the hypocritical directly to the silly. When I say, "F-WORD," you know precisely which word I mean. Isn't it silly, though, that if I actually use that word, I would be unnecessarily giving ammunition to those who want to attack this book not for its ideas, but for the use of a single word. (Or who do want to attack the ideas, but would use the F-WORD as an excuse.)
As a writer, I don't mind that the F-WORD is taboo. Being taboo gives it extra power. It's good that certain words have the power that only prohibition can provide.

Loretta Young, a devout Catholic
(despite having an illegitimate
daughter sired by Clark Gable)
would fine actors
for using coarse language
on the movie set—
25 cents for "hell,"
50 cents for "damn."
One actor tossed her ten dollars,
"Here Loretta: go F-WORD yoursel"

In the film Mommy Dearest, Joan Crawford meets with the Board of Pepsi Cola, who think they have the better of her. She drops the demure and dignified act long enough to deliver the line, "Don't [F-WORD] with me, fellas! This ain't my first time at the rodeo." The line is most effective.

When Walt Disney Productions decided to make non-children's films (I can't say "adult films," because that has other connotations), they started Touchstone Pictures. Touchstone had a rule: only two F-WORDS per picture. That was fine. The creators carefully selected the two points in the film where the F-WORDwould have the most impact.

Having a few words forbidden allows creative people to be even more delightfully creative. Woody Allen, for example:

Some guy hit my fender the other day, and I said unto him, "Be fruitful, and multiply." But not in those words.

Or, Dorothy Parker:

Ducking for apples—change one letter and it's the story of my life.

When all words are accepted—even expected—language deteriorates. As the British journalist Sir William Connor described,

All were swearing steadily and quietly and all were using the same time-dishonoured Army oaths with such lavishness that made it necessary to split words open in the middle in order to cram all the obscenities in.

Alexander Woollcott replied to a critic about the unnecessary use of "God damn," which was the F-WORD of his day:

When you speak of "three unnecessary `God damns'" you imply that there is such a thing as a necessary God damn. This, of course, is nonsense. A God damn is never a necessity. It is always a luxury.

The press,
confined to truth,
needs no other
legal restraint.
Second Inaugural Address

"I was arrested for using a ten-letter word that began with `c,'" said Lenny Bruce, "and I would marry no woman who was not one."

From the standpoint of consensual crimes and freedom of speech, (if I may paraphrase Lenny Bruce) we must use that marvelous ten-letter word that begins with "t" (and certainly no one would marry me who didn't have a great deal of it): toleration. If I don't want Jerry Falwell editing my books, I must forgo the luxury of editing his sermons. (But I can dream, can't I?) To have a freedom ourselves, we must pick up the banner of that great light of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, and declare: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

As long as we keep censoring, we are lost in the symptoms of our society's problems, thus ignoring the problems themselves. Pornography, for example, doesn't degrade women; women are degraded by our culture, and certain forms of pornography reflect that. Yes, we have a serious problem with the way women are treated in our culture, and pornography is a symptom, but let's not kill the messenger. Let's get the message and do something about it.

Similarly, violence is a messenger. The idea that problems can be solved through violence causes violence. We have a problem with drugs? Let's declare a war on drugs! We have a problem with crime? Let's declare war on crime! We have a problem with violence? Let's declare war on violence! The deeply ingrained American attitude that we can solve any problem with enough force creates, feeds, and rewards the epidemic of violence we are currently experiencing.

Seeing a murder on television
can help work off one's antagonisms.
And if you haven't any antagonisms,
the commercials will give you some.

The actual depiction of violence in TV, movies, and song, in fact, has little effect. As Jon Stewart observed:

The song "Cop Killer" doesn't make me want to murder a policeman any more than Julie Andrews singing "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" makes me want to go hiking.


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