Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Censorship and Why It Always Loses

Isn't it awful! Okay, what are the details?!
It is July 4th, so it seems appropriate to discourse (very, very briefly) on the history of censorship in the early 1900s in America.

Apparently, a gung-ho anti-obscenity guy by the name of Anthony Comstock decided to make it his business to unload his unhappiness about all the awful smut out there. The recipients of his great unhappiness? The American public when he started arresting people right and left.

One person he arrested was Victoria Woodhull, who was a feminist (and ran for president). For reasons that I find obscure at best (ideological believers attacking their supposed supporters confuse me no end), she decided to go after a fellow male feminist, Henry Ward Beecher (who yes, was related to Harriet Beecher Stowe). She accused him of having an affair. She was an advocate of free love, so presumably what bugged her was the hidden nature of his affections.

Comstock was scandalized! And brought a lawsuit against her for obscenity: "Woodhull was arrested in New York City and imprisoned for sending obscene material [an expose of the affair] through the mail."

The court eventually threw out the case for being, as far as I can tell, just silly. (The offending document didn't count as "mail.") As a number of people pointed out at the time, Henry Ward Beecher could have brought a libel suit against Victoria Woodhull with far less news and scandal yet more definitive results.

And there's the point: in the long-run, however fiercely censors fight the degrading stuff around them, it creeps out, it resurfaces. Sometimes, this is due to active resistance: the people getting censored (such as artists) fight back. Sometimes, this is deliberate: the publishers realized, "Hey, here's a good way to make money!" And sometimes, hilariously enough, exposure to ribald material is the result of the actual censoring:

I never knew so & so took those photographs or said those things or kept a mistress.

Now I do.