When we first began writing this editorial statement of our beliefs and purposes, we had no intention of still being at it in the early spring, but there are buds pushing up through the sod and we’ve just seen our first robin redbreast. What better time to be writing about Puritanism, sex suppression, lawlessness, censorship, divorce, birth control and abortion?
We expect to cover all of these subjects—and more—in the next month or two, and it may appear to some readers that we are wandering rather far afield in our delineation of this magazine’s editorial credo, but we have been encouraged by the considerable response to the first parts of The Playboy Philosophy, to the extent that we have broadened the subject area to include many of the interrelated societal factors we feel have gone into the making of our modern American culture, some personal comment upon them, and an attempt to show how we feel this magazine is involved.
To that end, we have thus far discussed and tried to answer some of the criticism most commonly leveled at Playboy’s content and concept. We have traced the lineage of the Uncommon Man through American history—with the country’s related accent on individualism and initiative; we have considered the Depression-conceived concern for, and eventual elevation of, the common man—noting how the national emphasis shifted to an overemphasis on conformity and security. We have commented upon the arrival of the postwar Upbeat Generation and the beginning of what we feel may well become an American Renaissance; a comparison of capitalism and communism, with the relative strengths and weaknesses the two systems have displayed in countries throughout the world since the end of the war; the relationship between organized religion and democracy in the U.S.; the sexual revolution taking place in our society today; and last month, American Puritanism and the importance of the separation of church and state.
Yet to Come
If we appear to have left some loose ends dangling along the way, they will be tied together in subsequent issues, wherein we will explain Playboy’s sometimes misunderstood attitude toward women; an analysis of the shifting roles of the male and female in our ever-changing, ever more complex civilization; an expression of concern over the resultant drift in the United States toward an Asexual Society; a vivisection of Momism and the Womanization of America, charting the manner in which one of the sexes has successfully wrested control of our culture from the other; a review of the effect Womanization has had on our manners and morals, on business, advertising, books, newspapers, television, movies and magazines; a comparison of the sex contents of this and a number of other specific periodicals, in an attempt to establish who really is confused, who sick and who well on the subject of sex, in our schizophrenic social order; a consideration of the schism that currently exists regarding American beauty and why we believe the Vogue Woman is unfeminine, antisexual and competitive rather than a complementing counterpart to the American male; and finally, a summary of this publication’s views on the ideal interrelationship between modern Man and Woman, Man and Society, Man and Government, and Man and Religion, in which we challenge the cynics, the hypocrites, the aesthetes, the clowns and the critics with a choice selection of their own words on the subject of Playboy. We thus intend to end this editorial with something of a feast—perhaps more humbly described as a small repast: Calling upon whatever culinary skills we may possess, with thanks to our long association with Thomas Mario, we will serve up a tasty dish—prepared with spice and a dash of vinegar—a fine fowl, well suited to the gourmet appetites of our most deserving detractors: fricassee of crow. And we wish them bon appétit.
*Religious Freedom Reconsidered *
In the previous issue, we pointed out that no nation can be said to have true religious freedom unless it possesses not only freedom of, but also freedom from, religion. There is nothing sacrilegious in this viewpoint—it is a cardinal concept in our democracy and one that our religious and patriotic founding fathers took great care to spell out in both the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They recognized that a complete separation of church and state was the only certain way of assuring that this country’s religion and its government would remain free, one from the other. A free democratic society and organized religion need not be in conflict, but neither are they grounded on the same bedrock: religion is founded on faith and a belief in its own absolutes; a democracy requires that men rely upon reason and the relative nature of truth—the acceptance of the notion that ultimate truth is unknown and that what we observe as truth today may give way to a better truth tomorrow. Kept separate and distinct, our own particular religion and our government can function in harmony—we can be both religious and good citizens at the same time; but if either power is allowed to intrude into areas rightfully the domain of the other, an erosion of our most fundamental rights has begun and will be, to that extent, less free.
Considering the emphasis that our founding fathers placed upon religious freedom when writing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the continuing lip service we give the concept today, there is real irony in the extent to which various religious pressures and prejudices have infiltrated our laws, our court decisions, the running of many of our cities and states, and innumerable secular aspects of our daily lives. This strange state of affairs is only understandable when we remember that most of our deeply rooted traditions come from Europe and that throughout European history, church and state have been intimately interinvolved. It matters not at all that history thus supplies centuries of documentation on the evil abuses that may result when religion and government are not kept separate—cultural traditions exist on a nearly subconscious level in a society and they cannot be extirpated by logic alone.
Though many of the first settlers came to America to escape religious persecution, they were soon practicing themselves what they had left Europe to avoid. Early American Puritanism required the observance of a rigid religious dogma that permeated every aspect of life. And the Puritans had little respect or tolerance for any beliefs other than their own: dancing on the Sabbath meant a night in the stocks or a session on the ducking stool; heretics and witches (i.e., those who espoused unpopular beliefs or acted too peculiarly) were hung. Trial by jury was outlawed in Connecticut and several other New England colonies; only church elders could vote or hold office; civil law was drawn directly from the Puritan interpretation of Holy Scriptures.
The prejudice and prudery, bigotry and boobery of Puritanism did have one unintentionally beneficial effect, however: the extreme importance our founding fathers placed upon the separation of church and state. But while most Americans in the time of the Revolution fervently favored this newfound freedom, the roots of religious Puritanism thrived and spread underground. With two strokes—the Bill of Rights and the Constitution—these first American patriots cut down the twisted tree of Puritanism (and all other forms of overpowering religious oppression), but the roots remained alive in our cultural earth.
Thus, in these United States today, we speak of an ideal called religious freedom as though it were a reality, but an uncountable number of the rights and privileges we might reasonably expect in a truly free society have been subverted, distorted or taken away through the encroachment of religion and religious prejudice into almost every aspect of American life.
If you believe that you are relatively free of religiously inspired restraints (restraints established by other people’s religions, not simply your own), check your state statutes for the number of Sunday Blue Laws that force certain businesses to close their doors on the Sabbath, while allowing others to remain open; place legal restrictions on what you can and cannot do on Sunday; prohibit the purchase and consumption of alcoholic beverages at certain times and on certain days, and in some communities, at all times and on all days.
At the close of last month’s editorial, we expressed the belief that religion ought rightly to be a personal matter between man and God and should have nothing to do with man’s relationship with government. For when religion, rather than reason, dictates legislation, we cannot expect logic with our law.
But the so-called Sunday Blue Laws are only a small fraction of religion’s continuing infringement upon our most basic freedoms. We would like to explore now a number of other ways in which religion has become involved in the nonreligious areas of our society and consider some of the consequences.
*A Lesson in Lawlessness *
Religious influence in government can produce a breakdown in law and order through the enactment of laws that many of the people do not believe in and will not obey: Puritan-prompted Prohibition turned previously respectable, law-abiding citizens into lawbreakers; a tremendous illicit liquor traffic developed, putting millions of dollars into the hands of well-organized criminal gangs; public officials were corrupted to protect the illegal flow of alcohol and the general administration of justice broke down. National Prohibition, forced upon an unwilling public by do-gooders and religious zealots, is widely recognized as a classic example of the harm that even the most sincerely motivated people can do when they attempt to legislate the private lives and personal morals of their fellow citizens.
More than 30 years after Prohibition’s repeal, some scars from the nation’s “Noble Experiment” still have not healed: Many Americans retain and unwittingly pass on to their offspring a general disrespect for their laws and contempt for local law enforcement officers as a direct result of the lawlessness in which the ordinary citizen participated during the Twenties; and the criminal gangs that developed to supply the demand for illegal liquor have utilized the illicit organizations and profits spawned by Prohibition to build giant crime cartels that law enforcement agencies are largely unable to cope with today. This is the Frankenstein monster that we wrought as a nation when we attempted to play God and create a more perfect man—not through education or moral persuasion, but by legal edict. Today we still suffer the mark of a mistake that lasted for little more than a decade and ended in 1932. And the saddest aspect of the “Noble Experiment” is not that we attempted it, or that it failed, but that many of us learned so little from its failure.
*Divorce American Style *
Marriage is a legal relationship, but the bonds of holy matrimony may also have deep religious significance. The marriage laws of church and state differ for many Americans, of course, but any conflict that may arise between them is a matter of individual concern, which is as it should be. The same is not true for divorce.
In all too many states, divorce legislation has been religiously inspired. As a result, there are almost as many laws establishing criteria for the dissolution of marriage as there are states in the Union.
In New York, the only legal ground for divorce is adultery. And since the real reasons for the breakup of most relationships are complex and varied, couples desiring a divorce must be willing to swear under oath to something that is not necessarily true. Or as comedian Dick Gregory has expressed it: “The Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ But the State of New York says, ‘You must!’” And so respect for our laws receives yet another serious setback.
In other countries, where the concept of a separate church and state does not exist, the results can be far more devastating. The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize any justification for divorce, though it may sometimes offer the equivalent through an annulment, under certain rigidly circumscribed circumstances. In the U.S., a Catholic may receive a civil divorce decree, but he is still married in the eyes of the Church and is forbidden to marry anyone else. This places no improper restraint upon an American, because he has accepted the Catholic Church and its doctrines of his own free will and he can reject them any time he chooses.
In Catholic-controlled Italy, however, where religion dictates much of the law, the only way a marriage can be terminated—as broadly spoofed in the film Divorce, Italian Style—is through the death of one or both of the marriage partners. It doesn’t matter what religion an Italian may or may not want as his own, this religious doctrine is the law of the land. Thus there must be thousands of tragedies involving unknown couples for every well-publicized injustice like the one perpetrated against Carlo Ponti and his voluptuous wife, Italian movie star Sophia Loren. Although they had been married for five years, Ponti had been married before, and his Mexican divorce had no legal standing in Italy. The Italian government has therefore announced that Carlo and Sophia are living in sin in the eyes of both the Roman Church and State and they were recently threatened with legal prosecution for bigamy. The injustice in all of this is not caused by the Catholic dogma forbidding divorce, but by the fact that religious doctrine is the basis of Italian law, affecting Catholics and non-Catholics equally.
Religion and Education
Religion can hinder as well as help the educational progress of a society: Organized religion has played a major role in the development of education throughout history and is responsible for the creation of many of our major schools and universities here in America and throughout the world. But when organized religion moves outside its proper spheres of influence, it can have a suppressive effect upon education in both the classroom and through the control exercised over a society’s speech and press. Since most religions are based upon beliefs in certain absolutes, it is easy to understand why the strongly religious person might object to any idea taught in school or expressed in a book, magazine or newspaper that did not coincide with his own particular religious orientation. From his viewpoint, why permit the promulgation of a clearly fraudulent doctrine when the simple truth is so evident (to him).
But it is this very logic, built upon personal religious absolutes, that makes the curbing of any church influence upon our public schools, our speech and our press, so essential.
Last month we commented upon the famous “Monkey Trial” of the Twenties, in which a biology teacher named John Thomas Scopes was arrested in Tennessee for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution, in violation of a newly enacted state statute prohibiting anyone from espousing a “theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” The prosecution, led by religious fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan, attacked the notion that man was related to the monkey, whereupon famed criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow proceeded to make monkeys out of William Jennings Bryan and the prosecution. But the Tennessee court found the teacher guilty just the same, and in the appeal the State Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law, while finding the teacher not guilty on a technicality.
There may seem to be no such blatant legal restraints upon teaching today, but how many public high schools in America have little or no sex education because of religious influence expressed through either actual laws or less formal pressures? Protestant Puritanism has made the public discussion of sex taboo in America for generations, and all of Christian and Hebrew tradition includes a certain amount of antisexual folklore; in addition, many U.S. Catholics fear that any comprehensive program of sex education in the schools might soon include information on birth control—which it should, of course, and almost never does.
Another popular method of Puritan control over education is through the banning of books in school libraries and on teachers' prescribed reading lists. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a group of parents demanded that a teacher in Edison High School be fired because she assigned J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to her 11th-grade English class; in San Jose, California, obeying parental protests, Andrew Hill High School removed five novels from its library and from its recommended reading lists for seniors—The Catcher in the Rye, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, William Saroyan’s Human Comedy and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, prompting the San Jose News to editorialize, “Involved here is culture, genius, literature and American pride that is being snuffed out for no reason at all and by people who apparently have never read a hardcover book since their adolescent years.” In Miami, Florida, the Dade County School Board approved the withdrawal of Brave New World and 1984, George Orwell’s frightening contemporary classic about a future society subjected to rigorously enforced thought control.
Free Speech and Free Love
It is still just as possible for a biology teacher to find himself vilified and ostracized for expressing an unpopular point of view in the Sixties as it was in Tennessee in the Twenties. In 1960, at our own alma mater, the University of Illinois, biology professor Leo Koch responded to a student editorial in the Daily Illini on ritualized necking and petting on campus with a letter that stated: “With modern contraceptives and medical advice readily available at the nearest drugstore, or at least a family physician, there is no valid reason why sexual intercourse should not be condoned among those sufficiently mature to engage in it without social consequences and without violating their own codes of morality and ethics.”
And then the professor included an all-too-prophetic paragraph that none of the major newspapers or wire services that reported on the incident cared to include in their coverage: “The…important hazard is that a public discussion of sex will offend the leaders of our religious institutions. These people feel that youngsters should remain ignorant of sex for fear that knowledge of it will lead to temptation and sin.”
As though to prove the accuracy of that statement, Reverend Ira Latimer, of the Bureau of Public Affairs, Institute of Economic Policy in Chicago and member of the University of Illinois Dad’s Association, sat down and wrote a letter to the parents of female students of the university. The letter included:
“Professor Leo F. Koch’s exhortation to sexual promiscuity—evidently timed to appear when a large number of high school students were visiting the campus for the annual basketball tournament—is an audacious attempt to subvert the religious and moral foundations of America. It calls for immediate action by the faculty of the university, the board of trustees, the governor, or, if all of these fail in their responsibility, by the people of the state.
"The standard operating procedure of the Communist conspiracy is to demoralize a nation as a necessary preliminary to taking over…Professor Koch’s letter follows this formula point by point.
”…he [Koch] concludes [in his letter] that ‘the heavy load of blame should fall on the depraved society which reared them.’ This is also perfect Communist party-line technique—to call that which is good ‘bad’ and that which is bad ‘good.’
“…Animal Koch would reduce us to a sub-animal level…. All this, of course, is a calculated appeal to the appetites of young men who thoughtlessly suppose that a college campus would be a paradise if coeds were no more ‘inhibited’ than prostitutes. The bait for women is the suggestion that they are discriminated against by ‘a double standard of morality.’
”…The central target, of course, is Christianity, and Professor Koch openly deplores ‘the hypocritical and downright inhumane moral standards engendered by a Christian code of ethics which was already decrepit in the days of Queen Victoria….’
“Professor Koch’s…letter is proof that something is terribly wrong in the University of Illinois. This is the university whose trustees recently voted that students getting handouts from the Federal Treasury should not be asked to sign statements that they are not engaged in conspiracy against the United States. It would seem that a majority of the trustees believe that Communists have a right to be supported by the American taxpayers….
"I herewith offer to address any student organization or campus church on the subject of ‘Koch and Subversion.’”
With biology professor Leo Koch clearly established as a part of the Communist conspiracy (the next logical step is to begin labeling sex itself as subversive; with the old bugaboo sin having lost much of its original potency, it may not be too farfetched to suspect that sexual intercourse outside of marriage will soon be attacked as a Commie invention—or a sign of liberal, leftist, pinko leanings, at the very least), several hundred distraught Illinois parents demanded his dismissal. David D. Henry, president of the University of Illinois, hesitated hardly a moment: he promptly suspended his biology professor with the statement that Koch’s letter was “offensive and repugnant, contrary to accepted standards of morality.”
The Christian Century, a prominent Protestant magazine, was disappointed in the reason President Henry gave for the suspension, considered it “deficient” in that it was “humanistic” and failed to state that the religious taboos violated by Koch are based on “revelation.”
The nation’s newspapers had a field day with distorted headlines like: PROFESSOR TO BE FIRED FOR URGING FREE LOVE. And the Illinois campus witnessed a student demonstration that would have warmed the hearts of those who have criticized American youth for being too passive and unresponsive to public issues: President David D. Henry was hung in effigy—a well-dressed likeness complete with spectacles and a mustache—just outside the University YMCA, complete with a sign that read, “Hanged for Killing Academic Freedom.” (The general secretary of the Y said that the students who had hung the dummy there were “plotting against the YMCA.”)
More than 2000 students held a rally to protest the professor’s suspension. One poster held aloft by a student during the demonstration expressed the matter nicely: NOT “FREE LOVE” BUT FREE SPEECH. W. Thomas Morgan, former FBI agent, who is now the university’s chief security officer, said the demonstrations had been kept under close surveillance: University photographers took a number of pictures of the students closest to the speaker’s platform. (Apparently based on some sort of “guilt by proximity.”)
There were other, more literate protests. One student wrote to the Daily Illini: “President Henry felt that Dr. Koch’s views were a reflection on the university. I feel that the university’s action is a reflection on me. The cynicism implied in the act must not be allowed to speak for the students….”
A report to President Henry from the “University Committee on Academic Freedom” stated: “In this university…21.8% [of the students] are already married and the remainder are at a stage of development and maturity at which they can and do weigh and debate advice on relations between the sexes. It is doubtful if the reading of the Koch letter could have had any significant effect on their sexual behavior.”
The Illinois Division of the American Civil Liberties Union—a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, made up largely of lawyers who donate their time without charge and that also played a prominent part in the defense of biologist Scopes in the “Monkey Trial” of the Twenties—issued the statement: Koch’s dismissal will “leave the young with the impression that conventional morality cannot stand the scrutiny of public discussion.”
Dr. Leo Koch himself observed: “The controversy here is over the definition of Academic Freedom. My opponents are working for a definition limited by ‘academic responsibility.’ In their mind, this means not embarrassing the university administration by expressing views which are so controversial that outside pressure is exerted on them. In this view a professor has less freedom of speech than a ditchdigger.”
A few weeks later Professor Koch’s suspension was confirmed by the University Board of Trustees and he was officially fired. Such is sometimes the result when religion becomes too involved in education.
Censorship for Adults
American religious beliefs have placed unconstitutional curbs on our freedom of speech, press and other media of communication: Just as organized religion sometimes exerts an undue influence on teaching and the administration of our public schools, so it also affects the free exchange of ideas among the people themselves—whether spoken, printed or projected on a movie or television screen.
In part three of The Playboy Philosophy (February 1963), we commented on the sexual revolution presently taking place in the U.S. and the effect this is having upon the purityrannical censorship that has for so long been a part of our American culture. The sexual naivete of our nation little more than a generation ago is almost beyond belief: important books were banned (not just in schools, but for the entire adult population), movies were precensored, the U.S. Post Office was the official arbiter of taste in periodicals; a national magazine was outlawed in a number of communities for publishing pictures of the birth of a baby; venereal disease, contraception and abortion were subjects taboo to the public press; a number of words common in our language were never allowed in popular books and magazines.
Times have changed and today America enjoys a freedom of expression unparalleled in its history. But we still have a long way to go, for beneath the surface of this freedom-loving nation still runs a strain of comstockery waiting to be exploited by the neurotic, the ignorant, the misguided and the well-intentioned.
Congresswoman Kathryn Granahan of Pennsylvania fits at least three of these aforementioned characterizations. As Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Postal Operations, she allows neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night to stay her from her self-appointed task of hunting and exposing “smut and filth.” In her subcommittee hearings she has included, along with other investigatory chores, the exposure of “dirty” foreign movies. She sounded the hunting horn in a speech she gave in Washington, D.C. not long ago. “I am most gravely concerned at the influx of foreign films that evidence a sense of moral values so remote from ours as to be completely repugnant,” she said, adding that the “overemphasis and distortion of sex” in those movies might well be part of the Communist plot to sap U.S. moral strength. (Gosh darn, we were right—sex is subversive! Now there’s something Mother never told us.)
A more aware comment about sex in cinema came from producer-director Elia Kazan: “Art should help us digest and understand our own experience,” he said. “The issue is not one of making immoral movies. Our problem is to prevent moral values from being oversimplified. People see a film that has a phony happy ending, and they get a distorted view which hurts them later. They expect life to be what it isn’t.”
Comedian Lenny Bruce, perhaps the most perceptive and certainly the most provocative gentleman working on an American nightclub stage today, whom Steve Allen recently called “a true philosopher” on a recent TV panel show, seeks with his wit and verbal shock therapy to provoke people into seeing life very much as it really is. In the past year he has been arrested and jailed three times for his pains—in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. The charge has always been the same: obscenity; for Lenny’s act includes a dissertation on so-called “obscene” words and an analysis of why they are considered obscene.
It didn’t matter that a nightclub audience is traditionally composed almost exclusively of adults and that these same words appear in considerable abundance in dozens of popular books of fiction, available to anyone in inexpensive paperback editions at the nearest drugstore. Lenny’s San Francisco trial has already ended; he was acquitted. The cases in Los Angeles and Chicago are still pending as this issue of Playboy goes to press; in Chicago the liquor license of The Gate of Horn, the club in which Lenny appeared, is presently involved in a revocation proceeding because of the allegedly obscene act (the revocation proceeding is taking place before the trial to determine if Bruce’s act really was obscene).
The Chicago arrest also had some unfortunate religious overtones. Lenny Bruce explores the entire spectrum of society’s foibles and frailties in his act and it is perhaps inevitable that organized religion gets more than its share of abuse in the process. One of his lines, “Let’s get out of the churches and back to religion,” is typical.
Bruce has been arrested or threatened and driven out of other cities on a number of previous occasions, but this is the first time that the club in which he worked has had revocation proceedings brought against it.
Variety reported, after the first day of hearings on the liquor license revocation: “After nearly a full day of hearing prosecution witnesses, it is evident that, in essence, Bruce is being tried in absentia.
"Another impression is that the city is going to a great deal of trouble to prosecute Allan Ribback, the owner of the club, although there have been no previous allegations against the café and the charge involves no violence or drunken behavior…. [The Gate of Horn is Chicago’s most important café specializing in folk music.]
"Testimony so far indicates that the prosecutor is at least equally as concerned with Bruce’s indictment of organized religion as he is with the more obvious sexual content of the comic’s act. It’s possible that Bruce’s comments on the Catholic Church have hit sensitive nerves in Chicago’s Catholic-oriented administration and police department.”
A few days following the arrest, one of the arresting officers cornered club owner Ribback and said, “I want you to know that I’m a Catholic and the things Lenny Bruce said in here are offensive to my religion and to me. And I want you to know he’s not going to get away with it and you’re not going to get away with it either.”
Shortly after the Chicago arrest, Bruce received a letter from the Reverend Sidney Lanier, Vicar of St. Clement’s Church in New York, which said: “I came to see you the other night because I had read about you and was curious to see if you were really as penetrating a critic of our common hypocrisies as I had heard. I found that you are an honest man, sometimes a shockingly honest man, and I wrote you a note to say so. It is never popular to be so scathingly honest, whether it is from a nightclub stage or from a pulpit, and I was not surprised to hear you were having some ‘trouble.’ This letter is written to express my personal concern and to say what I saw and heard on Thursday night.
"First, I emphatically do not believe your act is obscene in intent. The method you use has a lot in common with most serious critics (the prophet or the artist, not the professional) of society. Pages of Jonathan Swift and Martin Luther are quite unprintable even now because they were forced to shatter the easy, lying language of the day into the basic, earthy, vulgar idiom of ordinary people in order to show up the emptiness and insanity of their times. (It has been said, humorously but with some truth, that a great deal of the Bible is not fit to be read in Church for the same reason.)
"Clearly your intent is not to excite sexual feelings or to demean, but to shock us awake to the realities of racial hatred and invested absurdities about sex and birth and death—to move toward sanity and compassion. It is clear that you are intensely angry at our hypocrisies (yours as well as mine) and at the highly subsidized mealy-mouthism that passes as wisdom.
"You may show this letter to anyone you wish if it can be of help. Please call me when you come back from Chicago. May God bless you.”
Some religious leaders really are leaders, in the best sense.
A Rose Is a Rose
Can a single word or phrase—apart from its overall meaning or intent—be considered obscene? Some people seemingly still think so, despite the Supreme Court ruling that obscenity must be judged within the context of the total work in which it appears.
Just how much our attitude on what’s in a name has changed over the past 15 years may be seen by considering the following: Life—the same magazine that was outlawed in a number of cities across the U.S. for publishing photographs of a baby’s birth in the late Thirties—editorialized against the use of four-letter words in the prize-winning novel From Here to Eternity, by James Jones, just ten years later. Life’s editorial was titled “From Here to Obscenity” and the editors objected to the strong language included in the speech and thoughts of the soldiers in the book. They didn’t suggest that the language was not authentic—they knew it was—but they expressed the notion that the same words may have a different effect when read in a novel and when spoken by soldiers in barracks and battle. They also pointed to The Red Badge of Courage, the powerful novel about men fighting in the Civil War, written by Stephen Crane, who had never been in battle himself, as proof that it was possible to write about war without the use of certain words they found objectionable. And in this, they are undoubtedly right, though it hardly appears to make any point. It might also be possible to write a great book without ever once using the letter “e"—but for what purpose? Their suggestion, if taken seriously, would turn the art of writing into a semantic parlor game. No writing can capture completely the full emotion of experience. But their proposal would defeat one of the major purposes of literature—to make the world a bit more real and comprehensible by exploring subjects and experiences with which the reader may very well not be personally familiar. Or, as distinguished literary critic, lecturer, teacher and author Leslie A. Fiedler expressed it in his Playboy article, The Literati of the Four-Letter Word (June 1961): "The unexamined life, Socrates once remarked, is not worth living; he might have gone on to note further that the unexpressed act is not fully lived. What we cannot say we cannot examine, and what we cannot examine we do not really experience. These are the simple truths which make clear why literature has meaning in our lives, and our lives total meaning only when they have become also literature.”
That a rose by any other name may have a decidedly offensive odor was made exceedingly clear in a CBS-TV interview with Mrs. Christine Gilliam, housewife and head of Atlanta’s five-member movie-censorship board, in explaining why she banned Never on Sunday in her city: “I might call your attention to the fact that some of the other films that have had a similar theme have not used the word whore,” she told the interviewer and several million television viewers. “We’ve called them tramps; we’ve called them ladies of easy virtue; we’ve called them callgirls; we’ve called them…girls of the night; but that is a word that we have not customarily allowed on our screens in Atlanta, because we consider it just a bit too rugged for family audiences.” (The good lady’s concern over what words were to be allowed on the screens of Atlanta apparently did not include TV screens.)
And the head of the Memphis censor board, also a housewife, commented a while back: “I have heard twice in pictures a word that I have never heard used before: ’s-l-u-t.‘”
The Kansas Board of Review is typical of the groups that are appointed watchdogs of public morality in movies and, despite all the unexpurgated films they see, these good citizens never seem to be driven to crime or debauchery: The Chairman of the Board is Mrs. Kitty McMahon, who attended junior college but did not graduate; other members are Mrs. C.E. McBride Jr., a high school graduate; and Mrs. Cecile Ryan, who attended Central College for Women in Lexington, Missouri. All three were appointed by the governor.
The following excerpts are quoted verbatim from the Kansas Board’s monthly reports: “Eliminate shouting of word 'bitch’ (Tiger Bay); eliminate where Elizabeth Taylor says to her mother, ‘I’m the slut of all times’ (Butterfield 8); eliminate last part of dance scene of the first queen, showing the pelvic motions (Esther and the King); eliminate where Danny shouts to his mother, ‘What are you doing shacking up with him?’ (The Young Savages); eliminate dialog where wife says to husband, Harold, ‘Martin did not rape me’ (Last Woman on Earth); eliminate where pregnant woman says to other woman, ‘Bastards have only bastard children’…also eliminate rape scene (The Virgin Spring); eliminate where Dominique is in bed and turns over and exposes nude buttocks (The Truth); eliminate where guest says to girl ‘Hi, bitch,’ also where Magdalena says to Marcello, ‘I want to amuse myself like a whore,’ also where blonde says to man, ‘That bitch is in love with you,’ also where Emma tells Marcello, ‘Go back to your whore,’ also where blonde says, ‘I’ve always been a whore all my life and I’m not going to change now’ (La Dolce Vita).”
None of this concentrated activity on the part of the well-meaning ladies of Kansas is apt to bring movies any closer to what Kazan described as their more serious aim: “to help us digest and understand our own experience.”
Is it too much to suggest that no single word or phrase should be so objectionable, so repugnant to the normal adult that it cannot be spoken, printed or projected on a motion picture or television screen? (And good sense dictates, and the Supreme Court has confirmed, a complex contemporary society must be run on terms suited to the normal adult, not some perverted exception and not children, lest the society thus be reduced to the level of the pervert or the child.)
The very notion that a solitary word could be vile and harmful enough to warrant expurgating it from a book, a movie or a play appears preposterous on the face of it. These “filthy” and “obscene” words are produced from the same familiar 26 letters of our alphabet as those suitable for the most proper and polite society. How can inoffensive letters produce an obscene word when put together in a certain way? Even the very same letters are impotent unless arranged in precisely the proper order—clearly demonstrating that the taint is upon the word itself and not upon the component letters. (Reassurance for any of you who may have been inclined to suspect those little letters of any mischief on their own.)
Equally apparent, upon consideration, is the more remarkable fact that it is not the thought, the action or the object described by an obscene word that makes it obscene; for the idea, activity or entity can almost always be described by other “acceptable” words—"clean" words that mean precisely the same thing as the “dirty” ones. It is clear then that it is the word—and the word alone—that commits the offense.
An emotionally charged response to a word rather than to its meaning—to the symbol rather than the thing symbolized—is as primitive and illogical as totem worship or other forms of idolatry (which the Ten Commandments specifically forbids). The image of 20th Century Man—splitter of the atom, conqueror of space, healer of the world’s most dread diseases—groveling on his knees before the magic potency of a four-letter word may be just ludicrous enough to sway the least convinced of our readers. It may hopefully raise doubts about the logic underlying society’s commonly accepted attitude toward not only obscene words, but all so-called obscenity.
Mortimer J. Alder, director of the Institute for Philosophical Research, recently wrote, in response to a query on the pro and con of censorship in a democratic society: “Censors today object to certain words as well as to certain subject matters. They wish to ban the public use of common terms for sexual and excretory functions and organs. This leads to a certain difficulty, since many of the greatest writers in our tradition—including Aristophanes, Rabelais, Chaucer, Shakespeare and the translators of the King James version of the Bible—use some or all of the earthy terms. If we are to follow the verbal criterion of obscenity, then we must ban some of the greatest works in our tradition, or we must inconsistently permit in the classics of the past what we will not permit in contemporary works.
"Again, it is hard to determine the exact moral effect of ordinary terms, which, as Judge Woolsey remarked in his [favorable] decision on James Joyce’s Ulysses, are in fairly common usage. For one thing, their directness and simplicity may be more wholesome than the sniggering indirectness of artful erotica.”
Judge Thurman Arnold, past assistant attorney general of the U.S. Court of Appeals, offered an observation on the extent to which a symbol can itself become obscene, as a participant in the Playboy Panel on “Sex and Censorship in Literature and the Arts” (Playboy, July 1961): “In 1911 a book was widely sold named Three Weeks,” said the judge, “in which the obscene passages consisted only of pages of asterisks at appropriate places. The book was passed from hand to hand in every college. Certainly it is unhealthy to be stimulated by asterisks…. A strict standard of obscenity contributes to such unhealthy [possibilities].” Judge Arnold stated that when strong sexual connotations are given to symbols (such as words) it tends to “create attitudes toward sex which are akin to fetishism.”