The other afternoon, while drawing up an outline of subjects to cover in this month’s editorial, we received a telephone call from a New York agent (showbiz, not literary) and in the course of the conversation, we mentioned that we were working on The Playboy Philosophy for May. He said that a few evenings earlier he had read the current Philosophy aloud to his wife and they had spent most of the evening discussing it. If this editorial series can get very much of that sort of thing going around the country—prompting discussion and debate on the relative merits of the common and the uncommon man, individual initiative vs. security and conformity as motives in modern society, the deeper significance of religious freedom in America and the other subjects we’ve been expressing our own views on the last few issues—it will have been well worth the writing. We must confess that we feel closer to our readers while working on each new installment of The Playboy Philosophy than we have at any time since we began editing this journal nearly 10 years ago and nothing we’ve previously done here at Playboy has given us any greater satisfaction or pleasure.
It’s an interesting experience—organizing and setting down the fundamental ideas and ideals that have influenced and motivated one over the years. You find that in the very process of spelling out what you believe in, new truths begin taking form, new perspectives and relationships that you had previously only been vaguely aware of start falling into place. It’s a very stimulating process.
We try to personally read all the mail that comes in on the Philosophy and there has been a considerable amount of it—more than on any previous article, series or feature we’ve ever published. The letters are all carefully considered and we try to take them into account as we draw up the subject outlines for future parts of this editorial.
We don’t expect very many of our readers to agree with all the points we make in The Playboy Philosophy, though most will probably agree with most of them—for it is the unusual rapport between editors and readers that has made Playboy such a remarkable publishing phenomenon. But the single most significant point we have tried to establish here is the importance of many varied and divergent opinions—it is through their free exchange and interplay that a democracy thrives.
In the March issue, we discussed the importance of religious freedom and the separation of church and state in any society that is to remain truly free; we traced the history of American Puritanism and, last month, we pointed out how it has managed to insert itself into many of our laws and traditions, so as to frustrate some of the guarantees of freedom that our founding fathers wrote into the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Religious puritanism is never more insidious than when it succeeds in undermining the free expression of words and ideas amongst us. In the April issue, we also pointed out that censorship can become so confused that single words—treated as symbols, separate and apart from the action, object or idea they may represent—are often considered “obscene” in our culture; although granting such power to mere symbols might be likened to the worship of idols—specifically forbidden by the Bible—and is, according to Judge Thurman Arnold, creating attitudes toward sex that are akin to fetishism.
*Obscenity and the Law *
The U.S. courts no longer accept the position that a single word or phrase can be legally obscene, so such censorship or suppression in America is actually extralegal or outside the law; the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a work of art or literature—and this includes any book, magazine, movie or play—must be judged in its entirety and no part of it may be considered alone. But while the courts have become increasingly liberal in their interpretation of what constitutes obscenity in recent years, they still persist in judging our art and literature on the premise that obscenity does indeed exist and that it is illegal and outside the protections guaranteed to our freedoms of speech and press. It is with this premise that we want to take issue.
Is there any idea, no matter how repellent it may seem to some, that we can hope to expunge from the mind of man or afford to disallow in his writing or speech? As we have already said—and said again—our democratic way of life is built upon ideas, and our nation’s inner strength is drawn from their free, unhampered exchange—not, as Congresswoman Kathryn Granahan would have us believe, from censoring those notions that do not particularly suit us at a particular time. History has proven, over and over again, that the most important ideas are often not recognized as such when they are first expressed.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, stated in his second inaugural address: “The press, confined to truth, needs no other restraint…no other definite line can be drawn between the inestimable liberty of the press and demoralizing licentiousness.” And in 1799 James Madison, chief hand in the drafting of the Constitution of the United States, wrote that to make a “distinction between the freedom of and the licentiousness of the press” would subvert the First Amendment.
Madison stated further: “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press. It has accordingly been decided by the practice of the States, that it is better to leave a few of its noxious branches to their luxuriant growth than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigour of those yielding the proper fruits.”
The founding fathers of this great democracy were unalterably opposed to any exception in this nation’s guarantees of the freedoms of speech and press because of supposed immoral, licentious, obscene or otherwise objectionable ideas that might be expressed, for they were convinced that no man, or group of men, or any government had the right to curtail the opinions of any other man or their free expression.
Nothing in the intervening years has given us any reason to disagree with the wisdom of these first American patriots; in fact, a greater insight into the psychological factors that influence man’s behavior supplies additional reasons for agreeing with Jefferson and Madison that these most basic freedoms should not be abridged. Nevertheless, religious puritanism has subtly eroded both the spirit and letter of this doctrine so that today it is virtually lost to us.
Only with the sexual revolution of the last decade have we begun to win back some of this long-lost freedom. We would like to establish here why we, ourself, are opposed to any manner of censorship and why the label of “obscene” is no just cause for suppressing any man’s endeavor, no matter how significant or trivial.
The Problem of Definition
We do not believe that a satisfactory definition for obscenity can ever be established.
The Supreme Court of the United States attempted a definition in 1957 in a split decision (7 to 2) in the case of U.S. vs. Roth. The High Court ruled that a work is obscene when “to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest.” This is the definition currently used by the courts.
It had the virtue of seriously curtailing the kind of arbitrary censorship that had previously prevailed. It included several specific directives: A work must be judged as a whole, not piecemeal; the predominant theme must be prurient; the standard for judgment must be an average member of the community, not an emotionally retarded adult and not a child. It confirmed that a mere discussion or portrayal of sex was not enough to automatically stamp a work “obscene”; on the contrary, the Supreme Court clearly recognized that material dealing with sex was an essential part of the exposition of ideas protected by the Constitution and only those works devoid of the “slightest redeeming social importance” were considered to be outside the protective arms of the fundamental law; unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion have the full protection of the First Amendment. It also attempted to establish a distinction between erotic realism and pornography. However, as much-censored author D.H. Lawrence observed: “What is pornography to one man is the laughter of genius to another.”
And how does one go about “applying contemporary community standards”? The community standards of a sophisticated urban area like San Francisco are certainly not the same as those of a small town in Massachusetts. The community standards in the heart of a major city may not be the same as those of its suburbs; and both may differ from those to be found in the outlying rural areas; or in any particular part of a city where one particular ethnic or religious group predominates. Whose particular community standards do we apply? Is it to be the will of the majority? Or is it the will of a well-educated and enlightened minority? And in any case, have we the right to deny the laughter of genius to one group on the ground that it is pornography to another?
Justice William O. Douglas of the Supreme Court has observed: “The standard of what offends ‘the common conscience of the community’ conflicts, in my judgment, with the command of the First Amendment that ‘Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’ Certainly that standard would not be an acceptable one if religion, economics, politics or philosophy were involved. How does it become a Constitutional standard when literature treating with sex is concerned?
"Any test that turns on what is offensive to the community’s standards is too loose, too capricious, too destructive of freedom of expression to be squared with the First Amendment. Under that test, juries can censor, suppress and punish what they don’t like, provided the matter relates to ‘sexual impurity’ or has a tendency to ‘excite lustful thoughts.’ This is community censorship in one of its worst forms. It creates a regime where, in the battle between the literati and the Philistines, the Philistines are certain to win.”
Moreover, the judicial assumption that pure pornography is without any “redeeming social importance” is open to serious question. There is presently a considerable school of scientific opinion amongst authorities on human behavior suggesting not simply that pornography is harmless, but that it may actually have some value as a sublimation and release for pent-up sexual frustrations and desires.
Any person who feels the censor’s vengeful wrath may find some comfort in the knowledge that he is in illustrious company, for many of the world’s most honored writers, artists, poets and philosophers—the giants and the geniuses down through the ages—have known the scorn of their contemporaries and seen their works expurgated, bowdlerized, banned, burned and otherwise disfigured and destroyed. The list of the censored is a veritable Who’s Who of philosophy, art and literature: Homer, Confucius, Dante, Galileo, Shakespeare, Bacon, Voltaire, Gibbon, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Goethe, Shelley, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Hawthorne, Hans Christian Andersen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Darwin, Whitman, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Gilbert and Sullivan, Zola, De Maupassant, Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Kipling, Jack London, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Eugene O'Neill, Faulkner, Hemingway and Walt Disney, to name but a few.
Since the beginning of recorded history there have been individuals determined to force their own standards upon their fellow men. And time inevitably proves that the “dangerous” work of art or literature of one generation is the classic of the next—that any contemporary condemnation of the spoken or the written word appears ridiculous to succeeding generations.
Even the Bible has faced a long history of censorship in many countries. When William Tyndale translated the Bible into English, his work was suppressed and in 1536 he was imprisoned, strangled and then burned at the stake along with his translations.
Judge Thurman Arnold, past assistant attorney general of the U.S. and celebrated associate justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals, who wrote the famous decision in the Esquire obscenity case in 1946, has commented on the frustration and unintentional humor sometimes involved in a court’s attempt to determine what is, and is not, obscene; as a participant in the Playboy Panel on “Sex and Censorship in Literature and the Arts” (Playboy, July 1961), Judge Arnold observed: “I remember that in the case of Sunshine Book Company vs. Summerfield—involving a nudist magazine—in the District Court, Judge Kirkland examined each nude in the magazine and tried to analyze which would cause prurient thoughts. He condemned some and passed others. The spectacle of a judge poring over the picture of some nude, trying to ascertain the extent to which she arouses prurient interest—and then attempting to write an opinion that explains the difference between that nude and some other nude—has elements of low comedy.” Judge Arnold once commented that the only way to avoid argument over what is obscene and what is art in cases of this kind is to hold that “no nudes is good nudes,” which he was unwilling to do.
Arnold pointed out that William James made a most telling—and amusing—comment on the desperate futility of “playing the game of definitions,” in trying to determine just what “hard-core pornography” is: James wrote, “Such discussions are tedious—not as hard subjects like physics or mathematics are tedious, but as throwing feathers endlessly hour after hour is tedious.”
Dr. Albert Ellis, clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, authority on sex and marriage, author of The Folklore of Sex and co-author of the two-volume Encyclopedia of Sexual Behavior, said, during the same Playboy Panel on “Sex and Censorship”: “I don’t believe that the word ‘obscene’ can ever be properly, conclusively defined.”
One of the great difficulties with censorship of any sort is its unwillingness to stay put. It has a tendency to spread—and to contaminate other things around it. Once we accept the basic premise that any man or group or government has the right to dictate what the rest of us may read and listen to, what movies, plays and television programs we may watch, we’ve surrendered the ability to control the excesses that are certain to follow. Once the creepy, crawly creature is let inside the house, there is no predicting where it may get to and whom it may infect. A list of banned books begins with something called White Thighs and winds up with The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; a local movie censor begins by clipping all the nudes out of a “nudie” film (leaving almost nothing but the credits), graduates to snipping Brigitte Bardot’s bare fanny out of The Truth and winds up mutilating Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring (or cutting “s-l-u-t” out of a soundtrack, as a Memphis censor explained she’d done, because it is “a word I have never heard used before”).
The charge of obscenity itself is sometimes used as a cover for other things to which the censor objects: political, philosophical, social, medical, religious and racial ideas have all been damned at one time or another for being “obscene.” This aspect of speech, art and literature that experts like Ellis doubt will ever be “properly, conclusively defined,” but which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled outside the protection of the Constitution, can thus be used by freedom’s enemies to thwart and throttle almost any opinion they oppose.
We quoted newspaper reports last month on the Chicago case against comedian Lenny Bruce, indicating that while the formal charge was obscenity, “testimony so far indicates that the prosecutor is at least equally concerned with Bruce’s indictment of organized religion….”
Criminal charges of obscenity were brought against the comic and a license revocation proceeding was instituted against The Gate of Horn, the club in which he was performing at the time of the arrest. Within the last 12 months, Bruce has also been arrested on charges of giving obscene performances in San Francisco and Los Angeles; he had already been acquitted in a jury trial in San Francisco and the Los Angeles case was still pending at the time of the Chicago arrest and trial; in neither of the previous cases had any legal or administrative action been taken against the club in which he appeared.
The liquor license revocation proceeding was held before the trial to determine whether or not Bruce’s act really was obscene. Variety reported, “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 Alan 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, Chicago’s foremost café specializing in folk music, had its liquor license suspended for 15 days as a result of the hearing and owner Alan Ribback was forced to sell controlling interest in the establishment, because he was financially unable to reopen it on his own.
The trial was as incredible a spectacle as the hearing, though not for precisely the same reasons. In our opinion, Lenny Bruce is one of the most brilliant, perceptive performers to appear on a nightclub stage in the last decade (a viewpoint we share with a diverse group of critics and commentators on the performing arts that includes Steve Allen, Kenneth Tynan, Irv Kupcinet, Nat Hentoff, Dan Sorkin, Paul Krassner and Ralph Gleason); Bruce is also compulsively careening down a road of personal self-destruction from which there seems to be no turning back, which only made the trial doubly pathetic. Lenny decided to act as his own defense attorney.
As luck would have it, Playboy was taping the performance the night of the arrest for a review we were planning on his act (favorable); we have the entire evening on four-track and it was introduced as evidence at the trial by Bruce. We weren’t at the Gate that evening, but we have played the tape and, in our opinion, the judge should have handed down a verdict of not guilty. The lawyer who worked along with Bruce on the case made a motion to that effect, but it was denied.
The religious considerations in the case arose again during the trial, as Variety reported in a second news story: Legal authorities “have been puzzled by the arrest, since it is the general opinion of many café observers that performances with similar sexual content have been overlooked at other Chi clubs. It’s thought that Bruce’s attacks on organized religion may have been a deciding factor in making the arrest, or so the line of prosecution questions would indicate to date.”
Variety further stated: “The religious aspect popped up inadvertently on the final day of the prosecution’s testimony when 30 girl students from a Catholic college, who dropped in on a tour of the courts, were asked to leave [by the court]. The girls were in their late teens and early twenties.”
The jury, applying their own particular concept of “community standards,” found Bruce guilty. Judge Daniel J. Ryan denied a defense plea for more time to prepare a motion for a new trial (needed because a new lawyer for the defense had just come into the case) and the comedian was sentenced to one year in jail and a fine of $1000, the maximum penalty allowable under the Chicago obscenity statute. This sentence was pronounced in the United States of America, in the year 1963, because a man exercised his Constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech before an adult audience who had voluntarily gone to hear him speak and paid for the privilege. The sentence was pronounced because certain others in the community did not like the things that Bruce was saying, and objected to his saying them, even though they themselves were free to not go and pay to hear him. You don’t have to be a Lenny Bruce fan to be appalled by this.
Since—the acts of this particular judge and jury notwithstanding—the Lenny Bruce performance was not actually obscene, the decision will most certainly be reversed on appeal to a higher court. But one concerned with the underlying question of human rights must recognize that those opposing Bruce’s freedom of speech will most probably be winners in any case—for few, if any, Chicago club owners will risk booking the comedian in the future, with the threat of a possible license revocation hanging over their heads.
Lenny was not in court on the final day of the trial; he had a court appearance scheduled in Los Angeles on two new arrests from the previous week. L.A. police had tagged him with another obscenity charge during his opening night performance in a club on the Sunset Strip, although his previous Hollywood case had not yet come to trial. A few days later the Los Angeles police arrested him in a cab for suspicion of possessing narcotics (the third L.A. arrest on this charge within a year). The narcotics charge could bring up to 10 years' imprisonment, if they can make it stick; authorities sentenced stripper Candy Barr to 15 down in Texas for possession of marijuana on a first offense—15 years!
Lenny himself is to blame for much of his trouble, if it’s possible to blame a lost soul for being lost. But we keep getting images of Billie Holiday and remembering the kind of police harassment she went through during her last night here on earth. A few days before his Chicago trial, Bruce received a letter from the Reverend Sidney Lanier, Vicar of St. Clement’s Church in New York, who wrote, in part: “I came to see you [in a New York club performance] 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…. 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.’”
Lenny’s “trouble” has included a dozen arrests in as many months—six of them in Los Angeles, his hometown; he has lost his Beverly Hills house and is deeply in debt; the number of nightclubs in which he can work has steadily decreased to a small handful; the money he can earn in a club has decreased proportionately. Most of his friends and business associates have deserted him—many driven away by his unpredictable manner and moods—but the Vicar of St. Clement’s Church in New York offered—out of profound conviction and with true Christian charity—to come to Chicago and be a witness at his trial. Hip and perceptive Chicago disc jockey Dan Sorkin (best DJ in the Midwest and remembered nationally as second banana–announcer on the Emmy-winning Bob Newhart television show) withstood tremendous local pressures and literally risked his Chicago career to testify at the trial in Lenny Bruce’s behalf. It was a matter of principle and a defense of free speech that many around and over Sorkin could not understand; he offered to resign and seriously contemplated leaving the city rather than succumb to the coercion that was applied in opposition to his testifying.
Will Lenny Bruce be silenced? Perhaps. And if he is, the world will be a little poorer for it. Who else but Bruce could conceive of avoiding the newspapers' cameras after a Los Angeles court appearance by printing four-letter words all over his face with Mercurochrome?
Reverend Lanier wrote: “I emphatically do not believe that your act is obscene in intent. The method you use has a lot in common with those of 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…. May God bless you.”
In 1951 both Chicago and New York banned the Italian film, The Miracle, starring Anna Magnani, on the grounds that it was “sacrilegious.” The film’s distributor fought the ban through the courts and the Supreme Court ruled that sacrilege was not a proper basis for banning a movie; whereupon the City of Chicago promptly banned the motion picture again—this time on the ground that it was “obscene.” Again the film distributor took the case through the courts and again the Chicago censors' decision was overruled, but by the time the movie was finally cleared in the second Supreme Court decision, so much time had elapsed that there was no longer any meaningful market for the movie.
The Chicago censors' attempt to cut several “objectionable” words out of Anatomy of a Murder was successfully thwarted through a court appeal by the movie’s producer, Otto Preminger; one of the “objectionable” words was “contraceptive,” a medical term that can only be objected to on certain religious grounds.
The Chicago Tribune, self-proclaimed “The World’s Greatest Newspaper,” announced to its readers a little over a year ago that, henceforth, because of the number of popular books that its book editor found offensive, its list of “Best Sellers” would no longer include the titles of those volumes that did not measure up to their concept of community standards. Anyone turning to the Tribune’s Book Department list of “Best Sellers,” because of an interest in learning which books are currently most popular with the public, must receive, therefore, a slightly distorted view of what America is reading. From expurgated books, we have moved to expurgated book lists.
In the South, the charge of “obscenity” may be applied to unpopular ideas about miscegenation or some other racial issue. In Memphis last December the French film, I Spit on Your Grave, involving a light-skinned Negro who witnesses the lynching of his brother in a Southern town and decides to go up North and pass for white, was approved by the city censor board only to be seized in mid-showing by the Memphis vice squad and the print confiscated. The theater manager said he had “never heard” of such a thing as “seizing a film” (which he did not own, but only rented). He stressed the fact that the movie had been viewed and approved by the Memphis censor board and said, “What is confusing to me is exactly what power a censor board possesses when its power can be usurped by another authority.”
Apparently even a city’s fire department can get into the censorship act if they’ve a mind to. In Columbus, Ohio, in the same month (December) as the Memphis arrest and confiscation, the city fire department held a “routine” inspection of the Parsons Follies Theater a few days after the theater’s manager had been arrested for giving an “immoral exhibition” (for showing the French film, Les Liaisons Dangereuses), found several violations of local fire regulations and closed the theater.
A few weeks ago we were asked by David Susskind to participate in a panel discussion in New York on “The Sexual Revolution,” along with Dr. Albert Ellis, Reverend Arthur Kinsolving, writer Maxine Davis, sociologist-columnist Max Lerner and Ralph Ginzburg, publisher of Eros, for Susskind’s syndicated television show, Open End. The discussion was a frank one, including a particularly direct criticism of our society’s sexual hypocrisy and an undisputed statement, by Dr. Ellis, that American Puritanism is responsible for much of our marital unhappiness and divorce. The show will never be aired. It was killed by the Metropolitan Broadcasting Company, which syndicates Open End in major cities across the country, because, a spokesman for the syndicator explained, “The show is in very questionable taste.” Open End producer-host Susskind said, however, he considered the two-hour panel discussion “an excellent show…unusually adult, with a wonderfully balanced panel.” Open End is scheduled for late-night, adult viewing by the stations that carry it.
Not all TV sex discussion is suffering such censorship, however. At about the same time as the Open End incident, a group of experts held an unusually candid and honest discourse on adult sexual behavior, homosexuality and prostitution in a three-part series on the Norman Ross Off the Cuff show, on station WBKB, in which they concluded that all such activity came under the heading of personal morality and should not be legislated against by the government. Father James Jones expressed the opinion, during the panel discussion, that when private sexual practices become a public affair and are outlawed by the state, it tends to drive the activity underground and makes it more difficult for social, moral and religious leaders to effectively reach the people and influence their behavior.
Several successful television series of varying quality have been developed around lawyers and court procedure, adding considerably to the interest and understanding of the general public in U.S. jurisprudence. Far and away the best of these—indeed, one of the finest, adult and admirably articulate programs on all of TV—is the award-laden Saturday-evening hour of courtroom drama, The Defenders (Playboy, “On the Scene,” January 1963), which explores both the strengths and weaknesses of our judicial processes and regularly offers stories probing such societal problems as capital punishment, mercy killing and abortion. (And what is altogether unique about The Defenders is not simply a concern with controversial subject matter, but the fact that the show continually makes a strong case against commonly accepted attitudes on these subjects—arguing against capital punishment and in favor of mercy killing and abortion—thus appealing to the rational mind of man rather than to his prejudices.) The popularity of the program proves not only that a significant part of the public will respond to thought-provoking television fare, but is today willing to accept a show whose mature content consistently stresses the lag between our law and changing social needs and requirements of a modern, evolving morality. The show’s most frequent situation is one in which the individual is thwarted by the outmoded prescriptions of established authority—a theme that finds a receptive audience in a time when we are finally searching for new and better answers to the problems of society that have for so long been resolved on the basis of the prejudices and prudishness of antiquated traditions and taboos.
But despite such encouraging signs that suggest a better, more rational tomorrow, antisexual sentiment is still so strongly imbedded in our society that the label of “obscene” is one of the most effective means of damning a variety of otherwise unrelated unpopular viewpoints. In the same way, since the label of “Communist” is currently even more damning than “obscene,” persons intent upon forcing the rest of us to conform to their personal moral standards sometimes utilize the utterly fantastic, but nonetheless effective, technique of calling sex subversive and sexual ideas with which they do not concur a Communist plot! (As observed in last month’s editorial, Reverend Ira Latimer, in his scathing denunciation of University of Illinois Professor Leo Koch, and Congresswoman Kathryn Granahan, in her attack on the “smut and filth” in today’s movies, both saw Red in any more-liberal view of sex than their own and said so. In actual fact, of course, their attempt to smother differing viewpoints is standard operating procedure for the Communists.) A liberal attitude toward sex is not subversive, but the attempt to coercively control such attitudes surely is. The Communists—like any other totalitarian group or government—use censorship to establish a single standard or approved point of view.
It should be mentioned also that the Communist State is, at its heart, antisexual. Most dictatorships are. Sexual freedom only grows naturally in a free society; totalitarianism is more apt to beget sexual exploitation, prostitution and perversion. We commented in the third part of this editorial (Playboy, February 1963) that the Chinese Communists had been conducting a campaign against “disapproved” publications (“These books and pictures seriously harm those workers who by constantly looking at them can easily become degenerate in their thinking,” cautioned the Peking Worker’s Daily) and a Post of the Catholic War Veterans in Hartford, Connecticut, unthinkingly congratulated and emulated the Communists in a letter to book dealers in their community aiming to suppress, through the threat of boycott, certain publications they considered undesirable: “We have to hand it to the Communists…who have launched a nationwide campaign against pornographic trash,” wrote the well-meaning American veterans to their fellow citizens. “Should not this example provoke a similar literary cleanup in our land where the morality is gauged by service to God and not to an atheistic state?” The letter was accompanied by the NODL list of “disapproved” literature.
The late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated in a speech delivered on May 8, 1939: “The arts cannot thrive except where men are free to be themselves and to be in charge of the discipline of their own energies and ardors. The conditions for democracy and for art are one and the same. What we call liberty in politics results in freedom of the arts.”
Judge Thurman Arnold wrote in the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals that quashed an attempt on the part of the U.S. Post Office to rescind the Second Class mailing permit of Esquire magazine in 1946: “A requirement that literature or art conform to some norm prescribed by an official smacks of an ideology foreign to our system.”
President John F. Kennedy warned about the dangers of censorship in a nationally televised news conference in February of 1961: “The lock on the door of the legislature, the parliament, or the assembly hall by order of the King, the Commissar or the Führer,” he said, “has historically been followed or preceded by a lock on the door of the printer’s, the publisher’s or the bookseller’s.” President Kennedy made it clear that he was skeptical regarding the value of censorship and that the responsibility of choice should rightly rest with the individual and the family, not with external groups, including the government.
But less than two years later, Kennedy’s administration was itself under criticism for government “manipulation of the news” relative to the Cuban crisis, and control over federal news sources is being justified by government spokesmen on the basis that “news can be an effective weapon in winning the Cold War.” How easily censorship spreads from area to area, and how easily it is rationalized, once we condone and permit the first exception to our total freedom of speech and press.
Critics of the administration’s action suggest that such censorship is more apt to be used to cover up government mistakes than for any strategic advantage in the Cold War. And most of the newspapers of the nation have editorialized against the so-called “manipulation” on the ground that the people in a democracy have a Constitutionally guaranteed right to know.
It can be effectively argued that a free society’s greatest strength is its freedom and we will not effectively challenge our totalitarian adversaries and eventually win out over them by curbing the very rights that set us apart from all dictatorships.
Whose Foot Is to be the Measure?
Another perplexing problem with censorship of any kind is determining just who is qualified to do the censoring. In 1814 Thomas Jefferson stated that he was “mortified” to find that the sale of a book could become a subject of inquiry in the United States of America. Rhetorically, he asked: “Are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold and what we may buy?…. Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched?”
Those most interested in promoting censorship are usually least qualified to act as censors and those most qualified are most strongly opposed to the very idea of censorship in a free society. Even if the “ideal censor” were to be found (and the very words are, to us, incompatible)—a Solomon who truly tried to adjust his decisions, not to his own likes and dislikes, but to the Supreme Court’s concept of a community standard—we have already seen that no single standard can ever be said to exist for the many and varied educational, social, ethnic and religious parts of a community and certainly not for the thousands of separate communities all across this broad country of ours. And we have previously quoted Justice Douglas of the Supreme Court who has stated: “Any test that turns on what is offensive to the community’s standards is too loose, too capricious, too destructive of freedom of expression to be squared with the First Amendment.”
If that most improbable Solomon of Censorship does exist, few communities have made any concerted attempt to find him. Instead, we are asked to shape our foot to the size of an arbitrarily selected officer of the police department or a censorship board composed of housewives with spotty educational and cultural backgrounds. Attorneys for the award-winning French film The Game of Love, a faithful adaptation of a classic novel by Colette, clearly demonstrated the questionable qualifications of a great many censors, when they appealed to the Illinois courts the City of Chicago’s refusal to grant the motion picture a permit for exhibition.
Having entered into evidence the facts that the film had been awarded the Diploma of Merit at the Edinburgh Film Festival and the Grand Prix du Cinéma Français (Grand Prize of the French Motion Picture Industry) and that the American premiere of the film had been sponsored by the Fresh Air Fund of the New York Herald-Tribune, the attorneys brought out through testimony of members of the Police Censor Unit that there were no rules of procedure under which the Censor Unit operated and that they sought no outside opinions on movies being considered—neither the distributor’s, nor drama critics', nor movie reviewers'. Lt. Ignatius J. Sheehan, head of the Censor Unit, testified that he did not read many books, did not attend many plays, did not attend art exhibits, did not read the book-review sections and had never read any of Colette’s novels. He knew nothing about the awards that the motion picture had received nor anything about the honors which had been given Madame Colette during her lifetime. He stated that he could not define a classic or name any classic. He stated that he took the entertainment value of a motion picture into consideration in determining whether a picture would be accepted or rejected and he did not find the film entertaining. Lt. Sheehan testified that one of the things indecent was that a group of girls in the movie presumably saw the private parts of an adolescent boy who came out of the water after swimming nude. He stated that he thought that the young girl in the picture was “sex minded” and that this was abnormal in a girl 15 years old.
A Mrs. O'Hallaren testified that she was a movie censor for the City of Chicago, for which she receives $304 a month and that she views movies eight hours a day, five days a week. She stated that she was a high school graduate and that she read movie reviews after she had passed upon a film, “but I don’t read too much before. I don’t go for that, because I like to see the movie my way and enjoy it and censor it, and then I am going to do it from my thinking. Then I am going to check to see how close I came.” She testified that she had never read any of Colette’s works and did not know too much about her. She stated that she did not think the motion picture The Game of Love had any entertainment value and that she thinks that movies should provide entertainment. She stated that the absence of entertainment value could be one of the reasons for rejecting a picture. She stated that it was unusual for a girl of 15 to have sexual desires. She stated that she thought the movie was offensive to the standards of decency and that it was unfit, immoral and obscene. She defined a classic as “a work accepted by the standards of excellency,” stated that it was accepted by the people generally and that Shakespeare’s writings were classics because she had “never heard anyone really talk against Shakespeare.” She testified that “there are a lot of things true to life that we cannot put on the screen.”
Mrs. Joyce, another of the movie censors, testified that she was a high school graduate, that her tastes did not lean to classics, and expressed the opinion that most classics were written in the 18th century. She stated that she would be “surprised and amazed” to find that Colette’s novels circulated freely in the Chicago Public Library and that if any books like the movie were circulating, such books ought to be looked over before they get into the Public Library. Mrs. Joyce testified that she rejected the picture because “it was immoral, because it was against my parental rearing. Anyway, it was immoral, corrupt, indecent, against my religious principles, unclean, sinful and corrupt.”
To put control of the communication of ideas within a community in the hands of the police is to open the door to the establishment of a police state and yet this is precisely the governmental authority endowed with the power of censorship in most American cities today. Are the housewives who were dictating the level of taste and sophistication in cinema for all the citizens of Chicago, second largest city in the United States, qualified for their job?
Who really is? The late Judge Jerome N. Frank of the U.S. Court of Appeals wrote in his opinion in U.S. vs. Roth: “To vest a few fallible men…with vast powers of literary or artistic censorship, to convert them into what J.S. Mill called a ‘moral police,’ is to make them despotic arbiters of liberty products. If one day they ban mediocre books as obscene, another day they may do likewise to a work of genius. Originality, not too plentiful, should be cherished, not stifled.”
The job of censorship often goes, by default, to those in the community who have nothing better to do with their time—or worse—to someone who has a preternatural interest in censorship.
Dr. Benjamin Karpman, chief psychotherapist at St. Elizabeth’s Federal Hospital in Washington, D.C., has stated: “Crusading against obscenity has an unconscious interest at its base.”
Judge Thurman Arnold responded to this statement, during the Playboy Panel on “Sex and Censorship” with the comment: “Apparently to be a good censor, one should be possessed of a real prurient interest. There is a genuine comedy in the contradictions that roam throughout the area of pornography. At the same time that men insist on suppressing obscene literature and punishing those who write it, they enthusiastically go on collecting it and preserving it in libraries of priceless value.”
Judge Arnold might have gone on to observe that almost every major library of reputation in the world possesses a goodly number of so-called obscene books and every major art museum some “pornographic” paintings (many done by the most famous artists of history); the most valuable collection of erotica in the world is housed in the Vatican in Rome.
Dr. Albert Ellis responded to Dr. Karpman’s statement by saying, “There are people, like the famous John Summer and Anthony Comstock who, in all probability, do have an unconscious or semiconscious prurient interest in pornography, and they sublimate this by making their life’s work the legal suppression…of pornography. But there’s no reason to believe that every single individual—every clergyman, for example—who’s against pornography and violently campaigns against it, has any great sexual interest in it. Many censors have a nonsexual interest in curtailing other people’s liberty. And I’d say that most of them are very hostile and disturbed individuals, but not necessarily sexually disturbed.”
Maurice Girodias, editor-publisher of Olympia Press in Paris, who pioneered in the publication of works by Henry Miller and other controversial writers and was the first to publish Nabokov’s Lolita, said, during the same Playboy Panel: “Nobody has ever offered a coherent explanation of censorship, and yet one is supposed to submit to it as if it were a part of a God-given code of conduct. Why? Censorship is obviously inspired by individual feelings of modesty, of decency…. But these feelings are rooted in what I would call a sexual inferiority complex: a fear of sexual inadequacy, of failure; or the realization of a physical disgrace, or a lack of experience. People suffering from such a complex want to bring down everybody to their level…. This complex has held sway over us for [generations]; it has taken the social form of censorship—moral and mental censorship. In short, describing sex is a crime in the eyes of those who are ashamed of their own sex, and who wish to burden others with their sense of sin.”
Another member of the panel, Ralph Ginzburg, editor-publisher of the quarterly Eros and author of the book An Unhurried View of Erotica, commented that Arnold Gingrich, publisher of Esquire, believes that we are entering a new era of puritanism and favors this direction. “Actually,” said Ginzburg, “there is no question but that puritanism is fading…. [Gingrich] has stated that the world is about to embark on a great new voyage of morality, by which he apparently means puritanism. He feels that freedom in literature and the arts is going to produce a counteraction, that people are going to get fed up with honesty regarding sex and throw it out in favor of a sort of mid-Victorian hypocrisy—though he doesn’t say it in those words, of course. But if Gingrich thinks that the public is becoming bored by sex, or upset about its prevalence, I think he is projecting onto the public something which may be the result of his own increasing age.”
Which reminds us of the impudent verse by James Ball Naylor:
King David and King Solomon Led merry, merry lives With their many, many lady friends And many, many wives; But when old age crept over them — With many, many qualms, King Solomon wrote the Proverbs And King David wrote the Psalms.
Whatever the multiple motivations that prod the prude and the censor, it should be clear that much more is involved than simply the considered protection of the public from ideas that might prove harmful. Moreover, our democracy is founded on the premise that people have a God-given right to knowledge—a right to know. And no human being has the right to tamper with the free flow of ideas among his fellows.
The attitude that some ideas are best kept from the citizenry advances a concept of totalitarian paternalism that is contrary to the most basic ideals of our free society. It is akin to the colonialist concept that a new nation may not be ready to rule itself. The only way in which the people of the country can ever become mature enough for self-rule is by setting them free to practice self-rule. Similarly, the only way in which a society can mature sexually, socially and philosophically is by allowing it naturally free and unfettered sexual, social and philosophical growth. By treating our own citizens like so many overprotected children, we have produced our present, too-often-childlike, immature, hypocritical social order.
The Evil Effect of Obscenity
Having considered the harmful effects that censorship of any kind can have on a society, it is reasonable to assume that the obscenity it is intended to protect us from must be even more harmful. That would be the only reasonable justification for allowing the censor to exist at all. It may be surprising to some to learn, therefore, that there is no real evidence to support the supposition that obscenity is harmful at all. In fact, there is a serious and not inconsiderable school of professional scientific opinion that suggests that obscenity may actually be beneficial to society.
Dr. Benjamin Karpman, the chief psychotherapist at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, whom we quoted earlier, has stated: “Contrary to popular misconception, people who read salacious literature are less likely to become sexual offenders than those who do not, for the reason that such reading often neutralizes what aberrant sexual interests they may have.”
Not everyone agrees on the subject, of course, though most of the disagreement comes from outside the scientific community. But with or without scientific credentials, those opposed to obscene material are usually far more vociferous in expressing their views than are the proponents of a same sex policy as regards both behavior and literature.