Anthony Comstock, the most infamous and influential censor in American history, was at his bluenosed, book-burning peak when Dr. J.H. Kellogg wrote Plain Facts, and the doctor commends Comstock for his censorship activities, and quotes him in several places, in his own remarkable volume of antisex. Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873, and the same year secured the passage of the so-called Comstock Laws from the U.S. Congress that made the interstate dissemination of "immoral" art and literature a serious federal offense; Comstock also managed to get himself appointed as a special, nonsalaried investigator for the post office, and in that position caused the conviction of countless persons, reportedly destroyed 160 tons of allegedly obscene literature and nearly 4 million pictures.
H.L. Mencken, noted American editor, author and social critic, wrote: "The story of the passage of the Act of Congress of March 3, 1873, is a classical tale of Puritan impudence and chicanery. Ostensibly...the new laws were designed to put down traffic [in obscenity] which, of course, found no defenders—but Comstock had so drawn them that their actual sweep was vastly wider, and once he was firmly in the saddle, his enterprises scarcely knew limits....
"In carrying on this war of extermination upon all ideas that violated their own private notions of virtue and decorum, Comstock and his followers were very greatly aided by the vagueness of the law. It prohibited the use of the mails for transporting all matter of 'obscene, lewd, lascivious...or filthy' character, but conveniently failed to define these adjectives. As a result...it was possible to bring an accusation against practically any publication that aroused the Comstockian blood-lust."
Publisher Bernarr MacFadden wrote, shortly after Comstock's death: "I propose to add to a dictionary that is already too long the word comstock; its meaning will be apparent to everyone. If you associate dirt, filth and obscenity with an idea, a picture, a statue, or anything, why—you simply comstock it."
The U.S. censorship laws and their vigorous enforcement, established by Anthony Comstock in that Puritan period, are still very much with us today. And it has only been within the past decade that American literature and art have made any serious attempt to throw off the shackles of censorship placed upon them by Comstock and his followers at the end of the last century.
Puritanism was still so dominant a force in America less than 50 years ago that, from 1919 to 1933, the entire nation suffered under the enforced Prohibition established by Congress with the 18th Amendment; and several states still suffer under various forms of Prohibition today. National Prohibition, known as the "Noble Experiment," was almost certainly the most corrupting legislation ever established in the United States; it made criminals out of honest men, and drunkards out of sober ones. It stands as a monument to the evil that can result when man attempts to establish by governmental edict what should rightfully be a matter of personal choice.
Abraham Lincoln said prophetically, in a speech before the Illinois House of Representatives, in 1840: "Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A Prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded."
And H.L. Mencken responded to the "Noble Experiment" with a quotation from the Bible: "There is crying for wine in the streets; all joy is darkened, the mirth of the land is gone."-- Isaiah 24:11.
In the mid-Twenties, the Puritan concept of theocratic control of the state became a national issue with the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Tennessee. A young biology teacher was put on trial for introducing Darwin's theory of evolution to his classes, because a state law specifically prohibited the teaching of any theory of the origin of man that was not in strict accordance with a literal interpretation of the Bible. The case caused a sensation because Christian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan went to Dayton, Tennessee, to assist the local prosecutor; and the American Civil Liberties Union persuaded Clarence Darrow, the most famous trial lawyer of his generation, to appear for the defense.
The judge's rulings made it impossible for Darrow to plead the real issues in the case and teacher Scopes was found guilty on a technicality; but Darrow managed to get Bryan on the stand as an expert witness on the Scriptures, and subjected him to a devastating cross-examination on his Puritan beliefs, regarding the conflict between science and the Bible, that made Bryan, and the Tennessee court, the laughingstocks of the nation. It was an experience from which Bryan never recovered; he died of a stroke five days after the trial ended.
If the "Monkey Trial" appears to be little more than a piece of quaint Americana from out of the past, we must inform our readers that there exists—at this very moment in the state of Arizona—a serious Puritan attempt to petition the legislature to pass an antievolution law, just like the one they had in Tennessee in the Twenties.
And how really different are the church-state considerations in the case of the biology teacher Scopes in 1925 and those of biology teacher Koch in 1960? Professor Leo F. Koch (pronounced "Cook") was dismissed from the faculty of the University of Illinois four years ago for responding to an editorial on student sex habits in the Daily Illini with a letter in which he stated: "With modern contraceptives and medical advice readily available at the nearest drugstore, or at least from 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." The campus paper published his letter and the university promptly fired him.
A few months ago another professor at the University of Illinois, Revilo P. Oliver, whose first name is his last name spelled backward because, according to some of his colleagues, "he doesn't know if he is coming or going," gained national attention with an article he authored for American Opinion, the magazine of the John Birch Society, in which he referred to the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy as "a valuable agent of the international Communist conspiracy."
The powers that be at the university, which happens to be our own alma mater, simply clucked disapprovingly at Professor Oliver's intemperate and ill-timed remarks, but concluded that his rather extreme political views did not hamper his ability as a teacher. Not so with Professor Koch; he got the boot!
Oliver was accorded his right to free expression, because all he did was call President Kennedy a traitor; Koch lost his right, because he did something far worse—he questioned our Puritan concept of sexual morality. That is obviously the one excess that lies outside the protections given to free expression in our free society.
Professor Koch touched the heart of the matter himself, with an all-too-prophetic passage in his letter that none of the major newspapers or wire services bothered to include in their stories on his dismissal: "The...important hazard is that a public discussion of sex will offend the religious feelings of 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."
And that is precisely what happened. Several churchmen voiced vigorous protests, and biology professor Koch got the old heave ho! He might have faired better at the University of Chicago, where, we understand, the Student Health Service hands out prescriptions for oral contraceptives to undergraduate coeds, married or unmarried, on request—on the not altogether irrational premise that if a girl is sufficiently interested to come in and ask for the prescription, she is probably going to engage in sex, with or without it.
The Puritan would argue that it is immoral to give such a prescription to a single girl—presumably in the severe and inhumane belief that the girl should be made to pay for her sin with pregnancy. The true moralist, we believe, would take a more considered and considerate view—recognizing that giving the prescriptions to the girls who request them is in the best interests of the girls themselves, and that this, after all, should be the deciding factor.
A Cleveland court decision recently projected the puritanical viewpoint in a similar situation: A mother was found guilty of contributing to the delinquency of a minor for giving her underage daughter instructions in birth control, after the daughter had given birth to three illegitimate children in as many years.
And here we have the crystallization of his moral dilemma—as real, as important, and as controversial today, as it was in the time of Dr. J.H. Kellogg.
The puritanical believe that their concept of sexual morality should be forced upon the rest of society through strict social taboos and governmental legislation. Those of us who believe in a free society—whatever our personal religious and moral convictions—believe that each individual in a democracy has a right to worship God in his own way, and follow the moral dictates of his own particular religion, or those that lie within his own heart, just as long as they do not encroach upon the personal rights of others.
By offering, in this installment of The Playboy Philosophy, a dissection of the extreme Puritan antisexuality that has existed in America over the past century, it should be easier to understand whence come the severe sexual restrictions still to be found in the society of the Sixties.