The nation braces itself for yet another round of moral indignation against moral indignation. The first indignation is that of publishers, booksellers, and sundry civil libertarians in a state of alarm about the second group of indignants who are doing battle against smut. The first indignants howl “Censorship!” and the second come back with the claim that they are only exercising their democratic rights. The Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association puts it this way: “The only people I know that can censor is the Government. Booksellers can sell anything they want to sell. But if they elect to carry pornography, we elect not to do business with them. We also elect to encourage people not to trade with them, through mailings and other means. We have a constitutional right to do that.”
As best the etymologists can make it out, “obscenity” comes from the Latin ob and caenum, meaning “to filth.” A community that cannot recognize what is filthy and depraved is a community that cannot recognize what is healthy and virtuous. Maybe that is the kind of community we have become as a nation, but there are many communities in this nation that are not resigned to going along. Wildmon and others are simply using the mechanisms of the market place to express their consumer preferences, which happen also to be their moral judgments. Libertarian hysteria to the contrary notwithstanding, acting on the basis of moral judgment is neither unconstitutional nor un-American. If through consumer boycotts and other mechanisms publishers and booksellers begin to feel the pinch, it is the pinch of democracy in action.
A different order of questions is raised when we move from boycotts and other voluntary actions to employing the coercive force of law. Commonly, and understandably, these questions come up in connection with schools and the materials to which children are exposed. It is almost unavoidable that sometimes censorship will be misguided. In Empire, California, for instance, four hundred copies of Little Red Riding Hood have been put in storage because this telling of the Grimm fairy tale has her taking a bottle of wine to her grandmother, and that, according to a school official, “condones the use of alcohol.” Our enprincipled position is that grandma is entitled to her occasional nip, but apparently that position has not carried the day with the school board of Empire.
Is the school board exercising censorship? We certainly hope so. If another etymological aside is permitted, “censorship” is from censere, which means to assess or oversee. That is precisely what school boards are supposed to do. They will frequently make mistakes in doing so, but if they stop assessing and overseeing, we might as well get rid not only of school boards but of schools. Only the most fanatical libertarian believes that, with respect to the socializing of children, anything goes. That is, in fact, not libertarianism but nihilism. Censorship is essential not only to education but to the civilization project itself. The genius of our society is not in its abandonment of censorship but in its institutional arrangements aimed at making sure that assessing and overseeing will be done in a way that is democratically accountable. According to those arrangements, the one thing that cannot be censored is public argument over the arrangements themselves.
Although the courts go back and forth on this, there are also “community standards” that may determine whether some materials are available for sale to adults. Without standards there can be no community. The many communities in the nation have a “thicker” description than the “thin” reality called the national community. To be a community is to be self-defined in relation to other communities. The proponents of nationalizing all communal standards are in fact the enemies of the democratic pluralism that they purport to defend. To give public expression to their standards, some communities will restrict the peddling of pornography. That also explains why in some places the whorehouse is on the other side of the county line. Those who feel oppressed by what they call “parochialism” may not be happy in such communities. That is one reason why, from time immemorial, people have moved to cities. That is also why, even in small towns, sales counters have an underside as well as a topside.
The battlers against smut claim that the publishers and booksellers are hypocritical. Hypocritical may not be the right word, but they are wildly inconsistent in a self-serving way. Every publisher exercises censorship, although he calls it editorial judgment. There are things that are thought to be beyond the pale, usually demarcated by taboos related to race, ethnicity, gender, and other sensitive categories. Among the publishers protesting the protest of the moral majoritarians, there are also distinct biases regarding religion and what are called traditional values. This is notably the case with textbook publishers. As one of Mr. Wildmon’s allies puts it, “Our values represent 75 percent of Americans. But it’s these values that are being censored from the schoolroom.” No fair-minded person will dispute that. Even People for the American Way, an organization formed to war against the moral majoritarians, admitted as much in a study of textbooks a while back.
Obscenity will always be with us, or at least until the coming of the Messianic Age. And so will the argument about what is and what is not obscene. The ongoing dispute is not between censors and civil libertarians, but over what standards should prevail in defining public decency. The argument for no standards is an argument against the very idea of public decency. Press those who make that argument, however, and we discover that they do have definite notions of what is obscene, beginning with the people who protest obscenity.
When the dispute over obscenity comes to an end, it will mean either the death of democracy or the arrival of the Kingdom. While we hope for the latter, we are responsible for preventing the former. And that is why, all in all, we wish the American Family Association well, and urge those who are in the business of dirty books and magazines to chuck their pretension that the American Way of Life depends upon their unfettered pursuit of profits.