essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
In ancient Rome two censors were elected to act as a de facto tax office, assessing the number of citizens and the amount of their property. They were also responsible for good order in the state, and their censure of bad citizens resulted in banishment. The idea caught on, and the concept of moral censure, and its connection with money raising, was adopted by subsequent governments, organisations and individuals.
The Puritans were a number of religious extremist groups in Britain violently opposed to Catholicism, who advocated verbally literal interpretation of the Bible, submission of women to husbands, and servants and slaves to masters, believed in the existence of demonic forces, looked forward to the millennium, and opposed Church festivals, ornate dress, music and dance: on 02 September 1642 they banned attendance at theatres. A Puritan group dominated by Oliver Cromwell governed England 1649-1659. After the Restoration of 1660 many of these groups emigrated to America, where their descendants still live today. The connection between religious dissent and capitalism as found by Max Weber was evident with Puritans. Oliver Cromwell and his generals exterminated 50% of the population of Ireland 1649-53 for the crime of Catholicism, and Irish language and literature with them. The victims’ arable land and disposable wealth was appropriated by Cromwell. This caused a 300 year war with the Irish. The British eventually became very poor.
The Puritans disapproved of the theatre because they considered it too lascivious. When Charles II was restored to the throne 29 May 1660 the theatre was re-established and was even more lascivious. That ribald old playwright William Shakespeare, banned for 20 years, was appreciated again for his clever double meanings and suggestive situations. Theatre became very profitable. Being banned was seen as good for business.
Puritan religious groups lobbying in the USA Congress for many years eventually obtained what is usually referred to as Prohibition: from 17 January 1920, prohibition of the manufacture, transportation or sale of alcoholic beverages. In southern states the Ku Klux Klan broadened the list of things they hated to include people who sold or drank alcohol and enthusiastically lynched them. Some commentators see Prohibition as a form of Isolationism, a withdrawal, after involvement in the Great War, from tainted European ways. The Jazz Age had begun, and a stand had to be made. Consumption of alcohol remained about the same, as many people made their own (and some died from drinking the home brew). Gangsters saw their opportunity to smuggle supplies in from overseas, and organised crime became wealthy and able to make a stand against Government: Al Capone was only the chief beneficiary of Prohibition. Eventually the agitators for a purer way of life saw that Mafia and KKK killings, and death and disability from poisonous brews, were the main result of their reform. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, just in time to give a boost to the economy, then suffering from the Great Depression.
Once again there was confusion between morality and economics, as reformers intervened in the economy of the country and caused havoc with their attempt to change behaviour. Economic sanctions, such as raising duty on alcohol, have proved much more effective. Confused groups such as the KKK, who couldn’t see that lynching sellers and drinkers was overkill, remain a loaded gun today that any manipulator can use.
DH Lawrence published, or tried to, Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928, and bought up the question whether courts should try to enforce so called community moral standards. Lawrence’s book was about a cross social class sexual relationship between a working class man and an upper middle class married woman whose husband was impotent. Interestingly enough it was the middle class book buying public who were said to be offended. Not at the affair, though they probably were, but at the working class language the game keeper Mellors uses, especially for sexual and excretory organs. While these words were spoken in every pub in Britain, it was alleged they could not be printed without giving offence to readers. On the other hand the book was reviewed by Field and Stream as interesting because “it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores”. Lawrence’s point was the effeteness of a purely intellectual life (which he made intellectually). But the social point was that community standards were changing and so could not effectively be defended by anyone, supposing they needed to be.
The book was banned till 1960 in Britain, and longer in some other countries. The trial and acquittal of Penguin Books 02 November 1960 led to a widespread redrafting of restrictive legislation. It became clearer that publishers were just booksellers, not moral arbiters. Banning Chatterley made it more difficult to ban other books (but the attempt is still being made).
Joseph Goebbels was Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda from 1933 till his suicide in 1945. One of his first acts as Minister was to raise popular hate against “intellectuals”, who were castigated as “un-German”. Goebbels masterminded a book burning ceremony of undesirable authors on 10 May 1933. Members of the students’ union burned books considered democratic, communist, pacifist, Jewish, pornographic, Darwinist and un-German. Over 25,000 books by authors such as Einstein, Freud, Heine, Kafka, Mann, Hugo, Gide, Hemingway, Conrad, DH Lawrence, Wells, Huxley, Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov and Tolstoy were burnt. It was very efficient and well organised, a modern student’s dream come true. Goebbels then went on to arouse mass hysteria against the Jews using radio and cinema, again with unprecedented effectiveness. The technique was to focus dissatisfaction at hardships caused by the Great Depression on a target group, then pose as a reformer taking action against that group. This tightened the Nazi Party’s hold on power.
It was a simple message. Anything you didn’t like should be banned. Then things would get better. Trouble is, you’re really talking economics, and economics doesn’t work like that. And it was power politics, and back then people didn’t know how that worked. The Nazis taught everyone.
Will Hays enforced the 1930 Production Code in Hollywood, which detailed what could and could not be shown in motion pictures, from 13 June 1934. There had been several scandals involving film stars in the late 20s, and the major studios were concerned that a moral backlash would keep audiences away from productions. The principle behind the code was that art could be morally evil in its effects and must be policed to make sure it reinforced community values, such as crime does not pay and sex outside marriage is sinful. Right from the start enforcement of the code was hampered by disagreement. It turned out what one censor found inoffensive another found morally dangerous. The other factor behind the code, to protect vulnerable groups in the community such as women and children from imitating bad examples, proved to be difficult to enforce because the status of these groups kept changing in the period the code was enforced, 1934-54, and there was no clear proof they were so naively suggestible.
The Production Code made many people happier because it seemed to offer a simple solution for a complex problem. But it raised further problems. Whose moral standards should be applied? Did the Code focus attention on subject matter rather than protect audiences from it? The Code was an economic solution posing as a moral one and only led to an absurdly unrealistic situation.
Joseph Stalin was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union 1922 till his death in 1953. When Lenin died in 1924 Stalin gradually tightened his control on the Party, and from 1934 instigated a series of purges that eliminated most of his opponents. Also in 1934 the First Congress of Soviet Writers met to promote the official style of Socialist Realism. Most Western artists were denounced as decadent or counter revolutionary. All art was seen as propaganda for the government’s effort to rebuild a communist society. Soviet history was rewritten to show Stalin as benevolent dictator leading his country to prosperity. Soviet science was rewritten to show major inventions such as the aeroplane were Russian innovations. And after the Second World War the Cold War reinforced the substitution of propaganda for any form of realism at all. Gorky and Sholokhov were among the few who emerged as socialist realism writers but others such as Bulgakov found it an uncomfortable doctrine, and many artists left the Soviet Union for a less restrictive attitude elsewhere, or were incarcerated or killed.
Stalin seemed to have had the ambition to become a Tsar like Peter the Great. To implement his vision he could tolerate no opposition, and those he disliked not only were banned, they died: assassination, mock trials, gulag incarceration, exile, engineered famines, it all ended in death for dissidents, totalling nearly half a billion people. Creating a picture of the world through the arts and through government, by one man’s dictate, lasted 1934 to 1991, when it was revealed as an unrealistic fraud, a mere billboard.
George Orwell wrote his novel nineteen eighty four in 1948, a commentary on what he believed were trends in Western and Soviet governments of that time. It depicts a world divided into three rival powers in a fraudulent state of war, a fictitious conflict designed to keep people subservient to their national leader. This leader is called Big Brother, and may also be fictional. The protagonist of 1984 is Winston Smith, who works as an editor in the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to revise history by eliminating articles and photos of people who have been eliminated for disloyalty. The people are gone, and so must their records be erased. This in fact was a practise initiated by Stalin. In 1984 the purpose of censuring works, actions and people is carried to its logical conclusion and an attempt made to alter reality. The motive is total control by party leadership, which is anonymous, and they are only interested in power for power’s sake. The people are controlled by unlimited access to alcohol, pornography, and by hate sessions at fictitious wrongs. Government is in fact inefficient and operates with considerable underproduction and wastage.
Orwell identified a trend in all governments of his day and subsequent events have indicated he was accurate in his depiction of how power elites in and behind government manipulate the electorate. The book has been harshly criticised as subversive and praised as educational. It correctly identifies the use of censure, hatred and violence as means to acquire power by the unprincipled.
Senator Joseph McCarthy came to prominence in 1950, the year after the USSR had developed nuclear missiles. The Cold War became hysterical, and many feared the end of the world in a nuclear war. In 1950 McCarthy discovered he could make political capital by accusing members of the State Department of communism, and of membership of the Communist Party, without, however, being able to substantiate such claims. His fraudulent claims, and further charges of homosexuality levelled at members of diplomatic services, which again were not substantiated, gave McCarthy huge popularity for a time. In 1953 McCarthy persuaded the State Department to censor its European libraries and remove questionable authors from its holdings. Some libraries held public burnings of these condemned books. On 09 March 1954 prominent broadcaster Edward R Murrow exposed McCarthy’s abuse of his government position on the show See It Now, and McCarthy’s popularity began to plummet. McCarthy was exposed as a demagogue and witch hunter, and his cynical use of fears of communism actually helped the Communist cause.
The use of personal abuse, defamation and lies to engender hysteria and mob control that McCarthy used was similar to the techniques used by Joseph Goebbels in 1933 and for a time just as effective. McCarthy worked with fear and roused hysteria, but ultimately his object was power and he proved to be as subversive as the evil he posed as fighting.
Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 in 1953. It is a depiction of a future society where the reading of books is banned, and any surviving books are sought out and burned by ‘firemen’. Books in this society are perceived as disturbing the control of the masters over the masses, and people are liberally supplied with video entertainment on wall screens and other media whose effect is to shorten their attention span and rate of comprehension. The protagonist Montag is a fireman who begins to read a book he has confiscated from an old woman whose house and books (and person) he has burnt. The other firemen turn on Montag for his interest in books, and Montag’s house too is burnt. Eventually Montag’s city is destroyed in a nuclear war, and the survivors, all book loving refugees living in the countryside, resolve to learn the contents of what books remain. Bradbury was protesting at the McCarthy rabble rousing, which resulted in book burning, and the HUAC hearings of the late 1940s which targeted Hollywood. Between 1967-1980 editions of Fahrenheit 451 were published in an expurgated edition without the author’s knowledge or consent, apparently a common practice with American publishers.The book has been extensively banned in schools.
Bradbury castigates persecution of divergent viewpoints, controlled surveillance of populations, government (and business) focus on trivial entertainment content, and loss of responsibility for government on the part of the electorate. What the Roman Emperors called “bread and circuses” and did very well according to Juvenal. Keep the people ignorant and they will become fearful; fearful people are easily controlled.
John Lennon achieved a lot of unwanted publicity in March 1966 for remarks he made about Christianity in a British newspaper interview. It was a fact known and commented on by Church leaders that attendance at services was plummeting, and Lennon referred to this when stating his belief that Christianity would eventually fade away. He apparently thought that so would rock and roll, but that right now, “we’re more popular than Jesus”. He meant, more people were buying Beatles records than were going to church, and this could have been substantiated (but never was) statistically. The statement was quoted out of context in a US teen magazine, and several radio stations in the south, whose personnel had read neither the magazine nor the British newspaper interview, called it sacrilegious. There were organised burnings of Beatles records and mass demonstrations about “the devil’s music”. In Spain, South Africa and the Vatican the Beatles were banned. The Ku Klux Klan vowed revenge. People perhaps of little faith were outraged.
The persecution and murder of those who held heterodox opinions has been one of the less attractive features of Christianity. But the DJs who raised the rabble against Lennon were suspect: they had not read what Lennon actually said and were conducting a publicity campaign for their own benefit. Many of the pre teens who burnt Beatles’ records had not read Lennon’s comments either, and were being emotionally manipulated by their elders. The resulting hysteria is said to have led to Lennon’s murder 14 years later.
Books, ideas and people are still being banned. There is a useful list on Wikipedia of 125 book titles here, which probably just scratches the surface. Books are banned for all kinds of purposes: because they tell the truth; because they tell lies; because they reveal what should remain hidden; because they insult political leaders; because they insult religious figures; thought to be morally corrupting; thought to be seditious.
Why, one might ask, are they banned; not prosecuted on publication? It is the decision of a body, government, community or private, to take the choice from the hands of the readers: that is the offence. Most readers, it has to be recognised, will not be interested in most books thought questionable. Until they hear they have been banned.
Are any issues raised by this survey relevant to the world we live in today? It’s a sad story of genocide of the Irish and of Jewish people; forceful reformation of morals; attempts to control artistic expression; rigid imposition of doctrine; persecution of deviant (to the persecutors) beliefs and behaviour; and hypocrisy. Often entered into for financial gain and accumulation of power, and all too often said to be in the name of Jesus (who taught tolerance and love). All of it unsuccessful. Are we more tolerant of others’ views now?
One issue might be surveillance. To control people you need to know as much about them as possible. Governments have issued various kinds of identification card or papers at times for this purpose. We don’t have that, yet. But we all carry ID cards issued by banks. And we increasingly carry devices which contain our names, addresses, banking details, accounting returns, correspondence, names of our friends, membership details, phone conversations, internet history and much else. As far as we know the information flow is all one way, to us. But the next update for our device might introduce two way flow of information. We might begin to be tracked, to be surveyed (and not just on Facebook). So far we just have advertising, frequently targeted advertising.
Another issue is information selection. Electronic books are freely available; could they become a form of censored information? Most carry DRM, which polices the seller or publisher’s right to sell the reader a second copy of the same title should they want to read the book on a different device. Meanwhile, we must download proprietary ‘readers’ to our device, even if we already have one, in order to read the book we’ve just bought. Other services are content to catalog titles comprehensively and help us buy the books we want. Freely available books are known as ‘pirated’ illegal copies by sellers. Could some electronic books be censored? How would we tell? There are just a few, commercial, barriers to buying books at the moment. But on the other hand, video is freely available. We can watch almost anything in video format for free. What if we couldn’t choose what we want to read, but relied on a seller to tell us? The technology and potential for control of a mass audience is becoming a possibility.
We all rely on a search engine to obtain information over the internet. Things have changed; there is now only one search engine, the source of all our internet based information. And the search engine has to select from the available information. It cannot show us everything. There’s now too much. Some information is deleted on legal grounds, some on perhaps other grounds, moral or political. Pages are ranked and unwanted information can be placed last in a list we are told consists of millions of items. The search engine is also an advertising company. Search results are loaded now to sell products. A recent test I made on an historical person obtained one or two pages of biographical information and almost 40 pages advertising an OOP book on the person. How vigilant are we in assessing the criteria of selection a search engine makes? Elsewhere, how do we discriminate on news coverage on TV or in newspapers? Do we read or view different accounts of a news event? Are we aware of the political agenda of each newscaster? How vulnerable are we should information become propaganda? These issues are worth a thought every now and then.
Censorship is an (often concealed) intervention by a censor between the supply of information and the consumers of that information which modifies the information in some way, ostensibly for the good of the consumer or of some abstraction such as the state, or morality, or decency. Have you been invited to hate or do violence against some person or group lately? That’s a trademark of censorship. Who censors the censor?
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.