Punditry rests on a foundation of easy stereotypes, clichés that make it easier to fit one’s ideas into a short op-ed or even shorter soundbite. So when social conservatives and liberal social engineers team up against speech that both find distasteful -- be it pornography, South Park, or video games -- the combination is inevitably labeled an "unusual alliance," even if those allegedly unusual allies have been snuggling for years.
The conventional wisdom has it that American censors have always been right-wing, at least in the days before political correctness. It might come as a surprise, then, that the ’50s crusade against comic books was led by a leftist psychologist, that Hollywood’s old Production Code was a byproduct of the New Deal, and that Jane Addams, one of the Progressive Era’s most prominent reformers, worried publicly about the effect movies might have on the young. "Is it not astounding," the fabled founder of Hull House wrote in 1917, "that a city allows thousands of its youth to fill their impressionable minds with these absurdities which certainly will become the foundation of their working moral codes and the data from which they will judge the properties of life?"
Conservatives and progressives have made common cause in many of the moral crusades and moral panics of the last century -- and in its broad outlines, one can see the not-quite-unusual alliance taking shape even earlier. The pattern that emerges suggests some interesting things about the authoritarian impulse, and may even offer some lessons for the more libertarian sectors of the left and right.
Consider the campaign against dime novels, inexpensive melodramas marketed to working-class readers in the 19th century. Their best-known foe was a man whose name has become synonymous with prudish censorship: Anthony Comstock, Christian fundamentalist and founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who devoted his life to suppressing sexual, anti-clerical, and otherwise "immoral" literature. But the books had another set of enemies. As Mark Worth notes in his 1988 study Children, Culture, and Controversy, the rise of Comstock coincided with the rise of a different idea, one of "scientific" planning and the rule of experts. "Child-rearing," writes Worth, "which had previously been thought of as being essentially a family matter, attracted the attention of numerous ‘professionals,’" including social workers, public health officials, pediatricians, psychologists -- and librarians. "Nearly all of these ‘professionals’ felt that because of their special training, they were better qualified than many parents to make certain child-rearing decisions."
Many of these scientific advances were real. There is a considerable difference, however, between giving people advice and making their decisions for them, a distinction the emerging Progressive ideology tended to obscure. And there is a difference between, say, public health, which involves a fair amount of testable scientific data, and running a library, which does not. Nonetheless, the new generation of librarians were armed with both the presumptions of expertise and the prejudices of their social class, a combination that led some of them to a position much like Comstockery. Such bibliocrats removed dime novels and other "corrupting" literature -- a category some extended to include the works of Mark Twain -- from their shelves, and they urged their colleagues to do the same.
Their concerns and Comstock’s didn’t entirely overlap: The librarians worried that "bad" books would spoil children’s taste for better literature, while Comstock believed the texts were literally inspired by the devil. But both sides argued that the books contributed to juvenile delinquency -- that by depicting crime at all, even in a negative light, they glamorized it, thereby recruiting kids into the underworld. Comstock’s crusade was theocratic; the librarians claimed the mantle of science. Yet they arrived at the same place.
Coding the Movies
Obviously, one can be a member of the professional class without also embracing the political left. But by the end of the Progressive Era, the intersection between the two groups had grown large. Reform now referred not just to citizens trying to remake social institutions, but to social institutions trying to remake citizens; the language of liberalism and the terms of technocracy had merged into a hopeless muddle.
On March 31, 1930, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America adopted the Production Code, ushering in what is paradoxically known as the Pre-Code Era. Pledged in theory to avoid alluring images of sin, crime, and vulgarity, filmmakers were effectively free to ignore the Code in practice. Local Comstocks could and did censor movies on the state and municipal levels, but Hollywood itself had no uniform mechanism for blocking violent, sexual, or anti-authoritarian pictures.
The Pre-Code Era ended on July 2, 1934, when the studios created a Production Code Administration with the power to enforce the rules. Under its reign, sexual seduction was "never the proper subject for a comedy." Directors couldn’t depict the drug trade, because "the existence of the trade should not be brought to the attention of audiences." There could be no profanity, a category which "includes the words, God, Lord, Jesus Christ -- unless used reverently." Films could not be disrespectful toward the flag, and no picture could "throw ridicule on any religious faith." And miscegenation was verboten. The rules would evolve over the years, but the system itself didn’t begin to crack until the ’50s, and was not overturned until the Motion Picture Association of America ratings replaced it in 1968.
Where did the Production Code Administration come from? The familiar historical account stresses the role of the National Legion of Decency and the Catholic Church, traditional conservatives opposed to cinematic sin. But Thomas Doherty’s excellent Pre-Code Hollywood (1999) notes that the new censorship had two more sources.
One was the Motion Picture Research Council, which conducted a five-year sociological study -- financed by the liberal Payne Fund -- of movies’ effects on the young. In adopting the mantle of science, the Research Council study harkened back to the librarians’ crusade against dime novels and Huck Finn; it also harkened forward to today’s lab studies purporting to show the ill effects of pornography or violent TV. Writes Doherty: "Couched in the jargon of white-coated researchers who had monitored sleeping children with a device called the ‘hypnograph’ (a ‘sleep recorder’ placed under the mattress to measure nocturnal jitters after exposure to horror movies) and ladled throughout with statistical precision...the Payne Fund studies seemed to quantify what the matrons and clerics knew in their hearts. To editorial writers and city councilors for whom Catholic theology was but hearsay evidence, the authority of social science clinched the case."
The studios also had to contend with the National Recovery Administration, the New Deal’s super-cartel, which would eventually be ruled unconstitutional in 1935. The NRA had its own code for the picture industry, one concerned mostly with business practices but with rules for content as well -- and if the latter regulations were vaguer than the Production Code’s, that only increased the uncertainty under which filmmakers had to work. (In those days, the courts held that First Amendment protections did not apply to the movies.) Among the NRA’s Hollywood administrators was A. Lawrence Lowell, president of the hypnograph-wielding Motion Picture Research Council. Meanwhile, several bipartisan censorship bills were pending in Congress.
It was these threats of government regulation that prompted the studios to give their Production Code Administration some teeth. The new authority was private, not public, but there’s little doubt as to whether it would have been created if the feds hadn’t been likely to impose even stricter rules from without. And who sat atop the PCA, ruling which film scenes could or could not be released? Joseph I. Breen, a prominent Catholic conservative. Left met right, and censorship was assured.