“It was not until 1974 that flatus first appeared on screen,” Robert Arthur reports in You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboos (Feral House). But two decades after the cowboys in Blazing Saddles broke ground by breaking wind, fart jokes had become acceptable enough to be featured prominently in the G-rated Disney feature The Lion King. Such progress provides hope that the more pernicious taboos Arthur examines may one day be tamed as well.
As Arthur shows in this frequently fascinating survey of things left unsaid, the consequences of refusing to acknowledge basic realities of life go beyond silly censorship. The idea that prostitution must be prohibited because it is tantamount to slavery, for instance, is based on unexamined, culturally and historically contingent beliefs about female sexuality, while the disastrous attempt to create a “drug-free society” by force denies the basic human desire to achieve altered states of consciousness. Demystification is often a prerequisite for decriminalization. —Jacob Sullum