Intolerant Alliance

Censors of right and left have been cooperating for years.


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 1909, "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.

Scientific Comstockery

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.

Comic Tragedy

The Motion Picture Code crippled a young art, but it didn't destroy it. Many movies were wrecked by Breen's bowdlerizations, but others were inadvertently improved: By forcing writers, actors, and directors to sneak in their more subversive images and ideas, the new boundaries fostered a certain measure of subtlety. This hardly justifies its existence, but at least it offers a silver lining. It's harder to make such claims for the Comics Code, imposed in 1954.

Like dime novels, comic books faced attacks from both professional librarians and religious conservatives, with the former claiming that comics discouraged children from "real" reading and the latter adding that the medium led kids to crime and vice. The librarians weren't the only professional group weighing in on the issue: The National Education Association endorsed anti-comics legislation in 1948, along with laws against offensive films and radio shows. At the same time, the National Office of Decent Literature, a conservative Catholic group, kept lists of comics it considered "objectionable." In theory, the lists were merely an advisory gesture, not a call for legal repression. In fact, as Amy Kiste Nyberg notes in Seal of Approval, her 1998 history of the Comics Code, several police forces used the lists "to clear newsstands of objectionable material, even if such material was not found to be obscene under state law. In nearly all cases, a request by the police department did not need to be followed up by legal action."

The chief crusader against comics, though, was Dr. Fredric Wertham, author of the infamous Seduction of the Innocent (1954). To the extent that he is remembered today, Wertham has an image as a pathetic prude, obsessively searching superhero stories for sexual influences ("Robin is a handsome ephebic boy, usually shown in his uniform with bare legs….He often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident") and recycling Comstockian arguments linking juvenile literature to juvenile delinquency. Yet Wertham was a leftist psychologist, not a conservative fundamentalist: He was strongly influenced by Frankfurt School Marxism and by left-liberal critiques of mass society, and he couched his arguments in secular and scientific terms. And if most of his professional colleagues rejected his perspective, he did find several takers among liberal laypeople, some of whom belonged to the U.S. Senate.

In 1954, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held a three-day hearing on comic books, with Wertham as one of its star witnesses. When the subcommittee released its report a year later, it failed (to Wertham's disappointment) to call for federal censorship, suggesting instead that the industry be given a chance to regulate itself. By that time, concerned by the Senate's interest—as well as more direct threats of censorship on the state and local levels—the industry had already formed the Comics Magazine Association of America and adopted a code even more restrictive than the rules faced by filmmakers. Among its provisions:

* "Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed."

* "In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal [be] punished for his misdeeds."

* "Although slang and colloquialisms are acceptable, excessive use should be discouraged and wherever possible good grammar shall be employed."

* "Special precautions to avoid references to physical afflictions or deformities shall be taken."

* "All characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society."

* "A sympathetic understanding of the problems of love is not a license for morbid distortion."

There was a little room to maneuver here—the call for "dress reasonably acceptable to society" meant that women had to keep their clothes on, not that superheroes couldn't caper in silly outfits—but there wasn't much. Horror comics almost immediately disappeared, as did the more gruesome crime titles; the satiric Mad survived only by transforming itself into a magazine.

Comics are cheaper to produce and distribute than movies, making it easier for outsiders to evade the Code's restrictions. In scarcely more than a decade, a new wave of hippie-oriented underground comics ignored the rules and embraced sex, dope, and, occasionally, genuinely sophisticated themes. With the Supreme Court expanding First Amendment protections, the government did not attempt to impose new regulations (though some undergrounds faced censorship at the local level). In stages, the Code itself was loosened.

But an art form's development had been retarded, a fact one must blame at least partially on the restrictions it had to face. And behind those restrictions stood paternalists of both left and right.

X-Rated Gore

In 1985, Tipper Gore and Susan Baker, spouses of then-Senator Al Gore and then-Treasury Secretary James Baker, founded the Parents' Music Resource Center, a claque of concerned citizens who just happened to be married to some of the most powerful men in the country. The campaign they launched against pop music cast a contradictory set of images.

For general public-relations purposes, they were a grassroots group of parents concerned about the music their children were being exposed to. When it was time to intimidate the music industry, though, they were a well-connected collection of Washington insiders. If someone compared them to the anti-rock hysterics of the past, they stressed their moderation: They were with-it women who loved the rock'n'roll of their youth and would never dream of advocating censorship. But when the talk turned to What Is To Be Done, legal repression always lurked in the background—and sometimes the foreground.

Gore's unintentionally hilarious book Raising PG Kids in an X Rated Society (1987) argues that sound parenting is more effective than government intervention ("Our approach was the direct opposite of censorship"). Then it calls for government intervention anyway—suggesting, for example, that activists "request inquiries into the license renewals of television and radio stations that violate the public interest by broadcasting excessively violent movies and shows."

Above all, the group was simultaneously left and right, ambidextrously adjusting itself to different audiences. Gore pitched herself as a moderate liberal who was adept with sociological evidence and concerned about feminist issues. Yet her book—initially published by Abingdon Press, a religious outfit—includes an entire chapter on the alleged dangers of the occult, complete with such credibility-impairing factoids as this: "According to Mrs. Pat Pulling, founder of the organization Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, the game has been linked to nearly fifty teenage suicides and homicides."

Gore's jihad peaked with yet another set of Senate hearings, which provoked yet another set of "voluntary" self-regulations—in this case, the "Parental Advisory" stickers that record companies attach to potentially offensive albums, and which are in themselves enough to get a CD banned from some stores. The PMRC episode has echoes in today's left/right crusades against Goth rock and gangsta rap—and, for that matter, against violent or vulgar movies, TV shows, and video games.

Across the Small Divide

Why have social conservatives and social engineers made common cause so often? In a broad sense, the authoritarian left and authoritarian right will cooperate because both are interested in controlling people. But that doesn't explain why there have been so many times when forces with theoretically opposed goals have embraced the same set of controls.

No answer will be entirely satisfying, if only because the causes themselves emerge in different contexts: What's true about the enemies of dime novels won't necessarily be true about the foes of crime comics. One reasonable theory, though, is that the gulf between "progressive" technocrats and "reactionary" conservatives simply isn't as wide as one might initially assume, even if each side's sense of self requires it to pretend otherwise. The utopian future imagined by progressives may differ from the utopian past imagined by conservatives, but a liberal or leftist from a wealthy or middle-class background may be as unable as a rich conservative to identify with the reading, viewing, or listening preferences of the less privileged. Class aside, progressives and conservatives are equally capable of unconsciously adopting the larger social prejudices of their times. Witness Wertham's worries about homoerotic imagery in Batman, a fear expressed when bigotry against gays was rarely questioned.

Even when liberals and conservatives prefer different sacred texts—social science in one case, the Bible in the other—they can end up taking similar stances. Both social science and theology are reinterpreted, sometimes radically, from generation to generation, as social mores change. A Christian conservative in 2001 may have more attitudes in common with a secular liberal from the same year than with a Christian conservative of two centuries ago.

One social convention that never seems to disappear is an irrational fear of people different from you, especially if they come from the lower social orders; and with fear, there often comes the desire to remold. The biggest threat to free speech may not be any particular ideology, but the common impulse lurking behind many superficially opposed points of view.


CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the date of Jane Addams' comments on the movies.