George Will on Puritanical Progressives


In a recent column, George Will notes the parallels between current concerns about violent video games and the controversy over comic books in the 1950s (he also mentions moral panics provoked by "ragtime music, 'penny dreadful' novels, jazz, 'penny theatres,' radio and movies," as well as rock 'n' roll, rap, TV, and the Internet). Will emphasizes that Fredric Wertham, the psychiatrist who wrote the anti-comic diatribe Seduction of the Innocent and testified on the subject before Congress, was a man of the left, reflecting the "Puritan streak in progressivism." He quotes a lawyer for the trade groups challenging California's law against selling "offensively violent" games to minors, who told the Supreme Court that "today's crusaders come less from the pulpit than from university social science departments, but their goals and tactics remain the same." They also frequently adopt the language of public health, even when discussing such seemingly nonmedical issues as gambling and violent entertainment.

Critics of violent video games, of course, insist they are nothing like those fuddy-duddies who worried about comic books, crime novels, and Elvis Presley's hips. They say this medium, unlike all those others, really is so radically and alarmingly new that different legal standards should apply to it (an argument that provoked a skeptical response from Justice Antonin Scalia). Yet the state of California, in defending (PDF) its law, approvingly cites such embarrassing precedents as a 1956 Rhode Island law that included this finding:

It is hereby declared that the publication, sale and distribution to minors of comic books devoted to crime, sex, horror, terror, brutality and violence, and of pocket books, photographs, pamphlets, magazines and pornographic films devoted to the presentation and exploitation of illicit sex, lust, passion, depravity, violence, brutality, nudity and immorality are a contributing factor to juvenile crime, a basic factor in impairing the ethical and moral development of our youth and a clear and present danger to the people of the state.

For his part, Will seems concerned about "the coarsening of the culture," although he evidently believes this particular effort to stop it, which would require creating a new First Amendment exception for a heretofore protected category of speech, goes too far. Good for him. But it is often hard to tell the difference between the social conservatives of the left and the social conservatives of the right. Is it really just a matter of violence vs. sex?

I discussed the video game case in a column last month. Jesse Walker analyzed "the intolerant alliance" between censors of the left and censors of the right in a 2001 Reason essay. More on the comic-book crackdown here and here.

NEXT: In Which Tom Friedman Imagines a WikiLeak From a Chinese Diplomat Laughing About America's Dysfunctional Political System

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Moronic politicians and self-appointed “protectors of morality and goodness” are a clear and present danger to the nation.

  2. That was a great column. I only wish George Will had mentioned the “Ten-Cent Plague,” a terrific book about the 1950s comics scare.

  3. Libertarians can be quite concerned about the “coarsening of the culture” (and, indeed, deep libertarians say you should be), so long as they don’t advocate governmental means to combat it.

    This is the beef I have with the so-cons and their critics: both sides seems to be oblivious to the role government should play in cultural matters. Lefty anti-so-cons project their own desire to have the government control all aspects of the culture, and so-cons are sloppy about when they want government to back off, and when they want it to step in.

  4. Is it really just a matter of violence vs. sex?

    If you go back and reread the Supreme court discussions and questions you would know at least in legal terms that answer is yes.

  5. “Illicit sex, lust, passion, depravity, violence, brutality, nudity and immorality” – or, as we call it around here, “a quiet day at Warty’s.”

  6. In which we learn that Frederick Wertham Godwinned the comic book industry!

    PS. Get your government hands off my Call of Duty: Black Ops.

    1. Re: Draco,

      PS. Get your government hands off my Call of Duty: Black Ops.

      Or my Medal Of Honor!

      Darn! Too late! They took my ability to fight as one of the baddies! Ok, at least I get to re-play Frontline.

      1. That wasn’t a gov decision though, but a business one right?

        I got no problem with businesses responding to consumer demand.

    2. BF:BC2 just had a major update and there are 4 “new” maps (recycled BC1 maps) available today.

      Both are solid games.

  7. From the George Will article:

    Concern for children’s sensibilities is admirable. The coarsening of the culture is a fact with many causes, but its consequences are unclear. And it can bring out a Puritan streak in progressivism.

    […]”Today’s crusaders,” the lawyer [representing the video game industry] said, “come less from the pulpit than from university social science departments, but their goals and tactics remain the same.”

    Progressivism is a faith-based program. The progressives’ agenda for improving everyone else varies but invariably involves the cult of expertise – an unflagging faith in the application of science to social reform.

    Don’t forget the Protestant [Methodist and Evangelical] roots of Progressivism, which sought to bring Paradise to Earth by making people virtuous – by force, if necessary. There’s NO difference between a Christian program to make us virtuous and the current secular pogram: both seek to achieve the same end, both are just as arrogant and naive.

    1. Forced morality (or virtue if you prefer,) is no morality at all. Muslim women, for the most part, do not walk around wearing the drapes because they are moral, they wear them because rocks hurt.

      1. Compliance to enforced norms is sufficient for the public square. Making everyone true believers is too much work. You only need a critical mass of true believers and they will keep the others in line. Decentralized and distributed authoritarianism disguised as social norms is a meta-stable arrangement that requires only occasional input to keep going–a hanging here, a stoning there. Combined with the most powerful weapon for authoritarian–willing and prideful ignorance in the populace–you can keep the game going for hundreds of years.

      2. Funny, I was just thinking today how one of the things that nudged me on the road to libertarianism was playing Ultima V as a kid. Which ties to your point* and to the general subject of videogames.

        *Core of the plot being that the system of Virtues established as an aspirational secular “religion” in Ultima 4 is converted to a brutally enforced system of Laws by the kingdom’s authoritarian new ruler (who is being controlled by entities representing the antithesis of those virtues).

        Ultima 7’s villain was sort of a libertarian boogeman too, come to think of it. New Age of Enlightenment. Companion, Provider, Master. Socialist Newspaper. Hmmm. Krugman could probably pass for Batlin if need be.

        1. AVATAR!

  8. Is it really just a matter of violence vs. sex?

    When a movie like Orgazmo can get an NC-17 rating, maybe.

  9. The comments are mostly a depressing heap of TEAM RED TEAM BLUE braying, but there’s some OK idiocy to be found by those willing to dig for it.

    kenzimmerman wrote:
    George, amazing! Where were all the analyses and complaints when neocons were saving the Chileans from socialism with Pinochet or the neo-liberals saving Russia from Communism via the “Chicago Boys?” Seems your anger at movements to save children, youth, Russia, the US poor, or the poor of the 3rd world only applies to those efforts you don’t like or with whose political foundations you disagree. Comic books obviously had an influence on children in the 50s/60s, as do video games today. Otherwise children would not badger their parents to buy them. And both need to be regulated. How much and what form of regulation is the issue. Would love to hear your views on this question. At least this would be useful, as opposed to most of what you write.

    1. Re: Warty,

      Comic books obviously had an influence on children in the 50s/60s, as do video games today. Otherwise children would not badger their parents to buy them. And both need to be regulated. How much and what form of regulation is the issue.

      Not even here, Warty. I would posit the question to this dumbell of how does the fact that kids like comic books, or video games, justify the need to “regulate” either?

      Since there’s no real connection netween one and the other (i.e. a non sequitur), the second contention: “how much to regulate is the issue” becomes moot.

      1. Doesn’t seem to be a ‘how much’ question, as a ‘who’ question. If the child’s parents have a bug about it, it should be their task. Not the Government’s. And if anyone wants to sputter about ‘community standards, well, then if enough parents have a bug about it, they will take their business to store B, which doesn’t sell the material in question, and store A’s bottom line will suffer. If there is enough of a market force to keep it profitable for store A, then so be it.

      2. I particularly liked the non sequitur reference to Milton Friedman, OM.

  10. Bell Bottoms and disco in the 1970s led to Ashton Kutcher in the oughts. Cause and effect right there.

    1. So you’re saying disco made Demi Moore a cradle robbing cougar? Interesting.

  11. Moral scold, 15th century:

    This Decameron smut will ruin children! And that awful Chaucer, with his Canterbury Tales is absolutely depraved! They must be banned by the government for the good of our youth!

    1. Not that far off actually. Canterbury Tales had quite a bit of backlash, and there were attempts to shut down Shakespear’s types of plays.

  12. Now, get your minds off video games, and back on the evils posed by denim.

    1. Those kids and their tight dungarees are going to make themselves sterile. Ban the tight dungarees!

    2. Re: George Will,

      Now, get your minds off video games, and back on the evils posed by denim.

      That’s tight on the buttocks denim, to be exact!…..sainz3.jpg

  13. As a letter to the editor on this column said, Will’s case is made a lot weaker by the fact that progressive paragons like the AG’s of Mississippi and Virginia have filed amicus briefs in support of Cali’s law.

    1. As with Prohibition, certain sects of particularly authoritarian Bible thumpers can and will join hands with their social engineering, nanny state counterparts to unleash horrors on the American people.

  14. I think the big problem with the original piece is it tries to use already rather fake political terms to paint people using equally ambiguous terms from 50 years ago and thus attempt to pain ‘his’ people as good and ‘those’ people as bad. Conservative vs Liberal changes every 10 years or so, both parties are Progressives (though conservatives could be described as retro-progressive) and both sides tend to cherry pick research to match their political goals based off what memes are spread around the population.

    In other words, progressive social conservatives are still progressive social conservatives. His attempt to paint liberals with the brush is dishonest at best.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.