- New York University Professor Irving Kristol argues that
a liberal today 'ought to favor a liberal form of censorship. " Basing
his arguments on the moral relevance of art, Kristol says bluntly: "If
you care for the quality of life in our American democracy, then you have
to be for censorship."
- Being frustrated is disagreeable, but the real disasters
in life begin when you get what you want. For almost a century now, a great
many intelligent, well-meaning and articulate people have argued eloquently
against any kind of censorship of art and entertainment. Within the past
ten years, courts and legislatures have found these arguments so persuasive
that censorship is now a relative rarity in most states.
- Is there triumphant exhilaration in the land? Hardly.
Somehow, things have not worked out as they were supposed to, and many
civil-libertarians have said this was not what they meant. They wanted
a world in which Eugene O'Neill's Desire under the Elms could be produced,
or James Joyce's Ulysses published, without interference. They got that,
of course; but they also got a world in which homosexual rape is simulated
on the stage, in which the public flocks to witness professional fornication,
in which New York's Times Square has become a hideous marketplace for printed
filth. But does this really matter? Might not our disquiet be merely a
cultural hangover? Was anyone ever corrupted by a book?
- This last question, oddly enough, is asked by the same
people who seem convinced that advertisements in magazines or displays
of violence on television do have the power to corrupt. It is also asked,
incredibly enough and in all sincerity, by university professors and teachers
whose very lives provide the answer. After all, if you believe that no
one was ever corrupted by a book, you have also to believe that no one
was ever improved by a book. You have to believe, in other words, that
art is morally trivial and that education is morally irrelevant.
- To be sure, it is extremely difficult to trace the effects
of any single book (or play or movie) on any reader. But we all know that
the ways in which we use our minds and imaginations do shape our characters
and help define us as persons. That those who certainly know this are moved
to deny it merely indicates how a dogmatic resistance to the idea of censorship
can result in a mindless insistence on the absurd.
- For the plain fact is that we all believe that there
is a point at which the public authorities ought to step in to limit the
"self-expression" of an individual or a group. A theatrical director
might find someone willing to commit suicide on the stage. We would not
allow that. And I know of no one who argues that we ought to permit public
gladiatorial contests, even between consenting adults.
- No society can be utterly indifferent to the ways its
citizens publicly entertain themselves. Bearbaiting and cockfighting are
prohibited only in part out of compassion for the animals; the main reason
is that such spectacles, were felt to debase and brutalize the citizenry
who flocked to witness them. The question with regard to pornography and
obscenity is whether they will brutalize and debase our citizenry. We are,
after all, not dealing with one book or one movie. We are dealing with
a general tendency that is suffusing our entire culture.
- Pornography's whole purpose, it seems to me, is to treat
human beings obscenely, to deprive them of their specifically human dimension.
Imagine a well-known man in a hospital ward, dying an agonizing death.
His bladder and bowels empty themselves of their own accord. His consciousness
is overwhelmed by pain, so that he cannot communicate with us, nor we with
him. Now, it would be technically easy to put a television camera in his
room and let the whole world witness this spectacle. We don't do it-at
least not yet-because we regard this as an obscene invasion of privacy.
And what would make the spectacle obscene is that we would be witnessing
the extinguishing of humanity in a human animal.
- Sex-like death-is an activity that is both animal and
human. There are human sentiments and human ideals involved in this animal
activity. But when sex is public, I do not believe the viewer can see the
sentiments and the ideals, but sees only the animal coupling. And that
is why when most men and women make love, they prefer to be alone, because
it is only when you are alone that you can make love, as distinct from
merely copulating. When sex is a public spectacle, a human relationship
has been debased into a mere animal connection.
- But even if all this is granted, it doubtless will be
said that we ought not to be unduly concerned. Free competition in the
cultural marketplace, it is argued by those who have never otherwise had
a kind word to say for laissez-faire, will dispose of the problem; in the
course of time, people will get bored with pornography and obscenity.
- I would like to be able to go along with this reasoning,
but I think it is false, and for two reasons. The first reason is psychological,
the second, political.
- In my opinion, pornography and obscenity appeal to and
provoke a kind of sexual regression. The pleasure one gets from pornography
and obscenity is infantile and autoerotic; put bluntly, it is a masturbatory
exercise of the imagination. Now, people who masturbate do not get bored
with masturba- tion, just as sadists don't get bored with sadism, and voyeurs
don't get bored with voyeurism. In other words, like all infantile sexuality,
it can quite easily become a permanent self-reinforcing neurosis. And such
a neurosis, on a mass scale, is a threat to our civilization and humanity,
- I am already touching upon a political aspect of pornography
when I suggest that it is inherently subversive of civilization. But there
is another political aspect, which has to do with the relationship of pornography
and obscenity to democracy, and especially to the quality of public life
on which democratic government ultimately rests.
- Today a "managerial" conception of democracy
prevails wherein democracy is seen as a set of rules and procedures, and
nothing but a set of rules and procedures, by which majority rule and minority
rights are reconciled into a state of equilibrium. Thus, the political
system can be fully reduced to its mechanical arrangements.
- There is, however, an older idea of democracy-fairly
common until about the beginning of this century-for which the conception
of the quality of public life is absolutely crucial. This idea starts from
the proposition that democracy is a form of self-government, and that you
are entitled to it only if that "self" is worthy of governing.
Because the desirability of self-government depends on the character of
the people who govern, the older idea of democracy was very solicitous
of the condition of this character. This older democracy had no problem
in principle with pornography and obscenity; it censored them; it was not
about to permit people to corrupt themselves. But can a liberal-today-be
for censorship? Yes, but he ought to favor liberal form of censorship.
- I don't think this is a contradiction in terms. We have
no problem contrasting repressive laws governing alcohol, drugs and tobacco
with laws regulating (that is, discouraging the sale of ) alcohol, drugs
and tobacco. We have not made smoking a criminal offense. We have, however,
and with good liberal conscience, prohibited cigarette advertising on television.
The idea of restricting individual freedom, in a liberal way, is not at
all unfamiliar to us.
- I therefore see no reason why we should not be able to
distinguish repressive censorship from liberal censorship of the written
and spoken word. In Britain, until a few years ago, you could perform almost
any play you wished-but certain plays, judged to be obscene, had to be
performed in private theatrical clubs. In the United States, all of us
who grew up using, public libraries are familiar with the circumstances
under which certain books could be circulated only to adults, while still
other books had to be read in the library. In both cases, a small minority
that was willing to make a serious effort to see an obscene play or book
could do so. But the impact of obscenity was circumscribed, and the quality
of public life was only marginally affected.
- It is a distressing fact that any system of censorship
is bound, upon occasion, to treat unjustly a particular work of art to
find pornography where there is only gentle eroticism, to find obscenity
where none really exists, or to find both where the work's existence ought
to be tolerated because it serves a larger moral purpose. That is the price
one has to be prepared to pay for censorship even liberal censorship.
- But if you look at the history of American or English
literature, there is precious little damage you can point to as a consequence
of the censorship that prevailed throughout most of that history. I doubt
that many works of real literary merit ever were suppressed. Nor did I
notice that hitherto suppressed masterpieces flooded the market when censorship
was eased. I should say, to the contrary, that literature has lost quite
a bit now that so much is permitted. It seems to me that the cultural market
in the United States today is awash in dirty books, dirty movies, dirty
theater. Our cultural condition has not improved as a result of the new
- I'll put it bluntly: if you care for the quality of life
in our American democracy, then you have to be for censorship.