My daughter and I had a great time Saturday night at Plan B Theatre’s celebration of the First Amendment, And The Banned Played On. Various local politicians and Salt Lake celebrities read excerpts from favorite children’s books that have been banned somewhere or another. Dangerous, subversive, pornographic works, intended to destroy the morals of America’s Youth. Like Charlotte’s Web. And Winnie the Pooh. And The Giving Tree. And Green Eggs and Ham. And Where the Wild Things Are. And The Wizard of Oz. You know. Books by commies.
It made for a deliciously entertaining evening, and I couldn’t possibly do a better job of reviewing it than this lovely piece by my friend Les Roka. But my daughter and I had a wonderful conversation about it in the car on the way home, and it led to this thought.
Isn’t censorship the single most foolish human endeavor ever? I mean, for some reason people keep doing it. It’s culturally universal. All the books listed above were banned somewhere in the United States, and we’ve got a First Amendment. Most civilizations have practiced some form of it historically. But isn’t the failure rate essentially 100 percent? Isn’t the inevitable result of censorship this: that later generations look back at those doing the censoring as complete and total idiots?
Now, of course there are times censorship works fine, if the goal is to destroy books and the knowledge and wisdom found in them. If, when you burn down the library of Alexandria, you destroy priceless copies of books now lost to mankind, you have to say the book burners won. Just in terms of my field, dramatic literature, the losses are devastating: Sophocles wrote 123 plays–7 have survived. Aeschylus wrote 90; again, we have 7 today. For Euripides, the count is 18 of 92. Saddest of all is Menander, who wrote over 100 plays, of which only the Dyskolos remains.
But when we think of burned manuscripts, destructive fires in the libraries that collected them, our reaction is sadness and anger. ‘What a shame,’ we think. ‘What dolts,’ we think, ‘to have destroyed or neglected so much of our historical legacy.’ Basically nobody thinks ‘boy, those generations of censors did good work.’
As my daughter and I drove home on Saturday, we talked about some of the celebrated censorship cases in American history; over Lady Chatterley’s Lover, over The Tropic of Cancer, over Howl. Do you know the name David Kirk? He was a literature professor at SFSU who testified that Allen Ginsburg’s Howl was a work utterly lacking in literary merit.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. . . .
I did that from memory. I can cite a lot of it from memory. In the 2010 movie about the Howl trial, Jeff Daniels plays Kirk in a performance that’s a comedic masterpiece. That’s how we think of David Kirk nowadays. A joke.
Probably best to define our terms. Obviously no library can purchase every book, and library boards have the difficult task of deciding where to spend limited resources. That’s why a literary canon is helpful, and also why it’s ever expanding. I’m playwright in residence at a local theatre company; they have to make tough decisions every year about which plays to produce. If they look at 20 plays and decide to produce 5 of them, they haven’t censored 15 plays. That’s not censorship.
I know another local theatre company, an exceptionally good one, that basically only produces small musicals and small-cast comedies. That’s their niche. And they do great work. That doesn’t mean they’re ‘censoring’ larger cast musicals, or large cast dramas. They know their audience, and they produce plays that audience wants to see. Publishers can’t publish everything, theatres can’t produce everything, libraries have limited shelf space.
No, censorship, as I’m using the term, involves bowing to pressure. It’s when a library or school or bookstore is pressured to not carry a book, or, having carried it, to remove it from their shelves. It’s when a theatre company decides to cut that word or that speech or that gesture from a play they’ve agreed to present, or when the author of some book is threatened because of something he or she has written. If a professor publishes a controversial book, s/he has to be able to rely on the university where s/he teaches to have her/his back. That’s why tenure and academic freedom are so essential, and why any university that doesn’t have real tenure or doesn’t strongly support academic freedom shouldn’t be accredited.
As a private citizen, if another citizen says something I disagree strenuously with, and I state my disagreement strongly, that’s not censorship. I’m uncomfortable with campaigns to fire someone, or to boycott a product based on something someone said. I like robust debate in a democracy. And I think that censorship is by no means limited to conservatives. The punishment of politically incorrect speech is as distasteful to me as any other kind of censorship.
I have been censored, and, sad to admit, I have acted as a censor. Back when I was a college professor, I was very occasionally called upon to see a student-directed theatre production, to see if there was anything in it that might offend our audience’s sensibilities. I found it a profoundly distasteful task, but I did it, mostly because I know most of my colleagues hated doing it as much as I did, and it seemed selfish to me to refuse to do a disagreeable job that might otherwise have to be done by a friend.
What I hated about it was this: when you act as a censor, when you’re there to censor a play production, you watch it differently than you ordinarily do. You can’t just enjoy it. You’re there to look for things to be offended by. You’re watching it from the perspective of someone who gets offended by stuff, whatever, language or subject matter or something. And that’s a horrible way to watch a play.
Censor-watching isn’t the same thing as criticism. On this blog, I do a lot of criticism, of plays and movies and books. Criticism is a healthy thing, and a positive thing. When you criticize a work of art, you’re trying to look beneath the surface, trying to figure out what’s really going on, or at least what appears to be going on. When I see a play written or directed by a friend, I want to do that friend the respect of taking their work seriously, to really interrogate it, to really break it down.
But censorship is inherently shallow. Censorship is when you count the number of swear words. Censors look to be offended; they’re trying to be offended. A critic offers the artist the compliment of suspending disbelief. The censor can’t be bothered to work that hard. The censor doesn’t want to share in experiencing the central act of art; to bear testimony, to lose ourselves in a story and a world, to feel compassion for another damaged and lost soul. The censor instead wants to bask in the warm glow of self-righteousness.
Censorship judges. Censors don’t get Matthew 7:1-5. Censors can’t get past the mote in the brother’s eye. Censors are blinded by the beam.