Censors Need to Win Only Once

Copyright © 1993, 2011 William Mego

"The three great elements of modern civilization," said Thomas Carlyle, "are Gunpowder, Printing, and the Protestant Religion." Last Wednesday night, in a debate over pornography and censorship, all three of those elements came together in the first floor meeting room of the Nichols Library.

People began arriving early, and by meeting time the room was so tightly crammed that, as the old joke goes, you had to step outside to change your mind. But that wasn't a problem. Nobody had come there to change their mind.

I wandered in a few minutes before the start of the meeting, and stood at the back of the room. I thought I knew what to expect. Every so often, usually during an El Nino, some concerned citizen rediscovers that magazines like Playboy or books like "Huckleberry Finn" (or even "My Friend Flicka") contain words and images that no decent citizen has any business seeing. This happens frequently enough that librarians reserve the last week in September to commemorate the censorship process and pass out literary purple hearts.

Last Wednesday, as many of you know, it was Playboy's turn again. After going through these procedings a number of times, you get to know the drill. First you hear the usual expressions of surprise and outrage. These are commonly followed by a depressing story about some unfortunate fellow whose life dissolved into a puddle of despair and degradation after he succumbed to temptation and happened to read, as W.C. Fields might have said, "that first fatal issue of Playboy."

Next, you can anticipate an account of someone who has been "addicted to pornography," a relatively new affliction which, although tedious and apparently time consuming, is apparently less damaging to the sinuses than crack cocaine.

Finally, one can expect apocryphal reports of men driven to rape and murder by pictures of the Barbi twins cavorting by the seashore, or by a centerfold showing some vacuous young woman whose "biggest turnoff" is people who pollute the planet and the color mauve. It's all very predictable.

In my opinion,as I have said before, censorship is not about morality, but about controlling thought. It's also about creating a monolithic community that shares the exact same, often fundamentalist, beliefs.

In the beginning, the censors usually attack those publications which are the most embarrassing for ordinary folks to defend. Having. secured the moral high ground, the censors force the rest of us to speak publicly in defense of things we may intensely dislike, such as Nazis, communists, and atheists or, in this particular case, things we are embarrassed to admit we do like, such as tasteless photographs of naked ladies. (Yes, we know they're not modest, but we don't know they aren't ladies.)

For example, Shel Silverstein's delightful children's book "A Light In The Attic" was attacked on the basis that it glorified suicide, Satanism, and cannibalism, behaviors which admittedly have little to recommend them. And the defenders of "Little Red Riding Hood" found themselves in the uncomfortable position of seeming to support teenage alcoholism.

That's what the censors are counting on. They are not out to ban a particular book, but to establish a consensus among the self-righteous that their "values" trump our values. Once they do that, a new precedent is set. Censors know that they can lose many battles, because they have to win only once.

Whatever I was expecting, what I saw Wednesday night will make me feel better about Naperville for a long time. Surprisingly, the great majority of those attending spoke in favor of retaining Playboy, and to continue to allow unrestricted access to video tapes that are "R-rated" (on the basis of violence, language, or existential thought.) Of course, the discussions were animated. After all, as Nietzsche said, no­body talks more passionately of his rights than he who, in the depths of his soul, thinks he might lose them.

But the discussions were also reasonable, well spoken, and polite. The speakers didn't try to distance themselves from Playboy, or pretend it is great literature. The magazine has interesting interviews and significant works of short fiction, which is why there's a braille version. In fact, for many years, it was the only publication that would publish certain liberal and, many feminist, ideas. But it's certainly not the Paris Review.

By now, you've probably read accounts of the meeting, and the very professional behavior of the board, which. I won't repeat. Several of the speakers were fascinating, like the young woman who said that she moved to Naperville because she was told it was more tolerant of immigrants. In all, it was an example of democracy the way Thomas Jefferson wanted it to be, tolerant and principled.

There have been several times that I haven't been very proud to be a member of this community, but I was proud last Wednesday night.

As I walked out past the TV reporters, I heard some of the petitioners planning for next time. They didn't seem very happy . Well, as they say, sometimes virtue is its own punishment too. But as I stepped out into the cold street, I thought how far we have come since we banned Chabas's "September Morn," and Hellman's "The Children's Hour." If Ayn Rand was right when she said that "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy," then maybe we are getting civilized after all.

On the library steps, a TV reporter was concluding. "So the board has voted unanimously to leave the rules unchanged, here in Naperville." And I thought how curious it is that things can suddenly become so very much better, simply because they stayed the same.