Robert Atkins

Should homo sapiens be renamed homo censoris? We're certainly the only species capable of censorship. Where does this troublesome urge come from? Perhaps it's merely an extension of that age-old, apparently hormonal instinct to dominate and control. Whatever its origins, censorship--the prohibition of speech or expression divorced from action--transcends cultural boundaries and predates recorded history. The Old Testament informs us that the Hebrews burned the prophecy of Jeremiah because it was too downbeat. Confucius's writings were incinerated around 250 BC after a change of dynasty made them politically incorrect. The Roman historian Tacitus mistakenly believed that Augustus was the first emperor to destroy books and punish speech, but the Romans had actually taken their cues from the Greeks. To be fair, the Romans should be credited with refining the practice of censorship, as well as with coining the term itself. Beginning in the fifth century BC, they commissioned "censors" whose primary purpose was to conduct the "census," in order to rationalize the collection of taxes. As night follows day, the imposition of moral standards followed the imposition of standards for citizenship. Around the time of Christ, Augustus codified these moral standards into law. But as Tacitus wisely noted about "immoral" books: "So long as the possession of these writings was attended by danger, they were eagerly sought and read: when there was no longer any difficulty in securing them, they fell into oblivion."

So what else is new? That's the thing about censorship--it seems to spring from misguided, but ever-so-human nature. What follows is a sometimes tragic, sometimes inadvertently amusing chronicle of mostly Western milestones in censorship since the fall of the Roman Empire. Rest assured that each of these objects--or agents--of censorship stands for hundreds like it.

 VENUS DE MILO. The armless classical statue was tried, convicted and condemned for nudity in Mannheim, Germany, in 1853. Reproductions of that day chastely renamed Venus the Goddess of Liberty. In 1911--in what critics ridiculed as an "elephantiasis of modesty"--Buffalo alderman John Sullivan and local Catholic clergy sought to cover up several reproductions of classical statues including Venus. Circa 1930 reproductions of the statue in Palmolive ads got censor's dots over Venus's breasts, and in Hungary, police burned her photo in a shop window. In 1955, in Winona Lake, IN, a full-scale reproduction was covered in poison ivy by a puritanical housewife hoping to disguise the statue's nudity.

 MEDIEVAL FRENCH DRESS. Philipe le Bel of France ruled in 1294 that bourgeois persons might not wear squirrel or gray fur, ermine, precious stones, gold or crowns. To enforce and delineate class distinctions, dukes, counts, and barons with income of 6000 livres a year might annually purchase four robes (suits). Knights with incomes of 3000 livres were allowed just three robes, one of which had to be for summer.

 MICHELANGELO. On its unveiling in Florence in 1501, onlookers stoned Michelangelo's "David," breaking off an arm. At Forest Lawn Memorial Park in California, the penis on a reproduction of "David" was masked with a fig leaf from 1939-69; its removal caused complaints. In 1969, a poster of "David" in a book shop in Australia was seized by the Sydney vice squad. Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" fresco in the Sistine Chapel proved controversial even before its unveiling in 1541. Blaylo de Cesena, the papal master of ceremonies, warned Pope Paul III, that its nudes were "better suited to a bathroom or roadside wine shop than to a chapel of the Pope." In 1558, veils, draperies and skirts were added. The work was the basis of the publication "Dialogue on the Error of Painters" (1564) by Andrea Gilio da Fabriano, which denigrated nudity in painting. In 1933, a New York court declared a set of pictures of the fresco obscene.

CALVINISM. Under John Calvin's rule, do's and don'ts in mid-16th century Geneva were enforced by annual visits to the populous from a minister and an elder. They checked for violations of the Old and New Testament monitoring, for instance, children's respect for their parents (some children are known to have been beheaded for striking their parents). Other areas of concern that seem far more foreign to us include: 1) the number of dishes that might be served at a meal (even wedding banquets were limited to three courses); 2) the wearing of jewelry, lace, frilly hats, or hair arranged to an "immoral height;" 3) the prohibition of theater and many books (authors of books critical of Calvin had to throw them into fires with their own hands) and 4) staying up past 9 p.m. at inns.

 BOWDLER FAMILY. The term "bowdlerize" means to expurgate literature; it comes from the English family that pioneered the commercial cutting--really rewriting--of literature. The most famous Bowdler family members were Thomas and his sister Henrietta Maria. Harriet--who could not bear the indelicacy of dancers at the opera--anonymously published "Sermons on the Doctrines and Duties of Christianity," which ran into 50 printings. Thomas published the "Family Shakespeare," ironically deleting notice of Harriet's participation in the project. It became the best-selling Shakespeare of the 19th century. In 1826, he published "The Family Gibbon," a sanitized, debauchery-free gloss on Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

 WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. The works of Shakespeare (1564-1616) have been expurgated more often than those of any other English language author except Chaucer. The bard was first bowdlerized by Queen Elizabeth I who cut the passage in "Richard II" in which the king is deposed. In 1660, Sir William Avenant trimmed seven plays with the intention "that they may be reformed of profanities and ribaldry." In the 18th century, by contrast, greater ribaldry was desired. Dryden's version of "The Tempest," for instance, gave Miranda a new--and sexy--twin sister.

 SHIKANO BUZAEMON. Shikano Buzaemon, a professional storyteller in theaters, published a collection of stories in 1686. Seven years later, a rumor spread that a talking horse had predicted an epidemic that could be prevented by eating pickled plums. Authorities investigating the run on the plum market and a twenty-fold increase in plum prices traced the rumor to a shopkeeper who got the idea from one of Shikano's stories. Shikano was sentenced to banishment, but died before being deported.

 CHARLES SEDLEY. Sir Charles Sedley (1639-1701), was a dramatist, a poet, and an insider at the court of King Charles II. He was equally well known for his drunken exploits. In June, 1663, he and some friends appeared "inflam'd with strong liquors" on the balcony of the Cock public house in London. They lowered their breeches and "excrementiz'd" on the crowd below, followed by a shower of urine-filled bottles and blasphemous speeches. They were sent to court and found guilty under a novel use of England's obscene-libel laws, which were based on the right to punish or prohibit any act contrary to the public interest. Subsequent obscenity laws in Anglo-Saxon cultures are based on this precedent.

 ANTHONY COMSTOCK & GEORGE BERNARD SHAW. Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) was the pioneer of modern American censorship. Starting with a police-assisted raid on a New York bookstore in 1868, the twin goals of Comstock's crusade were the elimination of obscenity and criminalization of abortion and contraception. The Comstock-inspired federal anti obscenity law of 1873 banned items "for the prevention of conception" and this phrase was echoed in similar laws passed by 22 states. (Many remain on the books.) As a special "postal inspector," Comstock abused his considerable powers by raiding the Arts Student League in New York in 1906 for its use of nude models and cautioned that "obscene, lewd and indecent" photos are "commonly, but mistakenly called art." In 1905, Comstock denounced George Bernard Shaw as an "Irish smut dealer" and his New York-bound play, "Mrs. Warren's Profession," as "reekings." The author of this play about prostitution was charged with obscenity in the Court of Special Sessions, but was cleared. Shaw irritated Comstock with his invention of the term "Comstockery," which he characterized as "the world's standing joke at the expense of the US. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate, country-town civilization after all." H.L. Mencken tartly observed of Comstock that "more than any other man he liberated American letters from the blight of Puritanism."

 US. W.W.I POSTAL CENSORSHIP. Wartime postal censorship was widespread. A steamship from the US. to China stopped at an American port in the Pacific during W.W.I to discharge mail. One of the postal censors came upon two letters by the same man: A short, to his mistress. The letters were in the wrong envelopes and the inspector wondered whether to right the error. She decided against it.

 SCOPES TRIAL (1927). Tennessee's Anti-Evolution Act of 1925 outlawed the teaching of Darwinian theory. John Scopes, a young biology teacher, volunteered to be a test case to challenge the law; Clarence Darrow took the case for no fee. He attacked what he regarded as excessive religiosity in the courtroom; objecting to Judge John Raulston's pretrial prayers and having a "Read Your Bible" sign removed from the courtroom. The obstreperous Darrow went on to demolish William Jennings Bryan's fundamentalist arguments, but still lost the case because he never denied that Scopes had taught Darwinian theory. The Supreme Court later reversed Scopes's conviction on a technicality.

 DIEGO RIVERA. Mexican painter Diego Rivera (1886-1957) was among the great muralists of the 20th century. In 1933, capitalist extraordinaire Nelson Rockefeller commissioned a $21,000 mural on the theme of "human intelligence in control of nature," from the socialist artist for the new RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. While working on the 63 x 17' mural in May, 1933, Rivera was dismissed from the project and paid off. Rockefeller objected to Rivera's inclusion of a portrait of Lenin. (His original sketch had simply called for "a great leader.") Rockefeller suggested that Lenin be replaced by an anonymous figure; Rivera volunteered to add Lincoln. No accord was reached and the fresco was destroyed. Rockefeller charged Rivera with propagandizing and Rivera countered that "All art is propaganda."

LENNY BRUCE. Labeled "America's #1 Vomic" by columnist Walter Winchell, Lenny Bruce was the hottest American comedian of the early sixties. His free form fantasies and rambling stories assaulted people accustomed to aw-shucks style humor. He regarded restrictions on free speech as ludicrous and observed that: "A knowledge of syphilis is not an instruction to contract it." He was tried for obscenity in Philadelphia, Beverly Hills, and Chicago during the early sixties, and deported from the United Kingdom in 1964. His Chicago obscenity trial in 1963 was typical for its focus on his mockery of religion. Increasingly embittered and consumed by his legal problems, he died of a drug overdose in 1966.

JOHN LENNON. John Lennon enraged Americans with his 1966 remark that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Christian groups burned Beatles records and tried to get the group's music pulled from radio play. Similar protests greeted the cover of his 1968 album "Two Virgins" portraying him and Yoko Ono in the nude. During the early seventies, President Nixon, Senator Strom Thurmond and the FBI tried to have him deported because of his politically incendiary lyrics.

Other censored musicians of the twentieth century include: Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht (by the Nazis); Dmitri Shostakovich (USSR); the Weavers (by US radio stations during the McCarthy era); the Sex Pistols (UK); the Rolling Stones (UK & US); Jethro Tull (UK); and Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and the Kingsmen (of "Louie, Louie" fame) almost everywhere. More recently, 2 Live Crew was unsuccessfully tried for obscenity in Federal court in Florida, and Pepsi canceled a contract with Madonna under pressure from Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, which objected to the "blasphemous" music video "Like a Virgin."
CENSORED BOOKS (AND BOOK BURNINGS) IN THE US SINCE 1965. A compilation of six surveys conducted by librarians and libertarian organizations show that the ten, most frequently attacked books in the US since 1965 are: "The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn," "Diary of a Young Girl" (Anne Frank), "Black Like Me," "Brave New World," "The Catcher in the Rye," "Deliverance," "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," "A Farewell to Arms," "Go Ask Alice," "The Good Earth,", and "The Grapes of Wrath."

Books recently burned in the US include: "Slaughterhouse Five" at Drake, ND, in 1974; "Of Mice and Men," at Oil City, PA in 1977; "Values Clarification" at Warsaw, IN, in 1977; "The Living Bible" at Glastonia, NC, in 1981; and copies of the "National Geographic," Disney comic books, and "Fifty True Tales of Terror" in Omaha in 1981.

 As Tacitus's ancient observation about the allure of banned books reminds us, when it comes to restricting speech and thought, there is precious little new under the sun.

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