A nation’s constitution – particularly any bill of rights it may contain – often is said to embody the values of a people. More often it does the opposite. Constitutional rules describe not what comes naturally to a people but what comes hard to them.
Take as an example the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, quoted in full below.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
We need it. Tolerance does not come easily to us. We are such a touchy people, taking offense at the drop of a word, that we gag each other at every turn if we can. The Supreme Court, consisting of nine lawyers, all too often has been willing to co-operate by somehow reading “no law” as “some laws.”
Extreme events are particularly dangerous pretexts for bad policy and bad court rulings. In 1954, for example, a gang of four teenage Brooklyn boys committed a series of outrages. The ringleader, Jack Koslow, was an extraordinarily intelligent sociopath with a fondness for Spinoza and Nietzsche. He also read Mein Kampf, and, though Jewish himself, openly admired Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, even wearing a Hitler mustache and giving Nazi salutes. He despised Americans, whom he regarded he regarded as weak, stupid, and pathetic, while noting, “Now the Germans are smart.” In a summer crime spree, the boys targeted vagrants, whom Koslow called “parasites on society.” They set some on fire and beat one to death. In addition, they terrorized girls they caught in the parks, flogging them for fun. They finally were caught when a witness saw them beat a man, burn his feet, and then throw him in the East River where he drowned; the witness identified them to police.
A psychologist named Frederic Wertham interviewed the boys. Wertham, a crusader against comic books, previously had warned in his book Seduction of the Innocent that in comics, “Blood flows freely, bosoms are half-bared, girls’ buttocks are drawn with careful attention.” Dr. Wertham appears to have given them careful attention anyway. After the interview, Wertham declared that the boys had been corrupted by comic books, though I think anyone else might have picked up on that little Nazi thing instead. The boys didn’t make any such excuse, by the way. Wertham simply showed them comic books and asked if they read things like that. Of course they said yes. If he had shown them a baseball bat and asked if they ever played with one, they would have said yes, too.
Wertham singled out Nights of Horror as a particularly baneful example of what can corrupt youth, though there is no evidence Koslow ever read an issue. Nights of Horror had a tiny circulation. It was a comic with very mild S&M themes; it was drawn by Joe Shuster, of all people, one of the inventors of Superman. Shuster at the time was broke and made money where he could. (DC owned the rights to his big hit.) New York City authorities were convinced by Wertham’s arguments, and they brought charges against the publishers of Nights of Horror. A NY judge upheld the charges, calling the magazines pornography and marking them down for grammar: “The volumes are replete with misspelled words,” he said. The case was appealed and went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a 5/4 decision the Court agreed with the lower court and the destruction of the magazines was ordered – a few survive. The decision was written by Felix Frankfurter, a founder of the ACLU.
Ancient times? Not really. Fortunately, the courts are a little less quick to uphold bans on the written word in 2011, but the same old attitudes prevail among the public, resulting in soft censorship. Look at the hysteria over the MTV show Skins, which is trashy but hardly the threat to civilization the Parent’s Television Council acts as though it is: the UK has managed to survive the BBC version of the show. Look at the recently released expurgated edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn—and the fact that I can’t quote what was expurgated on this blog site without violating the terms of service. (Whatever will they do with Pudd'nhead Wilson?) Incidentally, Twain’s whole point (even more blatantly in Pudd'nhead) was that casual racism and evil doctrines such as slavery easily can be indoctrinated into young boys; it undermines his message, which is entirely politically correct in modern terms, to change his language. As another example, back in 2005 I caught the revival of Sweet Charity on Broadway with Christina Applegate in the Charity role. (Spoiler follows.) In the original, Charity, a good-hearted woman with a past, is dumped by her presumed white knight boyfriend who, in the end, can’t get past his socially conservative hang-ups. In the revival, he regrets what he did but then is counter-dumped by Charity. This ending may be more in tune with the state of the gender war in the 21st century, but it really does miss the point of the original. It actually makes the guy less of a jerk and turns her recovery into revenge instead of self-affirmation.
The cost of living in a free society is sharing it with people who live and speak in ways of which we ourselves don’t approve. I’m happy we have a Constitutional rule that (usually) forces us to do it. I’d be happier still if we didn’t need it.