Responding to Boyer and Downs

The two chapters that our class read in A History of the Book in America, both summaries of censorship in the United States in subsequent periods, were rather an interesting overview. Chapter four, by Paul S. Boyer, focused on censorship from 1880 to 1940, with Donald A. Downs’ chapter 5 focusing on censorship from 1945 to what was then the present, with the book being published in 2009 and likely completed with regards to content somewhat before that.

Boyer’s chapter initially focused on the American “genteel tradition,” which had taken over by the time this chapter started in 1880. I presume that the chapter previous focused on censorship in the time period immediately prior to this, which explains the slight disconnect here. The censorship at this point, which often involved the modifying of classics like Shakespeare and Chaucer, which, as somewhat of an autodidact Shakespeare scholar, means removing a large chunk of many of the bard’s plays, which is rather upsetting. It is incredibly difficult to imagine many of Shakespeare’s plays, especially his comedies, without constant references to and jokes about sex. Still, it is not difficult to see why many of Shakespeare’s plays were censored and replaced by books such as the Family Shakespeare. It is difficult to imagine a sexless Shakespeare when one of his most popular comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, quite literally has a sex joke as its title. (“Nothing” was slang for female genitalia, thus being entitled “Much Ado About Vaginas,” put rather bluntly.)

The discussion in both chapters about the manner in which censorship was less a de jure and more a de facto status was a very notably point. By that, I mean that, even when censorship was not enshrined in law, publishers and book sellers, as well as the citizens and librarians who bought said books, did quite a bit to determine what books were available to be consumed and sold. Ultimately, publishers and booksellers were concerned above all with their bottom line (in general, with some exceptions), and thus books that would lead to public rebuttal leading possibly to the loss of business certainly functioned as a poor economic decision.

Let us skip through most of these chapters in order to discuss one of the most interesting and tricky topics touched upon in these pages. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the most modern topics discussed by Downs (Boyer being too far back in history for this), namely progressive censorship. This concept, of course, carries with it the implication that all censorship prior to this had been by nature conservative, which is likely true as a general rule, but that seems somewhat overly simplistic (as one would perhaps expect from an overview such as this).

Liberal censorship, in our modern casual lexicon, ultimately comes down to the policing of speech that is not considered “politically correct.” As much as I enjoy condemning racist and otherwise discriminatory language, I absolutely believe people should have the right to utilize said language, though those around them should similarly be able to react as they choose. I have gotten into several rather aggressive confrontations with those close to me arguing for the right of, say, white supremacists to hold their beliefs and express them, as long as they stay within the domain of the law. I suspect the reason I am much more liberal/libertarian as opposed to progressive with regard to censorship in this manner due to my dual traits as a student of history and a (probably former at this point) Communist. It is difficult for me to argue for the censoring of far-right views when I know full well that this could lead to a similar level of censorship on the left. As much as I would like to do away with discriminatory and inflammatory speech, I am very much fearful what else could be censored if we are to accept as much. There is the somewhat amusing exception to my strong leftist progressivism and occasional authoritarian leanings.

Image result for skokie v. NSPA

NSPA v. Skokie allowed the American Nazi Party to march through a community of Holocaust survivors on the basis of free speech.

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