The banning of books and movies, and censorship more generally, used to be associated with political conservatism. Organizations like the National Legion of Decency (NLD), founded in 1943 by a Catholic archbishop to rate objectionable content in motion pictures, led the way. A “C” (or condemned) rating by NLD put Catholics on notice that viewing the film in question was sinful. NLD ended its C rating for films in 1978, and the organization itself dissolved in 1980.
In the 1960s, as well, some Catholic parochial school students canvassed their neighborhoods with Legion of Decency petitions. I was one of these students, and I went door to door for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The point of the petitions was to ban those films that received a C rating. Despite this embarrassing overstep, Catholic school children marched en masse through suburban and city neighborhoods to rid the world of films like “The Pawnbroker.”
In the world of banning books, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to name a few, became criminal texts. They were helped in large part by the “Banned in Boston” label that became popular in the 1920s as a result of that city’s Watch and Ward Society, an organization devoted to the censorship of books and the performing arts. Although “Banned in Boston” would later become a marketing gold mine — it all but guaranteed a hit play or a best-selling book — in 1952, The Harvard Crimson saw Boston’s ban against “immoral” literature as something of a dilemma even for liberals.
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The Harvard Crimson noted,
“Here, then, is the liberal’s dilemma. That trashy literature is a problem, most will agree. How to deal effectively with that problem is another question. The liberal feels, on one hand, that any form of censorship is repugnant. Yet on the other hand, he cannot help but realize that much of the material on the market today is published with but one aim in view — the arousing of violent emotion through sensational methods, and a consequent boosting of sales.”
Censorship in the “old days” had everything to do with sex but little to do with the world of ideas. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, for example, was sold openly and prominently in mainstream bookstores in the late 1960s, along with Time magazine, Ed Sanders’ F-ck You magazine, The Village Voice, and I. F. Stone’s Weekly.
After the sexual revolution in the 1960s, adult bookstores began to operate freely in most large cities. New York’s 42nd Street (as well as Philadelphia’s porn district near Filbert and Arch Streets) became magnets for “anything goes” kiddie porn, which raised few eyebrows back then. Today’s accessible-to-all porn market — sans the underage component — is a (Fellini) Satyricon big tent where, with just one Google click, you can find anything from the most benign vanilla fantasy to the most depraved zoological gymnastics. Sex and porn, as often noted by E. Michael Jones, has become a kind of drug to “placate” the masses.
But the targets of censorship have changed. The new censorship is more about ideas and everyday language. A good example early on in this transformation was the Left’s malleability in agreeing to overlook the fatwa placed on Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 for his book, Satanic Verses, although some writers perceived as leftist (namely Susan Sontag) went to great lengths to defend Rushdie and his book.
The reinvention of Banned Books Week is evident in ALA’s description of the event as a time when “Readers Explore What It Means to Challenge Texts” — meaning, of course, challenging books that were once considered American classics but are now deemed objectionable or racist in some way.
The censorship reset now includes Confederate flags and monuments; statues of Christopher Columbus, Kate Smith, Jefferson Davis; words or phrases in works by Mark Twain; and books like Harry Potter and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s classic, for instance, found itself on the leftist blacklist because to black students, according to the proponents of this censorship, the “trope of a white savior makes its black characters seem less than human.”
NPR recently reported on (and seemed to celebrate) the reconfiguration of Banned Books Week by the American Library Association (ALA). Banned Books Week used to be a protest against censorship of LGBT books or books with “untoward” sexual or editorial content. Now, the week-long event focuses on books that challenge current woke ideology on race, gender, pronouns, and the core values of Western civilization. The reinvention of Banned Books Week is evident in ALA’s description of the event as a time when “Readers Explore What It Means to Challenge Texts” — meaning, of course, challenging books that were once considered American classics but are now deemed objectionable or racist in some way. Boston’s old Watch and Ward Society, in fact, lives on in a more universal and powerful way in the ALA, the new censorship watchdog.
History shows that “challenging” texts is very often a precursor for banning them. One need only look at how “offensive” statues all over the nation were plucked from their foundations and thrown into storage units after years of being “challenged.”
Even among those on the Left, you might be thinking, there must be some — perhaps a silent majority — who would know where to draw the line when the latest innocuous new “offense” comes up for a ban.
That did not happen in Rochester, New York, however, when the Brighton Central School District recently defended a decision by the Council Rock primary school to drop the song “Jingle Bells” from its curriculum because of the song’s alleged underlying racist tones.
Council Rock principal Matt Tappon decided on the ban after reading an essay on early twentieth-century sleigh songs, including “Jingle Bells,” written by Boston University professor Kyna Hamill. Hamill’s essay was a historical analysis of sleigh riding (including the fact that slaves often drove the sleighs) that pointed out that when “Jingle Bells” was first performed in 1857, it was performed by a group of white men performing in blackface.
“Jingle Bells” was first published as “One Horse Open Sleigh” sometime in 1857 and written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–1893). The song had its first performance on Sept. 15, 1857, in Ordway Hall in Boston. Hamill writes that Pierpont, who was known as a sort of wild man and drinker, wrote the song when he lived in a rooming house near the State House, before he moved to Savannah, Georgia, to become an organist in his brother’s church.
The Brighton Central School District’s ban shocked Hamill, who told the Rochester Beacon,
“I am actually quite shocked the school would remove the song from the repertoire .… I, in no way, recommended that it stopped being sung by children. My article tried to tell the story of the first performance of the song. I do not connect this to the popular Christmas tradition of singing the song now.”
Newsweek reported that the school was concerned about “possible interpretations” of slave imagery in the song’s lyrics. Allison Rioux, an assistant superintendent at Brighton Central Schools, said that “the use of collars on slaves with bells to send an alert that they were running away is connected to the origin of the song.”
What was not noted in many of the articles about the ban is the fact that the song’s author was once a fervent defender of the Confederacy, despite his strict Union abolitionist father and brother. Pierpont, after migrating to Georgia from the Yankee North, enlisted in the 1st Georgia Calvary and wrote a number of Confederate anthems like “Strike for the South,” “We Conquer or Die,” and “Our Battle Flag.”
Undoubtedly, these biographical facts were not lost on Tappon or Rioux, who saw them as yet another reason to jump start a campaign to have Pierpont and his work erased from history. Such is the nature of the new censorship.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He is the author of fifteen books, including Literary Philadelphia and From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia. Death at Dawn: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest will be published in 2022.