Censoring offensive ideas never works | Bill Cotterell

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"Maus," by Art Spiegelman.
"Maus," by Art Spiegelman.

The trouble with trying to exclude unsettling ideas from our public discourse was summed up concisely about a half-century ago by two deep thinkers.

First, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart declared that the law can’t define pornography, “but I know it when I see it.”

Then Tom Lehrer, a Harvard-educated mathematician and satirist, wrote an anthem about porn — he said he was in favor of it — with some insightful stanzas:

“When correctly viewed,

“Everything is lewd.

“I could tell ya some things about Peter Pan

“And the Wizard of Oz — there’s a dirty old man!”

Stewart and Lehrer spoke two essential truths about crusaders who try to clean up our culture. The thought police can never define exactly what they hate, but they see it everywhere.

The desire to control what others may read, hear or speak is spreading in Florida, Tennessee and some other places where angry parents demand that educators not tell students about anything some people find objectionable.

Trouble is, censors never rest — purifying the culture may start with Hustler magazine, but pretty soon they’ll go after Disney characters (hey, why no pants on Donald?)

Polk County authorities recently “quarantined” 16 books from school libraries at the behest of an organization called County Citizens Defending Freedom. Because what says “freedom” better than the government grabbing books? Removal of “Maus,” a Pulitzer prize-winning novel of the Holocaust, was banned by a school district in McMinn County, Tenn., because of some language and an illustration of a nude figure.

Art Spiegelman’s book hasn’t caused widespread depravity or corrupted the youth around Chattanooga in the 40 years since its publication, but apparently Tennessee didn’t learn much from its Scopes “monkey trial” of a century ago.

Amazon reported a surge in orders for Maus — a three-week backlog on deliveries — and there have been hopeful reports of parents pushing back.

That’s another incongruity about censorship. It almost always backfires, making an artwork forbidden fruit for those it’s meant to protect — usually children — and making the censors look asinine.

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It’s not just Lakeland. Florida is having some of its periodic paroxysms of prudery. Gov. Ron DeSantis has a bill moving in the Republican-run Legislature telling teachers to avoid lessons that might make some students (more likely their parents) uncomfortable about race, gender or history. There’s one, dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill, meant to quash classroom discussion of sexuality in its various varieties.

No one is suggesting we teach fourth graders about the San Francisco bath house scene of the Seventies. But in this internet age, we can’t keep them perpetually in the stultified era of the Fifties and Sixties, when Lucille Ball wasn’t shown on TV below face level while she was pregnant and the Rolling Stones sang “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” rather than “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to keep Ed Sullivan happy.

Luther Campbell, leader of hip hop group of 2 Live Crew and president of its record label, points to the warning sticker on his shirt, identical to the one on the group's controversial album "Nasty As They Wanna Be" outside federal court in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., March 16, 1990. The group filed a suit trying to stop obscenity arrests for the sales of their album.  (AP Photo/Beth Keiser)

DeSantis might ask ex-Gov. Bob Martinez about 2 Live Crew. Martinez tried 30 years ago to stifle the Miami rap group, and Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro even busted some record stores (remember record stores?) for selling the group’s stuff.

Bottom line, 2 Live Crew got famous and did a rap using the governor’s and Navarro’s names, preceded by that word NASCAR fans were chanting about Joe Biden a few months ago.

The late Gov. Claude Kirk earlier ran an election-year crackdown on porn, which didn’t help him much in 1970.

DeSantis needn’t become a modern-day Savanarola, smashing sculptures and burning books. He just wants to fire up conservatives by poking all those pseudo-intellectuals, as Gov. George Wallace of Alabama used to call the excessively educated.

Legislators might heed a lesson of the not-too-far-past. When the Florida Supreme Court found the old sodomy law too vague in the mid-1970s, the Senate passed a new one with more details than an IKEA directions leaflet.

Teen-aged pages were sent to a committee room so they wouldn’t hear the R-rated discussion of who could do what and with which and to whom. But the elders of the Senate forgot about little intercom speakers in the hearing room, so the kids eagerly tuned in to the floor debate.

That’s how it always is with censorship, no matter how well-intended.

And frankly, being made a little uncomfortable is not such a bad thing.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat Capitol reporter who writes a twice-weekly column. He can be reached at bcotterell@tallahassee.com


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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Being made uncomfortable is not such a bad thing | Bill Cotterell