January 24, 2011

Lessons From History, a Dime at a Time

One of the most interesting Supreme Court cases of this term is Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association.  Argued last November, the case is a challenge to a California law that would ban the sale of "violent" video games to minors (it was enjoined immediately after enacted so it hasn't actually gone into effect yet).  Those challenging the law make a good case that this is just another in a long line of situations where the populace freaked out about youth culture and tried to trample the First Amendment as a result.

One such example was the scare over comic books, particularly in the 1950s.  Several discussions of the case after oral argument mentioned a book, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America, by David Hadju, which I went out and got.  As it happened, I didn't start reading the book until just before the recent shooting in Tuscon and the resulting public discussion.  Maybe it's just a matter of timing, or perhaps I'm reading too much into things, but several things struck me in common between the two situations.

First, was how intent the critics of the speech at issue were to link them to The Problem against which they crusaded.  The main guy when it came to comic books was Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist who published a 1954 screed against the industry, Seduction of the Innocent.  Wertham's main claim was that kids growing up reading comic books were turning were turning into juvenile delinquents. 

To dramatize the situation, he used several notorious cases of kids committing crimes as anecdotal evidence.  The only problem was that he never produced evidence that those kids actually read comic books, let alone the "bad" ones subject to the most public scorn.  As with the discussion after Tuscon, direct causation wasn't important, only finding some support for our solution to The Problem.

The second thing that struck me about the comic book debate was how easily each side lapsed into the kind of hateful rhetoric that's been the topic of conversation since Tuscon.  Given the times, the epithets involved Nazis and fascists (before WW II) or communists (afterwards) and, in a foreshadowing of the Glen Beck world, sometimes both.  Both sides did it.  The anti-comic side argued that the immorality inculcated via the illustrated stories made kids ripe for attraction to communist ideals.  Wertham famously testified that, compared to comic books, Hitler was an amateur.  Pro-comic writers, on the other hand, noted that it really was the communists who did things like ban books (and the Nazis burn them, of course), regardless of the fact that most anti-comic moralists were coming from a right-wing Christian viewpoint.  It's a good example how nothing's really new in public debate.

Finally, the interesting thing about the downfall of comics in the 1950s is that it did not really come as the result of legal action.  Oh, sure, there were laws on the books in several states and cities banning the sale of either particular comics or all of them in general.  They would likely run afoul of the First Amendment, but none apparently got run through the courts because the comic industry imploded upon itself.

The cause of the implosion?  Television.  Specifically, televised Congressional hearings, first into juvenile delinquency as a subset of crime in general and then specifically on comic books.  The hearings were big deals, mostly because there was so little on TV at the time.  The anointed defender of the comics, publisher Williams Gaines (responsible for Mad, Tales from the Crypt, and Weird Science, among others), was savaged during the hearing, even though he was on the right side.  As a result of the hearings, public sentiment shifted so forcefully and completely that, after a failed experiment at self censorship, the comic industry shrivelled up.

The lesson of that final point, I think, is that the coercive power of Government went it comes to speech is a lot broader than legislative enactment.  Politicians using the "bully pulpit" to press an issue can do a lot of damage.  The Congressional hearings actually found no link between comic books and delinquency, but by the time those findings were released it didn't matter.  In the public eye, comics were evil and that was that.

I've always been one to draw hard lines between real censorship - laws preventing something from being published - and other forms of speech-related coercion.  Certainly, the public is free to hold whatever opinion they want about a particular kind of entertainment.  If there's no market for it, it will dry up.  But we should be wary of politicians, or their bored spouses, who enter the debate with all the weight they possess.  Truth doesn't matter much in politics, and that can have quite a ripple effect once the cameras are off and we focus on the next version of The Problem.

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