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Monday, February 25, 2013


Guest Blogger: Heywood Broun. Here’s how Broun is introduced in the original volume, which also is titled Nonsenseorship, an anti-Volstead Act screed comprising essays by some of the best of America’s humorists:
Not that we consider HEYWOOD BROUN agonized, cynical, or outraged. Indeed, masquerading as a stalwart foe of inhibitions, he starts right out, at the very head of the parade, with a vehement advocacy of prohibition. His plea (surely, in this setting, traitorous) is to prohibit liquor to all who are over thirty years of age! He declares that “rum was designed for youthful days and is the animating influence which made oats wild.” After thirty, presumably, Quaker Oats . . .
– George P. Putnam
Heywood Broun finds America
suffering from a dearth of Folly.
Illustration by Ralph Barton

A CENSOR IS A MAN who has read about Joshua and forgotten Canute. He believes that he can hold back the mighty traffic of life with a tin whistle and a raised right hand. For after all it is life with which he quarrels. Censorship is seldom greatly concerned with truth. Propriety is its worry and obviously impropriety was allowed to creep into the fundamental scheme of creation. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that no right-minded censor was present during the first week in which the world was made. The plan of sex, for instance, could have been suppressed effectively then and Mr. Sumner might have been spared the dreadful and dangerous ordeal of reading “Jurgen” so many centuries later.

Indeed, if there had only been right-minded supervision over the modelling of Adam and Eve the world could worry along nicely without the aid of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Suppression of those biological facts which the Society includes in its definition of Vice is now impossible. Concealment is really what the good men are after. Somewhat after the manner of the Babes in the Woods they would cover us over with leaves. For men and women they have figs and for babies they have cabbages.

It must have been a censor who first hit upon the notion that what you don’t know won’t hurt you. We doubt whether it is a rule which applies to sex. Eve left Eden and took upon herself a curse for the sake of knowledge. It seems a little heedless of this heroism to advocate that we keep the curse and forget the knowledge. The battle against censorship should have ended at the moment of the eating of the apple. At that moment Man committed himself to the decision that he would know all about life even though he died for it. Unfortunately, under the terms of the existence of mortals one decision is not enough. We must keep reaffirming decisions if they are to hold. Even in Eden there was the germ of a new threat to degrade Adam and Eve back to innocence. When they ate the apple an amoeba in a distant corner of the Garden shuddered and began the long and difficult process of evolution. To all practical purposes John S. Sumner was already born.

To us the whole theory of censorship is immoral. If its functions were administered by the wisest man in the world it would still be wrong. But of course the wisest man in the world would have too much sense to be a censor. We are not dealing with him. His substitutes are distinctly lesser folk. They are not even trained for their work except in the most haphazard manner. Obviously a censor should be the most profound of psychologists. Instead the important posts in the agencies of suppression go to the boy who can capture the largest number of smutty post cards. After he has confiscated a few gross he is promoted to the task of watching over art. By that time he has been pretty thoroughly blasted for the sins of the people. An extraordinary number of things admit of shameful interpretations in his mind.

For instance, the sight of a woman making baby clothes is not generally considered a vicious spectacle in many communities, but it may not be shown on the screen in Pennsylvania by order of the state board of censors. In New York Kipling’s Anne of Austria was not allowed to “take the wage of infamy and eat the bread of shame” in a screen version of “The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House.” Thereby a most immoral effect was created. Anne was shown wandering about quite casually and drinking and conversing with sailors who were perfect strangers to her, but the censors would not allow any stigma to be placed upon her conduct. Indeed this decision seems to support the rather strange theory that deeds don’t matter so long as nothing is said about them.

The New York picture board is peculiarly sensitive to words. Upon one occasion a picture was submitted with the caption, “The air of the South Seas breathes an erotic perfume.” “Cut out ‘erotic,’” came back the command of the censors.

In Illinois, Charlie Chaplin was not allowed to have a scene in “The Kid” in which upon being asked the name of the child he shook his head and rushed into the house, returning a moment later to answer, “Bill.” That particular board of censors seemed intent upon keeping secret the fact that there are two sexes.

Of course, it may be argued that motion pictures are not an art and that it makes little difference what happens to them. We cannot share that indifference. Enough has been done in pictures to convince us that very beautiful things might be achieved if only the censors could be put out of the way. Not all the silliness of the modern American picture is the fault of the producers. Much of the blame must rest with the various boards of censorship. It is difficult to think up many stories in which there is no passion, crime, or birth. As a matter of fact, we are of the opinion that the entire theory of motion picture censorship is mistaken. The guardians of morals hold that if the spectator sees a picture of a man robbing a safe he will thereby be moved to want to rob a safe himself. In rebuttal we offer the testimony of a gentleman much wiser in the knowledge of human conduct than any censor. Writing in “The New Republic,” George Bernard Shaw advocated that hereafter public reading-rooms supply their patrons only with books about evil characters. For, he argued, after reading about evil deeds our longings for wickedness are satisfied vicariously. On the other hand there is the danger that the public may read about saints and heroes and drain off its aspirations in such directions without actions.

We believe this is true. We once saw a picture about a highwayman (that was in the days before censorship was as strict as it is now) and it convinced us that the profession would not suit us. We had not realized the amount of compulsory riding entailed. The particular highwayman whom we saw dined hurriedly, slept infrequently, and invariably had his boots on. Mostly he was being pursued and hurdling over hedges. It left us sore in every muscle to watch him. At the end of the eighth reel every bit of longing in our soul to be a swashbuckler had abated. The man in the picture had done the adventuring for us and we could return in comfort to a peaceful existence.

Florid literature is the compensation for humdrummery. If we are ever completely shut off from a chance to see or read about a little evil-doing we shall probably be moved to go out and cut loose on our own. So far we have not felt the necessity. We have been willing to let D’Artagnan do it.

Even so arduous an abstinence as prohibition may be made endurable through fictional substitutes. After listening to a drinking chorus in a comic opera and watching the amusing antics of the chief comedian who is ever so inebriated we are almost persuaded to stay dry. Prohibition is perhaps the climax of censorship. It has the advantage over other forms of suppression in that at least it represents a sensible point of view. Yet, we are not converted. There are things in the world far more important than hard sense.

One of the officials of the Anti-Saloon League gave out a statement the other day in which he endeavored to show all the benefits provided by prohibition. But he did it with figures. There was a column showing the increase of accounts in savings banks and another devoted to the decrease of inmates in hospitals, jails and almshouses. From a utilitarian point of view the figures, if correct, could hardly fail to be impressive, but little has been said by either side about the spiritual aspects of rum. Unfortunately there are no statistics on that, and yet it is the one phase of the question which interests us. Some weeks ago we happened to observe a letter from a man who wrote to one of the newspapers protesting against the proposed settlement in Ireland on the ground that, “It’s so damned sensible.” We have somewhat the same feeling about prohibition. It is a movement to take the folly out of our national life and there is no quality which America needs so sorely.

If enforcement ever becomes perfect this will be a nation composed entirely of men who wear rubbers, put money in the bank, and go to bed at ten. That fine old ringing phrase, “This is on me,” will be gone from the language. Conversation will be wholly instructive, for in fifty years the last generation capable of saying, “Do you remember that night—?” will have been gathered to its fathers.

Of course, there is no denying the shortsightedness of the forces of rum. They cannot escape their responsibility for having aided in the advent of Prohibition. They were slow to see the necessity of some form of curtailment and limitation of the traffic. Such moves as they did make were entirely wrong-headed. For instance, we had ordinances providing for the early closing of cafés. Instead of that we should have had laws forbidding anybody to sell liquor except between the hours of 8 P.M. and 5 A.M. Daytime drinking was always sodden, but something is necessary to make night worth while. Man is more than the beasts, and he should not be driven into dull slumber just because the sun has set.

The invention of electricity, liquor, cut glass mirrors, and cards made man the master of his environment rather than its slave. Now that liquor is gone all the other factors are mockery. Card playing has become merely an extension of the cruel and logical process of the survival of the fittest. The fellow with the best hand wins, instead of the one with the best head. Nobody draws four cards any more or stands for a raise on an inside straight. The thing is just cut-throat and scientific and wholly mercenary.

The kitty is gone. Nobody cares to come in to a common fund for the purchase of mineral water and cheese sandwiches. And with the passing of the kitty the most promising development of co-operation and communism in America has gone. It was prophetic of a more perfectly organized society. In the days of the kitty the fine Socialistic ideal of, “From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs,” was made specific and workable. And the inspiring romantic tradition of Robin Hood was also carried over into modern life. The kitty robbed only the rich and left the poor alone.

But now none of us will contribute unquestionably to the material comfort of others. Each must keep his money for the savings bank.

Perhaps, something of the old friendly rivalry may be revived. In a hundred years it may be that men will meet around a table and that one will say to the other, “What have you got?”

“I’ve got $9,876.32 in first mortgages and gilt-edged securities.”

“That’s good. You win.”

But somehow or other we doubt it.

Another mistake which was made in the policy of compromising with the drys was the agreement that liquor should not be served to minors. On the contrary, the provision should have been that drink ought not to be permitted to any man more than thirty years of age. Liquor was never meant to be a steady companion. It was the animating influence which made oats wild. Work and responsibility are the portion of the mature man. Rum was designed for youthful days when the reckless avidity for experience is so great that reality must be blurred a little lest it blind us.

We happened to pick up a copy of “The Harvard Crimson” the other day and read: “The first freshman smoker will be held at 7.45 o’clock this evening in the living room of the Union. P. H. Theopold, ‘25, Chairman of the Smoker Committee, will act as Chairman, introducing Clark Hodder, ‘25, and J. H. Child, ‘25, the Class President and Secretary respectively. After the speeches there will be a motion picture, and some vaudeville by a magician from Keith’s. Ginger ale, crackers, and cigarettes will be served. All freshmen are invited to attend.”

They used to be called Freshmen Beer Nights and in those days the possibility of friendship at first sight was not fantastic. We feel sure that it cannot be done on ginger ale. The urge for democracy does not dwell in any soft drink. The speeches will be terrible, for there will be no pleasant interruptions of “Aw, sit down,” from the man in the back of the room. If somebody begins to sing, “P. H. Theopold is a good old soul,” it is not likely to carry conviction. Not once during the evening will any speaker confine himself to saying, “To Hell with Yale!” and falling off the table. Probably the magician will not be able to find anything in the high hat except white rabbits.

Although we have seen no first hand report of that freshman smoker, we feel sure that it was only a crowded self-conscious gathering of a number of young men who said little and went home early.

Even from the standpoint of the strictest of abstainers there must be some regret for the passing of rum. What man who lived through the bad old days does not remember the thrill of rectitude which came to him the first time he said, “Make mine a cigar.”

Though they have taken away our rum from us we have our memories. Not all the days have been dull gray. Back in the early pages of our diary is the entry about the trip which we made to Boston with William F—— in the hard winter of 1907. It was agreed that neither of us should drink the same sort of drink twice. Staunch William achieved nineteen varieties, but we topped him with twenty-four. Upon examination we observe that the entry in the memory book was made several days later. The handwriting is a little shaky. But for that adventure we might have lived and died entirely ignorant of the nature of an Angel Float.

In those days human sympathy was wider. F. M. W. seemed in many respects a matter-of-fact man, but it was he who chanced upon the 59th street Circle just before dawn and paused to call the attention of all bystanders to the statue of Columbus.

“Look at him,” he said. “Christopher Columbus! He discovered America and then they sent him back to Spain in chains.”

He wept, and we realized for the first time that under a rough exterior there beat a heart of gold.

– from Nonsenseorship, G.P. Putnam's Sons, NY, 1922.

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