Nothing ever changes: Comstockery for communists

Boston had a very different reputation before the ’60s:

Boston was founded by the censorious Puritans in the early 17th century. Boston’s second major wave of immigrants, Irish Catholics, began arriving in the 1820s and also held conservative moral beliefs, particularly regarding sex.[2] The phrase “banned in Boston”, however, originated in the late 19th century at a time when American“moral crusader” Anthony Comstock began a campaign to suppress vice.[3] He found widespread support in Boston, particularly among socially-prominent and influential officials.[2][3] Comstock was also known as the proponent of the Comstock Act, which prevented “obscene” materials from being delivered by the U.S. mail.[4]

Following Comstock’s lead, Boston’s city officials took it upon themselves to ban anything that they found to be salacious, inappropriate, or offensive. Aiding them in their efforts was a group of private citizens, the Boston Watch and Ward Society.[2] Theatrical shows were run out of town, books were confiscated, and motion pictures were prevented from being shown; sometimes movies were stopped mid-showing, after an official had “seen enough”. In 1935, for example, during the opening performance of Clifford Odets‘ play Waiting for Lefty four cast members were placed under arrest.[2]

And what did the international community think? When George Bernard Shaw was asked what he thought of his books being removed from library shelves in New York, the next city down on the Corridor from Boston, here’s how he replied:

Nobody outside of America is likely to be in the least surprised; Comstockery is the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all.

Personally I do not take the matter so lightly. American civilization is enormously interesting and important to me, if only as a colossal social experiment, and I shall make no pretense of treating a public and official insult from the American people with indifference.

It is true I shall not suffer either in reputation or pocket. Everybody knows I know better than your public library officials what is proper for people to read whether they are young or old. Everybody also knows that if I had the misfortune to be a citizen of the United States I should probably have my property confiscated by some postal official and be myself imprisoned as a writer of ‘obscene’ literature.

But as I live in a comparatively free country and my word goes further than that of mere officialdom, these things do not matter. What does matter is that this incident is only a symptom of what is really a moral horror both in America and elsewhere, and that is the secret and intense resolve of the petty domesticity of the world to tolerate no criticism and suffer no invasion.


Because I have been striving all my public life to awaken public conscience to this, while Comstock has been examining and destroying ninety-three tons of  indecent postcards, it is concluded that I am a corrupt blackguard and Comstock’s mind is in such a condition of crystal purity that any American who reads, sees, writes, or says anything of which he disapproves or which he is ‘doggoned if he understands’ must be put in prison.

Well, far be it from me to question the right of American to manage its affairs its own way. Every country has the Government it deserves, and I presume Comstock couldn’t govern America without America’s consent. He will not lack supporters.

I cannot fight Comstock with the American Nation at his back and the New York police in his van. Neither can Daly. I have advised Daly to run no risks.When this news reached me I had already cabled both Daly and my agent, Miss Marbury, to countermand the performance, because I think New York has had enough of me for one season. Now I am bound to leave Daly free to accept the challenge and throw himself on the good-sense of people who want to have the traffic in women stopped instead of driven underground for its better protection.

He is young and bold; I am elderly and thoroughly intimidated by my knowledge of the appalling weight of stupidity and prejudice, of the unavowed money interest, direct or indirect, in the exploitation of womanhood, which lies behind his opponent. I cannot save Daly. If these forces are too strong for his supporters, I am afraid he will be uncomfortable in prison. But I also have a presentment that Comstock will not be quite comfortable out of it.

When a man begins to value himself, not on the number of decent postcards he puts in circulation, but on the number of indecent ones he throws out of it, he is on the high road to a condition of mania in which he is apt to seize every postcard he sees and declare it indecent. An Indian who counts the scalps he has torn from his enemies is under heavy temptation to get up quarrels with his friends in order to have an excuse for scalping them.

Comstock’s reputation grows with every blackguard he imprisons. A man in that position generally ends by seizing respectable citizens by the collar, raising the cry of blackguardism against them, and throwing them into prison.

For Comstock’s part, here’s what he thought of Shaw:

“Shaw?” said Mr Comstock reflectively, “I never heard of him in my life. Never saw one of his books, so he can’t be much.” The reporter had in his pocket a copy of The New York Times in which appeared the letter written by Mr Shaw, the author and playwright, after he had learned that his books had been removed from the ‘open shelves’ in the New York Free Libraries. This order of removal Mr Shaw characterized as a piece of “American Comstockery.” The reporter submitted the letter, and Mr Comstock read it carefully.

“Everybody knows,” wrote Mr Shaw, “that I know better than your public library officials what is proper for people to read, whether they are young or old.” When Mr Comstock read that, he literally grew pale with indignation. “Did you ever see such egotism?” he commented angrily. “I had nothing to do with removing this Irish smut dealer’s books from the public library shelves, but I will take a hand in the matter now.” …

“This very morning,” said Mr Comstock, “I confiscated for destruction 23,600 pictures and had the man convicted in the Special Sessions. Last week I confiscated 100,000 such pictures from a German in Brooklyn. For a third of a century I have battled in the ranks of the society with which I have the honor to be affiliated — battled for the morality of the young people of this country. I have done work in Canada, in Paris, in London, and in most of the civilized countries of the world. The society has made over 23,000 arrests; it has destroyed 98 tons of unfit matter.

It matters little if the literary style is of a high order if the subject matter is bad. I had a man convicted who was printing and selling pictures of paintings hung in the Paris Salon and in the art hall at our Centennial Exposition. The only question is, Can this book or picture or play hurt any one morally, even the weak? All else is of minor consequence.”

The Comstocks of our day are, like Mr. Hundred Thousand Pictures himself, interested in choking off a new platform for the dissemination of information — all for the good of the weak, of course — but that’s not all they want. The communist slogan is not “no platform for fascism”, but “no platform for fascists”. Not only should Shaw’s books be banned — so should Shaw himself. #指鹿為馬

This Comstock heads his blog with a quote from Emma Goldman:

Not so very long ago I attended a meeting addressed by Anthony Comstock, who has for forty years been the guardian of American morals. A more incoherent, ignorant ramble I have never heard from any platform.

The question that presented itself to me, listening to the commonplace, bigoted talk of the man, was, how could anyone so limited and unintelligent wield the power of censor and dictator over a supposedly democratic nation? True, Comstock has the law to back him. Forty years ago, when Puritanism was even more rampant than to-day, completely shutting out the light of reason and progress, Comstock succeeded, through shady machination and political wire pulling, to introduce a bill which gave him complete control over the Post Office Department — a control which has proved disastrous to the freedom of the press, as well as the right of privacy of the American citizen.

Since then, Comstock has broken into the private chambers of people, has confiscated personal correspondence, as well as works of art, and has established a system of espionage and graft which would put Russia to shame. Yet the law does not explain the power of Anthony Comstock. There is something else, more terrible than the law. It is the narrow puritanic spirit, as represented in the sterile minds of the Young-Men-and-Old-Maid’s Christian Union, Temperance Union, Sabbath Union, Purity League, etc. A spirit which is absolutely blind to the simplest manifestations of life; hence stands for stagnation and decay. As in anti-bellum days, these old fossils lament the terrible immorality of our time. Science, art, literature, the drama, are at the mercy of bigoted censorship and legal procedure, with the result that America, with all her boastful claims to progress and liberty is still steeped in the densest provincialism.

The smallest dominion in Europe can boast of an art free from the fetters of morality, an art that has the courage to portray the great social problems of our time. With the sharp edge of critical analysis, it cuts into every social ulcer, every wrong, demanding fundamental changes and the transvaluation of accepted values. Satire, wit, humor, as well as the most intensely serious modes of expression, are being employed to lay bare our conventional social and moral lies. In America we would seek in vain for such a medium, since even the attempt at it is made impossible by the rigid régime, by the moral dictator and his clique.

Your fave is problematic, Klabnik. And Urbit is banned in Boston^WSt. Louis.

This movement had several consequences. One was that Boston, a cultural center since its founding, was perceived as less sophisticated than many cities without stringent censorship practices.[2] Another was that the phrase “banned in Boston” became associated, in the popular mind, with something lurid, sexy, and naughty. Commercial distributors were often pleased when their works were banned in Boston—it gave them more appeal elsewhere.[2]

7 responses to “Nothing ever changes: Comstockery for communists

  1. Pingback: Nothing ever changes: Comstockery for communists | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: Outside in - Involvements with reality » Blog Archive » Strangeloop

  3. vxxc2014 June 5, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    Cheer up. Shaw, and absolutely porn won….and so did Emma Goldman.

    Now I’m not that dense. I do look at results. Those are the results. Not high principles, the actual results.

    You may be confusing those defending a society with those who’s born purpose is burning it to the ground. Shaw was a monster, a Fabian but also genocidal in his own slow way…his slow genocide bears fruit now. On this subject of Civilizational Genocide Emma Goldman needs no further introduction. Comstock however clumsily was trying to stamp out porn. Not Art. We now have absolutely nothing banned in Boston or anywhere else….and we are not richer in arts for all our smut. Someone trying to do the right thing can always be mocked, even apparently after the consequences of failure are all around us. However that needs no introduction either.

    What apparently does need an introduction is what Moldbuggery and who Curtis Yarvin actually is….the answer here is to leave him to his own, and their own justice.
    He could have just as well given you something to fight for….but he very cleverly convinced so many that the fault was their own….and the fault of people named Comstock, as opposed to people named Goldman.

    The net result of Moldbug is while a great many of Yarvin’s natural born enemies – by their choice not ours, by their sacred commands and not ours, indeed without even most of us even conceiving of it – the net result of Moldbug is a great many young men who have every reason to fight for their people and no reason to lay down and die are quite prepared to exactly lay down and die, supposing that the root of all this is the Puritans and not the Jacobins of 1789, Karl Marx and the Bolsheviks. You are all quite jaded for your age, and not ready even in mind or spirit for a trial.

    I hope that wasn’t too rambling, but it’s not important. What’s important is who fights to live, who fights for their people, and who doesn’t. Yarvin in his own way is striving for his, by putting you off the scent.

    You will not make it, and you will not die well.

    • nydwracu June 6, 2015 at 3:42 pm

      “We now have absolutely nothing banned in Boston or anywhere else” — is that so? I see quite a lot banned in Boston, both in quantity and quality. Porn is not stamped out — porn is the furthest thing from stamped out! it is expected of artists that they will produce porn, for what is a human but a thing that fucks, or does not fuck, as the case may be, and gets hung up on fucking, in a heinous act of authoritarian armoring that can lead only to fascism? — but the absence of porn is stamped out, and much else as well. Adherence to the narrative is as obligatory now as it was in the times of Puritan theocracy. The outward forms change, but the inward logic remains the same. The same process happens on an individual level: the Communists competed for members with the Fascists. Read Hoffer.

      Granted, Freud and Reich were of the same phyle as Moldbug and Auster, so it may have been a mistake to allow them to be listened to — but if it was a mistake, who made it? Not Freud and Reich themselves. Even if the novelists did it, the novelists didn’t do it, because someone else had to allow the novelists to do it.

  4. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/06/07) | The Reactivity Place

  5. Brett Stevens June 8, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    Following Comstock’s lead, Boston’s city officials took it upon themselves to ban anything that they found to be salacious, inappropriate, or offensive…Theatrical shows were run out of town, books were confiscated, and motion pictures were prevented from being shown; sometimes movies were stopped mid-showing, after an official had “seen enough”.

    My only problem with this is that officials were doing it, not the citizens at large. Relying on government makes people weak. I support the ability of local groups to remove degeneracy. What SJWs are doing is not this; it is not removing degeneracy, but forcing ideological compliance to something that is in fact another form of degeneracy.

  6. Neoreaction September 6, 2018 at 10:19 pm

    Interesting post. Thanks. Hope you start blogging again.

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