by J.D. Tuccille
March 22, 1997

The Ghost of Mencken

I had every intention of holding my tongue on last Wednesday’s Supreme Court arguments over the Communications Decency Act. What’s the point, I asked myself, in pontificating again? The two sides put forward points that have been beaten into the ground over the past year, and the Supreme Court won’t come back with a decision before summer. This leaves pundits analyzing three-year-old comments by Justice Souter and reading meaning into the tilt of Justice Thomas’ eyebrows.

I’m just not up for it. Then I remembered an old H.L. Mencken dictum: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” If it does anything, the “indecent” material targeted by the CDA makes a lot of people happy — very happy. Most everybody likes sex and always has, in ways “indecent” and otherwise. Hell, that’s why I’m willing to pay so much for it.

Whoops! That’s probably a little more information than you really needed. But it does bring us back to H.L. Mencken.

Back in 1926, Mencken’s magazine, American Mercury, ran a story about a small-town hooker, “Hatrack,” who was publicly snubbed by many of the same people who made use of her services. The article caught the attention of Boston’s famous Watch and Ward Society, which was scandalized by such an indecently sympathetic portrayal of a professional lady’s plight. That issue of the American Mercury was quickly (as the saying goes) banned in Boston.

Mencken, in a move echoed decades later by opponents of the CDA, deliberately set the stage for a confrontation with the forces of All That is Good and Holy. He appeared in Boston, in person, to make a crowd-pleasing streetcorner sale of the offending magazine to the head censor, himself. The police promptly bundled Mencken off for booking.

H.L. Mencken won his case, and so, I suspect, will today’s free-speech advocates. Decades later, with Mencken, his allies, and his antagonists all dead, the issues and arguments haven’t changed one iota. The would-be censors still ride a bleached-blonde horse of moral rectitude, cry “liberty, not license,” and flash snapshots of doe-eyed children destined for hell’s own hibachi if not shielded from sin.

The fact that the nasty little savages in those photos are rarely the empty-headed repositories of virtue touted by the solons of celibacy is generally glossed-over. There isn’t a fifth-grade pud-puller in the country who isn’t sure that he’d like to do something unspeakable to the preacher’s daughter, quite without outside inspiration. And the preacher’s daughter is generally just waiting for little Johnny to come up with a few ideas.

What also doesn’t change in the eternal battle between bluenoses and decent people is the a-historical sense that the struggle at hand is the Ragnarok of free speech. When faced with the unmitigated presumption of Fawn Hall, the former poster girl for paper shredders, calling for a moral crusade against titties on the Net, it’s natural to assume that low-tide in the gene pool has coincided with a weird stroke of bad luck. Such bad luck evokes opposition, but no sense of digging-in for a long-term struggle.

But Mencken’s Hatrack case should make it clear that we’re in this fight for the long haul. The Ward and Watch Society of the 1920s was preceded by the 19th century’s Anthony Comstock, and they both find their heirs in the Family Research Council. People who see hellfire in pleasure, threats to the Republic in words and pictures, have long been with us and promise to keep returning so long as somebody wants to be happy.

So keep the dirty pictures coming. Hell, I know that I like ’em. But since the bluenoses aren’t likely to start minding their own business any time soon, keep the phone number of a good lawyer handy.

Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to Full Automatic or to my home page.

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Copyright (c) 1997 Jerome D. (Il Tooch) Tuccille. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Il Tooch is prohibited. Mess with me and I’ll use your polished skull as a beer mug.