left biblioblography: Allegories Gone Wild: Comstockery Was No Laughing Stock…

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Allegories Gone Wild: Comstockery Was No Laughing Stock…

Cross posted @ God Is 4 Suckers!

"Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it” -  Macbeth, Act I, Scene IVNewYorkSocietyForTheSuppressionOfVice

In a recent post, Mr. Garton expounded upon the sexual horrors that some would perpetrate upon us. Sadly, American history is rife with those who would gird our loins for war against our wills. Anita Bryant, for instance, led a vicious movement against gay rights that was religiously motivated. The AFA (American Family Association – what a gentle name that hides the insanity of its members) to this day is virulently anti-gay and labors mightily to foist other violations that run contrary to the (many) principles upon which this country was founded.

As outrageous and horrid as these recent efforts to deprive the few of the liberties granted to all, a brief history lesson will chill the blood and clench the knuckles white with rage. We can breathe a sigh of relief that these days are past us, but we must always be on guard lest the past come back with foaming jaws to bite us in the ass.

Anthony Comstock was a sexually repressed control freak, who left vivid scars on the sexual psyche of America:

Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut. As a young man, he enlisted and fought for the Union in the American Civil War from 1863 to 1865 in Company H, 17th Connecticut Infantry. He served without incident, but objected to the profanity used by his fellow soldiers. Afterward he became an active worker in the Young Men's Christian Association in New York City.

In 1873 Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public. Later that year, Comstock successfully influenced the United States Congress to pass the Comstock Law, which made illegal the delivery or transportation of both "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material as well as any methods of, or information pertaining to, birth control. George Bernard Shaw used the term "comstockery", meaning "censorship because of perceived obscenity or immorality", after Comstock alerted the New York police to the content of Shaw's play Mrs. Warren's Profession. Shaw remarked that "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." Comstock thought of Shaw as an "Irish smut dealer." The term comstockery was actually first coined in a New York Times editorial in 1895.

The actual content of Shaw’s play was quite benign by today’s standards. It was more of an effort to humanize an otherwise ‘taboo’ topic.

Of course, this ass-clown rivals even the modern-day Taliban in their ludicrousness:

Comstock's ideas of what might be "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" were quite broad. During his time of greatest power, even some anatomy textbooks were prohibited from being sent to medical students by the United States Postal Service.

I suppose that gynecologists had to use guesswork in those days? Of course, he had a great many detractors:

Comstock aroused intense loathing from early civil liberties groups and intense support from church-based groups worried about public morals. He was a savvy political insider in New York City and was made a special agent of the United States Postal Service, with police powers up to and including the right to carry a weapon. With this power he zealously prosecuted those he suspected of either public distribution of pornography or commercial fraud. He was also involved in shutting down the Louisiana Lottery, the only legal lottery in the United States at the time, and notorious for corruption.

Frightening, no? It gets worse:

Comstock is also known for his opposition to Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, and those associated with them. The men's journal The Days' Doings had popularised lewd images of the sisters for three years and was instructed by its editor (while Comstock was present) to stop producing images of "lewd character". Comstock also took legal action against the paper for advertising contraceptives. When the sisters published an expose of an adulterous affair between Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton, he had the sisters arrested under laws forbidding the use of the postal service to distribute 'obscene material'–specifically (and ironically) citing a mangled Biblical quote Comstock found obscene–though they were later acquitted of the charges.

And worse:

Less fortunate was Ida Craddock, who committed suicide on the eve of reporting to Federal prison for distributing via the U.S. Mail various sexually explicit marriage manuals she had authored. Her final work was a lengthy public suicide note specifically condemning Comstock.

And even more sickening:

Comstock claimed he drove fifteen persons to suicide in his "fight for the young". He was head vice-hunter of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Comstock, the self-labeled "weeder in God's garden", arrested D. M. Bennett for publishing his "An Open Letter to Jesus Christ" and later entrapped the editor for mailing a free-love pamphlet. Bennett was prosecuted, subjected to a widely publicized trial, and imprisoned in the Albany Penitentiary.

“Weeder in gawd’s garden’ my homesick ass. He was a morality monster, one of those beasts that is so afraid of human sexuality, it warps the weft of the mind.

Some comeuppance was en route, but unsatisfactory:

Comstock had numerous enemies, and in later years his health was affected by a severe blow to the head from an anonymous attacker. He lectured to college audiences and wrote newspaper articles to sustain his causes. Before his death, Comstock attracted the interest of a young law student, J. Edgar Hoover, interested in his causes and methods.

Wait – JEH? Not that old Lola of FBI fame?

During his career, Comstock clashed with Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger. In her autobiography, Goldman referred to Comstock as the leader of America's "moral eunuchs". Through his various campaigns, he destroyed 15 tons of books, 284,000 pounds of plates for printing 'objectionable' books, and nearly 4,000,000 pictures.

Yes, because of course freedom of speech only applies when good church-going folk decide that it does, right?

Comstock boasted that he was responsible for 4,000 arrests and 15 suicides.

That anyone claiming to be human could ‘boast’ about driving people to suicide, illustrates what an evil, evil little man Comstock was.

His legacy obviously continues today. It should end here, in the 21st century, where religion is losing its invidious grip on hearts and minds, where science has expanded our intellects to the juncture that these anachronistic atavistic throwbacks are more a cause of comic relief than mystic dread.

Carry on the fight, my friends, lest the old days returneth with blood and shouting and pain.

Till the next post, then.

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