The quest for obscenity by the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography is another crusade against an illusion. In the past it was the witch. Then witches ceased to exist when people no longer believed in them. In today's world, obscenity is the new witchcraft, and the crusaders against "filth" the new witch hunters.
Anthony Comstock, the great "vice" suppressor at the turn of the century, boasted that he destroyed 160 tons of obscene pieces of literature. He could make the claim that the American mind was purified because he was able to convict enough obscenists "to fill a passenger train of 61 coaches, 60 coaches containing 60 passengers each and the 61st almost full."
Now, with infantile simplicity and lavish superstition, the Meese Commission claims that the American mind is once again polluted and must be cleansed with the help of state censors. The fact that Anthony Comstock boasted that he had stood "at the mouth of a sewer" for 40 years attests to the harmlessness of pornographic literature and art, and though Comstock admitted that his mind was still "pure" after all the "filth" it had absorbed, the latter-day smut-hounds have yet to be convinced. According to Comstockism, this would suggest that the true remedy against the evils of "obscenity" is more "obscenity."
The fact that the censors of the past had failed to define obscenity did not mean that they did not know what book, picture, play or work of art was obscene. It was generally agreed that smut-hounds could smell the lubricious salacity of pornographic literature. How else could they have decided to censor the works of Aristophanes, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Shelley, Tolstoy, Zola, Shaw, Dreiser, Joyce, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Vonnegut? Even the Bible was not immune. Of all the sexual aberrations, perhaps, as Anatole France said, "chastity is the strangest."
There is no absence of vainglory and arrogance in censors, whether of the present or past. Plato in his Republic, for instance, insisted that the works of Homer, as well as those of all the other poets of the classical period, should be barred as the writings of immoral and indecent authors. Plato also declared that "the introduction of a new kind of music must be shunned as imperiling the whole State, since styles of music are never disturbed without affecting the most important political institutions." In 15th Century Florence, Savonarola, with sacerdotal preeminence, burned the books of Ovid, Propertius and the divine Dante for licentiousness and indecency, and who was burned in his turn together with his books.
The danger is that even the truth may be declared obscene when it is discovered that it cannot be proved to exist in a book, picture, play or work of art. If there is no definite or knowable criteria of guilt and no "due process of law" to prove its existence and harmful effects, then we have all become the victims of an illusion.
As in witchcraft, obscenity will disappear if people ceased to believe in it. The only legitimate debate is whether it is a sense-perceived quality of a book or picture, or resides exclusively in the reading mind.
The tortuous and twisted logic of the Commission on Pornography should be answered by the insights and wisdom of the Apostle Paul, who said that "There is nothing unclean of itself, but to him that esteemeth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean."