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June 17, 2003

“Banned in Boston”: Music producer Danny Goldberg’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit, excerpted in Salon along with a feature article about the author and his thesis, offers up a wide-ranging critique of Democratic pop-culture cluelessness which will no doubt provide material for substantial and thoughtful blogging all over the place. However, what I’m going to do is nitpick one minor point of fact. Writes Goldberg:
Cultural conservatives like [William] Bennett claim that high divorce rates, drug addiction, and teen violence are all the result of modern culture. They want a return to the authoritarian America of the 1950s, when the Catholic Church could make books “banned in Boston” and J. Edgar Hoover and the acolytes of Senator Joseph McCarthy could marginalize and terrorize any kind of unorthodox political or cultural thought.
In fact the whole “banned in Boston” thing has little or nothing to do with the Catholic Church. Quite the contrary, it was the culture of Boston Protestantism that spawned the Watch and Ward Society, a “citizen’s vigilance” group, founded by Anthony Comstock in 1878, which worked with Boston’s then quite un-Catholic municipal authorities to root out books, plays, and other artistic expressions deemed too depraved for public view—for instance, the novels of Sherwood Anderson, or magazines like H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury. A word from the Watch and Ward Society would regularly send police cracking. For sheer effectiveness, later Catholic pressure groups like the League of Decency had nothing on them.

It’s understandable in an era when the American Catholic Church is increasingly associated with cultural censoriousness and appalling misbehavior that people should assume that the phrase “banned in Boston” has something to do with all those Catholics up there, but in fact it’s not true. It’s just something we assume because we figure we already know the script. This kind of thinking is very similar to the way this report plays a bit of wiffly European proposal-drafting as evidence that those Euros just don’t get freedom like we Americans do. It is of course axiomatic that Americans are all about freedom, PATRIOT Acts and secret military tribunals notwithstanding, while it takes only the tiniest of evidence to establish that those Europeans just “don’t get” the Internet and are probably all dying to re-establish some kind of monarchical or totalitarian rule. (Known European Iain Coleman has more to say about this.) Really, there’s nothing like the simple narratives we don’t realize we’ve bought into for making us dumb as posts. [05:59 PM]

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Comments on "Banned in Boston"::

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2003, 06:27 PM:

Thanks, Patrick. That clarifcation was needed....seriously. You'd be surprised (well, actually you wouldn't be) by the number of south shore Irish Catholics who think Banned in Boston was a Boston Irish idea ("yeah, I think it started with Honey Fitz....")

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2003, 06:47 PM:

As I blogged last month, I'm not even convinced that divorce rates are as high as pseudo-moralists like Bennett say they are.

Tina Black ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2003, 07:04 PM:

Heh. Germans consider speed limits on the autobahn to be a limit on personal freedom, and one that they fight every time someone brings it up.

Paul Orwin ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2003, 07:48 PM:

Avram's comment reminds me of my favorite aphorism (is there an editor here who can tell me if that word means what I think it means?), "50% of all marriages in the US end in divorce." Which sounds bad, of course, until you think about the many and varied ways that a marriage can end...

Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2003, 10:07 PM:

Indeed, there used to be a great deal more widows and widowers.

I wonder how much of the reduction is now due to better medical care, and how much to better legal options and better forensic science.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2003, 10:53 PM:

I like to ask people "would you rather divorce or die?" Shuts 'em up for a few seconds, anyway.

I think one of our dumb-as-post-making memes is the idea that a marriage that ends is a "failed" marriage. Now that people are living lots longer (and more importantly, being healthy and active for a greater percentage of their total lives), it should be possible for people to have two or three successful marriages...I also believe that the number of vitriolic divorces would go down if people didn't force themselves to stay in non-functional relationships until they hate each other's guts.

Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2003, 11:17 PM:

My opinion of divorce was formed very early on. My friend Janet's parents got divorced and the stupid women who ran the ice cream sales at my elementary school were shrilling about "Children of broken homes!" until Janet said, "Excuse me. I have two perfectly good homes: one with my mother and one with my father. Now give me my ice-cream please."

That shut them up very quickly.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2003, 11:24 PM:

I like it! My pseudo-niece's home isn't broken; it's just discontinuous...

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2003, 03:14 AM:

Ya learn something new every day. I too assumed that that "banned in Boston" was a Catholic thing.

Whenever I feel blue these days, I visualize a smoky Indian casino in which a slightly tipsy William Bennet is cursing a blue streak while trying to get a video poker machine to accept a wrinkled $5 bill.

Elric ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2003, 07:06 AM:

My grandfather wrote a book that was banned in Boston. He was quite pleased that they did so.

He was a history professor at Syracuse, Ralph Volney Harlow, and he wrote a biography of Sam Adams that wasn't appreciated by the Brahmins. Not the take on history they felt was appropriate for refined readers, as far as I know.

Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2003, 10:13 AM:

In re half of marriages ending in divorce: I wonder what proportion of those are 2nd, 3rd, and 4th marriages. You could have the vast majority of people never divorcing (among the people I know, it at least seems to be a moderate majority) even if half of marriages end in divorce.

In re Europeans not understanding freedom: while I realize that the UK can be counted as part of Europe or not as one pleases, there was at least a rassef discussion of government chickenshitness which suggested that you were about equally likely to run into it in the US and the UK.

Jim Meadows ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2003, 10:31 AM:

I remember reading a collection of cartoons from the 1940s by the Boston Herald cartoonist Dahl, which had several references to the Watch and Ward Society. One of them showed a man walking into the Watch and Ward Society office and complaining that he had been misled. He had understood that only provocative cutting-edge books were banned in Boston. The Watch and Ward man was beaming with pride as the visitor talked up how much being banned in Boston could mean for a book. "But this book is tripe!", the complainer said, holding up the condemned volume. "How could you encourage me to read such trash?"

Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2003, 01:23 PM:

Stefan Jones: Whenever I feel blue these days, I visualize a smoky Indian casino in which a slightly tipsy William Bennet is cursing a blue streak while trying to get a video poker machine to accept a wrinkled $5 bill.

Not long before his death, Nick the Greek was seen playing $5-limit draw poker in one of the cardrooms of Gardena, California. The Greek had been a legendary high roller, having won and lost millions. (One of his reknowned accomplishments was losing something on the order of a million dollars in a months-long head-up poker match with Johnny Moss at a table at the front entrance to Binion's Horseshoe casino in downtown Las Vegas.)

According to the story, someone asked the Greek why one of the titans of the gambling scene was doing in such a small game. The Greek is said to have answered, "Hey, it's action, isn't it?"

(It never occurred to me that "banned in Boston" had anything to do with Catholicism; but then I was born in Concord, and learned in elementary school that "bluenoses" and "Brahmins" were pretty much synonymous. Those same elementary schools taught me that the Earl Warren's supreme court was What Made America Great.)

Laurie Sefton ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2003, 03:30 PM:

Sounds like this was confusion "Banned in Boston" with the Hayes office and the movie Production Code. The latter had the archdioceses mixed up in its creation.

jennie ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2003, 01:59 PM:

Mr. Orwin,

My ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary gives the following definitions for "aphorism"
1) A terse statement of a truth or an opinion; an adage
2) A brief statement of a principle

I think that you'll find that most of the major dictionaries give similar definitions. Since I cannot read your mind, I can't tell you if that's what you thought the word means; however, you appear to have used it correctly.

Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2003, 08:46 PM:

My impression is that a sizable percentage of divorces end in marriage.

zizka ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2003, 12:44 PM:

Nancy -- the same math applies to the stats "guys who won't commit". If five women have had bad experiences with that type of guy, maybe it's the same guy five different times. The willing-to-commit guys don't circulate long.