Principalities & PowersrnAppealing to Prurient InterestsrnIn 1857, the House of Lords engaged in arnlieated debate over a bill sponsored by anrnorganization calling itself by the frank,rnbut nonetheless quaint, name of the “Societ’rnfor the Suppression of Vice.” Thernintent of the bill was to control, throughrnlegal penalties, the produchon and salernof “obscene publications,” and despiternthe high Victorian setting of the debate,rnenactment of the bill was by no means assured.rn”Brougham was dubious; LordrnWensleydale considered the commonrnlaw adequate as it stood,” wrote historianrnW.L. Burn of the discussion among thernpeers. But the high point of the contro-rn’ersy arrived when an 85-year-old Tor)’,rnLord Lyndhurst, rose to oppose the billrnand read out “a long list of works rangingrnfrom the classics to Restoration playsrnwhich might be deemed obscene.”rnLyndhurst’s tactic infuriated Lord Campbell,rnthe prim Liberal peer who was thernprincipal spokesman for the bill and whornpromptly denounced Lyndhurst’s “zealrnfor these filthy publications” and upbraidedrnhim for defending the supposedrnright to engage in “free trade in obscenit’.”rnLyndhurst rose again to respond thatrnhis many years of recounting risque anecdotesrnabout his own ancestors had jadedrnhis sensibilities to the kind of immorality-rnLord Campbell was condemning, hi thernevent, for all the controversy and all thernconfrontation of aristocratic wit withrnbourgeois moralism, the Obscene PublicationsrnAct became law, and what wernnow know as “Victorianism” acquiredrnone more legal support from the Britishrngovernment.rnThe debate in the Lords is of interestrnbecause it is one of the early occasions ofrna contro’ersy that has continued down tornour own hme, and, as the exchange betweenrnL’ndhurst and Campbell suggests,rnthe terms of the controversy have notrnchanged and have never been settled.rnLyndhurst’s list of classics goes to thernheart of the perennial debate overrnpornography and obscenity, and everyrndme the issue is argued, those opposed torncensorship produce a similar list. Howrndo we know what is and what is not “obscene”?rnHow do we know we are not silencingrnan Aristophanes, a Rabelais, or arnJoyce? On the Lyndhurst side of the aislernby Samuel Francisrnis the obvious truth that many of thosernmost zealous to crush obscenit)’ care absolutelyrnnothing for serious literature andrnart anyway, that to such paragons ofrnvirtue and civilization entire libraries arernlittle more than depositories of “filthyrnpublications,” and they would be just asrnhappy to consign Aristophanes, Rabelais,rnand Joyce to the fire as to shut down thernlocal peep shows and massage parlors.rnYet on the other side is what should bernthe equally obvious truth that the staternhas every right to regulate and disciplinernthe private moral life of its citizens.rnMorally proper behavior is fundamentalrnto the elementary cohesion of human society,rnnot to speak of the higher levels ofrncivilization that most people would likernto sustain, and the systematic assault onrnmoralit)’, taste, beaut}’, and decency thatrnpornography perpetrates is a perfectly appropriaterntarget of public coercion. Opponentsrnare probably right: Sometimes, ifrnyou have strict laws against obscenity, yournmight in error silence a Shakespeare.rnBut, by the same argument, if you havernlaws against murder, you might sometimesrnhang an innocent man. Mistakesrnhappen, but as long as procedures exist torncontrol and avoid them, they do not invalidaternthe legitimacy of the principle.rnThis summer, the U.S. House of Representativesrnagain took up the debate overrnobscenit)’, only this time it was not aboutrnsex in books but violence in movies. Rep.rnHenry Hyde, fresh from the failed crusadernto topple Bill Clinton, came up withrna measure to save America’s childrenrnfrom Hollywood. The occasion of thernHyde proposal was the massacre in Littleton,rnColorado, two months before andrndie inane compulsion that lawmakers ofrnboth parties experienced to “do something”rnto prevent more Littletons in thernfuture. The favorite such “something”rnwas gun control, but the Republicansrnquickly managed to fumble that issuernand allow the Democrats to upstage andrnout-maneuver them. Mr. Hyde’s measurernwas driven in large part by the needrnfelt by many Republicans that, if thernDemocrats were going to “do” gun control,rnthe Republicans must “do” somctiiingrnelse, and what Republicans shouldrn”do” was attack Hollywood, a whippingrnboy as popular with the Stupid Part)’ asrngun owners are with the Evil. The relevancernof outlawing, controlling, or censoringrnmovies, videos, and other mediarnfor the purpose of preventing future Littietonsrnwas never clear. The whole measurernwas driven not by any serious desirernto avoid such bloodlettings, but by whatrnRepublicans were smart enough to recognizernas the political necessit)’ that theyrn”do something” but were too dumb andrncowardly to resist by exposing as merely arndeliberately concocted device to attackrnprivate firearm ownership.rnMoreover, the language Mr. Hyderndrafted and submitted was full of holes.rnHis bill sought to prevent minors underrn17 from buying materials containing “obscenernviolence,” defined as “the kind ofrnviolence that appeals to the prurient,rnmorbid or shameful interest of childrenrnwithout social redeeming value for children.”rnOf course, almost every word inrnthe definition —”prmient,” “morbid,”rn”shameful,” “redeeming,” and “value,”rnnot to mention “violence” itself—is uprnfor grabs. Like almost all legislafion thatrntries to define and outlaw “obscenity,”rnwhether sexual or violent, Mr. Llyde’srndefinition contained terms that werernthemselves open to interpretation and debaternand would only have led to an infinitelyrnregressing argimient over whatrnwas or was not subject to tlie law.rnThe Hyde language was clearly derivedrnfrom the recent definition ofrn”obscenity” offered by the heavy liftersrnover at tiie Supreme Court in the Millerrndecision of 1973. After several rulings inrnthe 1950’s on the issue of “obscenit’,” therncase of Miller v. California settled thernmatter for at least tiic last generation, hirnthat decision, Chief Justice WarrenrnBurger’s definition of “obscenih'” is thatrnmaterial may be obscene ifrn(a) the a’eragc person, applyingrncontemporary communit)’ standards,rnwould find tiiat tiie work,rntaken as a whole, appeals to thernprurient interest; (b) tiie work depictsrnor describes, in a patentiy offensivernway, sexual conduct specificallyrndefined by the applicable staternlaw; and (c) tiic work, taken as arnwhole, lacks serious literar’, artistic,rnpolitical, or scientific value.rnThe Hyde language is merely an adapta-rnSEPTEMBER 1999/33rnrnrn