Burning Books, Banning Art, and the Persistence of American Puritanism

“Puritanism has made life itself impossible. More than art, more than estheticism, life represents beauty in a thousand variations; it is indeed, a gigantic panorama of eternal change. Puritanism, on the other hand, rests on a fixed and immovable conception of life; it is based on the Calvinistic idea that life is a curse, imposed upon man by the wrath of God. In order to redeem himself man must do constant penance, must repudiate every natural and healthy impulse, and turn his back on joy and beauty.” – Emma Goldman

“The important task of literature is to free man, not to censor him, and that is why Puritanism was the most destructive and evil force which ever oppressed people and their literature: it created hypocrisy, perversion, fears, sterility.”  – Anaïs Nin

Several months ago I had a conversation about art with an American friend of mine. I consider him to be fairly left leaning, but I was puzzled when he told me he was seriously having to reconsider his “appreciation and enjoyment of certain artists” now that he knows of their “sexual abuse and sexist misogyny.” When I asked what he was referring to he mentioned Picasso and Gauguin as a couple examples. At the moment I was left nonplussed. In that short conversation I was taken aback by the swiftly moving and insidious undercurrent of puritanism still strong in American life.

What is more interesting to me is that this strain of authoritarianism is quite strong in many on the left end of the political spectrum. I’ve encountered similar attitudes when it comes to books. In fact, many 21st century American liberals appear all too willing to run to the bonfire when a new cause célèbre calls out a book that may contain offensive language or a work of art that may display a difficult, complex or nuanced sexual content. But what has been lost in this maelstrom of purging the past (and the present for that matter) is a needed dialogue about censorship, sexuality in relation to fascism, and the pernicious role it plays in suppressing political dissent. It has in many ways become a rush to censor and erase artists and writers from the pages of history for infractions they may have made against current sensibilities and silence current writers and artists for daring to speak in a voice that differs from the mainstream.

There are seemingly countless instances of conservative driven censorship. The book Stick by Andrew Smith, for example, faced backlash because it contains themes of gay and adolescent sexuality. Even The Diary of Anne Frank, a young girl’s thoughts and feelings while she hid with her family during the Holocaust, was edited of parts where she writes about exploring her body. Yet the fact that adolescents have a sexuality to begin with is a topic that is oft forbidden and increasingly censored even among many on the left and among liberals. One example of this was at New York’s Metropolitan Museum where Manhattanite, Mia Merrill, launched a campaign to remove a painting by Balthus entitled “Thérèse Dreaming” due to an apparent psychological projection about an alleged sexual sub-context. She attached her outrage to the #MeToo movement. Other works of art have been targeted as well for related “concerns.” Even in Britain, J.W. Waterhouse’s painting depicting the Greek myth “Hylas and the Nypmhs” was removed by a Manchester museum to supposedly start a “conversation.” Yet one would be hard pressed to start any conversation about a missing piece of artwork sans the topic of censorship.

But American culture in particular is rooted in a persistent and often insidious puritanism and a generalized panic when it comes to expressions or representations of human sexuality. And this continues to inform it and shape the contours and boundaries for what is deemed acceptable speech or thought for that matter. It is a toxically puerile form of selective corporate censorship. For example, Hollywood pumps out a flood of sappy movies and sitcoms that make the 1950s look risqué all while producing films that parrot hyper-militaristic, Pentagon endorsed, hagiography of the nation and war. While its productions often masquerade as edgy, at its core it is profoundly reactionary via its authoritarian demands for conformity to the so-called “American way.” This all has deep misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic undertones to it as well. Historically, but even today, and even on the left.

Sexuality has always been weaponized to oppress an underclass or caste within American society. One of the earliest forms of it was organized violent misogyny. From the onset, the Puritans were determined to eradicate Native American culture and implant a stoic version of Christian piety based on a rigid work ethic and moral conformity onto the “New World.” Borrowed from medieval Europe, this of course led to the trials, tortures and executions of scores of women as witches in New England for the “crimes” of consorting with or having “unnatural relations” with the devil. In one sense this represented a deep loathing of feminine sexuality and even nature itself, but what is often left out of this narrative is the powerful class motive for the usurpation of women’s land and property. And this fetishization of female sexuality is often portrayed today in contradictory forms. The so-called virtuous, upstanding woman is juxtaposed to the promiscuous one with little nuance, depth or complexity between the two stifling stereotypes.

African slaves were stereotyped over centuries as being hyper-sexual and promiscuous thus an existential threat to so-called “white purity.” It may have culminated in the culture in the form of the racist film “Birth of a Nation” which was lauded by President Woodrow Wilson and shown in the White House, but the racist stereotypes persist in contemporary media. Historically, this served as a way of dehumanization and othering, particularly in regard to the creation and promotion of the supremacy myth. And it translated into actual policies of segregation and discrimination. The societal impact can be seen manifested in the copious crimes of rape and assault against black women by white men during and after slavery, and in the horrific era of lynching in the 20th century throughout the country where tens of thousands of men were hanged, burned alive and often tortured to death because of allegations of rape or sexual improprieties against white women. Today that legacy continues in the form of police brutality and incarceration. But African American culture suffered as well from this stereotyping and was largely marginalized and censored, only later to be appropriated by many white artists in what was considered a more acceptable or sanitized form. Jazz and blues being good examples of this.

Antisemitism plays a large role in this too. For decades Jews were demonized and censored via the use of puerile and often arcane “obscenity” laws which were constructed in large part as a purity tests for Americanness. Author Josh Lambert outlined this in his book “Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews and American Culture.” Jewish influence on the arts have long been painted as dangerously sexual, politically subversive and debased by the white Christian establishment. And this has played out historically in the political class as well. Nixon and Billy Graham’s infamous recorded White House chats give us an insight into how that reached to the highest offices. Even today anti-Semitic conspiracy theories persist which suggest Jews control the American media, art and movie industry; once again providing an excuse for a crusade of white “purity” against supposed “obscenity.”

Homophobia and transphobia are ever present in today’s moral policing as well and its roots stem from a long history of puritanical sexual repression and rigid gender conformity. LGBTQ people had long been persecuted by the police, the church and corporations and have lost jobs, homes or were incarcerated for decades while antigay laws were still on the books. The “Red Scare” of the 1950s which aimed to purge the US of communists and their sympathizers is an example of how that unfolded in relatively recent times. Thousands of people lost careers, relationships, faced financial ruin, and even lost their lives in some instances due to suicide, thanks to being labeled a subversive, a homosexual (which was socially taboo and largely illegal at the time) or a pervert (which could be twisted to mean just about anything). How this relates to book burning is informative also since it was at the behest of Senator Joseph McCarthy that US State Department libraries purged their shelves of books deemed “controversial” or communist. And this happened across the board in Hollywood too, a bastion of American reactionary bigotry. Today queer sexuality in American culture is often portrayed by Hollywood in ways that appear more like pantomime. A parody or shtick rather than lived reality. But this is what sells to corporate buyers. Honest representations of human sexuality in its rich, multilayered and complex forms does not.

One could spend days ruminating on the pious drenched and often hysterical puritanism of the religious right, yet without understanding how puritanism itself is a broad cultural phenomenon deeply effecting the liberal left as well, one cannot analyze current trends of censorship with true accuracy or, indeed, honesty. The reason all of this history is important is that it relates to the moral policing going on today under the often nebulous auspices of “social justice.” That rape culture and sexual harassment have been called out for the social maladies they are is a good thing. But movements, especially when they are championed by the wealthy elite, must always be looked at critically and approached with caution.

And this is where class comes in. After all, it is the lower castes within American society who already suffer disproportionately from a draconian and punitive legal system. Sex offender registries are one example of this. Designed to punish crimes of a serious sexual nature and protect the public from dangerous predators, they have all too often ruined the lives of people who pose no threat whatsoever. Urinating in public, teenagers having sex with other teenagers, breast feeding in public, sex work, all these things have threatened working class people, especially queer people and people of colour, with the stigma of being on a registry for life. And once on, they are restricted in employment, education and housing, further impoverishing people who were already poor. And corporate media culture reinforces this, giving the public a paranoid, hysterical narrative that the nation is somehow awash in predators of all kinds. This is not to diminish the very real abuses of a very real culture of rape, but to show the arbitrary nature of a deeply unequal system which has historically been based on a skewed and bigoted moral value system and administered via sweeping class disparity.

It is in this disparity in particular that I find liberal, and to some extent some leftist, outrage at certain art works, books or music so telling and peculiar. It displays a stunning lack of curiosity and an insularity to the lived lives, lived realities really, of others. And it willfully ignores the enormous role of bigotry and class differences in it all. That art or literature might be offensive to some is a given. That it should be censored or erased from the commons and from public memory should never be. It is sponging away what is often deeply relevant out of a fear that it might trigger an unwanted feeling; and in doing so diminishing the growth that can come with exposure to different ideas and perspectives. Of course one should decide for themselves what they are able to view based on their emotional or mental state, but when it becomes a public crusade of sorts the dangers should be obvious.

What’s more is that I often see a desire for kitsch to replace art, and this reflects a kind of childish or toxic naivety rife in the culture today. This is not to say that kitsch has no place at all, but it has become the overarching artistic genre of the American modern era and this is striking to say the least because sexuality and its expression are stunted, infantilized and deformed in such mediums, which might explain its appeal in the current era of hyper corporate consumerism and diminished human connection. It can also explain how the porn industry, a medium rife with hollow or kitsch representations of human beings, has largely replaced erotica. That kitsch is considered art at all may be problematic, but it is what it has replaced that should trouble us more. The seriousness of artistic expression is diminished by what is absent, not what is displayed and it is often done so to soothe bourgeois sensibilities, not challenge them. And this is the sort of thing that can be an indicator or precursor to a sharp rise of fascism within a society. Because within the fascistic framework human sexuality is a another potent mechanism for social control.

But today’s digital culture aids this. It is one that encourages little interest in historic, cultural or artistic content. It isn’t one that encourages reading much either and this has led to a truncation of the language and critical thought in general. Now communicating ideas are often done in a staccato versing that has arisen from the text, meme, emoji, hashtag and Twitter mediums. But that is what makes this rush toward censorship even more alarming.

As has been revealed several times, social media has aligned with corporate and state interests to censor alternate or opposing views. It often begins with the repression of marginalized communities, banning art, alternate viewpoints, ideas and even thought deemed perverse or obscene, essentially any threat to the status quo hierarchy. But this is a poison that can rapidly spread to the rest of society. And American puritanism has long shadows that reach far beyond its borders now, making the implications rather chilling in that regard. Indeed, we should look at this erasure of public memory as not only a corporate approved curbing of curiosity and a purge of intellectual imagination; but also a pernicious repression of dissent and the systematic curtailing of our political agency. And this is what is so very dangerous about it all.

Kenn Orphan   2019

6 thoughts on “Burning Books, Banning Art, and the Persistence of American Puritanism

  1. JEHR

    It is too bad that PM Trudeau did not learn the lessons of Judge Berger who headed a Royal Commission (1977) on the feasibility of having oil pumped through indigenous lands. He should know that Berger “is recognized for his work on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry and the subsequent publication of The Berger Report. As Commissioner, Berger recommended that, “on environmental grounds, no pipeline be built and no energy corridor be established across the Northern Yukon” and that any pipeline construction be postponed until native claims could be settled. Despite his belief in the judicial system, Berger acknowledged that there were certain issues that could be dealt with outside of the courts. For instance, as Commissioner for the Royal Commission on Family Law, he stated: “The philosophy inherent in all thirteen of the commission’s reports is that legal sanctions should, in many cases, be a last resort, and to this end recommendations focused on the effective use of human rather than legislated solutions.”

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    1. Lorie

      I read this on Counterpunch & forwarded it to a few people. It clarified beautifully a lot of my uneasiness about the MeToo movement–which I connected (my uneasiness) with the legal aspects of lack of due process, but which really has to do with the larger issue–this depressing insanity in the US around sex. Good article, and that quote by Emma Goldman is perfect.
      Btw–Johnny (other commenter) Lolita was and is one of my favorite books. And a lot of Henry Miller. I wonder if his work will survive the 2020s. It doesn’t really matter though, nobody reads that old stuff anymore, right?

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  2. johnny

    Good essay. I’m currently reading the wonderful “Lolita” by the great Nabokov which must surely be on the NO list somewhere or other. To think it came out in the mid-50’s and impossible to imagine Kubrick being able to make the film adaptation today.

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  3. savagegrace8

    Hi Kenn,

    This is a very prescient piece. I concur whole-heartedly with all aspects of your thesis. Obviously, this type of repression stems from fear. Repressors are so scared of their own sensuality/sexualty, yet are psychologically unsophisticated, so project this onto others as evil.

    Let’s face it, the hippies were right!

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  4. Roy Booher

    Thanks for the essay but, yes full scale Naziism is already here, the tsunami just hasn’t reached you yet, but the primary reason for my reply is; isn’t it interesting that thousands of years ago the word, ‘sin’, referred to an innocent pleasure, and that centuries later a god was created who’s name was, ‘Sin’, and that now, many eons later it has the connotation that it does?

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  5. Pingback: Burning Books, Banning Art, and the Persistence of American Puritanism — Kenn Orphan – VIRTUAL BORSCHT

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