Yesterday's Culture Wars

This interesting Louis Menand review of David Hajdu's book about the "great comic-book scare" in Fifties America seems worth quoting in the context of my last two posts:

Other people’s culture wars always look ridiculous. That’s partly because we frame cultural controversies as battles between the old and the new, and, given that the old is someone else’s status quo and we have no stake in it, we naturally favor the new. So one way to look at the comic-book inquisition is to see it as an effort to repress an edgy, provocative, satirical popular form and to dictate to people what books they should and should not read. In this view, a big, powerful, established social entity (consisting of psychiatrists and government officials) is squashing a bunch of little, powerless entities (consisting of individual comic-book artists and readers).
But the psychiatrists and the officials almost certainly perceived things the other way around. For youth culture is commercial culture. If an industry is moving a hundred million units a week, then someone is making money. At the time of the Hendrickson hearings, comic books were a hundred-million-dollar-a-year business ... The Book-of-the-Month Club pulled “Seduction of the Innocent” [Dr. Frederic Wertham's famous anti-comic broadside] for fear of a libel suit from comic-book publishers ... [The publishers] were no doubt interesting, complicated, talented people who believed in what they did, but they were businessmen manufacturing entertainment for children.

“Seduction of the Innocent” is a monomaniacal book, and its claims about the causal relation between comic books and juvenile delinquency are only notionally scientific. But it struck a chord, and not just with opportunistic politicians ... Shortly after the hearings, in June, 1954, Robert Warshow, whose essays on popular culture were unusual in the period for their nuance and appreciation, wrote a famous essay for Commentary on horror comics (it’s odd that Hajdu doesn’t mention it), in which he worries about their effect on his eleven-year-old son, Paul, a member of the EC Fan-Addict Club. Warshow did not much admire Wertham’s book, but he accepted its verdict. “I myself would not like to live surrounded by the kind of culture Dr. Wertham could thoroughly approve of,” he wrote, “and what I would not like for myself I would hardly desire for Paul. The children must take their chances like the rest of us. But when Dr. Wertham is dealing with the worst of the comic books he is on strong ground; some kind of regulation seems necessary.”

And that is all Wertham recommended. He was against the code. He did not want to censor comic books, only to restrict their sale so that kids could not buy them without a parent present. He wanted to give them the equivalent of an R rating ... Wertham thought that representations make a difference—that how people see themselves and others reflected in the media affects the way they think and behave. As Beaty says, racist (particularly concerning Asians) and sexist images and remarks can be found on almost every page of crime and horror comics. What especially strikes a reader today is the fantastic proliferation of images of violence against women, almost always depicted in highly sexualized forms. If one believes that pervasive negative images of black people are harmful, why would one not believe the same thing about images of men beating, torturing, and killing women?



Menand goes on to note that television's role in the decline of the comic-book industry probably eclipsed the role played by the censors, and concludes:

Television was the Cold War intellectuals’ nightmare, a machine for bringing kitsch and commercialism directly into the home. But it was also the way out of Wertham’s trap. By exposing people to an endless stream of advertising, television taught them to take nothing at face value, to read everything ironically. We read the horror comics today and smile complacently at the sheer over-the-top campiness of the effects. In fact, that is the only way we can read them. We have lost our innocence.



This will be (and already is, in some precincts) gangsta rap's fate as well, I suspect - not jazzesque highbrowfication but campification, in the style of the Ben Folds video posted below. But as with yesterday's comic books, the fact that future generations will snicker at gangsta rap's glorification of violence and over-the-top misogyny doesn't mean that Bill Cosby is wrong to deplore it today - and the fact Americans seem to cope with the steady coarsening of our popular culture by becoming steadily more jaded about just about everything ought to be cause for concern, rather than complacency.