The Reading Room

Culture Wars, Obscenity, and Censorship: Benjamin Tucker Today

In recent years, conservative lawmakers across the country have increasingly followed Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in censoring or attempting to restrict race- or gender-related content in schools and public libraries.
What would Benjamin Tucker say?
He might start by quoting in full an incisive article by contemporary Maurice Talmeyr, a writer for the French publication L’Intransigeant on the topic of “Pornography,” which Talmeyr defined as, “obscenity in books, journals, and works of art.” In his May 27, 1882, issue of Liberty, Tucker translated Talmeyr’s “protest” against “A proposition by a French deputy named Goblet [Eugène Goblet d’Alviella] for the enactment of a law against obscenity.”
Talmeyr’s point was simply to restate “the old argument – as old as the world and equally as solid” that censorship laws would always censor more works and ideas than intended: in the censors’ zeal to ban the little that is objectionable, “they risk the consignment of nine-tenths of literature to the paper-mill.”
Which brings us back to Benjamin Tucker, who, in another column in the same issue of Liberty as that of Talmeyr, titled, “Obscenity and the State,” argued in favor of obscenity not because it was good, but because state censorship was bad:
[D]isgusting as is the perversion of physical passion which finds expression in obscenity, it is much less dangerous to the public morals than the perversion of moral passion which finds expression in government. There is no desire, however low, whose satisfaction is so fraught with evil consequences to mankind as the desire to rule, and its worst manifestation is seen when it is directed against the tongues and pens and thoughts of men and women.
The target of Tucker’s own column was the “recent outrage” that was the censorship of the great American poet Walt Whitman in Massachusetts:
[I]s it not a shameful satire upon our laws that one of them should brand with the most disgusting form of criminality the man and poet whose life and writings have won him the sincere admiration of the most competent critics living. But, even were the brand deserved, still would its bearer be more honorable than they who fix it upon him. . . . [Obscenity] can expose the world to no dangers approaching those resulting from laws aimed at its suppression, so well indicated by [Maurice Talmeyr’s article], and so alarmingly illustrated by this recent outrage upon the “Good Gray Poet” and those who love him for his words and works.
What are genuine proponents of free speech to do?
At least with respect to education, Cathy Young proposes a set of practical policy solutions “to tackle the problem of ideologically skewed public-school instruction.” Instead of bans and “culture-warrioring,” Young advocates “rules that prohibit the personal targeting of students,” while other matters of content should be determined districtwide rather than statewide. Young’s colleague at the Cato Institute, Gene Healy, while more worried that many restricted books are in fact inappropriate for young people, likewise argues that “decisions about what goes on school‐​library shelves should be made at the local level, not forcibly dictated from the state house.” For older students, Young believes the controversies themselves should be taught because, after a certain level of education, “more [speech] is better.”
Others might argue that the wrong leaders should be replaced with the right leaders. Much resistance to today’s censorship legislation targets specific right-wing politicians and policies, as if only conservatives could be Talmeyr’s “pantaloon fanatics.” But unfortunately they are not.
Benjamin Tucker advocated in the above column to “Abolish, then, the instrument of this [censorious] desire, the State, and leave obscenity to run its course.” Only a little less unlikely in today’s society, some of Tucker’s intellectual heirs would today support school choice – i.e., limiting the involvement of government in education so that parents have more control over the materials to which their children are exposed.
In practice, Tucker implemented Young’s “more speech” solution by thumbing his nose at the authorities in response to their censorship of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Beginning with his July 22, 1882, issue of Liberty, he not only heroically offered his own copies of the suppressed book, but also submitted a breathtaking challenge to the very center of the controversy, his home state of Massachusetts, as well as to “all other enemies of Liberty”:
To Oliver Stevens, District Attorney of Suffolk County; George Marston, Attorney-General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; Edward Silas Tobey, Postmaster of Boston; Anthony Comstock, Secretary and General Agent of the Society for the Suppression of Vice; and all other enemies of Liberty whom it may concern:You are hereby distinctly notified – all of you in general, and you, Oliver Stevens, in particular – that I have in possession, and do now offer for sale, copies of the work advertised above. If you, or any one of you, believe, or affect to believe, that, in so doing, I am committing an unlawful act, you are invited to test the question whether twelve men, fairly chosen by lot, can be found in Massachusetts sufficiently bigoted, or intolerant, or hypocritical, to share with you, or pretend to share with you, such belief, or affectation of belief. And, to avoid unnecessary trouble and make the evidence of sale indisputable, I offer, on receipt from any one of you of an order for a copy of the work, to deliver a copy to you in my own person, at such place in Boston us you may designate, and take payment therefor.

Yours, disrespectfully,BENJ. R. TUCKER.
In his August 19, 1882, issue of Liberty, Tucker taunted the authorities for not having prosecuted his open violations: “We have offered to meet the enemy, but the enemy declines to be met.” Whitman, who greatly respected and “love[d]” his “friend” Tucker, was recorded on April 22, 1888, as having said, “Tucker did brave things for Leaves of Grass when brave things were rare. I couldn't forget that.”
However, where Tucker escaped liability, his fellow radical Ezra Heywood was prosecuted (and later acquitted). Such legal dangers would convince an older Benjamin Tucker to avoid civil disobedience.
Whatever the solution, surely the problem is clear: we can have what Talmeyr called the “fine crop of almonds” of a free society or we can have censorship. We cannot have both.