22 June 2011

Fight for your right

I'm not really the type to have role models; people are too complicated, too full of good and bad to be credible heroes to me. But if pressed for an example of someone who showed great courage in speaking truth to power I would have to go with William Gaines.

Gaines is best known today as the longtime publisher of MAD Magazine, and while financing a rag whose purpose was to pervert middle-American values and raise several generations of smart-ass punks would be enough to commend him, I think his finest moment came in 1954, when he was the publisher of the EC Comics line of horror comics: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories, etc. Red panic was in the air in those days, and a crackpot psychiatrist by the name of Frederick Wertham had just published a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that violent comic books were perverting American youth, turning them into either Communists or homosexuals or both. The upshot of all of this was that Gaines was called before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to give an accounting for why his comics were so gory and disgusting and devoid of redeeming qualities and really wasn't he ashamed of himself.

You can read his testimony in its entirety online, but the long story short is he refused to play the game. When asked to justify himself—to explain what possible good could come of comics featuring beheadings and eviscerations played for laughs—he shrugged: "It would be just as difficult to explain the harmless thrill of a horror story to a Dr. Wertham as it would be to explain the sublimity of love to a frigid old maid." 

He stood condemned before he spoke a word, of course, and within a year EC Comics was forced to stop publishing its horror line because of the new guidelines set forth by the Comics Code Authority. But I've always loved the image of this bespectacled, schlubby man effectively thumbing his nose at the idea that entertainment had to serve some noble purpose. Here was a guy who refused to justify something that had, and needed, no justification. There are many people who pay lip service to the idea of free speech when that speech is in service of a cause. It takes courage to defend free speech in the service of nothing other than simple self-gratification.

I often think of Gaines whenever someone ties themselves in rhetorical knots trying to answer scolds and censors who aren't happy with the kind of fun others are having. Video games promote hand-eye coordination; I'm not wasting time on the Internet, I'm building my social network; I'm only reading it for the articles. Look at the convoluted points activists make when trying to legalize marijuana: they talk about pot's medicinal uses, the ways the fibers can be used to make rope and the ways seeds can be used to make oil and the ways the roots can be used to make kitchenette sets. What they don't say is: "I want to get high, and I think it's fair that I be free to do that in a safe and legal way." 

There are some things we do for shits and giggles. Most of the best things: roller coasters, horror movies, bourbon, sex. You have your own list, and it's probably different, but you don't have to justify it to me.

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