The Hays Code, the old PC, and formal power

On Twitter, psychologist Geoffrey Miller retweeted Columbia Pictures’ 1934 photograph in protest of the Hays Code, commenting that it dates from an erstwhile time when Hollywood “protested against political correctness.”


Yet how similar is our contemporary regime of political correctness to censorship under the Hays Code? The Hays Code was a (mostly) explicit list of prohibited obscenities and depictions, enforced by one central administrative office; it was an expression of formal power. On the other hand, today’s political correctness cares very little about censoring nudity or lewd sex acts, and not at all about protecting (western) religious faith and (western) national traditions from ridicule. In many ways its substantive aims are exactly opposite to those of the old regime. Joe Sobran said that the old regime was “nativist” (prejudiced in favor of the native, the normal, and so forth) while the new regime is “alienist” (prejudiced in favor of the alien, the marginal, the dispossessed, the eccentric). Modern political correctness is also enforced by the Cathedral, i.e. by a decentralized (and often capricious) coalition of ideologically-aligned individuals and institutions; it is an expression of informal power.

Are great and beautiful things possible under the rule of prudish formal power, even if modern minds might find its specific prohibitions to be wanting? In a short essay, “The Way We Were,” published in 1995, Irving Kristol pointed out that, at least in this context, the answer is: yes.

Perhaps no other issue excites such hysteria today as does censorship, and the threat it supposedly poses to our liberties. But from the founding of the Republic until 1950, we lived under a system of censorship of pornography and obscenity, and just about the only people who seemed interested in the matter were book publishers mourning lost sales. This censorship was for the most part local, so that books banned in Boston could be bought in, say, New York. Only when the federal government intervened—as in the case of James Joyce’s Ulysses—were the blunders of censorship highly irritable. In all of American history until 1900, I do not know of a single case where the prohibition against pornography/obscenity was directed against political speech, political or scholarly books. So much for its hypothetical “chilling effect.” As for its harming artistic creativity, it is worth noting that the same cultural historians who froth at the mouth at the very mention of censorship casually refer to the decades from 1920 to 1950 as the “golden age” of Hollywood (despite censorship by the Hays Office), of the American novel, and of the American theater.

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3 Responses to The Hays Code, the old PC, and formal power

  1. spottedtoad says:

    In a very good book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, Ian Malcolm paints a picture of a society extraordinarily repressed and even censored, mostly in order to accomodate Elizabeth’s shaky grip on monarchical power and the newborn Church of England. And that’s what produced Shakespeare. I think someone said once that poetic form- those sonnet structures or Terza Rima of ABAEtcetera, are like the salt or sugar that stops a food from going bad, structuring the language of poetry such that it can survive another day . Perhaps the same is true of societal strictures in speech and artistic expression in general, and it’s the Hays’ Code that gives us the Wizard of Oz or Casablanca…


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