Chapter twelve, “The Devil’s Allies: The Struggle Against the Comic-Book Industry,” is fifty pages long. Fifty. Please, for the love of Gods, someone comment this week and make me feel like I’m not reading this in vain, because there is almost nothing new here.
But okay, let’s launch right into what is new. Namely a lengthy comparison of crime comic books with cholera. Because, sure, why not?
Suppose a child comes to me with a gastro-intestinal disorder. I examine him carefully and come to the conclusion that the cause of the trouble is an impure well. I give some medication for the child and tell him not to drink that water any more. A little while later another child comes to me with the same condition, and after that still another. In each case my clinical judgment traces the trouble to the same well. What under such circumstances is the doctor’s job? Should I wait until more and more children from this neighborhood come to me? Should I listen to those who say that after all there are children who have drunk water from this will and not got sick? Or to those who say it is good for children to get sick to the stomach occasionally, to “adjust them to reality”? Or should I listen to the owners of the well who claim first that children do not drink from their well, secondly that the well water is good for them and thirdly that interfering with the owners’ right to use the well in any way they please is against their constitutional liberties?
As it happens, I know a little bit about the history of cholera. This isn’t just part of my goal from childhood to learn something about everything; this is, in fact, thanks to James Burke, creator of Connections and The Day the Universe Changed. I forget which one it was in, but one of them discusses John Snow, who in 1854 was a doctor working in London, one of the founders of the Epidemiological Society of London. There was an outbreak of cholera in Soho, and Snow believed it was his duty to fight it.
What Snow did was seek out evidence that his long-held theory, that cholera was transmitted by water contaminated with cholera-laden fecal matter, was indeed the case and that preventing cholera would mean preventing contact with the contaminated water. He could find no microbial or chemical evidence of cholera contamination, but he traced each cholera case in the area to a single pump. In 61 cases, the deaths were of those who occasionally or continually drank from the Broad Street pump, which drew water from a well later found to have been dug three feet from an old cesspit. Snow showed that there was no outbreak among those who did not get their water from the well. Snow himself believed that the epidemic was already dying down before he had the pump handle removed, but it’s certainly true that no deaths followed its removal.
So what’s the difference between that and Wertham’s description? Snow actually went looking for evidence. It was not merely “clinical judgment,” it was an examination of evidence. And, though Wertham couldn’t have known it, crime in fact began to go up after the formation of the Comics Code Authority and its strict regulation of comics. Cholera went down after Snow put his methods in place.
Of course, Wertham denies in today’s chapter the very idea that juvenile delinquency was not on the rise. He insists that the statistics are wrong. He scoffs at “probation officers and other juvenile officials” who say it as well. But of course he provides no evidence beyond his own bare word that everyone official is wrong, though that certainly isn’t new.
Large amounts of today’s chapter, in fact, is evidence of Wertham’s fundamental misunderstanding of censorship and the First Amendment. He insist that it cannot be censorship if it is imposed on the many by the few, which is of course ludicrous. He also seems completely unaware of the very concept that children might have their own First Amendment rights, since the idea never comes up in any of the possibly dozens of pages discussing the subject. He even expresses surprise that the American Civil Liberties Union might oppose his plan to censor comics.
The list of things he was clearly unaware of in this chapter is long. He demands to know if The Last of the Mohicans and Uncle Tom’s Cabin really have the same level of violence as crime comics, and to be fair, I don’t know. I’ve never read either. On the other hand, I’ve seen Titus Andronicus. And beyond merely requiring the extra imagination of illustrations, I’ve seen it performed. For all Wertham idolizes Shakespeare, he doesn’t seem to mention the frankly horrific violence of a few of the plays. And then there’s Othello, which is violent, sexual, and contains quite a bit of racism. So yeah.
He’s got a bit about how a law was overturned by the Supreme Court, and in it, he manages to completely misunderstand what the Supreme Court does. He refers to the court’s opinion on “the new morality,” but of course that’s not the court’s concern. Actual law is. Wertham admits he’s not a lawyer but expresses multiple firm opinions on several different kinds of law.
He also doesn’t seem to know a lot about how illustrations are chosen for textbooks. One of the criticisms of his proposed law is that it would end up censoring all books printed for children.
It has been said that if comic books for children were censored on account of their violence “you couldn’t have a picture of Lincoln’s assassination in a textbook.” Would that be such a calamity? There are many other pictures of Lincoln’s time and life that would be far more instructive.
And, yes, while the famous engraving of the assassination is perhaps not necessary, the images that spring to mind for me as the most valuable from “Lincoln’s time and life” are the battlefield photographs. The image of a former slave posed with his back to the camera so that his horrific scars are visible. Similarly, the important images of World War II include actual pictures of concentration camp victims. These are graphic, but they are necessary.
Similarly, I find his argument against the idea that many, many people read comics without becoming violent criminals to be less than compelling.
Many people speed in automobiles, pass others on hills, ignore red lights, have defective lights and brakes, live in unsanitary dwellings, drink untested water or milk, eat uninspected meat, are exposed to all kinds of infectious diseases, are not vaccinated, and are still none the worse for it.
And that’s true. But, once again, we still have evidence that those things are harmful. Wertham complains and complains and complains, but he never backs it up with evidence. Not once. Snow would be ashamed.