Saturday, September 27, 2014

Saturday afternoon tunes: Wrapping Banned Books Week with something brimming with redeeming social importance

We proudly wrap up Banned Books Week 2014 with the official anthem of celebration for the event here at p3.

Tom Lehrer, of the p3 pantheon of gods, recorded this song live and released it in 1965 as part of his "That Was The Year That Was" album.

There's something vaguely ironic about the idea that, two years later, he would perform it live in – of all places – Copenhagen, which enjoyed the dubious reputation in the American imagination of the time as the world capital of pornography. There's an oddish introduction to this performance, different from the near-canonical one on the 1965 album, in which he explains the concept of "prurient" to his amused but somewhat bemused Danish audience.

Strictly speaking, "redeeming social importance" and "prurient interest" are two of the three criteria codified by the Supreme Court in 1973 (the so-called "Miller Test") for determining whether a work is obscene, the third being whether the work is "patently offensive." A work must "fail" all three parts of the test before First Amendment protection is withdrawn from it (if it is not judged obscene, it may still be pornography, but it's protected, unless it's child pornography, in which case no, still not protected). The "prurient" test, by the way, is specifically a test of whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find the work appealing to prurient interest – which is why it's not surprising that it was in the Bible Belt city of Cincinnati, with all that entailed regarding its contemporary community standards, that Larry Flynt and Robert Mapplethorpe found themselves on trial back in the day.

(My own brush with obscenity – or, more precisely, with "obscenity" – as a lad is recounted here.)

And without further ado:

Of course most banned and challenged books in public libraries today don't come within a country mile of any part of the Miller Test. They just excited someone's impulse to control what someone else is allowed to see.

And remember: Banned Books Week – celebrating the right to read – isn't really over until we say it's over.

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