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Bringing to an unexpected and dramatic conclusion the swift and most spectacular public outburst of moral indignation that New York has witnessed in many a moon,--perhaps not even since the mass closing of saloons at the start of the prohibition era,--Commissioner Moss terminated the licenses of seventeen burlesque houses last Saturday. Thus, by withholding a flick of the official fountain pen, the metropolis' commissar of theatrical productions has arbitrarily put to end one of the least desirable phases of the glorification of the American Girl, and incidentally to the jobs of about six hundred more or less honest hangers-on in the profession. The death sentence which Mr. Moss meted out to the burlesque parlors was undoubtedly long overdue as a social measure, but the arbitrary--almost extra-legal--infliction of punishment by the official censor reminds one more of Berlin, or even Boston, and is hardly a happy precedent for the reformers to set in our changing society.
What has happened in New York is really a combination of two things. In the first place the burlesque houses have been conducted on a level of crudity and indecency that would doubtless bring flushes of shame to the most unblushing Parisian chorine, much more to Manhattan's polyglot population with its admixture of northern blood. Succumbing to their own ambition for spotlights and publicity and big box-office appeal, the leaders of the trade have made too much noise, and no less an authority than Ann Corio has claimed that the industry was "getting along nicely as long as Mr. Minsky kept his nose out of it". And secondly those who have risen in indignation to put a stop to the evil have spoken with a voice of authority that would have been difficult to deny. When the shepherd of the Catholic diocese of New York in the person of Cardinal Hayes lashes out in the attack, rash indeed would be the parishioner who opposed him.
But historical experience shows without cavil that this very voice of authority can turn back on the well-intentioned reformers who use it like a boomerang. In any society where liberties are crumbling away, the tendency to accomplish "reforms" by administrative fiat rather than by judicial hearings is one of the first signs of weakness. There is nothing in New York law or tradition that sanctions the practice of combining judge and jury in the single person of Mr. Moss. For someday the official inquisitor may not be so enlightened a man as Mr. Moss, and the voice of authority may ring out for the abridgement of some less undesirable pursuit than Mr. Minsky's. It would surely set a better precedent to take this matter before the properly constituted judicial body than to let it be settled by the mere fiat of the official inquisitor, quite apart from the fact that burlesque is undoubtedly a blot on the fair name of the metropolis.
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