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Sensitivity Uber Alles

Commentary on Censorship:


"Fear No Art" has, sadly, become another useless, unheeded cliche. The bipartisan attack on most forms of expression is largely sponsored by special interest groups. Unfortunately, the selective opposition to censorship by those groups that claim to be in favor of freedom of expression has further endangered this freedom. Unnoticed by most, our civil liberties are slowly disappearing. And the best recent example of this is the controversy surrounding Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho.

American Psycho is one of the most violent, sexually explicit and profane novels ever to appear in the United States. Because the book treats a topic which most Americans feel uncomfortable discussing, it has proven an excellent target for both the "sensitivity" and "decency" police. American Psycho is the literary equivalent of a snuff film.

In American Psycho Ellis tried to do what any artist worth his or her salt would do-get a desensitized people to take a good long critical look at themselves and their practices, indeed, to shock the unshockable. This is social criticism at its most offensive, yet most effective level.

For this attempt at honesty, Ellis and his book have been violently attacked by both the right and the left. Judging from the book's reception, it appears as if reality has become so painful that our society refuses to consider any serious artistic critique of itself. Lacking the integrity to admit our fear of freedom, Americans insist that artists censor themselves. In the case of books like Ellis's, our society has decided to kill the messenger.

Melanie Thernstrom received a similar reception for her book The Dead Girl, which was a eulogized sexual history of a pointlessly murdered friend of the author's. Stories like these are unpleasant and disturbing, but they are part of the way we live and die. To attempt to censor them is to deny reality.

Ellis's character, Patrick Bateman, who in the book graduated from Harvard in '84, says, "It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a non-contingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist."

One of the most ironic aspects of the book's reception is that American reality seems to have upstaged the events which Ellis is depicting. Ellis, who has condemmed the American people's frightening ability to absorb atrocities, hoped to create a uniquely disturbing work, but he failed. Jeffrey Dahmer's slaying of homosexuals in Wisconsin, the racially motivated slaughter of Yankel Rosenbaum and inner-city realities overtook his work.

Most of us recoil at the prospect of having to critique our belief systems, but this should be one of the goals of a true artist. The narrow-minded leadership of the National Organization of Women and their equally bigoted right-wing equivalents are a threat to all that want and value freedom of expression and the right to dissent.

The Los Angeles Chapter of N.O.W. called Ellis's book "a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women," as if such a manual would create new psychos. Richard E. Snyder, chairman of Simon & Schuster, quickly caved in to the feminists and canceled his company's publication of American Psycho in the name of "taste." Amanda Urban, Ellis's agent, characterized the cancellation as "a giant corporation [Paramount Communications, which owns Simon & Schuster] responding to prepublication controversy and strong-arming its publishing division into abandoning its own tradition of fearless publishing."

The book was eventually published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and was released as a Knopf Vintage trade paperback. But the publication of the book almost did not happen. The ease with which N.O.W. managed to intimidate Simon & Schuster should frighten those who value freedom of expression.

The cancellation of American Psycho sends a message to the would-be artist- "sensitivity" and "decency" should be valued more than honesty. Ellis may not be able to shock the reader, or to show our society anything new. Americans are too far gone for that. But if Ellis can show his readers a mirror of themselves, his work should be available for those who are not afraid to look.

The racist, bigoted, anti-semitic screams of Axl Rose and Public Enemy; the homosexual culture, as photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, and the pornography that is eagerly consumed by women as well as men in this country are all part of our culture. Killing the artist in the name of sensitivity or decency is foolish, however good the intentions of the censors.

Censorship should not be a partisan issue. It must be fought if our country is ever to enjoy anything like the freedom and liberty alluded to on our coinage.

* J. Eliot Morgan '92 is a self-described libertarian, Chicago Cub fan, and purchaser of Penthouse, for the Dershowitz articles. He also writes editorials for The Crimson.

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