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Let’s You and Him Fight: Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture Day Three
posted December 14, 2005

imageThe following is a the third day in a week-long exchange of e-mail about issues raised in and around the new book Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture Day One (University Press of Mississippi, $20, paperback, 1578068193) by its author Bart Beaty and a colleague of Beaty's in comics academia, Craig Fischer.

Dr. Beaty is a member of the faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. He is the author of the "Euro-Comics For Beginners" column at The Comics Journal and the "Conversational Euro-Comics" column here at The Comics Reporter.

Dr. Craig Fischer teaches in the English Department at Appalachian State University. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the International Comic Arts Festival, and his articles have appeared in The Comics Journal and The International Journal of Comic Art. He is currently working on a book titled Worlds Within Worlds: Storytelling in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four.

CR is pleased to host their conversation this week and hope it is a model for many more discussions in the future. For more information on the book, click through the above cover image.


Day 3

Craig Fischer to Bart Beaty

Dear Bart,

I'm glad we've finally begun to talk about censorship, especially since it gives me the opportunity to clarify a sentence I wrote yesterday: "Is censorship or regulation justified when it might only be a small percentage of readers who interpret 'The Whipping' as an
apologia for race hatred?" I have the feeling that you read that sentence as my argument that Wertham was a censor. In fact, I don't believe that, and I apologize for the misunderstanding. You make it abundantly clear in your book that Wertham advocated only the regulation of comics to prevent inappropriate material from reaching minors, and you reiterated the point memorably by quoting Wertham's "rape on the cover" line. The first version of my sentence read "Is censorship justified..." and I plugged in "or regulation" while I was revising precisely because I wanted to more accurately represent Wertham's position. Sorry for any sloppy ambiguity on my part.

There are a couple of clarifications, however, that I'm less apologetic about. About my argument that Wertham's stance was "untenable," you wrote the following:
"You suggest, and I think that many will side with you, that Wertham's position was contradictory and untenable. Wertham's response would be: School segregation did not cause psychological harm to all American blacks, nor was it the sole cause of the problems that many did face. But it was still right to end the practice. Smoking does not cause all smokers to develop lung cancer, but it is still right to act towards ending the process. Racist, sexist, and violent media do not alone cause racism, sexism and violence in our culture, but isn't it still worthwhile to work to minimize their influence?"

Of course it is, and I acknowledged this line of Wertham's reasoning by mentioning his tuberculosis metaphor. What I find untenable, actually, is not Wertham's advocacy of regulation, but the claims that you make for him as a polysemic critic.I believe that there's a fundamental difference between school segregation and reading a comic, and it's an
aesthetic difference. Segregation was a network of laws and mores that, following the holocaust of slavery, continued to strip people of fundamental rights from before Plessy v. Ferguson to after the Brown decision. (I've done research on movie-going in western North Carolina that indicates that theaters and other public spaces didn't truly desegregate until the mid-1960s. And how about Jonathan Kozol's new book on American public schools?) Despite the medium's popularity during the 1940s and'50s, comic books were, of course, never as harmful as segregation, and historians and fans have found plenty of comics to love from this period: Barks, The Spirit, Lou Fine, Jingle-Jangle Tales (which, despite its title, has nothing to do with Janet Staiger). Comics books gave harmless aesthetic pleasure to millions of readers, and it's hard for me to see Wertham as a critics who understands that "texts are polysemic" when he so completely ignores this pleasure. His blind spot is just too big. I find myself wondering if his tuberculosis metaphor is polysemic too: Wertham's exclusive focus on "infected" patients allowed him to more effectively chart the dangerous effects of comics, but they also allowed him to dismiss notions of pleasure and forms of culture that didn't meet his conservative high-art criteria.

I'd also like to talk about the First Amendment. You write that "the version of free expression that I favor (and I'm pretty close to Stanley Fish on this subject) is one that places these questions in the political realm," but I think you're misreading Fish here. He does not contend that governments and societies have the option to either embrace free expression as an "absolute principle" (the American model) or keep it as a contingent variable in the "political realm" (the Canadian model). Fish instead argues that all notions of freedom of speech are open to political negotiation and ideological shifts, and absolute principles are a fiction. (It's this mistrust of absolutism that links Fish's deconstructive literary work with his legal studies.) At their base, laws exist for no other reason than because judges and lawyers assert their authority and we're willing to accept it. A quintessential example of legal authority, then, is the American concept of judicial review, which the first Supreme Court claimed for itself in
Marbury v. Madison (1803) without any Constitutional mandate. And recent right-wing attacks on the "activist" Court, like Mark Levin's Men in Black, call for the abolition of judicial review precisely because the Constitution doesn't explicitly grant review power to the Supreme Court.

Fish would argue that a "free speech absolutist," then, is either deluded or cannily using free speech absolutism as a device to get what s/he wants. That's certainly the way the First Amendment works in the United States: as a tool with different uses depending on the user. Neo-Nazis cite freedom of expression as an absolute principle because they want to march through a Jewish suburb of Chicago. Underground comix publishers cite freedom of expression as an absolute principle because somebody like Don Donahue wants to publish
Cunt Comics. In the conclusion of your book, Bart, you write that "cinema overcame accusations regarding its degrading adolescence by proudly asserting its maturity" (198). As you know, this process of "asserting its maturity" included Burstyn v. Wilson (1952), a Supreme Court case wherein the A.C.L.U. successfully argued that First Amendment protections should be extended to movies. My point is that even in the U.S., freedom of expression is a term subject to perpetual political and ideological give and take -- witness the recent negotiations between the White House and Congress over the Patriot Act -- and thus really very similar to the Canadian version after all.

The above was a bit of a detour, so let me return to Wertham and make one final point clear: I agree with Wertham that children shouldn't have access to adult-themed materials. Wertham's interviews indicate one reason why -- crummy, dirty and nasty comics can have a bad influence--but I have personal reasons for believing this too. Nine years ago, when my wife and I were expecting our first child, I read books on child rearing and was most convinced by the school of thought called "attachment parenting," the central tenet of which is: give you child as much love as you can in the early years, and that child will grow up feeling more secure about his/her parents, friends, and the world in general. So my wife breastfed, we let both kids sleep with us until they turned two, and I help them feel secure by limiting their access to stuff I consider inappropriate. Not that I'm always a perfect arbiter: last year my seven-year-old son and I watched
Casablanca, and he cried uncontrollably when he realized that Ilsa and Rick weren't going to get together at the climax. I could just punch him in the arm and say, "Toughen up, sissy! The real world's a bitch," but he'll have enough time to figure that out for himself, and my job is to give him a secure start before he has to wrestle with the ambiguities of adulthood.

I feel strange bringing all this stuff up with you, Bart, since I know you're a new parent. (I also know that you and Rebecca are doting on little Bas. You guys are so infatuated with him that it's even sickening to attachment parents like me!) This talk about child-rearing, however, connects to our discussion in important ways. In his book
Moral Politics, George Lakoff compares attachment parenting to what he calls the "Strict Father" approach, based primarily on a rigid hierarchy within the family ("Father knows best") and swift, physical punishment when the child does something wrong. (As you might anticipate, the Strict Father method is popular among evangelical, right-wing Christians like Dr. James Dobson.) Lakoff (a.) cites scientific research proving that attachment parenting is better in both the short-term and long term for the child; (b.) connects nurturant family values to liberalism, and strict father parenting practices to Conservatism, and thus (c.) argues that it makes more objective sense both to be a liberal and to parent like a liberal. There are plenty of criticisms to hurl at Lakoff's argument, but I still found myself moved by the following passage in the acknowledgements to Moral Politics:
"This book began with a conversation in my garden several years ago with my friend the late Paul Baum. I asked Paul if he could think of a single question, the answer to which would be the best indicator of liberal vs. conservative political attitudes. His response: 'If your baby cries at night, do you pick him up?'" (xv).

Maybe Canadian parents are more prone to pick up that crying baby? Perhaps the secret to a better society is to love your children unconditionally and protect them from harm, including the psychic harm they'd incur from watching movies and reading comics that they're not mature enough to handle. You, me and Wertham all agree on that point.

I'll be quiet now. I have lots more questions, particularly about Wertham's clinical method, but I'll save those for tomorrow or Friday.



Bart Beaty to Craig Fischer

Hi Craig,

First, I think that I owe you an apology, because yesterday I seemed more interested in responding to arguments that you hadn't made about free speech, and I focused more on straw men of my own construction. In some ways I think that this is a natural consequence of reading so many internet message board discussions about the issue over the years, because the internet seems to somehow breed free speech absolutists who are always one step away from arguing that everyone's tax and medical records should be made public because "information wants to be free!".

And you're right that the line between Canada and the US isn't so black and white on these issues, and that there are struggles on both sides of the 49th parallel. Obviously, in Canada things like hate crimes legislation have gained more traction than in the US generally, but the issues are similar in a lot of cases. I just can't resist cheap anti-American potshots. It's got something to do with having to endure eight months of winter.

Regarding Wertham's reading of comics generally and individual comics in particular, I think that you're mostly right. I started to say that yesterday but then had to go pick up my crying baby and I forgot. On the one hand, in Seduction Wertham sees absolutely no value in comic books. It's hard to find a single approving thing he has to say about comics in the entire manuscript (whatever exceptions exist are sarcastic). On the other hand, he does seem to find some value in them in The World of Fanzines, his last book. I sometimes wonder if this is a drastic late career shift in belief (as many argue) or a natural continuation and logical extension of his existing thinking. It seems to me that Wertham did recognize some value in comics - particularly comic strips. He was friendly with people like Milton Caniff (and owned a Caniff original) and Al Capp, for example. Actually, in one interesting project that never came to fruition, Capp and Wertham worked with a large circulation magazine (I want to say Life, but my files are boxed up and I don't want to pull them out, but I'm pretty sure it was Life) where Capp and the readers would combine on some caricatures and then Wertham would analyze them to reveal what the psychology behind them was. Clearly he had some appreciation for the form, but he buried it in his writing.

I think that The World of Fanzines sheds some light on the reasons: Wertham didn't hate the form so much as the industry (though, clearly, he was no fan of the form). Some of the excised material from Seduction would have made this even more clear. Wertham spoke with a number of cartoonists who told him that it was the publishers who required more blood, guts and gore in the book, and many of these whistleblowers saw Wertham as someone who could help end a practice that they themselves were uneasy with. The draft that Wertham sent to the publisher, for example, contained revelations about DC's treatment of Siegel and Shuster that came right from the source, and would have blown the lid off the shoddy treatment that they received decades before it became a cause celebre in fandom. The lawyers, however, thought it would be actionable and that entire chapter becomes a series of unnamed sources, which considerably dampens its impact (it's so gutted and toothless that I sometimes wonder why he even bothered to retain it).

The sociologist Herbert Gans argues that there are four classic critiques of mass (or popular) culture: 1) It is self-evidently bad; 2) It harms the reader; 3) It harms society in general; 4) It harms high culture. Wertham argues the first three of these in Seduction. He touches on four, but only so briefly that it makes no real impact. But he does argue that comics are self-evidently trash (racist, sexist, violent, poorly printed, cheap, shoddily written, you name it). He does argue that they harm their readers by creating anxiety, and throwing off moral reasoning. And he does argue that they harm society, by contributing to juvenile delinquency. This is a complex web in his book. But, importantly, all of these are subsumed in his writings as a whole under the fact that comics are a product of a commercial culture that Wertham (and most mid-century highbrows) found damaging.

In the truest tradition of mid-century American reformers, Wertham considered the commercial aspect of the comic book industry as its central vice, and the thing most in need of condemnation. This is what allows him to embrace fanzines years later - they are anti-commercial, turned out by young people simply trying to express themselves, rather than trying to make a buck. Wertham likes the art in the fanzines, most of which, it goes without saying, considerably uglier than Wally Wood's compositions. But he likes it because he sees it as self-expressive and therefore authentic, where I would suspect that he sees Wood's work as crassly opportunistic and inauthentic, or not Art. (Of course, he also had a framed Wally Wood parody of himself in his office, so maybe he did like Wood's line?)

All of which is a long way of saying that Wertham seemed to have found pleasure in some comics work, but very little comic book work, most of which he dismissed as commercial junk churned out by hacks working in sweatshops. Of course, a lot of people have characterized a lot of work from the so-called Golden Age in similar terms. And those are the people who love comics! So, I agree that he has a huge blindspot, but I think that's the explanation for it. This is one of the things that I hope to discuss with him in Heaven (if Mitch Albom is right, I should also get to talk to four more people).

As for the child-rearing, I'm so new to this game that I really shouldn't be entitled to an opinion. We're raising our son on a constant diet of Turner Classic Movies at the moment, but I'm not sure that he is really getting them. Last night he watched Vertigo, and Kim Novak's suicide didn't seem to phase him at all, but that might have more to do with being eleven days old.

I'm fascinated by what you say about Lakoff, partly because it had never occurred to me until recently that people might not pick up a crying baby. But in our neo-natal classes, there were several fathers-to-be who insisted that holding babies made them "soft" and "dependent" and who planned to have no part in it. I was shocked, and our instructor was appalled, but you can see how it's going to go. Meet the Fockers, a film with almost no virtues, has a take on this that you'd be interested in.

Wertham had no children of his own, but he certainly dealt with many of them during his career, and you're right - he was probably a holder.

As a sort of postscript to Monday's discussion about the sick society, I was trying to find the Capp reference that I just mentioned in the notes on my computer and instead ran across this: In his files, Wertham had a copy of an article by Erich Fromm. Attached to it with a paper clip was a little piece of paper that simply reads: "Fromm typically wrong".

Back to you,



Day 1
Day 2
Day 4 (Today)