The Puritans banned gambling, adultery, fancy clothing, and smoking in public.
But casinos are now legal, and so is marijuana. Confused a little? So am I.
The Puritans were all about banning vice. Or, as the New England Historical Society explains it on its website, via an H.L. Mencken quote: “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
That ethic morphed into the “Banned in Boston” sensibility of the late 1800s, which barged its way into the next century. Books, songs, movies, and plays were prohibited if they contained what censors deemed “objectionable” content because of sexual references and obscenity. On those grounds, a Boston prosecutor threatened the publisher of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” with criminal prosecution in 1881. In the 1920s, the list of banned books included “Elmer Gantry” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” In 1957, the Catholic church called on Boston radio stations to ban “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers.
“Banned in Boston,” writes Paul S. Boyer of Harvard University, “became a slogan sure to boost flagging sales in the rest of the country.” Or as Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs put it: “I knew I’d made the grade, ’Cause I’ve been banned in Boston, baby.”
So what’s that ancient history got to do with Boston’s new brand of glass towers, craft beer, and Greenway cool, where landscapers can’t have untucked shirts or disabilities?
Governor Charlie Baker’s four-month ban on selling nicotine vapes was announced in the midst of a nationwide vaping crisis that has sickened nearly 1,500 people and killed at least 33, including one in Massachusetts. Legislation that would ban youth tackle football is also health connected, with supporters arguing it would protect young players from brain injury. In both cases, opponents argue that the fixes, well-intentioned as they may be, represent government overreach. Forced to pick a side, I favor informed consent, although it’s easier to make the case for adults and vaping than it is for children and tackle football.
The other proposed bans are about language and free expression and what’s acceptable in the 21st century. And that brings us back to old-school banned-in-Boston territory.
For example, a piece of proposed legislation entitled “An Act Regarding the Use of Offensive Words,” states that “a person who uses the word ‘bitch’ directed at another person to accost, annoy, degrade, or demean the other person shall be considered to be a disorderly person.” A violation “may be reported by the person to whom the offensive language was directed at or by any witness to such incident.” Granted, the legislation was filed at the request of a constituent under a citizen’s right to petition and has no chance of becoming law. But unlike Michael Jonas of Commonwealth Magazine, I don’t think it’s absurd to write about it. In a world where offensive language is a constant subject of debate, it feels more than plausible for someone to believe a word that hurts their feelings should be banned. As a theoretical exercise, it’s worth considering how many hurtful words would have to be erased to protect people’s feelings. To some, that may sound like nirvana, but it would come at great cost.
As for the banning of masks in public spaces, proponents say protesters should not be allowed to hide their identities during events like the so-called Straight Pride Parade in August. Opponents of the ban say the masks are a form of free expression. I buy the free expression argument, as long as the masked protesters are not interfering with other people’s rights to free expression. They shouldn’t be able to hide behind the First Amendment as they take First Amendment rights away from others, no matter how unpopular their views.
Well, at least we all have the right to gamble away our money and smoke our way to happiness. That’s no longer banned in Boston, baby.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.