Why censor Doonesbury?

Does the Boston Globe think its readers aren’t familiar with the phrase “son of a bitch”? Or is it amputation the editors want to keep off the funny page? Some thoughts from Lowry Heussler.

More guest-blogging: My friend Lowry Heussler has some thoughts on war, language, and squeamishness.

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The Boston Globe pulled “Doonesbury” on Thursday, but thoughtfully printed a web address so that those of us mature enough to handle the comics could see what the editors deemed inappropriate for a family readership.

I had opened the paper directly to the comics because Thursday’s Doonesbury implied that B.D., having survived Vietnam (remember, he cleverly joined the armed forces to get out of a term paper) had lost a leg in Iraq. I was shocked, and prepared to be impressed, that Mr. Trudeau dared to maim a character who is a family member for some of us.

In the strip the surgeon tells B.D.’s friend Ray that B.D. has lost his lower leg, but the knee was saved. He goes on to warn Ray that loss of a limb is traumatic and that amputees go through stages of grief, starting with denial, progressing into anger. . . .and in the fourth panel, B.D., from behind a curtain, shouts “SON OF A BITCH!” and the doctor finishes: “And some skip denial.”

Before I put down the paper and woke up my computer, I actually wondered if amputation was the Globe’s justification for censorship. After reading the strip, I still wonder.

First, I’d like to reclaim the word “bitch.” When I dropped off a lost dog flyer at a Roxbury police station and told the African American officer at the desk that the missing Shepherd was a four-year-old spayed bitch, I thought she was going to shoot me. On the other hand, the Globe reports the results of the Bay Colony Cluster Dog Show annually (“Am. Can. Ch. Mt. Mansfield’s Lovely Lucy, U.D.X, romped her way to Winner’s Bitch,”) so I am quite unclear as to why the phrase “son of a bitch,” i.e., “dog,” is a taboo. Impolite, yes. But would the Globe have pulled a comic strip in which one character called another “daughter of pigs?”

I am left with a nagging belief that the Globe censored a concept: dismemberment as a consequence of war.

Most people are squeamish about disability in general, and amputees face particular revulsion. Physically disabled people are routinely asked to conceal their bodies for the sake of others. There’s nothing new about that fact. But I am amazed at how quietly the public accepts censorship of Iraq casualties.

Firing a Seattle newspaper employee for printing a smuggled photo of flag-draped coffins isn’t enough, apparently. Conventional wisdom was that printing the photo of a soldier saluting coffins was disrespectful to the dead and insensitive to the families. Really? Which is worse: looking at a picture of all those coffins, or the reality of the deaths?

In Friday’s strip, B.D. proposes marriage to the nurse who gave him a shot of morphine. He’s feeling fine for a moment, but when the morphine wears off, B.D. still won’t have both his lower legs, and he’ll have to accept his condition. He’s needed back on campus; someone’s got to restore the football program to Walden College, now that Boopsie shut it down.

I have faith in B.D.’s resilience. He’ll get through this. I’m not so sure about the Globe’s editorial staff, though.

B.D. has no choice about his physical condition, and, as Trudeau says about him, “He doesn’t think too much.” The rest of us have a choice between dealing with reality and denying it.

From what I see, most prefer denial.

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Note: The Globe’s official explanation has to due with language, not content. I can see the case against printing on the comics page a word that, if spoken, could get a schoolchild in trouble. B*tch used to have a non-taboo sense — still does, if you’re a dog-fancier — but the overwhelming bulk of its spoken and written usages are now transgressive. That’s a sad fact, but I think it’s a fact.

And it’s true that the Globe did run the previous strip, in which the fact of the injury is shown. Still, I’m not sure that the use of that word in a less charged context would have aroused whatever latent Puritan instincts survive in the editorial offices of the Globe.

Lowry’s broader point, about the squeamishness surrounding disability, is surely right.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com