There’s a scene in Elio Petri’s 1970 film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion where the newly appointed Chief of the Political Police (played by the Italian actor Gian Maria Volontè) makes a speech to his fellow officers upon assuming the position. In his rant, the Chief equates political subversion with homosexuality, prostitution, illegal drug use, hippies and other so-called social deviance. By the end of the talk, he sounds like a fascist J. Edgar Hoover (is that redundant?)
It was this speech that I recalled as I read David Rosen’s newest book, Sin, Sex and Subversion: How What Was Taboo in 1950s New York Became America’s New Normal. The premise of the book is in the title. It is about US culture wars, only it is about a time when those wars were fought by government officials, from the Senate to the courts and from the Postmaster to the FBI Director, not just by absolutist and hypocritical politicians eager for the fundamentalist vote.
Sin, Sex and Subversion is also about New York City as the ultimate den of iniquity, sewer of slime. For those who spent time in Manhattan before Times Square was turned into New York’s DisneyWorld, they would remember its eternal sleaziness. Men in oily suit coats hawked sex shows, burlesque dancers, XXX-rated movies and more. They were joined by two-bit dealers selling joints of weed, pills and dime bags of smack. Tourists mingled with hucksters from the boroughs and junkies from the neighborhoods of hell. In short, it was a wonderland of that which was forbidden. It was on almost every tourist’s unacknowledged itinerary and the downfall of a few of them. Vice squad police and sex hustlers conspired, tacitly or knowingly, to lead the innocents from the suburbs and beyond into their respective lairs. Everyone made money.
Rosen’s book is about bourgeois entertainment in its most exploitative form. It is also about the persecution of those whose sexual and gender preferences are not mainstream. Furthermore, it is a history of government and law enforcement attempts to legislate morality and prosecute those who violate that legislation. From the censorship of books and magazines to the prosecution and persecution of gays, lesbians, transgender; from the imprisonment of purveyors of literature to the harassment of strippers and other performers; the story in these pages is the story of an uptight heterosexual patriarchy intent on enforcing its limited and unimaginative view of human relationships. As Rosen points out, this obsession with sexuality and its manifestations seems quite absurd in today’s climate of almost anything goes. Yet, it is important to know from whence we came.
Despite the laissez faire attitudes about sexuality in much of today’s United States, there are some elements in Rosen’s narrative where those attitudes are not so different than they were in the 1950s. Subversive politics is one such important place. The example he uses is that of Paul Robeson, a communist, African-American, and the 1950s equivalent of a superstar. Besides all that, he was also well-spoken and unafraid. All of these attributes insured he would become a prime target of the anti-communist moralist prigs in the US establishment. The fact that he acted with white-skinned women was a further guarantee of this. As Rosen points out, political subversives, especially those of color, are still targeted by the powers that be. Although the current targeted thoughts may be those influenced by Islamist ideas instead of Marxist ones, the process by which the law attempts to silence them is similar in intent, although more insidious thanks to technological advances.
Sin, Sex and Subversion is a worthwhile book. There are a couple factual oversights (Rosen states that “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” was popular in the 1950s, when it wasn’t released until 1969), but the combination of anecdotes, statistics and historical overview in this text make it a useful history of US culture in the mid-twentieth century. As he notes in his introduction, the narrative Rosen has fashioned does not need to be read in a linear manner. In other words, one can open the book to any section and begin reading. The stories and their meaning may even be enhanced using this approach. No matter how one reads Sin, Sex and Subversion, they will walk away with a greater sense of where America’s culture wars came from and why so much of the US right wing continues to equate subversive politics with what they consider to be sexual deviance.