Richard Dawkins is in the September issue of Playboy. It’s a good interview, as we suspected it would be. We bought the magazine just to read it, after all. Still, a part of us wonders how this is going to play out among science and skeptic commentators online. We’ve had this conversation before, and not too long ago. In January of this year, the science blogosphere practically exploded when Playboy ran a piece by Carl Zimmer, the celebrated science writer, about the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Invariably the question came up: is it acceptable for “respectable” authors to publish in skin rags? (In this case, is it acceptable for notable people to be interviewed?)
When our editrix wrote her defense of Zimmer, she pointed out the role Playboy and other publications of its time, including “art” and “nudist” magazines, played in creating the legal structure that currently upholds our right to sexual self-expression. It wasn’t always like this. Once, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was considered obscene. Once, any article dealing with sexual matters — however educational — could result in a $5,000 and up to a decade in prison. The suppression of sexual discourse has always come hand in hand with the suppression of literature, as well as that of scientific inquiry.
If you look closely at the collection of writings in September’s issue of Playboy, you will detect that theme even now. A snippet here about writers who were forced to go on the run, another there about the danger of unchecked powerful corporate entities, but the best one is the editorial by Hugh Hefner.
“In 1965 Indiana police arrested Charles Cotner and charged him with an ‘abominable and detestable crime against nature.’ His offense? Consensual anal sex with his wife,” writes Hefner. “He faced 14 years in prison. When I learned about Cotner’s case — his attorney wrote to Playboy to seek our assistance — I was appalled. His wife, who signed the complaint after the couple had argued, changed her mind and asked to have the charges dropped. But the judge refused and Cotner served nearly three years in prison before Playboy Foundation was able to free him…. You might think this story has nothing to do with you or your life in America in 2012. But sadly you would be wrong.”
Read it. Then go and buy a copy for the TNA and/or Dawkins interview. We needn’t fragment ourselves over this. There is too much at stake in this war.