Wolfenstein 3D. (Wikipedia)

Last spring, I gave a tough assignment to the students in my NYU class on literary and cultural representations of the Holocaust. “By Wednesday,” I told them, “I want you to kill Hitler.”

Their task was to master Wolfenstein 3D, the 1993 computer game that confronted its players with a heavily pixilated, mech-suited Fuhrer strapping large guns, and proved to game developers that a “first-person shooter”—a game in which players navigate three-dimensional worlds, in first- and third-person perspectives, mowing down foes with machine guns, chainsaws, and plasma cannons—could be a massive hit. In the years since, the genre has become one of the most popular and highly grossing entertainment formats of all time, with yearly sales in the billions of dollars. With such success has come, inevitably, controversy: The Columbine killers played a follow-up to Wolfenstein 3D before their rampage, increasing concerns about the effects of video games on children and teenagers.

When the Supreme Court published its decision in the case of Brown v. EMA at the end of last month, the Justices ruled against a California statute prohibiting the sale or rental of violent video games to people under the age of 18. Once again, a sturdy American paradox was reaffirmed, one that was articulated perspicaciously 62 years ago by an iconoclastic cultural critic named Gershon Legman. “Sex,” he noted, “which is legal in fact, is a crime on paper, while murder—a crime in fact—is, on paper, the best seller of all time.”

If Legman is remembered at all today, it is usually as the foremost modern collector and theorist of dirty jokes. But his strange, varied career also included a great deal of advocacy on behalf of origami and a stint collecting erotic publications for Alfred Kinsey. Love & Death: A Study in Censorship, published in 1949, was his most influential book, despite being self-published and suppressed by the U.S. Post Office. It was taken seriously enough that two chapters were translated in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes in Paris, while the poet William Carlos Williams included it in his list of that year’s 10 best books in the New York Times.

It’s of little wonder: In 1949, censorship was rampant, enabled by the 1873 Comstock laws, which made it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material through the mail. So vigorously were the laws enforced that in 1948 a book of short stories by Edmund Wilson—at that point, the nation’s most highly respected literary critic—was suppressed because of its mildly erotic content. But whereas sex made censors jumpy, violence never had. Laws advocated vigilance on both fronts—New York, for example, passed legislation in 1884 that prohibited the distribution of “accounts of criminal deeds … or deeds of bloodshed”—but though both comic books and pulp novels included detailed depictions of gruesome murders, the laws were never enforced.

And that infuriated Legman. To illustrate his point, he quoted a sample from an early story by Edgar Allan Poe that features an old lady’s corpse that has been “fearfully mutilated,” “with her throat so entirely cut that, upon an attempt to raise her, the head fell off.”

“This is legal,” Legman fulminated. “This is printable. This is classic.”

Legman’s objection to murder mysteries turns out to have been uncanny in its anticipation of the first-person-shooter genre as it would develop decades later. Legman warned that mysteries inculcate the same habit of mind that is required for genocide: the strategic dehumanization of a particular person or group of people, whose torture and murder can then be executed without the slightest pang of guilt. The target of such animus, he argued, is not the victim whose death initiates the mystery’s plot, but the murderer him or herself, whom the detective—and, vicariously, the reader—hunts down and destroys.

“By casting one living individual into the character of a murderer,” Legman wrote, “he is thrown automatically outside the pale of humanity, and neither justice nor mercy need be shown him.”

The creators of Wolfenstein 3D intuited this point beautifully: By populating a castle with history’s most despicable murderers, Nazis, they gave their game’s players permission not just to read or to watch revenge killings passively but to mete out death themselves, energetically, glorying in every victim’s dying shriek, convulsion, and squirt of blood. John Romero, one of the game’s creators—in a conversation recalled in David Kushner’s 2003 book Masters of Doom—demonstrated this very spirit. “Hey,” Romero yelled out to a roomful of fellow programmers, “you know what we should have in here? Pissing! We should have it so you can fucking stop and piss on the Nazi after you mow him down!”

Many shooters have since dehumanized their enemies by presenting them as humanoid aliens, robots, or monsters, but the main idea has remained consistent with Legman’s vision: shunting a whole class of human-shaped targets “outside the pale of humanity,” as he wrote, so that “neither justice nor mercy need be shown” them. Legman noted, sardonically, that the reader of murder mysteries “kills three hundred times a year—daily except Sunday—generally just before going to bed.” He would have been astonished to learn that the typical gamer can perform those same 300 executions in a half-hour of play in horde mode.

As the son of an immigrant shokhet, or kosher butcher—the majority of whose Hungarian relatives had recently been slaughtered by Nazis who had first systematically dehumanized them—Legman could not take lightly the representations of violence he found on sale in drug stores and supermarkets. “In the same way,” he wrote, “Germans were given to understand that Jews are not human and, as such, can properly be gassed, electrocuted, and incinerated wholesale.” Comic books—which he called the “kiddies’ korner in this new national welter of blood”—do not, he argued, lack “any of the trappings of the Naziism”: They give “every American child a complete course in paranoid megalomania such as no German child ever had, a total conviction of the morality of force such as no Nazi could even aspire to.”

If all this sounds a trifle hyperbolic, that’s part of the charm of Legman’s prose. But it’s also worth pointing out that he wasn’t alone in his reactions to the grisly, and still fresh, facts of World War II. Several German-Jewish intellectuals in America felt similarly: Most famously, the psychologist Frederic Wertham led an infamous and rather successful crusade against the horrors of comic books, while the Frankfurt School philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, and even a future prophet of the sexual revolution, Wilhelm Reich, also remarked upon the fascistic tendencies of American popular culture.

One can only imagine Legman’s apoplectic reaction had he sat down to play Wolfenstein 3D before his death in 1999. When I asked my students, some of whom are grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, how they felt about playing the game, several admitted how gratifying it was to pop around a corner, sight a Nazi, fire, and watch him crumple to the ground in a bloody heap. One, who never quite got the hang of the controls, said that it had been torturous to watch the brownshirts murder her, again and again, just as real life Nazis had slaughtered so many of her relatives. The students quickly grasped the game’s central Legmanian irony: It forces the player, busily slaughtering Nazis, to commit a virtual mass murder that is genocidal in its character. No human (or animal, or demon) ever appears in Wolfenstein 3D whom the player is not expected to murder as quickly and violently as possible.

With his canny perception of the violence of pop culture, Legman anticipated the central argument made by the advocates of the California law. If we have agreed that it is necessary to protect children from sexual images, they argue, why, then, should it be illegal to protect children from exposure to realistic images of beheadings, stabbings, and gleeful dismemberings? California’s brief referred repeatedly to Ginsberg v. New York, the 1968 case of a Long Island luncheonette owner bamboozled into selling a few girlie magazines to a 16-year-old, in which the Supreme Court had declared that its recent decisions invalidating the obscenity laws—which had previously kept Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Fanny Hill off bookstore shelves—did not mean that shopkeepers could now sell pornography to kids. The court made clear, in Ginsberg, that different standards could be used to decide what material minors had a right to see, and later decisions—FCC v. Pacifica (1978), Bethel v. Fraser (1986), and most recently Fox v. FCC (2009)—reaffirmed the need to shield children from what the law has called obscenity and indecency: graphic sexual representations and four-letter words.

Relying on these decisions, the State of California argued in its brief to the Supreme Court that because we agree that the culture children consume influences their behavior, then dangerous or antisocial representations must be censored and that “it should make no constitutional difference whether the material depicts sex or violence.” Justice Stephen Breyer, dissenting, agreed, remarking that he finds “no difference—historical or otherwise,” relevant to the arguments in Brown v. EMA, between “descriptions of physical love” and “descriptions of violence.” Legman already considered this, six decades ago, in Love & Death: “If he & she who read of sex will try it out when no one is watching,” he wrote, “why will not they who read of murder try that too when they have the chance?”

Still, Legman’s opposition to the violence of popular culture notwithstanding, it’s no surprise he wasn’t cited as an authority in the lengthy bibliography Breyer appended to his dissent, or, for that matter, anywhere else in Brown v. EMA. Unlike Wertham—and, surprisingly, even Reich—Legman never advocated censorship. Instead, he predicted that in a society with less pervasive sexual repression, people would be less frustrated and would have less need to turn to violence for satisfaction in their popular culture.

Legman did not believe, as most opponents of censorship do not believe, that the culture we consume has no effect upon us; if that were true, there would be no incentive to defend freedom of expression. But he refused to accept the premise of cultural consumption as what psychologists call an “ideomotor,” as an unstoppable force compelling media consumers to reenact the actions they witness in novels, movies, or comic books. Much of the current debate boils down to this issue, and, all the contributions of social scientists notwithstanding, the debate splits predictably: Those with a dim view of human nature call for censorship, while those with faith in individual will and the possibilities of art agitate against it.

While Legman’s book can’t help to settle this perennial question—a crank and weirdo, Legman had disturbing ideas about latent homosexuals, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone finding in his work the answers to dilemmas that remain unresolved by philosophy and social science—he does help to clarify that the pressing problem raised by Brown v. EMA has nothing to do with censorship but with our preferences and desires. Other examples proliferate in which American children are exposed to intense violence but protected from images of sex, whether it’s a librarian recommending Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns to pre-teen boys but excluding Will Eisner’s A Contract With God because of its sexual images, or the MPAA rating a grisly film PG-13 while branding another NC-17 due to a chaste homosexual kiss.

The real question, then, is why we love violence and hate sex so much, and so consistently, in the United States. Why do we feed the former to our young children in heaping doses while we labor intently, and with almost total unanimity, to shield them from the latter? We continue to send 18-year-olds by the thousands to fight wars that, on the ground, increasingly resemble violent video games, and we continue to arrest teenagers for engaging in consensual sex. Legman’s paradox is alive and well, ratified as law by the highest court in the land, in 2011.