Joseph Ignatius Breen was born to an Irish immigrant father in Philadelphia and lived a good American life.


It depends who you ask.

It also depends when you ask.

Most would agree that Breen’s early life was well-spent. Into the 1920s, he traveled across the US and even to Jamaica, working as a young journalist, as well as for the US Foreign Service.

But then things get tricky.

By the early 1930s, Hollywood was churning out very popular – and very controversial – movies about all sorts of naughty things. Gangsters. Sex. Booze. Fun.

With one eye, the American public was mortified. Even as they kept their other eye on the big, sexy screen.

Soon enough, there was a movement to clean up the movies. One powerful pressure group was the Legion of Decency, led by Irish immigrant John McNicholas from Co Mayo, who also served as Archbishop of Cincinnati.

In the face of such public pressure, the film industry vowed to clean itself up. To show how serious they were, they found themselves their own stern Irish Catholic – one Joseph Breen, who for the next several decades made sure there wasn't much in the way of naughty bits on the big screen, as head of what was simply called “the code.”

For a long time, people snickered at “the code.” And the Legion of Decency. It was all synonymous with the worst kind of hypocrisy and repression.

And look at America now. We’re an entire Nation of Decency, on constant lookout for anything and everything to ban, condemn, critique, or otherwise cancel as offensive or oppressive.

Irishmen like Breen and McNicholas were once dismissed as silly prudes. Turns out they were actually trailblazers. For liberals and conservatives.

“The federal government has opened an investigation into a Texas school district over its alleged removal of books featuring LGBTQ characters, marking the first test of a new legal argument that failing to represent students in school books can constitute discrimination,” Hannah Natanson of The Washington Post reported earlier this month in a story that contains only about a thousand terrible, terrible things.

“The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating the Granbury Independent School District…based on a complaint of discrimination lodged last summer by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said ACLU attorney Chloe Kempf.”

In other words, the federal government may soon need to enforce mandatory representation of – what? – all groups with all kinds of bits in kindergarten picture books.

And if, say, a different president representing a different kind of federal government doesn’t – or does? – want to see different bits?

What could go wrong?

This comes as Republican savior Ron DeSantis – sorry, officials who run the Florida Department of Education – declared that some Advanced Placement high school courses are more worthy than others.

"As submitted, the course is a vehicle for a political agenda and leaves large, ambiguous gaps that can be filled with additional ideological material, which we will not allow," a spokesman for DeSantis – not the Florida Department of Education – said.

Shockingly, this was not about A.P. math, but A.P. African American history.

Snicker or shout all you want, liberal friends of mine. But this is the kind of thing progressives have been calling for for years – deciding what cannot or should not be read or taught at school.

Because it might be “triggering,” or sexist, ageist, able-ist or some other terrible ist or ism.

So we now live in a constant state of trigger warnings. If it’s not a potentially harmful book, it’s an actual loaded gun.

And who knew kids were doing so much dangerous reading! 

I assumed they were listening to what must be entirely wholesome music. And watching very educational, utterly non-sexual, no-drugs-at-all TV shows. Like "Euphoria."

So, it’s just the books we have to worry about.

Joseph Breen would be proud.

(On Twitter and Instagram: @TomDeignan)

*This column first appeared in the January 25 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.