Today a note on prurience, without (I assure you) providing any.

In obscenity trials one test of the offense is prurience, which is lewdness, lasciviousness, lust etc., and which is brought about by words, images, body movements and thoughts.

Prurience is widespread in the republic. Elements of it are to be found in many naughty persons such as Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Jimmy Swaggart, Gary Hart, the archbishop of Atlanta, Marion Barry and the Lord only knows who else.

Many people who have prurient thoughts and desires do not come to them through pornographic literature, however, but seem to be, as you might say, self-starters.

Since so many people have prurient ideas all on their own, without the assistance of publishers or broadcasters, it's hard to see why it is thought so shocking for prurience to be expressed in literature, drama or speech.

When Jimmy Carter confessed he had sometimes lusted in his heart, are we to believe he should therefore be locked up in the cause of public safety?

The general view is that lustful thoughts are so easily aroused and so often lead to everything from rape to drunken singing in the middle of the night that we should nip the first signs of prurience wherever we find it.

The law is supposed to prohibit or punish acts dangerous to society, and is therefore keen on the trail of theft, mayhem, kidnapping and much else.

But law does not concern itself with thoughts or words as a rule. You can think the most frightful things, or dream them, without going to jail. And to a large extent you can say them. Words are not deeds, though vigilantes and thought police are forever arguing that words are black magic with frightful power to destroy.

Thus there is confusion between words and acts in many of those areas that make us embarrassed or uncomfortable or uncertain. The more uneasy we are, the more likely we are to equate words with acts. A Cabinet member may be ejected for telling a dirty joke about blacks, a good example of the surface charade of politics.

A university president may be bounced out for a "sick fantasy" about sex with children, just as if he had committed sexual acts against children.

Suppose there are seven hours of taped phone calls that such a man made to a woman he didn't know.

Suppose the case comes to court and the man is heavily penalized. Would that be for terrifying a helpless woman or would it be for having a fantasy we dislike? It should not be against the law to have thoughts, however heated, depraved, perverse, disgusting etc., and it should not be against the law to express those thoughts in words to someone who listens by the hour, even if she is doing it to facilitate his arrest.

Men are known to have shocking and disgusting thoughts, and now that they're liberated, women do too. The danger is not that some timid, helpless creature whose phone has rung will be subjected to mental torment (because of the inability to slam the receiver) but that the courts, the police, the powerful state, will start saying words are crimes. If it is actionable to say something dirty on the phone to a person who repeatedly listens to it, then perhaps it is also illegal to say something political that is equally offensive to the state.

We have already gone far with the list of words that may not be uttered in America. We have gone too far in our terror of ethnic jokes, too far in our distaste for all words that we think may conceivably offend us or somebody somewhere somehow. Outlawing words does nothing to stop prejudice and harm but does a good bit to weaken freedom of speech.

A nation that appears to care less and less for the weak is nevertheless a nation that goes into a tailspin at a joke or a dirty phone call. It may be hard to remember that the brisk and vigorous defense of virtue (starting with naughty words) is the common ploy of tyranny.