Censorship. This is perhaps the most powerful abracadabra word in the world. Unlike, say, Rumpelstiltskin’s name — which you had to mention at least once — you don’t even need to say the word “censorship” to conjure torrents of cheap patriotism, pugnacious ignorance, and widespread panic about the future of freedom itself. All you need do is speak in the most modestly positive tones about the idea that there are some things which should be — <shudder> — banned, and Hollywood goes into a Chinese fire-drill of outrage, the ACLU cancels all staff vacations, and Republicans cower under their desks lest someone accuse them of being — <shudder, shudder> — prudes. Indeed, in terms of the political culture of this country, the only thing that is truly censored is any discussion of the merits of censorship.
Even the most successful censors, the speech-code radicals and vandal-apologists on college campuses, can’t admit that they are in favor of censorship. Whenever a bunch of morons burn some conservative newspapers, the deans and teachers bend so far backwards to explain that burning newspapers is “a form of expression too,” you’d expect they’d be able to self-administer a proctological exam.
When some white kid says something nice about the British Empire or Ariel Sharon — or even utters the names of Charles Murray, Dinesh D’Souza, or David Horowitz without spitting up bile — he’s tossed into some reeducation cubicle to watch videos about tolerance. Gay radicals, black activists, and feminists with rice-paper-thin skins want to create vast categories of “hate crimes” and harassment laws that would in effect outlaw all sorts of speech. But no one dares call any of this “censorship.”
In fact, if even these objectively pro-censorship lefties said they favored censorship, they’d probably lose their jobs, or at least get into trouble. You can write a million words on various loves that dare not speak their names, but say one nice thing about censorship and, according to the New York Times, you are a Nazi or, worse, John Ashcroft.
CENSORSHIP, IN PRINCIPLE
Well, let me just say, even though I’m opposed to today’s campus censorship: I do like censorship. I wish there was more of it. I wish we could talk about it. I wish we could have an argument about it. And the first thing necessary for that argument is to rescue it from its status as the pointy-headed equivalent of a “fighting word.”
Call me a junior member of the Old White Conservatives Club. Irving Kristol, Robert Bork, and Walter Berns have been arguing in favor of censorship for close to 40 years (Kristol calls it the “Walter Berns-Robert Bork-Irving Kristol Club,” but that’s not a club I would presume to join uninvited. It’d be like unilaterally chiseling my face on Mount Rushmore). Writing in The Weekly Standard a few years ago, Irving Kristol noted that lots of respected thinkers admit that the pro-censorship folks have the better argument. They even say they agree with Kristol & co. “in principle.”
“‘In principle’ must rank among the saddest phrases in the English language,” Kristol lamented. “When someone says he agrees with you in principle, that is usually prefatory to his explaining that he disagrees with you in fact.”
So let’s stick with the principle first.
Some things are inappropriate, awful, or just plain evil. We all agree on this. By “we” I mean the people not reflexively determined to be clever no matter how obnoxiously stupid it makes them sound. If ABC devoted the Sunday dinner hour to a hardcore triple-X orgy, we’d say, “That’s inappropriate.”
If Princeton “ethicist” Peter Singer made a movie graphically illustrating his conviction that there’s nothing wrong whatsoever for people to get jiggy with a sheep or orangutan, and the MPAA gave it a G-rating, we’d say, “That’s awful.”
And if you actually saw child pornography — anywhere, at any time, in any place — you’d say, “That’s evil.”
The reason we don’t see things like this is that we already have censorship in this country. We’ve always had censorship in this country. Indeed, it’s easy to denounce censorship when you are blind to the fact that it already exists all around us. And, since it exists, it’s pointless to say you are against if you really aren’t. Unless you believe that the state has no right to stop the most debased things from appearing on your kids’ Saturday-morning TV, you already believe in the “principle” of censorship. The question is how much and where you believe that principle should be applied.
Hollywood liberals, who claim that censorship is never warranted, make fools of themselves every time they open their mouths. Jack Valenti and Alec Baldwin can always be relied upon to say there’s no evidence that sex or violence have any adverse effects on people. But they also believe, rightly, that art can be uplifting — that it makes us better people when exposed to it. Well, as Irving Kristol noted long ago, if you believe that a book or a movie can’t hurt people, you also pretty much have to believe a book or a movie can’t help them either.
Look: If TV can’t influence people, how come I can’t watch NBC for more than few minutes without being force-fed some public-service treacle about how “hate” is bad or why beating your wife is wrong? Why bother — if TV can’t teach?
This illustrates the problem with the censorship “debate” today. The standard for what should or shouldn’t be censored has moved entirely from the moral to the utilitarian (for the record, some utilitarianism is always useful).
Recently, I wrote about child pornography both in my syndicated column and for NRO, and ever since I’ve been getting e-mail from people across the ideological spectrum shrieking at me about my support for banning “thought crimes.” Basically, I criticized the attorney general for accepting the notion that anti-kiddie porn needs to be “proved” harmful before it can be banned. To be fair to Ashcroft, I’m sure he agrees that it’s absurd that the government should have to prove harm before it can ban even virtual depictions of men having sex with five-year-olds. I called this a “sick joke” and wrote that “some things just deserve to be censored because they are evil.”
For this I’ve been getting endless grief from the sorts of people who think shouting the cliché, “I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it!” is the height of sophistication. In effect, my critics think that my willingness to forbid people access to images of graphic sex between kids, or between kids and adults — so long as it’s all make-believe — makes me a totalitarian.
Rather than cite splenetic e-mails, I refer you instead to the more thoughtfully composed exposition of this foolishness by Washington Post columnist William Raspberry.
Raspberry, like my correspondents, believes that my position — that we can ban the obviously evil — is “dangerous to our constitutional liberties.”
It may be. But if we never do anything that is dangerous, a lot of important things will never get done. War is dangerous to our civil liberties. Social Security, the income tax, driver’s licenses, interstate highways, gun control, affirmative action, farm subsidies, environmental regulations, the Americans with Disabilities Act, campaign-finance “reform,” food-safety regulation: All of these things and many, many other governmental actions are “dangerous” to our constitutional liberties. Some of these things are quite worthwhile, others less so. Some aren’t even potentially, theoretically, hypothetically, or otherwise-abstractly dangerous to our constitutional liberties. Others can actually be shown to have done grievous and permanent damage to our constitutional liberties.
In other words, why does constitutional purity only occur to civil libertarians when the question is whether or not we should protect deviant, disgusting, and patently evil “speech”? The serious libertarians, who are “pure” on all of these other issues, can speak without hypocrisy about slippery slopes and the dangers to constitutional liberty. Indeed, I salute them!
Everybody else should shut up.
E PLURIBUS PORN
More to the point, for the vast majority of this nation’s history it was entirely uncontroversial to say child pornography — and lots of much tamer stuff — should be censored. In fact, it would be considered controversial to suggest it was an open question.
Why on earth should we have to conduct a thousand studies around the country in order to “prove” that kiddie porn is harmful? Do we really lack the moral and intellectual self-confidence to simply assert the obvious? Spare me the lectures that we banned other things that we thought were bad, only to embrace them later. We’re not talking about “other things”; we’re talking about Child Pornography. I’d love to debate censoring “other things” later, but let’s talk about the easy stuff first.
Radical academics want to have these arguments and these studies precisely because they know that the more we talk about bestiality, the more we rationalize perversion, and the more we pooh-pooh the “moral panic” over pedophilia, the more likely we will be to define deviancy down. As Rousseau noted, “Vice hardly insinuates itself by shocking decency, but by taking on its likeness.”
Whenever I read about Peter Singer’s views on interspecies dating, for example, I think of William F. Buckley’s famous retort, “I would like to take you seriously but to do so would affront your intelligence.” (See “Taking Singer Seriously.”)
You don’t have to dust off your books by William Bennett and George Will to understand that it is an indisputable fact that the Founding Fathers believed the good character of the citizenry was essential to a healthy republic. And, they believed, laws crafted at the local level — including censorship — could and should be aimed at maintaining good character.
And therein lay the hitches. First of all, for a bunch of reasons, local communities have a harder time censoring things. First, there’s the market. TV is a national medium. The Internet is a global medium. It’s very difficult to set a “community standard” when the community stretches across a continent (yeah, yeah: plus Hawaii) and includes over 270 million people. Or when — in the case of the Internet — the community is the global village (a phrase I promise will not return to this column, without being mocked, for years).
Then there’s the law. Because of the Fourteenth Amendment and various other power-grabs by the federal government, federalism and republicanism have been teetering on the edge of the crapper for years. Congress can make laws about what kids should eat in a Philadelphia school cafeteria, or what kind of car someone can drive on a San Diego highway. Whether you like it or not, the United States is becoming one giant community — and that means more, not less, fighting about what the federal government can and should do. On the whole, I think this is too bad for everybody (see the inappropriately titled “Among the Gender-Benders“).
REFILLING THE TUBE
But there’s one more hitch. The Founders — broadly defined to mean pretty much everyone who ran this country until the 1930s or so — understood that the law was useful for maintaining good character. As Rousseau put it, “Censorship can be useful for preserving morals, but never for reestablishing them.” Keeping beer from people who’ve never had booze is comparatively easy. Keeping it from people who agree with Homer Simpson that beer is the temporary solution to all problems is a much trickier proposition.
Once American society comes to believe that there’s nothing wrong with something, it is almost impossible to take it away from them. The old saying in Washington about such things is that you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. This is obviously wrong. It’s just that it’s extremely difficult to put the paste back, and you’ll likely make a huge mess in the process — but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s never worth trying.
Regardless, when it comes to sexual matters in our culture, the tube is almost empty. But there are still a last few dregs of toothpaste left in the tube. The biggest clump, closest to the opening, is child pornography.
Like it or not, the other side has taken up the fight. Sexual-leftists argue for the “demystification” of what they call “consensual intergenerational sex.” On the right, meanwhile, there’s a lot of pussyfooting. My wife, who works for the attorney general and has had to deal with this issue more than she’d like, says to me all the time, “If Americans could see the ‘harmless’ virtual kiddie porn we’re talking about, this debate would be over.” She’s right, and not just in the “yes, dear” sort of way. But, in the absence of such hardball, we have to argue about “harm” and hypothetical dangers to our constitutional liberties, and invoke stories of Tropic of Cancer being banned as if they’re even remotely relevant.
I think it should be censored. Period. You make it, virtual or otherwise, you get in trouble with the law. Use real kids, you definitely go to jail. Use “virtual” kids, you at least should be shut down. But, ultimately, I don’t care whether it’s virtual or real. I don’t care what you say on appeal. I don’t care if it causes harm. I don’t care if you keep it on the farm (sorry, Dr. Seuss rhymes are probably inappropriate here).
By agreeing now that it should be censored, we can, following Rousseau’s observation, preserve morals without facing a situation where we later have to figure out how to restore them. Leave this toothpaste in the tube.