Politics & Policy

Culture Vulture


Because God has a sense of humor, we are often confronted by issues that make our principles fight with our passions. Many conservatives despised the independent counsel law, but cheered riotously for Ken Starr. Similarly, many of us detest sexual harassment laws but wanted them fully enforced against our Commander-in-Heat. The same dynamic worked for the Left, only the other way. They loved the independent counsel, but were inclined to stick pins in their Ken Starr dolls. They think Orwellian sex harassment laws are great, but felt Clinton should be immune to them. In the hypocrisy mill called Washington, this sort of thing happens a hundred times a day. It happens to me too. For example, I’m rabidly pro-free market, but I often feel (emphasize feel) that small towns should be able to block Wal-Mart from coming in. Justice Scalia famously upheld a constitutional right to flag burning, even though he clearly thought the practice repugnant. Newt Gingrich supported the principle that powerful married government officials shouldn’t be ordering-in nookie from the staff, but his heart, apparently, said otherwise. Etc.

But none of these conflicts of ideology and passion compare to my mixed emotions about the role of government and popular culture. Television is my friend. We grew up together. We may not see things the same way anymore, but, like two Irish kids from Hell’s Kitchen, we’re buddies for life and always have a great time when we get together. Still, I can’t condone what TV does, or how it does it. But, gosh, I love it.

It gets more complicated because I actually believe in censorship, by which I mean I believe that censorship shouldn’t be considered a dirty word like “eugenics,” “fascism,” or “euthanasia.” So even though there’s nothing on TV I don’t want to watch, I think other people, especially children, should have their choices limited. In effect, I am an elitist, a tyrant, and a hypocrite.

Fortunately, such accusations roll off me like subpoenas off the President.

So let’s get on with the column.

The United States Senate is considering launching a special committee to investigate the “decline of America’s culture,” and presumably think up ways to fix it. Senators from both sides of the aisle, according to Roll Call, think the idea is pretty good. And in principle, so do I.

There are few responses that carry less weight with me than “who are you to judge?” Judging is what makes civilizations run. When all things are of equal moral worth, all things are equally immoral too. Civilizations choose. So let’s get a pile of people together and have an argument about what’s worthwhile in the popular culture. Not just Senators, of course, because Senators alone are useless. But if they get Bill Bennett and Chris Rock and Matt Groening and Irving Kristol and Chuck D, and a zillion other people who have interesting things to say, we could have a good argument. And maybe we could actually decide that some things could be discouraged, by which I mean, yes, censored.

We needn’t be gung-ho about censorship: No bonfires of Tom Sawyer or disconnected cable lines right when Baywatch is about to start. But it would be nice to reclaim the word. In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled that a young man who had written obscenities on his clothing while in a courtroom could not be prosecuted. The majority said, cleverly, “One man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric.” This is very clever, and quite possibly true. But in a civilized society, even if everything is a lyric to someone, we only allow some lyrics in public and relegate others to the purely private realm. If you like playing the violin in public, society gives you some leeway. If you like playing with yourself in public, society should put you in jail.

The same should hold true for popular culture. Just because someone, somewhere might think something is beautiful, that doesn’t mean the nation needs to bend to it. In New York City late night public access cable runs short clips of porn movies (too short for my tastes) and endless clips of strip routines and disgusting speeches about the details of oral, anal, and other kinds of sex. Still, most of the shows — Al Goldstein’s Midnight Blue and the Robyn Byrd Show — are dominated by raunchy, and I mean explicitly raunchy, commercials for prostitutes, male and female, gay and straight, and, well, transvestites which I guess is in-between. (Goldstein also runs endless bawdy and pathetic monologues about how he has a hard time getting a date with an attractive intelligent woman. This is shocking, considering most of the attractive intelligent women I know would be psyched to go out with a 350-pound pornographer who plays with himself on television). Any kid whose parents don’t have control of the TV after 11:30 PM can see this sort of stuff. And they do, trust me. It seems to me that’d be a good place for censorship to start.

Of course it won’t. Censorship ranks somewhere close behind kiddie porn (ironic, huh?) and racism in terms of easy things to be opposed to. Bookstores carry “read a banned book” T-shirts as if there are rainforests worth of profound literature that the man won’t let us read. The truth is there are a few “banned books,”but usually they’re in, or more accurately not in, small community and school libraries. You can still buy them for your kids at the local book store. Such is the horror of modern censorship.

On a personal note, spare me the slippery slope arguments. America had laws that kept such things off the tube for decades and nobody in their right mind would call it tyrannical. It seems to me the slope is slipping the other way.

The truth, alas, is that censorship is a tyranny with few teeth. Technology in the form of the Internet and cable have given my life meaning and made the censorship I would hypocritically endorse impossible. Besides, I think (and since I don’t have my books with me here at the NR Washington office, I’m not sure) Rousseau once said that censorship was valuable for preserving morality but useless for restoring it (it may have been Gary Coleman). So, just as you never know if you’ve eaten enough until you’ve eaten too much, we’ll never know if censorship would be helpful in restoring what dignity we have left until we’ve lost that too.

In the meantime, I can wallow in my contradictions, worrying about the little people while I watch the Simpsons twice a day and stay on the lookout for the latest women’s prison movie — secure in the fact that my own vulgarity is someone else’s lyric.


Check today’s Washington Bulletin to learn an interesting new development about Bill Clinton’s clemency offer to the Puerto Rican terrorists — reported exclusively, I believe, by National Review Online. I say “believe” because I don’t know for sure and I am trying to be sensationalistic. How’s that for honesty? Still it’s pretty interesting if I say so myself. It would be up already but the webmaster just learned about those late night shows I mentioned above and he ran home to setup his VCR.


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