A few years ago I found myself in Nashville at a two-day gathering of liberal "media experts" sponsored by Vice President Al Gore. The purpose of the meeting was to provide a "scientific" rationale for the censorship that Gore and the president (who also attended) were preparing to launch against the nation's entertainment industry.
The event was held in an auditorium at Vanderbilt University, where Gore orchestrated the proceedings from the stage. With all the obtuseness that generally characterizes his thought process, the vice president was saying scary things like "the link between real-world violence and television violence is exactly analogous to the link between cigarette smoking and cancer."
Of the 200 attending the event, only Jack Valenti, Tom Selleck and I took issue with Clinton and Gore's "solution" -- the V-chip -- which they proceeded to unveil at the conference.
When Gore called on me to speak, I asked how crime rates could be so different in various neighborhoods of a given city, when the TV shows were the same. I also asked how the experts attending the event could have witnessed 100,000 murders on TV without becoming the desensitized, violence-crazed thugs that they implied was a television-watcher's inevitable fate. My questions were not appreciated and I even heard some hisses as I spoke.
From the back of the auditorium, Jack Valenti held up a list of the 60 top Nielsen-rated network TV shows and said "not a single one of them is violent." He could just as well have been talking to an audience of the deaf.
A pivotal moment came when Betty Friedan, an icon to virtually all present, rose to her feet and said something like: Mr. vice president, the left and right finally agree on something. Don't be intimidated by those who are telling you that government should not play an active role in making society a better place.
It was my turn again and I had the bad manners to respond: "What Betty Friedan just said sent chills up my spine." There was an eruption in the first row where Tipper Gore was sitting. She raced down the aisle to get to where I was, and sputtered in my face that I had insulted the feminist legend with my remarks.
It was an incident that actually turned my bride-to-be -- who was sitting next to me and who had been apolitical until then -- into a Republican on the spot. That's because she was terrified by the idea that these were the president's friends and advisors, and that this was the vice president's wife. Perhaps liberals' rudeness is reason enough to become a Republican. But, unfortunately, the puritan impulse to censor and control others seems to be a bipartisan disease, as events would soon reveal.
The V-chip, of course, is a crude device that will not help children whose parents are already derelict or absent -- in other words, the kids who need it most. Moreover, it is dangerous. Al Gore himself points out that if 3 percent of parents use the V-chip to block a particular show "advertisers will go elsewhere."
Since it's highly possible that 3 percent of parents would object to a quality show with violence, like "Roots," it's also possible that such shows will simply not be made. This is the little kicker that censors like Gore choose to ignore.
It is true that most Republicans opposed the V-chip when it was first floated by the White House team. It was only by striking a devil's-pact with a rump group of Republicans from the Christian right that Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey was able to sneak the V-chip into the 1996 telecommunications bill.
But once the Clinton White House showed them how politically popular censorship could be -- and how much easier it was to fight crime on television than in the streets -- Republicans began to pile on. First it was Bill Bennett, then John McCain and most recently, Henry Hyde.
Liberals and conservatives, of course, have different demons they want to exorcise -- which creates the illusion that their instincts for censorship are different. For liberals, it's violence; for conservatives, sex. In the wake of the Columbine tragedy, Hyde thought he had a found a way to split the difference by defining violence as "obscene" and making it a criminal offense to purvey obscene violent images to children.
Though the Hyde amendment (mercifully) failed, it had support across the left-right spectrum, including Republican moderates like Christopher Shays, Sherwood Boehlert and Jim Greenwood, as well as conservatives like Helen Chenoweth and Steve Largent.
Violent obscenity was defined in the amendment as a "visual depiction of an actual or simulated display of, or a detailed verbal description or narrative account of a sadistic or masochistic flagellation by or upon a person, torture by or upon a person, acts of mutilation of the human body, or rape."
Lawyers for the Interdigital Software Association (makers of video games) pointed out that under this definition, the whipping of the slave Kunte Kinte in "Roots" would qualify as obscene and would send its makers to jail if the video was marketed to minors. They also wondered whether the law would apply to violent acts committed on animated characters.
Which brings us to "South Park," the most irreverent and -- for some of us -- the most irresistible opposition to the tide of Savonarolism sweeping the two national parties. Cultural reactionaries are already in various stages of apoplexy over the moon-faced midgets whose political incorrectness has made them a cult obsession.
According to a Focus on the Family publication, "South Park" is a "twisted new series about a group of foul-mouthed third-graders." "The spoiled chubby kid responds to taunts with shouts of "go to hell" and "screw you," notes the publication.
An AP story indicates how broad the potential backlash is: "Denise Clapham, a mother of four from Brunswick, N.Y. [is] not thrilled that her 16-year-old son and his friends are fans." Says Clapham of the show: "I think they can be funny without being that far out, and I'm a liberal."
Well, some of us would not agree.
Peggy Charen, the most celebrated liberal champion of the children's television hour, faults the show's tone and the way the kids throw racial slurs around. "It's the words they use in ordinary life, in the cafeteria, in the school room, that's dangerous to the democracy," according to Charen.
My hunch is that what she really doesn't like is the send-up of the sensitivity crowd which has made her their hero. In a famous episode of "South Park" called "Damien," a new kid comes into the class:
Teacher: Now some of you know what it's like to be the new kid in town, so I want you all to take special care to make him feel welcome. I want you all to meet our new classmate ... uh, what's your name again?
[Some weird Latin-like chanting begins. There are flames in Damien's eyes.]
Teacher: Say hi to Damien!
Teacher: And where are you from Damien?
Damien: The seventh layer of Hell!
Teacher: Oh, that's exciting. My mother was from Alabama.
Damien: My arrival denotes the end of the beginning, the beginning of the end. The new reign of my father.
Teacher: Your father?
Damien: The prince of darkness.
Teacher: Wow, we have royalty in our class.
It's not hard to see how literalists might have difficulty with these scripts.
The other day, in fact, I was paired with film critic Michael Medved on Fox-TV's "O'Reilly Factor" to talk about new film releases in the wake of Columbine. Medved described the "South Park" movie as depraved and not fit for mainstream release. It was "anti-kid and anti-God."
One of the kids does curse God. But he hates God, as he explains, because his mother tried to abort him with a coat hanger. You would think a pro-life conservative, like Medved, might appreciate the satiric dissonance in that. Unfortunately, irony seems out of reach for the Truly Serious.
"South Park" is an R-rated film, requiring a photo ID (and a paid ticket) for entry. So why should anybody have a problem with it? Of course, the president himself set the standard for busybody government when he looked into the cameras during one of his state of the union addresses and called on the nation's entertainment producers to make programs and films "that you would be proud to take your grandchildren to."
Is this then the reformers' agenda - to cram all artistic expressions into the parameters of a kindergarten class?
Not surprisingly, "South Park" the movie is an acid commentary on all efforts to have government put the genie of freedom back into the bottle of political correctness. The "South Park" kids sneak into an X-rated film, featuring the foul-mouthed farting comics Terrance and Phillip, by giving a homeless person $10 to escort them in. The film makes an indelible impression on what one of the kids calls their "vulnerable little minds" and they come out speaking in expletives.
The way the "South Park" adults respond, then, is just a comic extension of familiar attitudes to us all. One of the "South Park" kids, Cartman, has a V-chip implanted in his head so that every time he curses he gets a shock. The parents refuse to take responsibility for their kids' behavior and blame Canada (because Terrance and Phillip are Canadian) instead.
They form Mothers Against Canada to protest the outrage. Soon the national scapegoating has escalated into a full-scale war. It's the kids of course who restore sanity and peace, and in a wonderfully zany twist are able to do so because, during a lightning storm, occasioned by the appearance of Satan and Saddam Hussein, the V-chip in Cartman's head is recircuited so that it becomes a weapon he can use to defeat the marauding adult armies. Every time Cartman uses a four-letter word a bolt fires from his head and zaps its target. With this weapon the kids are able to defeat the forces of adult darkness that have engulfed their innocent -- if innocently foul-mouthed -- world.
Unfortunately, in the real world of 1999 America, the book burners are on the march. The Clinton team has already laid down clear markers in its assaults on the tobacco and gun industries. With government studies now authorized for an examination of the entertainment industry, with "scientific studies" to follow, it's not hard to visualize the lawsuits coming next.
What makes these developments truly ominous is that the Republican opposition has caved. In the past, Republicans defended the principle that legal industries should not be destroyed by government lawsuits. But having defended an industry that actually kills people, tobacco, Republicans are now joining the lynch party to target an industry that has killed no one.
Milan Kundera's classic novel about totalitarianism, "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting," made the point that laughter is absolutely subversive of totalitarian ideologies like political correctness. Gore's effort to ban the laughter in "South Park" is, accordingly, a threat to us all.