With conservatives like these, who needs liberals?

By signing on to the war on Hollywood, the right has embraced another bad idea from the left.

Published August 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"If liberals can get away with it, it must be all right," is the latest conservative substitute for an original idea. At first, it was sexual McCarthyism. For years the left pushed political agendas into the private sphere, while conservatives looked on in paralytic awe.

Soon, Supreme Court nominees had to be careful what videos they rented, and 6-year-olds were being publicly shamed for sneaking illicit kisses from kindergarten mates. Eventually a liberal president caught his fly in an Oval Office portal, and conservatives concluded they could dispatch him with ease.

Of course, it didn't work out that way. They should have learned from the experience.

But apparently they haven't. Now it's the left's newest crusade against "media pollution" that the right can't wait to join. For some time now, conservatives have watched as the left conducted mind experiments on American campuses, regulated speech and punished ideas that were politically incorrect.

Conservatives fought a rear-guard battle against these academic commissars, managing to achieve a modicum of success. Most of the speech codes were shredded, and the censors were forced to beat a partial retreat. But the political mind-set has remained and continues to rule the academic world.

As a result, no institution in American life is as intellectually monolithic as a university faculty. Not surprisingly academic "scholars" of the left have provided an elaborate structure of theory, and underpinned it with "scientific" research, to justify the resurgence of censorship in American life.

On the right, religious conservatives have been traditionally attracted to this seductive fix for sinful humanity. But now even the secular minds of the conservative intelligentsia are climbing on board.

It is true that even while they were being banished from American classrooms, a cadre of conservative intellectuals was already making the case for public censorship.

Arguing that artistic expressions were not covered by the Bill of Rights, they made government-funded pornographic art the first target of their complaint, but suggested that even non-government licentiousness was a proper government concern.

When liberals like Bill Clinton and Tipper Gore showed that a bluenose crusade against the entertainment industry might actually become a popular cause, these conservatives were eager to sign on.

Now both groups have come together behind an "Appeal to Hollywood," complaining about the moral pollution of the popular culture. Mindful of Americans' quaint attachment to their First Amendment privileges, the "appeal" only asks the entertainment industry to "take modest steps of self-restraint" to decrease the levels of sex and violence perceived in its products.

The "appeal" was signed by 67 prominent public figures, members of a new popular front that joins such unlikely couples as Bill Bennett and Mario Cuomo, Jimmy Carter and Lynne Cheney.

But the "Appeal to Hollywood" is only part of a growing and disturbing trend on both ends of the political spectrum whose efforts are weakening the bulwarks that protect our First Amendment freedoms.

The federal government and the Congress have already put the entertainment industry on the block and slated it for investigation and legislation (soon to be followed, if precedent is a guide, by class action lawsuits).

It is a consciously designed parallel to the assault on tobacco and gun manufacturers. If one focuses on the fact that entertainment products are ideas, images and fantasies, the mere linking of these three industries should send shivers up the national spine.

The steady advance of this juggernaut of repression, however, was apparently not fast enough for the editors of the Weekly Standard. The August 23 issue of the leading intellectual organ of neo-conservatism is devoted to "The Case For Censorship," the title of a feature article by a political scientist named David Lowenthal.

The editors also invited four distinguished conservative intellectuals -- Bill Bennett, Irving Kristol, Terry Eastland and Jeremy Rabkin - to contribute their wisdom.

Lowenthal's manifesto turns out to be a screed on behalf of full-blown moral dictatorship by government guardians of what the public should see and hear, and what it should not. According to Lowenthal, Hollywood is so "enamored of its profits" no appeals to its conscience will work. On the other hand, without drastic measures to stop the current flow of cultural filth, the prospects for the nation are dire indeed.

"The mass media," Lowenthal writes, have become "the prime educational force in the country," and their "pernicious" influence already overwhelms that of "schools, synagogues and churches." They have "immersed us" in violence as well as sexual depravity, "habituated us to the most extreme brutality" and "surrounded us by images of hateful human types so memorable as to cause a psychological insecurity that is dangerous."

Nothing less than the future of civilization is at stake and no power short of the state is sufficient to save us:

"Government, and government alone, has a chance of blocking this descent into decadence ... The choice is clear: either a rigorous censorship of the mass media ... or an accelerating descent into barbarism and the destruction, sooner or later of free society itself."

Even more distressing than this horrifying jeremiad is the failure of any of the conservative commentators assembled by the Standard to find it just that -- horrifying.

"I agree with much in professor Lowenthal's article," writes Bill Bennett, while defining himself as a "First Amendment absolutist." But how absolute is Bennett's commitment to the First Amendment when he does not reject Lowenthal's proposal on absolute grounds?

Instead of condemning it as the reflection of an anti-democratic mentality, he argues for its rejection on the grounds of its political imprudence. The "main problem for Lowenthal's argument," writes Bennett, "is democracy itself, specifically the current state of thinking among the American people: They do not want, to use Lowenthal's words, 'rigorous censorship.'" And if they did, that would be all right?

What Bennett proposes is an effort, using the authority of government, to bring the industry to heel by a combination of public humiliation and government threat: "Among other things, Congress ought to begin treating the entertainment industry the same way it treats the gun and tobacco industries: Invite the executives to testify in public, let them defend [themselves] ... Is there anything you won't sell? Why was this ugly, stupid, horrible scene put in this movie?"

So now congressman are going to be entertainment critics. I wonder if Bennett has tried to imagine the scene if Parliament had hauled Shakespeare before it in the time of Elizabeth to explain why both eyes of the 80-year-old Duke of Gloucester are plucked out on stage in King Lear, or a virginal Ophelia has such obscene fantasies in Hamlet or why eight people are killed in the last scene of the same play. "Mr. Shakespeare! Is this really necessary? Don't you find eight corpses a little excessive? Have you no shame, sir?"

American Spectator publisher Terry Eastland, who is a lawyer as well, is even less restrained than Bennett. "Censor the mass media? In theory, I agree." But he, too, concedes there are practical objections. There is the tricky matter, for example, of American law which "stands in the way" of the kind of censorship Lowenthal is proposing, particularly as it has been interpreted for the past 50 years.

Behind current interpretations of the law, moreover, there is still that unruly beast, the American people. "Persuading the public" to abandon its prejudice against censorship would be impractical as a result of the moral decline of the culture in recent decades. In providing a Bill of Rights that included the First Amendment, Eastland reminds us, the founders counted on "a certain degree of virtue in the people," a condition that in his view it can no longer meet. He refers to this state of affairs as "the disabling of America."

Then it is Irving Kristol's turn. The éminence grise of American neo-conservatism could not be happier with Lowenthal's authoritarian vision. "I want to welcome David Lowenthal to the Walter Berns-Robert Bork-Irving Kristol club," he writes. "Each of us has, in the last three decades, argued in favor of censorship ..."

(A recent conversation I had with Judge Bork, however, suggests that he is having second thoughts about his membership in this club because of the use that is being made of its arguments.) Like Bennett and Eastland, Kristol finds the otherwise worthy project of censorship unworkable owing to the sorry state of the American people who can't be counted on to support it.

Bizarrely, Kristol attributes this resistance to the influence of the post-'60s culture and the left's institutional dominance of the American Bar Association, the law schools and the media. These institutions, Kristol concludes, would crucify any nominee to the nation's higher courts who indicated a pro-censorship bias.

Kristol is certainly right about liberal resistance to censorship when liberals are convinced the censor's axe will fall on the artistic avant-garde and other left-wing communities they favor. On the other hand, the left has already shown that it wants to censor the offensive speech of its opponents and the violent imagery of the media.

Kristol fails to take into account the fact that leftists can disagree among themselves. They can also be adept at employing double standards that allow them to support the censorship of others while abhorring censorship of themselves. He seems unaware of how his position makes him a bedfellow of feminist harridans like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, and moral busybodies like Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore.

Among the commentators assembled by the Standard, only government professor Jeremy Rabkin seems to appreciate that the censors who would implement Lowenthal's proposal would inevitably be drawn from the class of political missionaries whose passion in life is to tell the rest of us how to live.

"The people prepared to take the job would be ideologues - mostly of the crazy left, perhaps also of the religious right, but certainly ideologues," he writes. (perhaps also of the religious right?!) Censorship by such zealots, Rabkin does recognize, is "a recipe for a very nasty sort of politics and is sure to be self-defeating." Once again, the strongest criticism that can be mustered against this proto-fascist agenda is that it is impractical.

What is going on here? What happened to the conservative attitude that government can't tie its shoelaces without putting entire populations in danger? How is it that a government unable to hand out money to poor people without destroying families and communities in the process can be entrusted with the infinitely more complex task of deciding what is -- and what is not -- morally healthy for 270 million diverse people to hear and see? How could any self-respecting conservative not be repelled by a social prescription like Lowenthal's that overlooks this little problem of social engineering?

For that matter, how could any conservative not be appalled by his analysis of the problem itself? Since when, for example, have the media become "the primary educational force in the country"? In educating the young, the primary force is and always has been the family. That's almost the primary principle of conservative politics itself.

It's also the only explanation for the fact that the same "violent" TV shows and movies are seen in America's inner cities and middle class suburbs. Yet homicide is the number one killer of young males in the first and barely a factor in youth mortality statistics in the other.

Despite the claims of academic pseudoscience, normal individuals are not "desensitized" by fantasy acts of violence and transformed into homicidal maniacs. It is only sociopaths who confuse fantasy violence with reality. Are we now going to define the parameters of American freedom by the standard of the sociopaths among us? Now that is a truly liberal idea.

When all is said and done, the very image of Hollywood that governs the analyses of the would-be censors is itself a fantasy. Here's Lowenthal:

Is fanning the flames of selfish and irresponsible lust, as obscenity does, not dangerous to our society? How can we expect the sexes to treat each other with decency and respect, the very young to forbear from sexual intercourse, and the family to remain stable in mutual devotion if sex detached from any sense of responsibility and even from love is touted daily in theaters and on television screens?

This is not only a false analysis of what we see and hear in theaters and on our television screens. It is ludicrous. Most prime-time television hours produced by the seven networks are filled with sitcoms, whose invariable themes are celebrations of love, family, friendship, tolerance, loyalty, respect and other timeless conservative virtues. (The PAX and Family networks are even exclusively devoted to family friendly programming.)

Outside the news shows, rare incidents on late-night law-and-order series and the occasional feature film, there is virtually no violence to speak of on network television.

On the other hand, there are more than a dozen cable channels that children could be put in front of all day and all night, every day and every night, and receive a decent, even quality education. As for feature films shown in theaters -- do we really need to remind ourselves of this obvious fact? -- these are seen only as the result of individual choices. A ticket purchase is required for entry. Do Americans really need censors to tell them what to choose?

Are there any films and shows at all that approximate Lowenthal's fevered description? Well, I'm sure there are. But do they have the effect that Lowenthal imputes to them? Bill Bennett is the only contributor to the symposium who even bothers to mention anything so concrete as an actual offending artifact. He says that the Motion Picture Association has been criticized for using the threat of NC-17 ratings to censor "Eyes Wide Shut" and "South Park." He believes that "far more" movies should be so threatened.

I haven't seen "Eyes Wide Shut," but I seriously doubt that -- censored or uncensored -- it would affect my ability to treat the opposite sex decently and with respect.

I have seen "South Park" and I found its anti-censorship message morally refreshing (it is beyond my ken that any conservative could find this film offensive on conservative grounds). What are the implications of Bennett's argument, except that he considers it worth delivering our right to choose what we can see and know to the tender mercies of film censors in order to protect ourselves from the possibility that a cartoon would morally corrupt us? Get real, Bill.

There is a deeper and more troubling flaw in the social model that inspires these modern Savanarolas, however. It is a misconception that again contradicts a cornerstone of conservative thought. If the tobacco, gun and film industries are giant enterprises in a free market system, it means that vast numbers of people want the products they are offering. In a democracy, the people are sovereign. That's the contract we've all signed onto.

If enough people find cigarettes, guns and bad Hollywood pictures morally repulsive, these products will cease to be produced. That's the remedy the old-fashioned way. Conservatives, more than anyone else, should know (and believe) this. What is truly obscene is that a magazine calling itself conservative would even argue "The Case for Censorship." Just because liberals do it doesn't make it right.

Elites of all political persuasions may find democracy offensive to their own sensibilities and ideas. Sometimes, they may even make common cause with their ideological enemies to force on everybody else their ideas of what's best. But, for the sake of our democracy and ourselves, the rest of us better not humor them.

By David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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