Scary Move

When Both Parties Team Up to Target Hollywood, Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid!

It's a gamble, but the odds will improve if Gore mainstreams fundamentalism. He plans to do this by turning a chunk of social-welfare change over to the churches, a policy he calls "charitable choice." This is the second leg of the Democrats' new Southern Strategy. By empowering more moderate fundamentalist factions, Gore will try to coax them back into the Democratic fold. No wonder he is so eager to fly the flag of faith—and no wonder Gore chose Joe Lieberman, the Jeramiah of the jukebox, as his running mate.

It's easy to see what the Republicans have to gain from taking on the heathens of Hollywood. They can poach the soccer moms, that most succulent of swing groups. These women gave Bill Clinton both his presidential victories, and this year, George W. Bush is competing heavily for their votes. Flash back to those polls on violence in the media. It's not old fogeys who are most worried about this issue, but young mothers—especially those with jobs. "The number of working moms saying they are concerned about the way kids think and act has tripled," says Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. "Why has this become such an urgent priority for them? I think working moms have been quicker to recognize that we're not investing enough time in children, and that we are relying more and more on pop culture to raise our kids. That's where the angst is coming from."

These mothers are a far cry from the civil libertarian's image of the enemy. They work long hours for little pay, and they are as likely to be liberal as conservative. What they have in common is an inability to regulate their children's entertainment, or even to spend much time with the kids. Last Wednesday's Senate hearing, in which white people sparred over freedom and morality, hid the fact that blacks are more likely than whites to think the government should play a part in restricting children's access to nasty stuff.

illustration: Carly Castillon

But the growing burden of work on families is more than a matter of race and class. As Putnam notes, "It's not true that all Americans are working longer hours, but it is true that parents are working more than they used to." Federal statistics show that, over the past 30 years, parents' work time grew by 14 hours a week. Then, too, over the past generation a third of the labor force "has moved from the kitchen to the workplace," according to Putnam. This is a seismic social shift—and a major reason why the current attack on pop culture is here to stay.

As both parties scramble for each other's base, a momentum is building, with each side pushing the other to apply the tourniquet more tightly. The last time this happened, in the postwar era, the result was bipartisan support for McCarthyism. Then as now, Hollywood was a target. Veterans of the Red Scare remember when the studios were hauled before Congress to answer for their alleged tolerance of Communists. In order to get Hollywood to observe a "voluntary" blacklist, there were even threats to raise that most sensitive subject: the fact that the dream machine was largely run by Jews. The industry caved—and the rest is history.

Danny Goldberg, chairman of Artemis Records, isn't overly burdened by the past. He's a fixture at congressional hearings, a key defender of artistic freedom who can be counted on to say things too intelligent for the pols to contradict. "The goals of [Senators] Brownback and Lieberman are analogous to the blacklisting period," Goldberg admits. "But I think the likelihood of them succeeding is far, far less, because the structure of society has changed."

For one thing, the culture has become decentralized, which is why it's gotten so much raunchier, Goldberg maintains. "The change is caused by people having more to say about what the culture is. What the moralists call a deterioration of culture is really a democratization." Even if every superstore refused to stock hip-hop, there would still be small shops eager to compete, not to mention the Internet, where broadband technology will soon make it possible for millions of people to download their entertainment at the click of a mouse. "I don't see how they can put the toothpaste back in the tube and re-create America of the 1950s," Goldberg says.

But it's worth remembering that, diverse as the culture has become, the companies that produce it have consolidated. This urge to merge gives Congress more power than ever to threaten reprisals for the industry's refusal to cooperate. The antitrust laws have proven to be a very effective tool of persuasion.

While Goldberg insists it would be difficult to devise a rating system for records (how would you define violence?), it's not impossible. And as for movies, where ratings are already in place, a shift in social attitudes could make "hard R" movies as tricky to market as NC-17 films are today. Theater owners are already suffering from a glut of screens; they don't need the threat of boycotts, not to mention arrests. No court can stop landlords at malls from expanding the leases that now prevent theaters from showing NC-17 films to include any movie deemed violent or explicit. The government may not be able to make that call, but what's to stop a "private" panel (like the Legion of Decency, which hounded movies in the '50s) from doing so?

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