News & Politics

Scary Move


Call it I Still Know What You Did in Your Focus Group Last Summer. As the Senate Commerce Committee met last Wednesday for another round of Hollywood bashing, the aura of a genre film was in the air. There were familiar fulminations, dutifully dire warnings, and the pretense of repentance from studio execs. To seasoned observers of the censorship scene, these proceedings looked like a horror movie they’d seen once too often. “It’s the same old same old,” said Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union. “I’m always surprised when this is not happening.”

But there was an ominous departure from the script. After the hearing, John McCain wouldn’t let the maiden go. He vowed to unleash the monster, in the form of the Federal Trade Commission, whose report on the marketing of R-rated movies and video games was the prequel to this scary movie. McCain broadly hinted at a new FTC investigation and slyly noted that the agency is weighing its power to charge the entertainment industry with unfair trade practices. Such a complaint could lead to discussions with movie, video game, and record companies about a new universal rating system. If the industry failed to fall in line, the FTC could file formal charges, triggering a civil liberties crisis that the courts would have to resolve.

In such a showdown, there’s good reason to believe the studios would prevail. Civil libertarians cite a long string of victories against censorship laws, including the recent Communications Decency Act, shot down by the Supreme Court. But there’s also some precedent on the other side. The courts allow a different standard for defining obscenity “as to minors.” No one has tried to regulate violence in the same way. (The main reason why American ratings are easier on blood and guts than on sex is that they can be.) But if the FTC came armed with evidence that violent entertainment is being aimed at children, and that it actually harms kids, the courts just might permit some restrictions. Weighing the odds in such a battle, Marvin Johnson, the ACLU’s legislative counsel, says, “It’s not a slam dunk for either side.”

It seems unlikely that the entertainment industry will let things get so far. Especially since, as Lynn Cheney told a shareholders meeting at Seagram’s, parent company of the record label that produces the bash-rapper Eminem: “More and more good citizens find appealing the idea that government regulation should remove entertainment industry products from the public square.”

Cheney is right, up to a point. Most Americans don’t favor banning violent or explicit entertainment, but a growing majority does think the government should play a role in keeping this stuff from minors. Most people believe pop culture is as responsible as the ready availability of guns for school shootings like the one at Columbine. And more than 80 percent of those polled by the Gallup organization think stricter regulation of movies and music would stop such crimes. As civil libertarians never tire of pointing out, there is no proof of a connection between representational and real-world violence—but the public thinks otherwise.

To students of censorship, it’s déjà vu all over again. They cite the age-old American conviction that culture causes crime, and the endless cycle of crackdowns on nasty entertainment, from dime novels at the turn of the century to comics—and, of course, rock ‘n’ roll—in the 1950s. To Strossen, “The issue emerges when there’s an election, some awful act of violence, and the invention of a new medium,”—in this case the Internet.

But buried beneath the surface of the polls is the reason why this issue won’t go away after Election Day. Both parties have too much to gain from keeping the heat on.

For the Democrats, the rewards of culture bashing are clear. This is one heck of a way to take back the “family issues” that have been a showcase for the right. And the Gores are veteran bird-doggers when it comes to this constituency. Ever since her husband was elected to Congress in 1976, Tipper Gore has stalked sex and violence in the media. During Gore’s first presidential campaign, she cofounded the Parents’ Music Resource Center to demand an X rating for records that mentioned fornication, homosexuality, or bestiality. (Does that refer to the Beastie Boys?) Tipper didn’t hesitate to work with Christian fundamentalists, including a board member of Focus on the Family, the antigay group that spearheaded the drive against the National Endowment for the Arts. Commentator Alexander Cockburn reports that the PMRC sent memos to the Recording Industry Association of America urging labels to drop transgressive artists. Through all of Tipper’s crusades, Al Gore stood smilingly by, and on his recent Oprah appearance, he boasted, “She was early and she was right.”

To gauge Gore’s intentions you have to regard his personal war on pop culture as part of a long-term strategy to undermine the alliance between the Republican Party and the Christian right. Gore is betting that people of faith aren’t free-market fanatics; it’s the moral issues that have kept this largely Southern constituency wedded to the Republicans, and if the Democrats can show their own resolve to curb the culture, they may be able to mitigate the impact of their stand on abortion and gay rights (especially as the GOP lightens up on these issues).

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.

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?

If the pols push the industry hard enough, and the public continues to back them up, we could well see a time when movies and music are forced into a state of latency. And make no mistake: The right is after nothing less than the suppression of transgressive culture. As Lynn Cheney told that Senate committee last week, the problem isn’t the marketing of entertainment; “It’s the content.”

Consider the way the word “children” is used by these crusaders. It collapses the distinction between adolescents and kids, as if a youth of 17 were as much in need of supervision as a child of eight. In the ongoing war against hip-hop and horror films, one can see the skirmish line of a much more profound struggle to control teenagers. It’s a battle being waged in every school that bans certain articles of clothing, every class that teaches abstinence and not contraception, every community where kids are subject to random police searches. In this culture, teenagers are children until they are arrested, at which point they can be tried in many jurisdictions as adults.

But teens are not the culture bashers’ only target. Minors are being used “as a smokescreen for a larger agenda, which is depriving adults of their access to this material,” says the ACLU’s Strossen. “Because in most media, if the youth market is eliminated, the adult market is going to be affected as well.” Take movies. Though kids represent just 17 percent of the filmgoing public, they generate 35 percent of all movie revenues. That’s because young people like to see their favorite movies over and over again, especially in the company of friends. A true diminution of that market would greatly shrink the revenue of R-rated films, making it more difficult to produce them on a major budget and heightening the temptation to cut films so they can pass as PG.

As for the record industry, hard as it is to regulate, there’s no doubt that if youths under 17 were actually prevented from buying records with parental advisories, Eminem’s next album would be lucky to go aluminum.

It’s hard to imagine pop culture being busted. So much money is involved; so many people love this stuff. But as Nathaniel Hawthorne observed, this is a nation of promiscuous puritans. That tension makes us eternally attracted to expression—and equally susceptible to repression.

If the culture war is ever won, it will be because the victor has a better grasp of the conditions that produce crackdowns. This ear to the ground is what enabled conservatives to run rings around civil libertarians when the hot-button issue was crime. The result was the enactment of policies that led to the incarceration of millions. The stakes in the current conflict are not quite so high, but the loss of freedom is serious enough.

The only way to prevent that is for the enemies of censorship to deal with the root reasons for people’s anxiety. It’s not enough to point out that violent culture doesn’t lead children to act violently. That won’t settle the question, because violence isn’t ultimately what the panic is about.

“In formal and informal ways, Americans are connecting a lot less with our friends, neighbors, and families,” says Robert Putnam, whose book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, describes a nation becoming increasingly atomized. “The range of activities we’re doing less of together is startlingly wide—from voting to taking vacations with the family to watching television with the kids. And I bet parents are going to movies with their children a lot less.”

As a measure of this intimacy gap, Putnam cites a YMCA survey that turns the cliché about teenagers wanting to be apart from their parents on its head. Two-thirds of the adolescents polled said they yearn to spend more time with their families. No wonder young people are 10 times as likely to be clinically depressed as their grandparents were at the same age. This is not just an artifact of medical reporting, Putnam maintains; it’s a response to a new reality. Unhappy kids watch a lot of television, and they are much more likely than in previous generations to do so alone, if only because so many have TV sets, CD players, video decks, and play stations in their rooms.

In this hermetic environment, youth culture is much more enveloping and less mediated than it was a generation ago. No one can say how a steady hail of kinky images and rhymes affects a troubled child; the research will always be ambiguous because there’s no way to measure such a complex interaction. But one thing seems clear: The market in violent entertainment isn’t driving kids; it’s the other way around. Perhaps what this culture expresses is the rage so many young people feel. For parents who sense this relationship but feels powerless to intervene, having some system that determines what their children see and hear must be tempting indeed.

Film flack Jack Valenti shrugs off this bind, grousing that no rating system will help parents who “feebly perform the duty of parenting.” It’s time for freedom fighters to reject such contempt, and to stand up for disassembled families: to join the campaign for flexible work hours, to demand programs that educate children about the entertainment they consume, to get real about the meaning of slash-and-bash culture. Cheney and Lieberman wouldn’t be so credible if they hadn’t cornered the market in moral thinking. As Joan E. Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship says: “For the system to work, the critics have to make their voices heard as loudly as the stuff that’s out there.”

In other words: Speak truth to pop.

Research: Rouven Gueissaz

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