The usual battle-lines are being drawn, and here comes another debilitating screaming match. On the one side, Sen. Bob Dole and William Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues; on the other, the ACLU, the people at Time Warner, Oliver Stone, et al.
Let's walk through that one more slowly: On the one side, a presidential candidate who seeks to shore up support from the conservative wing of his party, and a stern moralizer who comes by his convictions honestly; on the other, defenders of the First Amendment, profiteers, and a producer who — given his hyperbolic way of perceiving the world — cannot be taken seriously.
With such a mixed cast of characters, the rest of us might be wondering, Which side are we on? What's the best way to handle gangsta rap and other despicable examples of corruption in our popular culture?
For many of us, Dole's obvious hypocrisy and our own commitment to the First Amendment are more than enough to settle the argument. Down with censorship! Down with government intrusion! Let the creative spirit breathe free! Beware the cultural neanderthals; let a hundred flowers bloom, and if one or two look suspiciously like weeds, well, that's just the price we have to pay for freedom.
We will therefore be inclined to agree with the argument emerging as the music industry's and Hollywood's first line of defense: Who is Dole to be telling us how to behave? As Norman Lear observes, "Hollywood in its presentation of violence and sex has no more to answer for than the Congress of the United States.
"The name of the game in the entertainment business is short-term profit. This is exactly what Congress is all about — how can we get reelected in the short term and every other value be damned."
Oliver Stone offers a more pointed indictment: "It's the height of hypocrisy for Dole, who wants to repeal the assault weapons ban, to blame Hollywood for the violence in our society. Hollywood did not create the problem of violence in America."
In fact, Dole's emergence as a Hollywood basher is, as The New York Times observes in a recent editorial, a case of "pandering to the right…It is hypocritical for him to attack violent movies and lyrics while ignoring or condoning the ever-increasing availability of guns."
But the argument is not thereby resolved. Stone may be right when he says that the entertainment industry did not create the problem of violence. But that does not mean (by a long shot) that the entertainment industry has refrained from exploiting — and perhaps heightening –the public's taste for violent movies, TV shows and the like.
Lear may be right that Congress is no better than the entertainment industry when it comes to demonstrating a commitment to high-minded values. But if Lear thinks Congress is so shabby, and that the music industry is no better, why not direct the same kind of effort toward the industry that so many of us invest in upgrading Congress?
No, the stereotypical understanding of the dispute — neanderthals vs. sophisticates, censorship vs. the FirstAmendment — doesn't work. The reason it doesn't work is that the gangsta rap that Time Warner pushes on the society is truly garbage. It is every bit as vile and degrading as its most vehement critics contend.
And while those of us whose primary concern is defending the First Amendment may win the skirmish, we will have done nothing to solve the problem.
Dole's insists that his "is not a call for censorship" but "for good citizenship." From this we may take comfort, but not much, for there is no more reason to believe in the sincerity of his commitment to free speech than there is in the sincerity of his assault.
We may take somewhat more comfort in the words of William Bennett and C. DeLores Tucker, chair of the National Political Congress of Black Women, who write: "We are not calling for censorship. We are both virtual absolutists on the First Amendment. Our appeal is to a sense of corporate responsibility and simple decency."
Comfort aside — that's not what the shouting's about, after all. The issue comes down to this: First, we oppose government intrusion on the arts, even if the arts include things utterly without redeeming social value. (Kiddie porn is an exception, and there may be a very few others.)
Second, the problem of gansta rap, and perhaps that of mindless violence in film, is real. We do not need more research to tell us that gangsta rap has no place in society, and we ought actively to oppose its promotion.
If you put those two propositions together, you're left with the following idea: We, rather than agencies of government, ought to take some control here. We do that by complaining to the producers, by complaining to the sponsors, by appealing to their own sense of decency ("Would you want your daughter to listen to one?"), and, the effort failing, we move to boycott. The civic society belongs to us, after all, and with our ownership of it comes responsibility for its health.
Of course, there are dangers in boycotts, too. Today gansta rap, tomorrow Catcher in the Rye. But it need not come to that, not if we shake off our fear of being associated with the know-nothings, not if we refuse to concede a perfectly valid concern to the would-be censors of the right. This is our battle, too, or it should be.