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  Stephen's Column Archive

October 4, 2006

Have You No Sense of Decency?


It’s been a common battle over the last several decades: Artist or musician or movie director produces work, conservative opposition group takes offense, boycotts ensue and the whole thing eventually gets chalked up to the never-ending “culture war.” A new book provides a history of these battles, and how they connect with the overall war.


“The Decency Wars” are what these cultural skirmishes are called, in the title of the book by Frederick Lane. In the book, subtitled “The Campaign to Cleanse American Culture,” Lane traces the various times in the last several decades that the left and right have collided over the issue of “decency.”


The issue of decency, and the sidebar question of whether culture can be “cleaned up” legislatively, raced to the forefront of American political discourse following the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl, and the subsequent crackdown by the FCC on sexual, violent and profane content in television and radio. But such skirmishes, in fits and starts, have been going on for decades.


At the center of the decency wars are a group of right-wing, mostly religious pressure groups marked by their hatred of sex, hatred of culture and hatred of creativity. Whether they’re called the Parents’ Television Council, Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family or the Moral Majority, these groups have all hid behind a bogus concern for “the children” in order to push boycotts and otherwise put negative pressure on creative people, all based on a specific, narrow set of “moral values” that is certainly not subscribed to by all or even most Americans. That’s something that’s bad for culture, and bad for America.


Take, for instance, the FCC’s jihad against Howard Stern. The government agency that watches the airwaves levied a series of fines against Stern, when it had been abundantly clear for years exactly what kind of show Stern was running, and anyone who objected to the content was free to simply change the channel and not listen.


The treatment eventually got so draconian that at one point, according to blogger Jeff Jarvis, Stern’s lawyers actually sent a memo advising him as to the appropriate length of fart sounds on the show. Fed up with both the government and his bosses, Stern decamped to satellite radio earlier this year with a lucrative $500 million contract.


Another example? In 2003, Fox television broadcast the quickly canceled reality show “Married by America,” in which viewers were invited to vote on which contestants should marry one another. The show led to the levying of a then-record $1.5 million fine against the Fox network, after the FCC received 159 complaints from citizens who found the broadcast offensive. But Jarvis, through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, discovered that the FCC had actually received only 90 complaints - and if you remove Parents’ Television Council-authored form letters from the equation, only three individuals actually sat down to write letters!


The post-Jackson spate of fines, meanwhile, led to some real howlers - such as 66 ABC affiliates refusing to air an uncut version of the patriotic masterpiece “Saving Private Ryan,” on account of the film’s language. Or consider baseball broadcaster Bert Blyleven, who in August was suspended for three games after accidentally letting the F-word slip, when he didn’t realize he was on the air live.


Amid all of this nonsense, there are a couple of mitigating factors. Politicians seem to have come to the conclusion, as Lane writes, that any attempt to actually regulate or censor artistic content will never stand up in the courts, so that option has largely been off the table since the 1980s. And even more obviously, it has become clear in recent years that elected officials, especially on the Republican side, have only used the decency issue as an election-year wedge issue, and have shown little-to-no enthusiasm for actually enacting anti-indecency legislation once in office.


“Decency Wars” is by no means a perfectly argued book. In several chapters it meanders and, while still providing insightful history and analysis, moves far away from its stated subject matter and merely rehashes culture war battles (such as homosexuality, stem cell research and even right-wing talk radio) that have little or nothing to do with the “decency” question.


And Lane also ignores the similar pressure that comes from the left, in the guise of political correctness, and the business of “offensiveness.” The late feminist Andrea Dworkin, for instance, went much further in seeking to ban content with which she disagreed than Brent Bozell ever did. Whether coming from Dworkin- or Bozell-types, those who seek to put pressure on makers of American culture for partisan political purposes do not deserve our support.

© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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