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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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