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A CULTURAL FLASHPOINT

Feb 16, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Legend holds that Aesop, a Greek slave who lived in the sixth century B.C., wrote a fable about a group of pigeons, a hawk and a kite (a predatory bird with long wings and a forked tail).
It seems that the pigeons became terrified at the sudden appearance of the kite, so they asked the hawk to be their defender. The hawk immediately agreed, so the pigeons invited him into the enclosure they called home. Soon the hawk was causing havoc. Within a day, he slew more of the pigeons than the kite could have pounced on in a year. The moral of the story, according to Aesop: Avoid a remedy that is worse than the disease.

That tale came to mind last week as I watched the huffing, puffing and posturing in Washington over broadcast indecency. Once again the schizophrenia of American society was on display. In a free society where it often seems anything goes, especially if you have enough money, there remains a strong puritanical streak that harks back to an earlier age.
In the past this split was just so much stock in the melting crock that is America. The system was flawed but the guiding principle remained that there was freedom of speech for all. Now we have entered an era that goes beyond the clash of attitudes between young and old that afflicts every generation. We now have a true culture war, where each side is intolerant of the other and feels righteous about it.
This didn’t start with Janet Jackson’s ill-conceived marketing stunt. These forces have been building for a long time, collecting like a raging river held back by a temporary dam.
If the war on terror was ignited by the 9/11 tragedy, the culture wars burst the dam on Super Bowl Sunday 2004.
This is not to compare one directly with the other. What happened on Sept. 11 cost thousands of lives. What happened after Ms. Jackson’s exposure is a struggle for the hearts and minds of our own citizens. It may not be as bloody, but it still holds powerful implications for the way we live, work and play.
In a very general sense, you might say that America has split into two camps. The first, symbolized by Dr. Laura Schlessinger, believes standards must be upheld. Those include limits on language, a belief in the sanctity of marriage, modest dress and an array of “family values.” This group includes Attorney General John Ashcroft, who insisted for modesty’s sake on draping cloths over art deco statues in the Department of Justice lobby.
On the other side is the camp symbolized by Howard Stern. It promotes the right of the individual to live, play and speak as he or she pleases. This side often sees religion as archaic and considers modest fashion, marriage and anything but the latest music unhip. This camp believes that anything goes as long as participation is voluntary, no one is permanently injured and no “reasonable” law is broken.
What the Dr. Laura group considers reasonable restraints the Howard Stern crowd denounces as censorship. Language that would be considered hip by one side is seen as obscene by the other. Images of sex and violence that one side considers contemporary, the other sees as the decline of civilization. And the gulf is growing wider. We are in an age of intolerance on both sides.
Wars, even the cultural variety, inevitably lead to excess. Consider the goofy remarks last week in the House hearing by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., who compared Ms. Jackson’s “tasteless” performance to the Enron scandal, bringing a rebuke from Viacom’s Mel Karmazin, who snapped: “I don’t appreciate that comparison.”
The Enron scandal involved a criminal conspiracy to defraud billions of dollars by manipulating energy markets. It resulted in senior citizens losing their retirement, investors being fleeced out of billions and California’s energy crisis.
Ms. Jackson’s flash dance involved a 37-year-old fading music star dressed as a dominatrix who on her own made last-minute alterations to her act without network approval. While she later issued an apology, her real intent is as clear as her partly nude photo on the cover of her new album-using shock as a way to boost her career and album sales.
In a political year Ms. Jackson has given lawmakers an issue they know how to sell. Instead of talking about a questionable war, a teetering economy, the underemployment of millions, the deteriorating physical infrastructure, a collapsing educational system, the environment, the health care crisis, inequality among the classes or even commercials full of half-truths, the pols can posture about the moral collapse of the nation.
And all of this is done in the name of the children, whose dinnertime break between halves of gridiron violence was violated by Nipplegate.
While I agree that children deserve protection, let’s start from a basis of reality. You can censor broadcast but more than 70 percent of U.S. TV homes also get cable or satellite service, where the images and language banned on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are routine. A child’s best protection is still a responsible parent.
If it were left to some legislators, the yoke of censorship would be put on cable as well. But because cable costs an extra fee and is delivered by wire, the courts are unlikley to allow it. End even if Congress finds a way, there will still be the Internet, offering a smorgasbord of sex, salty language and capitalism gone wild.
So the pols are going after the only group they can impact directly. The FCC plans to issue new rules and Congress is about to jam through Draconian laws hiking fines for TV stations and threatening licenses for repeat violations. The idea of these rules has already sent a chill through broadcast TV. When they are implemented, the effect will not be to miraculously get the Howard Stern lovers to suddenly become Dr. Laura followers. Instead, it will simply drive more viewers away from broadcast to cable and the Internet and further threaten local television.
In other words, the pigeons looking for protection from the kite may be inadvertently setting a fat table for the hawk.