- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

This week, actors Sean Penn and George Clooney returned from a tour of several Middle Eastern countries to urge governments there to relax censorship of movies and other forms of artistic and political expression.

The trip was prompted by news that the Beirut-based distribution company Italia Films dropped plans to show the acclaimed Ang Lee-directed movie “Brokeback Mountain” in the Persian Gulf region for fear of offending predominantly Muslim populations with explicit depictions of male homosexuality.

Mr. Penn and Mr. Clooney also were alarmed at the decision by government censors in the United Arab Emirates to excise two minutes from the movie “Syriana,” an American global thriller that implied Arab mistreatment of South Asian immigrant workers.

Also on the agenda of the two Oscar-winning actors: the total lack of commercial theaters in Saudi Arabia, from which native movie lovers must travel to neighboring countries such as Bahrain to find a cineplex.

“We realize that promoting free expression in Arab countries is a difficult undertaking right now, especially in light of the controversy over the publication of the Danish Muhammad cartoons,” Mr. Clooney told reporters. “But it’s still worth trying.”

Mr. Penn added: “Art is an infinitely better weapon than guns and bombs. We think cross-cultural dialogue is a vital component of winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world.”

You can wake up now.

The above was a playful attempt at fiction. To the best of my knowledge, no aggrieved American actor — or director, producer or scriptwriter — has ventured into the desert to confront turbaned despots about censorship.

I point this out not merely to elicit hypocrisy-gotcha giggles about the likes of Mr. Penn visiting dictatorships and, on returning home, complaining freely of a “deconstruction of civil liberties” (Mr. Penn’s words) here in America.

No, I have something more timely in mind: the movie and television industries’ forthcoming $300 million campaign to urge parents to control their children’s TV consumption habits, rather than lobbying the federal government to tighten up broadcasting decency standards.

The initiative, according to Associated Press, is a group effort among Hollywood movie studios, the networks, cable and satellite companies and more than 800 local broadcasters. Jack Valenti, the former chief lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America, is spearheading the campaign.

“We want to tell American parents that they, and they alone, have total power to control every hour of television programming,” Mr. Valenti said in a recent speech to the National Association of Broadcasters.

More government regulation is futile, Mr. Valenti said. At best, only 10 percent of cable programming is within the purview of the Federal Communications Commission or Congress.

On the one hand, the effort is a shot in the arm for civil society — a commendable example of a voluntary association appealing to private citizens to take matters into their own hands to avert an increase in the weight of government’s heavy hand.

But on the other hand: Does Hollywood have the moral standing to make this case — and sell it — to a skeptical public? Tinseltown hasn’t exactly been stockpiling a reserve of moral capital over the years.

Why should anyone take Hollywood at face value that it is protecting the principle of free expression (rather than profits) when it so clearly lacks the courage to stand up to foreign censorship far more draconian than our FCC’s narrowly circumscribed monitoring of the public airwaves?

We’re not just talking about the Arab world here. Consider official Hollywood’s embrace of the repressive Communist Chinese regime.

In advance of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to the District, the MPAA, along with the National Geographic Society, sponsored a film festival to celebrate China’s “achievement in film.” The festival, said a press release, would promote “understanding and friendship between our two peoples.”

That sounds like a great excuse to roast marshmallows over a campfire.

Yet, as “Losing the New China” author Ethan Gutmann has frequently pointed out, these efforts at East-West reconciliation invariably redound to the advantage of the Chinese government. Companies such as Yahoo and, more recently, Google, say they’ll do business under official Communist censorship laws in the naive hope that the thirst for freedom will spread like a virus through the wireless nerves of average Chinese Web surfers.

Clive Thompson noted in a recent piece for the New York Times magazine that Chinese citizens know full well what their government is up to. He wrote: “One mistake Westerners frequently make about China is to assume that the government is furtive about its censorship. On the contrary, the party is quite matter of fact about it — proud, even.”

The dispiriting possibility Mr. Thompson raised is that, despite knowing this, Chinese citizens don’t much care.

In the face of outright suppression — and, in China’s case, cultural apathy — Hollywood is passive, silent. And not for a moment should you presume that the industry is zipping its lip out of diplomatic circumspection. The industry is hardly shy about raising diplomatic hackles — especially in China — when it comes to Internet piracy.

Look: Mr. Valenti and company are right to urge parents to act as their own content filters; it’s a worthy goal, and one that squares with our ideals of parental sovereignty and responsibility. But if Hollywood’s honchos don’t have enough backbone to speak out against actual government censorship in the Middle East, China and elsewhere, then I’m afraid they’ll accomplish little more than speaking from both sides of their mouths.

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