- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2000

Now that Vice President Al Gore has cynically suggested a crusade against Hollywood-produced violence and vulgarity, the issue has been joined by media panjandrums.

Where Mr. Gore stood on this issue for the last eight years, or why he has lined his campaign with Hollywood money from the same producers who market this trash remains a mystery, only for the most naive in our midst. The Gore-Lieberman ticket is looking for a constituency on the right.

Cynical this tactic may be, but it might also have political legs. Nonetheless, soi-disant experts have expressed their disapproval. Some refer to studies that purport to show "conclusively" that watching a horror film doesn't necessarily lead to horrible behavior. Or that subliminal messages and overt pitches don't work.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, author Richard Rhodes contends "no direct, causal link between exposure to rock violence in the media and subsequent violent behavior has ever been demonstrated."

Others argue that parents are the prime suspects in cultural degradation, since they are armed implicitly and explicitly with the task of moral instruction. Presumably, if parents do their job well, children will be less vulnerable to the siren call of coarsened culture.

Still others maintain kids are intelligent consumers of entertainment who choose what to watch or listen to or imbibe and aren't a tabula rasa on which producers can imprint a message.

These are ostensibly the contentions of the chattering class that defends Hollywood's right to produce whatever it sees as fit or marketable.

As I see it, each point could be easily refuted if only the public would rely on common sense rather than the elegant obfuscation of social science.

Start with the proposition that taste matters. A rap artist (excuse the expression) whose lyrics call for the abuse and rape of women may not trigger a wave of abusive behavior, but it would be a mistake to conclude those lyrics do not have an influence on the cultural context in which youthful choices are considered.

Cultural debasement is an issue precisely because it inoculates a significant portion of the population against shame and embarrassment, the very conditions needed to promote civil society.

Of course, parents have a central role in this cultural equation. They can and often do provide moral counseling. But what happens when there isn't a parent in the home or parents do not offer moral guidance or the local gang leader is a surrogate father?

One can glibly discuss the importance of parental responsibility, yet in many instances parents have abdicated their role even when physically present in the home.

Many children of the 1960s weaned on cultural relativism are unable to provide any instruction on the difference between right and wrong. The argument that youngsters are intelligent consumers of cultural fare flies in the face of current reality.

Who buys the obscene rap CDs that glorify violence? To whom are films like "Scary Movie" intended? If youngsters were educated about their cultural heritage, there might be some justification for this claim.

But the only cultural fare youngsters see and hear is degrading. They are educated in degeneracy, as widespread knowledge of "Beavis and Butthead" and ignorance of Mozart and Bach suggests.

The rationalizers who contend that what you see and hear do not really matter overlook the Platonic view that culture invariably trumps politics. What the mind imbibes the spirit inherits.

Attitudes, beliefs and motives are affected by the mass media. The image may not be causal, but it would be a critical error to contend it is not affective. To a degree, we are what we consume from the culture. It's a hidden parent sending messages to youngsters.

Thought control would be putting too defining a point on culture. The idea of thought influence, however, is a defensible position and a justifiable stance for critics.

What the government can do about this debasement is unclear. Adopting Mr. Gore's campaign ploy doesn't make sense, since it undoubtedly isn't sincere and would raise the specter of First Amendment encroachment. There is an issue here that can be addressed through continual airing of dirty laundry.

Call on board members of entertainment companies to justify the obscene lyrics of singers. Call on Hollywood producers to explain gratuitous violence designed to appeal to the sanguinity of teen-agers.

Shame may be in short supply in the nation at the moment, but it does exist and could be a weapon against Hollywood prurience. I have my doubts. But who knows? It might even catch on in Tinseltown. That would be a very interesting story line.

Herbert London is John M. Olin professor of humanities at New York University and president of the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute. Distributed by BridgeNews.

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