»  National Review

October 9, 2000

  First Amendment First


On September 9th we had our annual block party in my suburban, lower-middle-class street. Traffic barriers were put up; tables of food were set out; small children were let loose on bicycles and scooters. Various entertainments were provided. The local fire house sent a fire truck for the kids to climb over. Towards evening a disk jockey appeared … but before any of that there was the talent show.

The talent show was the brainchild of our 10-year-old neighbor Siobhán, who suffers from Rooney-Garland disorder, i.e. the compulsive urge to organize stage performances. In lieu of an actual stage, Siobhán resorted to the front lawn at number 29. Two convenient trees supported a rope from which hung several bedsheets — the curtain. A printed program was circulated. There were a couple of adult acts: Bill from number 43 juggled, rode a unicycle, and juggled while riding a unicycle. Mr. and Mrs. Derbyshire resurrected, then thoroughly re-buried, a showcase waltz from their ballroom dancing days. The main attraction, though, was the kids, with Siobhán of course very much to the fore. She gave us a solo, a duet with Ashley from number 47, and a grand finale. The solo was "It Was Our Day," from a recent album by the Irish group B*Witched (sic). The other two were Britney Spears numbers: "What U See Is What U Get" and "Lucky."

For readers not au courant with the pop music scene, the first of these songs is a mawkish elegy for a dead friend: "Heaven was calling you / Heaven needed you … I'll lay a rose beside you for ever …" The second is a girl's protest against her boyfriend's possessiveness: "I know you watch the way I'm dancing / When I party with my friends / I can feel your eyes on my back, baby / I can't have the chains around me …" The third is about the inner loneliness of a Hollywood star: "She's so lucky, she's a star / But she cry, cry, cries in her lonely heart …"

So there I was, sitting on a plastic chair on my neighbor's lawn, holding a can of beer and a paper plate of cannelloni, watching a 10-year-old girl singing about grief, sexual jealousy and the hollowness of success. As I squirmed, I sank into reflections of the curmudgeonly kind. Is this all kids know nowadays? Has our culture really narrowed so much? There used to be innocent songs that pre-teens could sing — I can remember a hundred of them: "Green Grow the Rushes-O,"  "Home on the Range,"  any amount of material from Gilbert and Sullivan, Kipling, and Burns. Now there is nothing sung between Verdi and Britney Spears; no topics for anyone of any age but sex and death.

Ms. Spears had been in the newspapers that very morning, as it happened. At the MTV Music Video Awards two nights before, 18-year-old Britney had taken off everything but a few strategic spangles and performed the kind of dance for which lonely men in soiled raincoats used to pay extravagant door charges to ill-lit basement clubs. If I were to tell you that I switched the thing off in disgust I should be guilty of a falsehood; but I am awfully glad my daughter Nellie, aged seven and a half (whose contribution to the talent show — did I mention? — was a faultless and expressive performance of Dvorak's "Humoresque" on violin) didn't see it. Yet she already knows some Britney lyrics. They all do, pre-teens and pre-pre-teens. It's like the smell of kerosene: it seeps in everywhere. You can't keep it out. As parents say with a sigh, when you bring this up: It's the culture.

The culture came up several more times in the next few days. The following Tuesday the FTC released its report on the marketing of violence in the media. Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee was holding hearings on the issue. Lynne Cheney showed up to urge show business to police itself, and to quote some lyrics from hip-hop star Eminem, who had won the award for Best Male Artist at the MTV bash. One of Eminem's songs expresses the satisfaction a man feels at having raped and murdered his mother. Joe Lieberman went further before the committee, urging the FTC to step in and regulate media companies who would not tone down their products. Al Gore, on his way from one showbiz fund-raiser (Cher, Luther Vandross, Sister Sledge: $800,000) to another (Paul Simon, k.d. lang, Jon Bon Jovi: $6.5 million) agreed.

What to make of all this? So far as public policy is concerned, there are three possible positions, identified here by those who take them.

I imagine most readers of this magazine would take their stand with Mrs. Cheney. I greatly admire the lady myself, and in fact believe that she should get the Congressional Medal of Honor for her war against PC in our schools. However, if my neighbors are representative of the larger American public, as I think they probably are, then Mrs. Cheney's program is on a hiding to nothing. We must therefore choose between the first of the above alternatives and the third. Can there be any doubt which poses the greater threat to our ancient liberties?

What we are talking about here, of course, is sex and violence. The second of these gives me no trouble. I have never had much patience with the idea that children should be shielded from fictional violence. I would much rather my own children discover The Hunchback of Notre Dame as I did, in the thrilling sado-necrophiliac original, all shot through with cruelty, lust and madness, than via the lame jollity of the Disney version. Here I can appeal to the wisdom of great storytellers from the past, who spared children very little. Even small children: check out the original Cinderella, in which the ugly sisters get their eyes pecked out; or Hans Andersen's Big Claus, who slays his grandmother with an axe and tries to sell the corpse (perhaps this was Eminem's inspiration!) or the slow scalding to death of Brer Wolf in Uncle Remus. Children take this stuff in their stride. They may even, as Bruno Bettelheim argued, be helped by it. Certainly the evidence that exposure to graphic violence causes violent deeds is highly suspect: Shooting the Messenger, a recent report by the anti-censorship Media Coalition (it is available on their web site), persuasively refutes the kiddie-see, kiddie-do arguments.

Sex is more worrisome. As the doting father of little Nellie, who will grow to be a great beauty when we have paid the orthodontist's bills, I naturally spend a lot of time fretting about this. How will the vulgarity, the tastelessness, the lack of restraint in our public entertainment shape her personality and her fate?

September 9th is, as it happens, the precise anniversary of Elvis Presley's first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show 44 years ago. The following January Sullivan had Elvis on for the third time, and it was then that he issued his famous order for the singer to be shown only from the waist up, in order that younger viewers might not be inflamed by the sight of his hip movements. We have travelled an awfully long way from Ed Sullivan to the MTV awards show. What is really surprising, though, is how little harm has been done. It needs some effort of imagination now to recall the alarm that Elvis raised at that time. Frank Sinatra called Elvis's music: "the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear … the martial music of every … delinquent on the face of the earth." This was not just professional jealousy, it was the voice of a very widespread public attitude.

If, in 1956, you had asked any thoughtful American what consequences might follow from the abandonment of all customary restraint in entertainment, and from related phenomena like the attempted normalization of homosexuality, he would probably have said that the Republic could not survive such a transformation. Plainly these good people believed something that was, in fact, untrue: that the stability of society depended on the exclusion, by common consent, of certain things from the sphere of public entertainment, education and display. And contrariwise, the insouciance of my neighbors in the face of our present popular culture is quite sensible. It's the culture — but it doesn't matter; it does no great harm.

To be sure, much mayhem has passed before our eyes since 1956. We have gone through Francis Fukuyama's "great disruption" with all its attendant phenomena: soaring rates of crime, bastardy, divorce and so on. But look, we have come through to the other side at last; and, as Fukuyama points out, the indicators are trending downwards now, to some new plateau of stability, some "re-normalization." And in all that happened, which was cause and which effect? Did Elvis — or Madonna, or Howard Stern — have one-thousandth the effect on our culture that the Pill had, or the automation of production lines, or the rise of an educational meritocracy as the farm system for our elites?

The world changes. As a conservative, I shall conserve what I can; but if I am to keep any influence over my children at all, some measured degree of acceptance, even of fatalism, is called for. There is a price to be paid for liberty, and Eminem, Britney Spears and Harvey Weinstein are the current coin in which that price must be paid. They will not be shamed, and they ought not be banned: for if the guardians of our public virtue can outlaw hip-hop lyrics, you can be sure that "hate speech" will be their next target, and it is all too easy to imagine where that will lead. With the Second Amendment swirling down the plughole even as I type, the survival of the First can no longer be taken for granted.