In May 1995, William J. Bennett, the conservative moralist, and C. DeLores Tucker, who chairs the National Political Congress of Black Women, met with seven senior executives of Time Warner--the world’s largest media company--to complain about rap songs published by the company’s Interscope label. An aide to Bennett read aloud the lyrics to a song by the group Nine Inch Nails (“I’ll make you suck it/Maybe I’ll put a hole in your head/You know, just for the f--- of it”). Tucker expressed her distress at the effects of such misogynist lyrics on some young people, and Bennett reportedly called the executives “the bottom of the heap.” Time Warner subsequently sold its stake in Interscope.
What’s wrong with this campaign? Everything, says Jon Katz, Wired magazine’s media critic. Grown-ups, he argues, are wildly overreacting to the purported perils of youth culture and new media (such as the Internet, where Katz’s Media Rant column appears). “The 1990s,” he says, “are a decade of the Mediaphobe”: a time when cultural alarmists denounce new media, popular culture and the Internet as endangering the young and corroding public morals. Hogwash. He says, “Stay calm. Take a deep breath. This stuff is neither as confusing nor as dangerous as it appears.”
Far from being a threat, the freewheeling wired scene--electronic bulletin boards, chat rooms, the World Wide Web--is the most vibrant element of today’s culture. Far from being passive receptacles for either porn or preachers, children--at least the ones who know their way around a Netscape page--are savvy and independent moral agents, capable of making up their own minds. So, adults, would you please stop hyperventilating and leave your Net-surfing kids alone? It is a promising premise from an author well situated to argue it. But the book is worse than a disappointment. It betrays its own cause.
Never mind that “Virtuous Reality” is loosely organized, repetitive, sometimes sophomoric and trite (“Maybe the thing that would most help the country’s civic life would be for the young to start teaching moral values to their parents”). Never mind that fresh reportage, as opposed to outspoken generalization (“We are unwilling to take responsibility for the ethical and moral value systems within our own homes”) is scant and that the author prefers the epithet to the epee, calling his antagonists “scolds,” “right-wing wackos,” “censor-happy blockheads,” “self-serving blockheads” and, for rhetorical variety, “nitwits and blockheads.” In a polemic, passion is what matters most, and Katz has plenty of that. Maybe too much.
Yes, censorship of the Internet or anything else is a bad idea; yes, violence and social depravity have many causes that are more immediately consequential than rap music; yes, we shouldn’t treat children as morons and set out to sanitize the world on their behalf. Nonetheless: Like it or not, there is a strong moral case against exhortations to kill cops and to rape and mutilate women. There is also a moral case against a culture that blithely countenances, even rewards, such exhortations. Bennett is making that case. Moreover, he is reviving the crucial social distinction between censorship and censoriousness.
In his new book “Slouching Towards Gomorrah,” Robert Bork argues unapologetically for censorship: “Lyrics, motion pictures, television and printed material are candidates.” Bennett, by sharp contrast, is a First Amendment disciple who opposes even the mandatory V-chip (which lets parents black out TV shows they disapprove of). “I don’t want government regulating television,” Bennett said in November. “I think these are matters best left to individuals.”
But to Katz, these guys are all alike, a bunch of bullying bluenoses. He condemns every example of moral criticism that he finds, from Bennett’s “Book of Virtues” (which he finds laughable) to Bob Dole’s criticisms of Hollywood. Now, the moral argument against pop culture may be wrong or overstated, but it needs to be engaged, not evaded. Katz just shrugs and changes the subject.
“Look, I’ll agree with you that some of this stuff is vulgar and offensive,” he says. But if cultural conservatives are so keen on children, why, he demands, are they against welfare and gun control? Attacks on pop culture, he says, “simply help us to buy into the great lie that violence comes from culture rather than from endemic social and economic problems.”
That little “rather than” constitutes a full-body dodge. It sidesteps the whole thrust of the Bennett argument, which is that although the viler elements of pop culture are hardly the whole story, they are an important part of the social mix and in any case are morally degrading whether they contribute to violence or not.
The medium not only is the message, it is the morality. Today’s cyberkids, he says, “can for the first time reach past the suffocating boundaries of social convention, past their elders’ rigid notions of what is good for them.”
Well, that’s reassuring. By the time he gets to page 192, he is declaring that “children have the right to refuse to be force-fed other generations’ values, as in Bennett’s expensive morality tales.” Come again? But he means it. “The need to instruct and protect children is reflexive, visceral, instinctive. All the harder then, to change.” (Emphasis added).
The more Katz tries to be soothing, the more he sounds like the sort of post-'60s libertine who is making millions of suburban parents flee in horror from the cultural left. He begins by telling nervous parents not to blow things out of proportion and ends by telling them that their children need to be liberated from “Bible-waving conservatives, [baby] boomer parents, Chicken Little reporters, censors and intellectuals” whose “definitions of decency and culture don’t work anymore.” This hapless book will win Bill Bennett many friends.