Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2000 / 13 Elul, 5760
My English teacher wanted to flunk me in junior high
Thanks a lot, next semester I'll be thirty-five
I smacked him in his face with an eraser, chased him with a stapler
and stapled his n--- to a stack of papers (Owwwwwwww!)
Eminem, the rapper from whose hit "My Name Is" the above lyrics come, cannot serenely savor his triumph at the MTV Video Music Awards now that the Senate Commerce Committee is turning its disapproving glare upon the culture. Vice President Al Gore, too, is dismayed. He tells the New York Times ("his voice rising," says the Times) that "I am going to do something about this." So the culture is going to be fixed by the very connoisseurs who have vetted and confirmed all the federal judges who have done so much to ratify the premises of today's popular culture, and to make resistance to it difficult--in fact, often unconstitutional.
The Commerce Committee (its witnesses including Joseph Lieberman, who knows the importance of being earnest) called a hearing occasioned by a Federal Trade Commission report condemning the marketing of violent entertainment to children. But it would be better for the Judiciary Committee to consider its contribution, through liberal judges, to cultural decadence. And conservatives, too, should have uneasy consciences.
Light is shed on all this by two papers recently delivered here at the American Political Science Association by Christopher Wolfe of Marquette University and Harry Clor of Kenyon College.
Public morality, says Wolfe, concerns laws and public actions that, by reducing the incidence of certain acts and affirming certain values, shape the conduct, hence the habits, hence the character of citizens, hence society's moral ecology. By denying First Amendment protection to obscenity, but defining obscenity in a way that makes it a category with virtually nothing in it, and making pornography protected "expression" perhaps important to an autonomous individual's flowering ("one man's vulgarity is another's lyric," said the Supreme Court), the courts disarmed communities' attempts to define public morality.
By inventing a privacy right to be a scythe for mowing down virtually all restrictions on abortion and sexual activity, and especially in making abortion and contraception rights superior to parental rights, the courts further made radical personal autonomy--"choice"--trump the very notion of public standards of propriety. By cleansing the public square of religious expression (school prayer, creches on public property, etc.) the courts undermined a traditional source of public morality.
Granted, judges may generally be, as Wolfe says, "less causes than conduits" of culture shaped by academic and media elites. However, court opinions have educative effects. And as Clor says, much besides jurisprudence is destroying what until relatively recently was a countervailing morality of self-restraint that moderated libertarian impulses.
The rationale for public morality, writes Clor, is that humans have powerful irrational or unsocial inclinations, the moderating of which is a precondition for self-control and civility--indeed, for civilization. And conservatives should face the fact that the customs and traditions that sustain good character are undermined by more than just legal protections of depersonalized sexuality and eroticized violence.
American conservatism's dominant strand shares modern liberalism's celebration of radical autonomy. Society, such conservatism says, is an aggregation of self-interested individuals choosing to associate not for the purpose of acquiring virtue, character and culture but for liberty and property--security and prosperity. The mass consumption society that is capitalism's crowning success has, Clor believes, a "privatizing" and "community-weakening dynamic." By encouraging people to act as radically autonomous bundles of appetites, it undermines self-control and moderation as much as does the dispensing of condoms to eighth-graders. Furthermore, "the celebrated 'non-judgmentalism' of contemporary America is at least partly a phenomenon of bourgeois complacency rooted in a plenitude of bourgeois satisfactions."
Gore, with the myopia of a government lifer, would combat this cultural tsunami with--seriously--new rules about advertising directed at children. We will know he and his running mate (and their Republican rivals, for that matter) are truly serious when they acknowledge the consequences of some ideas.
The ideas of liberal jurisprudence, and the idea that "choice" is the essence of human dignity, and the idea that the very concept of
public morality threatens the respect owed equally to all freely chosen "lifestyles," and the idea that Americans are united only by
the belief that no public morality unites them, and the idea of conservative "nonjudgmentalism" that makes a fetish of consumer
sovereignty--all these have helped make America safe and extremely profitable for the likes of
09/12/00: Colombia Illusions