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Jewish World Review Aug. 30, 1999

Tony Snow

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Cultural conservatism despairs not of culture, but humanity -- IN A RECENT ISSUE of The Weekly Standard, Boston College Professor David Lowenthal offered a hilarious proposal for censoring the mass media. He proposed convening a board of Worthy Citizens to ban anything that might incite violence or spread obscenity, so as to pluck us from the quicksand of savagery.

This is a drastic prescription, but the professor believes we live in profound spiritual peril. He looks at television and sees salacious dreck. He glances toward Hollywood and spies an industry "enamored of its profits and its artistic pretensions." He peeks into his computer screen only to find an "unequaled global showcase for pornography."

He declares that "the mass media are the prime educational force in the country; that their effect is, by and large, pernicious, running counter to the education of the young in schools, churches and synagogues, and to the qualities required of mature citizens in a civilized Republic." He adds that "never before in the history of mankind have the moral restraints and aspirations necessary to the fullness of our nature, and to civilization itself, been subjected to so ubiquitous and persistent an assault."

At this point, one is tempted to interrupt, "Um, what about Kristallnacht or the Nuremburg Rally?" But he has become spellbound by his own terror.

Tellingly, Lowenthal manages to be specific about only one thing -- naughty body parts. He doesnít want people seeing them or using them strictly for public display. He spends the bulk of his article caviling with the Supreme Court for restricting the governmentís right to ban bawdy Bacchanalia. He never provides a standard for distinguishing acceptable and unacceptable violence.

The article provides a glistening example of how to proceed from an unobjectionable premise to a dopey conclusion. The scholar is right to note that the electronic media -- of which I am a part -- disseminate a lot of slop. Moreover, Americans no longer possess a national culture because Leftish elites have destroyed its religious and traditional underpinnings.

But most of us are getting wise to all that. We have figured out that the Woodstock Generation was an inadequate substitute for G-d on the mountaintop. The Children of the Sixties gave us the welfare state, political correctness, quota-based segregationism, free love and a moral numbness that permits feminists to say "So what?" to a rape allegation against a president.

In retrospect, the nationís postwar "liberation" movements seem hopelessly shallow. Even art-house porn has lost its cachet. "Eyes Wide Shut" flopped because nobody wanted to pay 10 bucks to see Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman create the Beast With Two Backs.

As for moral desuetude, one sees signs of religious revival everywhere. "Touched By An Angel" is a top-10 TV show. Clinton Fatigue betokens our growing intolerance for unapologetic lawlessness. Crime rates have tumbled. Scholastic achievement scores have edged higher. And parents increasingly seem eager to make children -- not careers -- the centerpiece of their lives.

If Lowenthal really wants to revive a society suffocating in its own decadence, he ought to ixnay with the moral exhibitionism and get in the entertainment biz. That, after all, is where you win converts.

C. S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton wrote dazzling odes to Christianity, but they appealed to youngsters by penning "The Chronicles of Narnia" and the Father Brown mysteries, respectively. The very serious T. S. Eliot wrote kiddie poetry and Bill Bennett made a respectable fortune repackaging the edifying wisdom of others.

The problem with cultural conservatism is that it despairs not of culture, but humanity. Its votaries consider us all a bunch of suggestible imbeciles, and they view capitalism as a scam for turning cupidity into a profit center.

As it turns out, though, people are pretty reasonable. Parents care about their children and youngsters retain a vestigial interest in growing up sane and whole. This explains why creative souls are making millions promoting virtue and belittling sin. Even the Backstreet Boys croon about the glory of G-d.

Weíre not in danger of "an accelerating descent into barbarism and the destruction, sooner or later, of free society itself." Just the opposite. Censorship merely would bollix things up by inviting censors to abuse power and everyone else to become dependent and lazy.

Chesterton once wrote that the greatest challenge facing society is to agree not on what is wrong, but what is right. That task requires not the glowering ministrations of the censor, but the imaginative genius of the artist.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate