John Leo
Hollywood is still fretting -- quietly, for now -- about Sen. Joseph Lieberman's presence on the Democratic ticket. My favorite quote on this subject comes from Tom Strickler, a Republican and a talent agent in Los Angeles. Although the industry is sour about Lieberman, "the Democrats could have selected Idi Amin as vice president and Hollywood would have welcomed him," Strickler said.

This is probably so. Idi Amin may have killed and eaten a few people here and there. But at least he had the decency not to criticize the entertainment industry. Why can't Lieberman just restrain himself and admire Hollywood, like all good Democrats? After all, showbiz folk raise a lot of money for the party. They expect to be consulted and flattered. And they expect critics of the entertainment industry to be labeled as censors, bluenoses or would-be national nannies.

Normally the Democrats are eager to comply. Tipper Gore was stigmatized this way back in the late 1980s when she objected to the first major wave of degrading, violent and woman-hating song lyrics. She never came close to calling for censorship. All she wanted was a rating system for albums. This was reasonable enough, but Hollywood hostility burned her badly and she dropped the issue, probably so that showbiz money wouldn't dry up for Al Gore's 1988 try for the presidency.

Now Gore has elevated Joe Lieberman, a much stronger critic than Tipper. Lieberman had the courage to join Bill Bennett in bestowing the "Silver Sewer Award" on three major corporate interests with roots in the entertainment industry, Rupert Murdoch, CBS and Seagram's. No, Hollywood is not pleased. So it rolled out the usual rhetoric.

Jim Wiatt, head of the William Morris Agency and one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, made it sound as though Lieberman's criticism of showbiz excesses is a strange personal failing: "Senator Lieberman has been vocal to the point where he needs to tone down his rhetoric and not make this industry the whipping boy for the decline of Western civilization."

Jeff Berg, chairman of International Creative Management, another powerful agency, complained about the vice presidential nominee too. "Some of the things Lieberman has said about lyrics, content and theme are in basic conflict with the creative process," he said. This is probably true too, at least if you define "creative process" as an obsession with smarminess, drugs, graphic violence and misogyny.

In Hollywood, Lieberman plays the same role that the evil Voldemort does in the Harry Potter books. "Senator Joe scares the hell out of people," wrote Peter Bart, editor in chief of Daily Variety.

The Hollywood liberals are way behind the curve here. Polls show nearly half of Americans are deeply concerned about the nation's moral climate and the entertainment industry's role in undermining the character and values of the young. Dick Morris, the party's unofficial nag on strategy and tactics, warns that the Democrats are losing their grip on the social-values issues. Maybe they should hold a fund-raising conference on the subject at the Playboy mansion.

A sign of the times is that as Lieberman was being named, Time Warner's magazine Entertainment Weekly came out with a screaming cover story on the loathsomeness of so much pop culture. "Are There No Limits?" was the magazine's cover headline, followed by another easy-to-answer question in large type: "Filth, Raunch, Violence & Hate Rule Pop Culture -- Has Showbiz Finally Gone Too Far?"

The writer seemed semi-apologetic about offending the gods of the entertainment industry, worrying that "I may be accused of hypocrisy or moralistic finger-wagging" or that her prose "makes me sound like Bill Bennett." Still, the indictment was on the mark: The industry is giving free rein to "homophobes, racists, misogynists and common potty mouths ... smirking all the way to the bank." The urge to undermine all norms and outrage everybody in sight may seem liberating, yet the "taboo against taboos amuses us in the short run but deadens us in the long."

The current focus of the "anything goes" ethic is the gross white rapper Eminem, who has sold 5 million copies of a new album celebrating rape, drugs, murder, and hatred of women and homosexuals. Sick and twisted rap music is an old story. What's new about the Eminem album, said Entertainment Weekly, is "the sudden ease and enthusiasm with which a mainstream of teens and preteens is absorbing its corrosive vision." The young buyers often try to explain: Nobody pays attention to the words; over-the-top violations of political correctness are kind of exciting; it's not cool to attack a hot singer on moral grounds; besides, he's talented, and that's all that matters.

Still, teen-agers are dancing to songs about rape, torture and the butchering of women. Hate and violent emotions are being mainstreamed for profit by morally bankrupt moguls, many of them easily identifiable as heavy Democratic contributors. Their companies include MTV, which has relentlessly promoted Eminem; Seagram's; and the lowest of the bottom-feeding record companies, Interscope.

Lieberman is being forced to abandon all the brave positions that brought him to national attention, so expect him to back down from his assaults on companies that specialize in cultural pollution. But his criticism so far has been strong and telling, and you can see why he makes the polluters so nervous.


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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