In 1996, Milos Forman directed "The People vs. Larry Flynt," the propagandistic film that made a "First Amendment hero" out of the publisher of Hustler, a racist and filthy porn magazine. Frank Rich of the New York Times dubbed it "the most timely and patriotic movie of the year."
Even if you've never seen the movie (or read Hanna Rosin's contemporaneous debunking of it in the New Republic), it's easy to guess why the film was a favorite of people like Rich. It whitewashed Flynt while demonizing conservatives as religious prudes.
Before it was screened in Washington, James Carville -- who played a Comstockian scold in the movie -- said in a speech introducing the film, "Milos Forman lost his parents in the Holocaust." And then he pressed the point home: "The first thing a totalitarian state goes after is pornography, and when they do, the public applauds. It gets worse from there."
This is the sort of statement that is so stupid it almost sounds smart. Cracking down on porn was hardly the first priority of the Nazis or Soviets. More important, if a state is already totalitarian, it has already "gone after" the things that really matter -- like liberty. Banning "On Golden Blonde" is an afterthought.
Now, I'm not in favor of a federal ban on porn (though it's fine with me at the state or local level). But the notion that smut is the canary in the coal mine of our liberties is a profoundly asinine and dangerous myth, and it may be costing us the things that really matter.
The argument from supposedly liberty-loving liberals goes like this: We protect "extreme" and unpopular speech because if that is safe, they'll never get to our core liberties. If they can ban trash, argue the slippery-slopers, what's to stop them from banning criticism of politicians?
One problem: While Frank Rich et al. are preening on their soapboxes for making filth as American as apple pie, the government, under Republican and Democratic presidents alike, has been banning criticism of politicians.
Just last week, the Obama administration argued before the Supreme Court that it has no principled constitutional problem with banning books.
The case before the court, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, involves a documentary-style film, "Hillary: The Movie," that ran afoul of campaign finance laws designed to censor so-called stealth ads as well as electioneering paid for by corporations or unions.
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