Politics and morality: the not-so-strange bedfello

Posted: Sep 12, 2000 12:00 AM
Just a tad polite, aren't you, Gov. Bush -- imputing to Al Gore only a certain tardiness in blasting the corruptions of modern 'entertainment''? Gore has the words down all right, regarding the new Federal Trade Commission report taking to task the entertainment industry for targeting teenagers as prime customers for violent videos, movies and recordings. "We believe,'' says the vice president, 'that this is a serious matter for our country, and we are delivering to the industry a six-month deadline to adopt voluntary standards and real enforcement mechanisms (and), if they do not clean up their act, we are prepared to support tougher measures to hold the industry accountable.'' A good thing the vice president isn't going back to Los Angeles right now to shake down Barbara Streisand and Michael Douglas for campaign contributions. Whereas the Democrats' assault on tobacco manufacturers has been unremitting, few Democrats indeed -- the shining exception being Joseph Lieberman -- have said much about the slime and dirt and, you should pardon the expression, gore that practically define modern entertainment. Two reasons for this seem apparent: First, the aforementioned need to avoid stepping on the bunions of big contributors, and second, politics' marginal relationship to the whole problem. To tell you the truth, if we pulled a resurrection up at Plymouth, Vt., installing the no-longer-late Calvin Coolidge in his old White House office, the situation at large would not change materially. Our culture would continue to differ sharply from that over which Coolidge presided at a discreet distance. Come to think of it, the culture then, at the height of the Jazz Age, provoked frowns and warnings. As one evidence of the "revolution in manners and morals,'' Frederick Lewis Allen, in Only Yesterday, noted how the 'bumper crop of sex magazines, confession magazines and lurid motion pictures'' were blamed for infecting 'a class of readers and movie-goers who had never heard and never would hear of Freud and the libido.'' Well, whatever it was like back then, it's raunchier now, as entertainment purveyors (according to the FTC) "routinely target children under 17 in their marketing of products their own ratings systems deem inappropriate or warrant parental caution due to violent content.'' Which you agree, and I agree, they shouldn't do. How much clout the government has in these affairs is another matter. Gore provocatively waves in the air the heavy, nail-studded club of regulation -- knowing doubtless that regulation of ideas and expression is hard to pull off. Besides, when you've cleaned up the video games, what about plug-uglies like Howard Stern and Jerry Springer? (The latter's show, the evening I watched it in a hotel room, suggested the last days of Rome). Gore may already have aimed his most telling punch in the moral olympics -- hooking up with Lieberman, who long ago on this subject brought money and mouth into proximate relationship. Joe, in other words, along with Book of Virtues Republican William Bennett, told the entertainment moguls to lay off the bad, corruptive things they were doing -- which is more than Joe's running mate ever told them. A visceral feel for moral questions, and their centrality to human concerns, makes Lieberman -- Man of Faith, as the media bill him -- the most interesting of all Democrats (despite repeated coat-turnings on issues like school vouchers.) His Jewishness earns him exemption from such reproaches as the enlightened would hurl at Bush if he hummed "Jesus Loves Me'' at the water cooler. Lieberman and Bush are alike in this much: They share, as did our country's founders, the understanding that religion precedes politics in priority. The meaning of this precedence is for the religious themselves to hammer out. The two candidates would likely say that in a nation whose theological priorities are in order, you don't find government regulatory bodies reporting on commercial efforts to corrupt the young. This, because the nation itself, committed to the vital distinction between humans and pigs, would have rendered such efforts unnecessary. Who says this is a dull campaign? (I hadn't heard that, but you might have.) We're coming at Truth from odd angles, examining -- often without knowing we examine -- things that may previously have been obscure. Forget the oddness. It's the discovery, the examination, that count.