As the fall television season arrives, laden with cutesy-wutesy family sitcoms and another round of ER rip-offs, I'd like to take a moment to celebrate another year of successful censorship.
"Censorship? Where? Kill it!" I can almost hear all of the lovers of liberty out there screaming.
Well, before you run home and get your votive candles for your all-night vigil in protest against the most hated of government actions, let me point out that we live with censorship every day. One of the reasons you don't see Triple-X hardcore pornography on NBC's "Must See TV" is that our government doesn't permit it. Another reason we don't see it, obviously, is that NBC is making a sound business decision. "This special encore presentation of `On Golden Blonde' is brought to you by Gerbers" wouldn't fly with sponsors or viewers.
But there's no disputing that if our friendly government censors (also known as Federal Communications Commission regulators) weren't doing their jobs, some network -Fox perhaps, or maybe WB? -would start testing the waters with porn of some kind. And one reason -perhaps the main reason -they don't is that it would be illegal.
In fact, our censorship laws work so well we rarely have to enforce them because the culture has simply accepted them as social norms, not legal barriers.
Our television networks and newspapers self-censor abhorrent images and repugnant ideas
to the extent that it is rare that these laws are ever even tested. For example, not even the entertainment "news" shows like "Access Hollywood" ran the raunchy bits from the Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee porn tape -in part because our censorship laws shaped the culture of the networks.
Now, I bring this up for the simple reason that pretty much everybody who pounds on the table about how much they hate censorship benefits from it every day. Whenever I speak at college campuses and I mention that I'm in favor of censorship, the gasp from the audience -from liberals and conservatives alike -is not merely audible, it nearly sucks the oxygen out of the room. Censorship! Being in favor of that is like being in favor of puppy torture!
And that's why all of the people who love censorship insist on calling it something else. Even the nuts who believe in speech codes and anti-hate-crime laws or who defend the burning of conservative newspapers on college campuses always insist they don't believe in censorship -and that's a lie.
City councils don't call it censorship when they prohibit strip clubs from operating next to grade schools, but calling it zoning doesn't make it any less censorial. John Ashcroft, who is doing invaluable work closing down child pornography rings on the Internet would, I'm sure, loudly object if you said he was in favor of censorship in part because any politician in America who said such a thing would be turned into public enemy No. 1 overnight.
And therein lies my objection. The public "debate" over censorship is horribly distorted by the myth that censorship is by definition wrong. It's not. It's a tool used by governments and communities to protect, among other things, the good character of the society we live in. Censorship can be good or bad depending on what and why something is being prohibited, in the same way that police can be good or bad depending on what they are policing.
If a cop busts down your door and arrests you for your political views, then his policing is tyrannical and unjust. But if a cop busts down your door and arrests you because you're a murderer, then his policing is good and just. The same holds true with censorship, it is an entirely value-neutral and legitimate government power that is only bad when it is abused.
I don't want to ban books or muzzle stupid academics, but I think we could probably use more, and should certainly allow more, censorship at the local level. As a matter of common sense, I think it's absurd to say that art can make you a better person but that it's impossible for it to make you a worse person. But it's nearly impossible to make those sorts of arguments without people dropping their jaws in horror and tuning you out the moment you use the dreaded "c" word, because they've bought into the myth that there is no censorship today.
So, for now, all I ask is that the next time you turn on your TV (especially if your kid is in the room) take a moment to ask yourself how much worse it might be without the c-word and remember your gratitude the next time you're tempted to rail against the evils of censorship.