Jewish World Review August 26, 1999 /14 Elul, 5759
Back in the '80s, the heyday of muscular conservatism, when the Cold War still offered the contrast between left-wing totalitarianism and the free world, we contrasted ourselves proudly with the left by proclaiming our dedication to freedom above all else.
But there was always a small voice in the back of our minds whispering that freedom cannot be an end in itself. Freedom is precious, worth dying for, we believe. But it is possible for freedom to become a fetish. The founders of this country were lovers of liberty, but they did not place liberty at the apex of desirables. That spot was saved for virtue.
And the founders would have been amazed, it is safe to say, to see their documents interpreted as license for the sort of degrading, conscience-killing, soul-destroying stuff with which we regularly entertain ourselves.
The founders sought to establish a virtuous republic, free of the vices, competitions and decadence of Europe. Whether they achieved it or not is a matter of debate (nothing human is ever perfect), but it does seem odd to find ourselves at the end of the millennium, so keen to protect our physical health and so fastidious about shielding our children from every imaginable physical danger, yet so unwilling even to consider measures that would protect all of us from moral degeneracy.
Professor David Lowenthal of Boston College has bravely made the case for censoring the mass media in the Aug. 23 issue of The Weekly Standard. He begins by noting that many leading citizens -- among them Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell, William Bennett, Elie Wiesel, Mario Cuomo and Norman Schwarzkopf -- have leant their names to an "Appeal to Hollywood," asking the purveyors of entertainment voluntarily to refrain from peddling excessively lewd or violent films, television and music.
Steve Allen, the former host of "The Tonight Show" and one of the more intelligent and humane popular entertainers, has organized a group called the Parents Television Council, which hopes to shame Hollywood into some semblance of public spiritedness.
But these efforts, at least so far, have been shrugged off. The time for pleas, Lowenthal argues, is past. "Never before in the history of mankind," he writes, "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." It's time for threats. And the only credible threat is that of state and federal legislation.
Legislation? Is that constitutional? Most lawyers and scholars would probably argue that it isn't. But if they're right, the United States limped through three quarters of its history enforcing unconstitutional laws, because it wasn't until the 1950s that the Supreme Court began to find that only explicit pornography could be legally censored -- and even that is no longer enforced, in keeping with the spirit of the age.
Bill Bennett, Irving Kristol, Terry Eastland and Jeremy Rabkin, invited by the editors of The Weekly Standard to respond to Lowenthal's essay, express varying degrees of skepticism. Kristol, who has long advocated censorship, and Bennett, who hasn't, agree that the idea is impossible, because it would be met with "overwhelming and savage institutional hostility."
Eastland agrees that self-government cannot succeed without a certain degree of virtue in the people. For 150 years, we passed laws consistent with this insight. For the past 50 or so, we've elevated individual rights above virtue, with baleful consequences. But he doubts censorship can succeed in the absence of public consensus, and Rabkin worries that boards of censors would be certain to include crazy left-wingers as well as concerned conservatives.
It is a vexed question. But in the face of daily headlines that make
even patriotic Americans occasionally consider emigration, the
question of censorship cannot be off the