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Jewish World Review April 23, 2001 / 30 Nissan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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YAHOO! Decency makes a comeback -- HAVE you noticed? Decency has become an obscene word among our cultural pacesetters. New York's mayor proposes to appoint a decency commission to avoid future spectacles like obscene works of "art'' being displayed at public expense, and the knowing snicker.

Vulgarity is no longer something to be avoided; it is the art we show, the sitcoms we watch, the radio we listen to, the rap we hear, the air we breathe, the trash we talk, and soon enough the thoughts we think.

The other night I tuned in to find out how our minor-league ball club here in Little Rock, the Arkansas Travelers, were doing when an amusing commercial for a popular beer suddenly turned off-color. Right here in River City. I wondered if anybody else would notice, let alone object.

In a curious reversal of class structure, it is not our elites -- once the refuge of the fine arts and high culture, if those terms still have any meaning -- who object to the vulgarization of American life. On the contrary, they are leading it. See the latest exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art, or just take a look at the heroin-chic ads in our glossier magazines.

It's been called the proletarianization of the culture, but that's an insult to the proles. Ibn Khaldun, the great historian of the Arabs, may have been the first to note centuries ago how civilizations take root, grow decadent and are then swamped by the barbarians who conquer them. But today's barbarians are within. These barbarians R us, and, saddest phenomenon of all, we may no longer notice, let alone object.

Even now, those of us who remember that arts and entertainment weren't always so base, and may even object on occasion to the routine vulgarity of daily American life, can feel like King Canute ordering the waves to stop. There may be no stopping this whole, muddy process till it has run its course. But the least we can do is notice the silt it leaves behind. And object. Loudly.

The other day, the MSNBC Web page carried an almost routine item noting that Yahoo!, the Internet provider, is now selling hard-core pornography. (''Yahoo! gets into the porn business/Portal starts selling adult videos online'' -- MSNBC) Ho hum. Just another item in the business news.

But this was a major player in the new, Internetted economy -- a company whose Web pages are seen by some 185 million people a month. And its online store was offering thousands of hard-core videos and DVDs -- and had been doing so, a spokesman said, "for more than two years.'' The implication was clear: This had been going on for two years, so why the fuss now? This wasn't news, it was just the (a)moral climate of our time.

But wasn't there a time when pornography was sold only by shadowy, nameless little people who preyed on other, sad little people? Wasn't there a time when it would have been unthinkable, or at least Not Done, for a publicly held corporation to trade in porno?

Wasn't there a time when such a company's officers, directors, investors and advertisers (who probably provide 90 percent of Yahoo!'s revenues) would have been ashamed? Or at least concerned about what the public might think?

Because you can tell where a society is headed by the level of its public discourse, or even private conversation. There was a time when many Americans were, if not shocked, then deeply disappointed by the obscenity-laced language a president of the United States used on the Watergate tapes. Because we understood that it reflected the inner man. We understood, even if we didn't spell out all the implications, that the way we speak and think shapes how we act, and how the next generation will speak, act and think -- or just grunt.

Some of us still understand that entertainment isn't just entertainment; it's a model and reflection of ourselves. Maybe a lot of us do. Because after this story hit the news and people started to complain, Yahoo! changed its policy. It stopped making excuses and cleaned up its act.

Last week, Yahoo! announced that it was going to drop all pornographic products from its Web pages -- auctions, shopping, classifieds, all of them. And it would stop accepting the banner advertisements it has run for that kind of thing.

Why? To quote Jeff Mallett, its president and chief operating officer, "We consistently strive to act responsibly and constantly evaluate our policies based on what our users tell us.'' And Yahoo! got told.

Yes, this seamy tide can be turned. If enough of us speak out.

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