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Jewish World Review June 1, 1999 /17 Sivan 5759

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Ben Wattenberg


Must we still subsidize 'cultural pollution'?

( AFTER LITTLETON and, now, Conyers, willingness to take on Hollywood has become the test of seriousness and political manhood for liberals. Likewise, standing up to the gun lobby has become the test of seriousness and political manhood for conservatives.

But while the NRA and Tinseltown are taking it on the chin, one vast and mighty bloc of voters has been let off the hook: all the soccer moms and Dockers dads raising this generation's children.

If there is a useful symbol of a larger social failure in the Littleton massacre, it is a symbol of parental dereliction: Eric Harris' parents apparently did not realize that Eric and Dylan were making pipe bombs in the garage on their play dates.

Critics have labeled the aestheticized violence and chic nihilism found in today's youth-oriented mass entertainment "cultural pollution." In the spirit of the metaphor, they would regulate or punish the "polluters": stricter enforcement of R ratings at theaters and video stores, restrictions on violent advertising imagery, and voluntary restraints on content by the entertainment industry. Newt Gingrich even called for exposing movie and video-game makers to liability lawsuits.

But while exposure to violence in large concentrations may become "toxic" over time, the pollution metaphor is an evasion. It implies that just as parents are by themselves helpless to prevent the exposure of their children to air or water pollution, so too they are helpless to limit their children's contact with entertainment violence. But are they?

Unlike pollution, exposure to violent entertainment is voluntary. Indeed, consumers pay for the privilege of contamination by "cultural pollution."

And since the vast majority of teens remain partly or wholly financially dependent on their parents, parents are directly or indirectly, tacitly or otherwise, subsidizing "cultural pollution."

Of course, policing the viewing and listening of defiant and resourceful teens is not easy. And technological progress is not helping. It never has.

Technology has been the ally of teen independence at least since the mass production of automobiles after World War I gave them the mobility to escape the supervision of parents and neighbors. The appearance of transistor radios and portable record players after World War II aided the rise of an independent youth market (read: rock and roll) in music. And, of course, the sizzling post-war economies of the '20s and '50s gave teens more money and consumer clout.

Today, the cultural circuits continue to multiply. More movie theaters, more television channels, cheaper consumer electronics and, of course, the Internet have all done their part in enhancing the cultural autonomy of teen-agers.

At the same time, with the rise of the two-earner couple, parents spend less time at home and, inevitably, less time monitoring the movies, music, concerts and games their kids are spending their money on. But, under the law, parents retain virtually unchecked authority within the home to monitor and control how their children spend their money and time -- if they choose to exercise it.

Advertisers and retailers salivate at the size and consumer clout of the 60 million Americans known as Generation Y: They know that today's children and adolescents have far more money and spending autonomy than their predecessors. Maybe they have too much of both.

Maybe parents need to retake the purse strings. They could cut or condition allowance money for starters: demand receipts, demand more work around the house or more schoolwork in exchange for money.

Are today's baby-boom parents up to the task? Maybe not. The anti-authoritarian, non-conformist ideals of their own youths still exercise a powerful hold over them. Fear of exposure as authoritarian squares haunts many of today's boomer parents, a fear revealed in the horrified exclamation familiar from a thousand bad boomer sitcoms and personal essays: "I'm turning into my mother/father!"

Shy of establishing the authority and discipline that might instill respect and, yes, a bit of salutary fear in their children, they often resort instead to a strategy of friendly, egalitarian complicity with them. To exercise the influence of an adult, they are forced to assume the guise of a somewhat older, somewhat more worldly peer.

The easiest way for busy working parents to obtain this pseudo-complicity is to buy it -- with a broad-minded tolerance of their kids' cultural tastes and plenty of money to underwrite them. In thus pandering to their children, busy dual-income parents may also allay their own feelings of self-guilt for spending so much time on the job and so little at home.

Show me a country of aggressive kids, and I will show you a country of passive parents.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank."


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04/13/99: Hollywood is sharing the spotlight
04/05/99: Lessons of Vietnam, and Serbia
03/26/99: Politics as dog food
03/19/99: Bush-whacked Bush-whackers
03/08/99: Axioms for good politicians
02/26/99: L.A., D.C. try to get back to the past
02/23/99: The sprawl brawl
02/11/99: Celebrated lives writ short
01/28/99: Who's afraid of the Euro?
01/25/99: The Vast Right-wing conspiracy and Danny Williams: The last word (hopefully)
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12/31/98: Predictions? I don't think so
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9/09/98: Draft Joe Lieberman!
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8/28/98: McGwire. Maris. Ruth. Clinton.
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©1999, Creators Syndicate