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Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2000 / 13 Elul, 5760

George Will

George Will
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Consumer Reports

When 'Choice' Rules -- Got p----- off and ripped Pamela Lee's ---- off . . .

My English teacher wanted to flunk me in junior high

Thanks a lot, next semester I'll be thirty-five

I smacked him in his face with an eraser, chased him with a stapler

and stapled his n--- to a stack of papers (Owwwwwwww!)


Eminem, the rapper from whose hit "My Name Is" the above lyrics come, cannot serenely savor his triumph at the MTV Video Music Awards now that the Senate Commerce Committee is turning its disapproving glare upon the culture. Vice President Al Gore, too, is dismayed. He tells the New York Times ("his voice rising," says the Times) that "I am going to do something about this." So the culture is going to be fixed by the very connoisseurs who have vetted and confirmed all the federal judges who have done so much to ratify the premises of today's popular culture, and to make resistance to it difficult--in fact, often unconstitutional.

The Commerce Committee (its witnesses including Joseph Lieberman, who knows the importance of being earnest) called a hearing occasioned by a Federal Trade Commission report condemning the marketing of violent entertainment to children. But it would be better for the Judiciary Committee to consider its contribution, through liberal judges, to cultural decadence. And conservatives, too, should have uneasy consciences.

Light is shed on all this by two papers recently delivered here at the American Political Science Association by Christopher Wolfe of Marquette University and Harry Clor of Kenyon College.

Public morality, says Wolfe, concerns laws and public actions that, by reducing the incidence of certain acts and affirming certain values, shape the conduct, hence the habits, hence the character of citizens, hence society's moral ecology. By denying First Amendment protection to obscenity, but defining obscenity in a way that makes it a category with virtually nothing in it, and making pornography protected "expression" perhaps important to an autonomous individual's flowering ("one man's vulgarity is another's lyric," said the Supreme Court), the courts disarmed communities' attempts to define public morality.

By inventing a privacy right to be a scythe for mowing down virtually all restrictions on abortion and sexual activity, and especially in making abortion and contraception rights superior to parental rights, the courts further made radical personal autonomy--"choice"--trump the very notion of public standards of propriety. By cleansing the public square of religious expression (school prayer, creches on public property, etc.) the courts undermined a traditional source of public morality.

Granted, judges may generally be, as Wolfe says, "less causes than conduits" of culture shaped by academic and media elites. However, court opinions have educative effects. And as Clor says, much besides jurisprudence is destroying what until relatively recently was a countervailing morality of self-restraint that moderated libertarian impulses.

The rationale for public morality, writes Clor, is that humans have powerful irrational or unsocial inclinations, the moderating of which is a precondition for self-control and civility--indeed, for civilization. And conservatives should face the fact that the customs and traditions that sustain good character are undermined by more than just legal protections of depersonalized sexuality and eroticized violence.

American conservatism's dominant strand shares modern liberalism's celebration of radical autonomy. Society, such conservatism says, is an aggregation of self-interested individuals choosing to associate not for the purpose of acquiring virtue, character and culture but for liberty and property--security and prosperity. The mass consumption society that is capitalism's crowning success has, Clor believes, a "privatizing" and "community-weakening dynamic." By encouraging people to act as radically autonomous bundles of appetites, it undermines self-control and moderation as much as does the dispensing of condoms to eighth-graders. Furthermore, "the celebrated 'non-judgmentalism' of contemporary America is at least partly a phenomenon of bourgeois complacency rooted in a plenitude of bourgeois satisfactions."

Gore, with the myopia of a government lifer, would combat this cultural tsunami with--seriously--new rules about advertising directed at children. We will know he and his running mate (and their Republican rivals, for that matter) are truly serious when they acknowledge the consequences of some ideas.

The ideas of liberal jurisprudence, and the idea that "choice" is the essence of human dignity, and the idea that the very concept of public morality threatens the respect owed equally to all freely chosen "lifestyles," and the idea that Americans are united only by the belief that no public morality unites them, and the idea of conservative "nonjudgmentalism" that makes a fetish of consumer sovereignty--all these have helped make America safe and extremely profitable for the likes of Eminem.

Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.


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09/08/00: Will He Spend It All?
09/04/00: Back in the U.S.S.R.
08/31/00: Stonewalling School Reform
08/28/00: Uphill for a California Republican
08/24/00: Sauerkraut Ice Cream
08/21/00: The Partial-Birth Censors
08/18/00: A Party to Prosperity
08/14/00: The National Scold on the Stump
08/10/00: The Thinking Person's Choice
08/07/00: The GOP of Powell And Rice
08/03/00: Panic in the Gore Camp
07/27/00: . . . Both Radical and Reassuring
07/06/00: Harry Potter: A Wizard's Return
07/03/00: Recalling the Revolution
06/29/00: An Act of Judicial Infamy
06/26/00: Life, Liberty and ... the Pursuit of Foxes
06/21/00: Fumble on Prayer
06/19/00: The unified field theory of culture
06/15/00: Schools Beset by Lawyers And Shrinks
06/12/00: Missile Defense Charade
06/07/00: The Grandparent Dissent
06/05/00: Liberal Condescension
06/01/00: Great Awakenings
05/30/00: Suddenly Social Security
05/25/00: Forget Values, Let's Talk Virtues
05/22/00: AlGore the Hysteric
05/15/00: Majestic Avenue
05/11/00: Just How Irrational Is the Exuberance?
05/08/00: Home-Run Glut
05/04/00: A Lesson Plan for Gore
05/01/00: The Hijacking of the Primaries
04/28/00: The Raid in Little Havana
04/24/00: Tinkering Again
04/17/00: A Judgment Against Hate
04/13/00: Tech- Stock Joy Ride
04/10/00: What the bobos are buying
04/06/00: A must-read horror book
04/03/00: 'Improving' the Bill of Rights
03/30/00: Sleaze, The Sequel
03/27/00: How new 'rights' will destroy freedom
03/23/00: Death and the Liveliest Writing
03/20/00: Powell is Dubyah's best bet
03/16/00: Free to Be Politically Intense
03/13/00: Runnin', Gunnin' and Gambling
03/09/00: And Now Back to Republican Business
03/06/00: As the Clock Runs Out on Bradley
03/02/00: Island of Equal Protection
02/28/00: . . . The Right Response
02/24/00: Federal Swelling
02/22/00: Greenspan Tweaks
02/17/00: Crucial Carolina (and Montana and . . .)
02/10/00: McCain's Distortions
02/10/00: The Disciplining of Austria
02/07/00: Free to Speak, Free to Give
02/02/00: Conservatives in a Changing Market
01/31/00: America's true unity day
01/27/00: For the Voter Who Can't Be Bothered
01/25/00: The FBI and the golden age of child pornography
01/20/00: Scruples and Science
01/18/00: Bradley: Better for What Ails Us
01/13/00: O'Brian Rules the Waves
01/10/00: Patron of the boom
01/06/00: In Cactus Jack's Footsteps
01/03/00: The long year
12/31/99: A Stark Perspective On a Radical Century
12/20/99: Soldiers' Snapshots of the Hell They Created
12/16/99: Star-Crossed Banner
12/13/99: Hubert Humphrey Wannabe
12/09/99: Stupidity in Seattle
12/06/99: Bradley's most important vote
12/03/99: Boys will be boys --- or you can always drug 'em
12/01/99: Confidence in the Gore Camp
11/29/99: Busing's End
11/22/99: When We Enjoyed Politics
11/18/99: Ever the Global Gloomster
11/15/99: The Politics of Sanctimony
11/10/99: Risks of Restraining
11/08/99: Willie Brown Besieged
11/04/99: One-House Town
11/01/99: Crack and Cant
10/28/99: Tax Break for the Yachting Class
10/25/99: Ready for The Big Leagues?
10/21/99: Where honor and responsibility still exist
10/18/99: Is Free Speech Only for the Media?
10/14/99: A Beguiling Amateur
10/11/99: Money in Politics: Where's the Problem?
10/08/99: Soft Thinking On Soft Money

© 2000, Washington Post Writer's Group