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Jewish World Review / June 24, 1998 / 30 Sivan, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg When Clinton follows Quayle's lead

SPEAKING FROM OREGON the other day -- still another state that is overcoming its shock at a school shooting -- Bill Clinton let loose at the violence that has become a staple of teen culture in this country, and not just teen culture.

In his weekly radio talk, the president spoke of the movies, the television programs, the song lyrics that romanticize killing -- and can twist the minds of the young and impressionable.

It's good to see the bully pulpit that a president of the United States commands being used to address not just the state of the Union, but the state of the culture, which is all too violent. And so are its results. To quote the president:

"When mindless killing becomes a staple of family entertainment, when over and over, children see cinematic conflicts resolved not with words, but with weapons, we shouldn't be surprised when children, from impulse or design, follow suit."

Bill Clinton's words might have been even more welcome if they had been delivered at one of his Hollywood fund-raisers. But they should be applauded anyway. It's a good sign for the society when Bill Clinton starts to sound like Dan Quayle.

For it is not just the fans of trash culture who are dehumanized by it; it is the innocent who may be killed by it, and the larger society that is demeaned by it. Nor is violence the only form of degradation that pop culture pushes with unrelenting, mercantile zeal. To quote one critic, Myron Magnet, on the junk culture that was shocking in the Sixties and has become all too conventional in the '90s:

"Just as you didn't have to frequent singles bars to be affected by the sexual revolution, you didn't have to live in a commune and eat mushrooms to be affected by the counterculture's quest for personal liberation. The new adversary stance toward conventional beliefs and ideals, breathlessly reported by the press and diffused almost instantly among the young, quickly put traditional values on the defensive, making them newly problematic even for those who continued to hold them."

In the 90s, it is the defenders of traditional values who have become unconventional. But as the toll of a permissive culture mounts, not even the left can fail to notice what that culture is doing to society. And whom it hurts. To quote Mark Lilla in the New York Review of Books, scarcely a conservative journal:

"When drug pushers and vagrants are permitted to set the tone in public parks, it is not the police who lose. It is poor urban families who lose their back yards. When children are coddled and undisciplined in the schools, they are the first to suffer, their families next. When universities cater to the whimsical tastes of their students and the aggressive demands of political interests, they cease to be retreats for serious cultivation of the self. When pornography is readily available on cable TV or the World Wide Web, the sleaze merchants profit and we are all demeaned."

When presidents like Bill Clinton and journals like the New York Review of Books begin repeating and amplifying conservative critiques of the culture, there's hope for a counterrevolution in popular taste. Styles do change. And can be changed.

No, we don't have to accept the violence, the smut, the brutality that permeates pop culture. Now even presidents begin to speak out against it. This one has never been a slouch at detecting the direction of public opinion. And that may be the most encouraging thing about his forthright comments over the weekend: They may mirror the popular perception -- and disgust.

There is a rising new, Victorian tide in discussions of the culture. The signs begin to multiply: Manners are coming back. The cult of violence is drawing a backlash. And single motherhood turns out to be not quite so glamorous as it was depicted on "Murphy Brown."

Indeed, the star of that show -- Candice Bergen -- has been heard to say that Dan Quayle was right when he spoke up years ago about the paramount importance of family values to a society. ("The body of the speech was completely sound," she now says.)

Yes, permissivessnes is out and discipline is in. It's going to be a long struggle, and it will require patience, as well as outrage. And the fight to redeem the culture will take small, daily acts of civility, as well as presidential addresses. The good news is that we don't have to capitulate to the trash culture; we can change it.


6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.