Holy Joe! A Culture War!
Instead of kissing babies, this year the pols are bashing youth culture and the companies that promote it. "The culture of carnage surrounding our children" is "turning some of them into killers," Joe Lieberman thundered at the Senate Commerce Committee's September 13 hearing on the marketing of violent entertainment. Al Gore and Lieberman want to sanction companies for targeting "adult-rated" music and movies at young audiences, as if rough lyrics were as measurably toxic in their effect as tobacco.
Politically, the Rev. Al and Holy Joe made a deft feint to the right, enlisting the Federal Trade Commission for blatantly partisan purposes and leaving the GOP scrambling to secure second billing at the hearing for its own sputtering culture czar, Lynne Cheney. But it's a dangerous way to milk votes, eroding the First Amendment while unleashing incendiary anxieties about teenagers with little basis in reality.
A few facts are in order. While the FTC charges in its recent report that entertainment companies have marketed inappropriate material to young people, it concedes that there is no concrete evidence linking violent content in the popular culture with violent actions of teenagers. No one at the Senate hearing pointed out that juvenile homicide and most other violent juvenile crime is down nationwide. Deaths in schools are fewer than half what they were in 1993, and between 1991 and 1997, students who reported being in a fight declined 46 percent. Young people, in other words, are at less risk of participating in violence than any time in a generation.
Gore and Lieberman's culture war--to which George W. Bush and Pat Buchanan added their self-serving spin--implicitly portrays American teens as empty vessels at the mercy of corrupting entertainment. The only candidate talking sense was Ralph Nader, who said the way to deal with violent entertainment is to "fight the First Amendment with the First Amendment"--in other words, more speech, which in this case means more public-interest networks financed by "rent" charged to the big media companies for using the public airwaves.
It's hard to cheer for the entertainment industry, whose ever-more-concentrated corporate ownership threatens democratic culture. But democratic culture--which has shown considerable capacity to sort out the enduring in popular music and films--isn't the point. Gore and Lieberman want, in effect, to encode the entertainment industry's voluntary ratings into law, using the FTC to police marketing departments' compliance. Gore says he avoids censorship by concentrating on marketing strategy, but his proposal still amounts to punishing the purveyors and would-be consumers of controversial, abrasive art. The plan is also a significant abuse of the FTC.
The real danger to society isn't imaginary violence in music or movies. Youth violence is nearly always a response to brutalization--by families, by peers, by police or by punitive "zero tolerance" juvenile-crime laws like those promoted by Bush in Texas, which have more than doubled the imprisoned teenage population there. It is also a cry against neglect. But that is reality, not politics. When it comes to exploiting fear and selling fantasy, Gore and Lieberman have learned Hollywood's lessons all too well.