November 28, 2004

Frank Rich Drops His Towel

The insufferable Frank Rich, who writes a cultural column for the New York Times (free subscription), were life not short, would deserve a truth squad like his colleague Paul Krugman.

Unlike Krugman, who is a permanent fount of misinformation and spleen, Rich occasionally stumbles upon an insight. So it was on November 28, in this column.

Rich's riff was on the Monday Night football commercial where starlet Nicollette Sheridan appears to have accomplished a seduction of football player Terrell Owens in the locker room, a scene ending with the actress, seen from behind, dropping her towel, leaving a few bits to the imagination.

Now this scene has evoked considerable indignation from some circles, an indignation Rich derides as inconsistent at best and feigned and opportunistic at worst. Rich points out that the soap-comedy-sitcom in which the actress stars, Desperate Housewives, is a big hit, as much in the red states as in the blue, and suggests that those who criticize the football commercial scratch that prurient itch watching the sitcom itself. He also puts in the ritual dig at Rush Limbaugh, whose success and talent have made him the left's favorite whipping boy, pointing out that Rush has had his drug problem and divorces.

On one level, Rich's critique is fair enough. Our culture, including its corporate and commercial side, is saturated with sex, and not just the high-toned variety (think "erotica" as opposed to "porn"). This saturation includes even the MSM (main-stream media), and even football. Rich points to scantily clad cheerleaders and commercials for aphrodisiac drugs. In this light, the noisy reaction to one pre-game bit is either beside the point or hypocritical, argues Rich.

Fair enough. But Rich stops there. He does not address at least two issues.

First, as Dennis Prager points out here, there's a difference between public and private displays. The issue is not whether Terrell Owens and Nicollette Sheridan indulge in a bit of hanky-panky, but whether they display it on prime time to an audience of millions who have not necessarily chosen to see this particular type of display.

People get naked and do the nasty. People relieve themselves. Except in selected venues, where the audience know what it is getting, these are private matters, and there's a great deal to be said for their remaining so.

Hypocrisy? Not necessarily. My father used to say that there are no dirty words, just words that are out of place. Soil in the garden is a blessing, but on the living room carpet it's just dirt. Although some of the same people who are offended by the Sheridan's towel drop don't want their children to learn about birth control even if the girls end up pregnant when abstinence education fails, others just want their prurient interest scratched constantly and in public.

Second, the noise about the NFL commercial is not necessarily hypocrisy, but a surrogate for a general concern about the coarsening of the culture. A generation ago, feminists made great noises about the "objectification" of women and the commercial exploitation of sex. Some of this noise was traditional pecksniffery disguised in avant-garde clothing, but it also made a reasonable argument for respecting women as whole human beings – in short, for public decency.

The culture has been coarsened and just because I say so I'm neither Bin Laden nor a Jerry Falwell.

There is a mass culture, and Proust, Joseph Beuys, and Penderecki will never replace it, which is probably just as well. But is it exploiting sex, violence, and various stupid ideas to a fault? Rich doesn't address the issue. He's content to mock the critics of the NFL episode. Easy enough, but beside the point, and par for the course.

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