We were getting the shakes, thinking that maybe the Tiffer (The Insufferable Frank Rich) was on some new medication, because for a short time his column was just trivially wrongheaded. I began Jonesing for Frank’s obsessions with the supposed persecution of homosexuals and the imminent threat of fascism, and his hatred of all things dear to normal Americans.
Not to fear.
First, this choice rant:
JAN. 30 is here at last, and the light is at the end of the tunnel, again. By my estimate, Iraq's election day is the fifth time that American troops have been almost on their way home from an about-to-be pacified Iraq. The four other incipient V-I days were the liberation of Baghdad (April 9, 2003), President Bush's declaration that "major combat operations have ended" (May 1, 2003), the arrest of Saddam Hussein (Dec. 14, 2003) and the handover of sovereignty to our puppet of choice, Ayad Allawi (June 28, 2004). And this isn't even counting the two "decisive" battles for our nouveau Tet, Falluja. Iraq is Vietnam on speed - the false endings of that tragic decade re-enacted and compressed in jump cuts, a quagmire retooled for the MTV attention span.
As to this venture into military history, it’s enough to observe that the Tet offensive was a massive military failure for the Viet Cong, turned into victory by anti-American journalists and the anti-war movement, and the defeat in Vietnam led to the Cambodian genocide, years of oppression in Southeast Asia, and the Boat People. We can have no more confidence in Rich’s reading of Iraqi history than of Vietnamese.
This week Frank has taken of his tinfoil képi and donned his “Arts Critic” tinfoil beret.
Because the Times has apparently decided to forgo editing his column, deciding what the subject matter is like trying to create Cliff notes to summarize the ravings of a lunatic passing through a subway car.
But let’s press on.
Frank opens with the observation that it’s almost Super Bowl time and hence the anniversary of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.” The reaction to this epoch-making event has gotten Frank’s goat, having “unleashed a wave of self-censorship on American television unrivaled since the McCarthy era,” and led public television to “flirting with self-immolation.”
Let us set aside the “McCarthy” reference, designed though it is to stop thought and evoke emotion, and examine what is being repressed. It turns out Rich is referring to a few snippets of profanity in Saving Private Ryan, and some “cuddly animated animals.” Rich makes no case that any important artistic or entertainment effort has been curtailed in the post-mammary backlash he rattles on about.
Scratch Frank Rich for 30 seconds, and you don’t win the lottery, but his usual obsession, homosexuality, begins to appear. It’s the supposed elimination of a pair of lesbian parents from a PBS kids’ show, “Postcards from Buster,” that really sets Rich off, although he chides PBS for some other indisputably trivial excisions, like brief nudity from a detoxification scene on a show about terrorism.
Nor does Rich really explain why the uproar about Ms. Jackson’s breast had anything to do with PBS’s editing decisions.
What really galls Rich is that Pres. Bush was reelected, and some attribute his reelection to “moral issues,” which concern began with the Super Bowl events. The bluenoses in the red states, says Frank, are on a rampage:
The political bosses of "family" organizations, well aware that TV's collective wisdom becomes reality whether true or not, have been emboldened ever since. They are spending their political capital like drunken sailors, redoubling their demands that the Bush administration marginalize gay people, stamp out sex education and turn pop culture into a continuous loop of "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm."
Mind you, there have been no roustings on Christopher Street or San Francisco, no censorship of “Who’s Your Daddy,” “Jerry Springer,” or anything else, and although the Feds have been subsidizing “abstinence education” for a while with no discernible effect, nothing has happened on the sex ed front since November that I’m aware of. Sounds scary, though, which makes it good copy, if entirely predictable for Frank.
Having alluded to nonexistent anti-gay razzias and the blandification of popcult, the Tiffer then laments that instead of receiving the tender mercies of MTV, the Super Bowl show this year will be produced by one Don Mischner and will therefore be a “snoozefest,” and the commercials will be “tasteful” (oh no! anything but that!).
Because he can’t really claim that any of these things, if true, are of any consequence, he segues into what he claims is a federal government campaign against indecency.
Rich launches into a tirade against outgoing FCC Chairman Michael Powell, calling him a “Savonarola,” no less. Savonarola was a monk who briefly ruled Florence in highly censorious fashion, going so far as to burn piles of books, paintings, and gambling tables on February 7, 1497:
For the time being, however, Savonarola rode high in opinion. No building could hold the thousands who came for his sermons. He called on the Florentines to burn all books, paintings, carvings and any other luxury that drew their hearts away from the deeper things of God. Florence listened. On this day, February 7, 1497, he consigned the follies of the city in a great "bonfire of the vanities." Dirty pictures, gambling tables, books and art went up in smoke. Savonarola especially loathed paintings that made the Madonna look like a whore.
As far as anyone knows, of course, Mike Powell doesn’t even own a cigarette lighter, and doesn’t have a thing about paintings of the Madonna. Nevertheless, upon the departure of this “Savonarola,” and of John Ashcroft, who suffers from a “right breast fixation” according to Frank Rich, we’re going to get worse, whatever that may mean? Nero? Attila the Hun?
Apparently one of the worse is incoming Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who is the real villain, because she wrote a letter to PBS critical of an episode on a kids’ show called “Postcards from Buster” that showed children with lesbian mothers in an episode about maple syrup. That gay persecution obsession again.
Of course, it turns out that PBS had already decided to bag the episode in question. Although most Americans have come round to the notion that whether or not they approve of homosexual conduct, we shouldn’t persecute people for it, but not everybody likes it, and relatively few parents want their children’s noses rubbed in it at a tender age by schools and TV. Most Americans tolerate abortion, alcohol, and atheism, but none of this is fit fare for preschoolers or first-graders in a publicly-sponsored forum. If parents want to discuss these things with their children, they can do so privately.
Frank Rich and the gay movement apparently won’t be satisfied until “Sesame Street” adds a furry “Birdcage” to its cast. Never mind that orthodox Christian, Jewish and Muslim teachings all disapprove of homosexual conduct. Although these beliefs are over a thousand years old, apparently any public reticence, even in child-oriented entertainment and education, regarding these matters, is a hallmark of oppression, repression and censorship, itself to be repressed, as in Sweden and Canada, as "hate speech."
Rich is realistic enough to know that the invincible vulgarity of market-oriented popcult is such that the protests of a few “family oriented” advocacy groups, or even cabinet members, will not change it. So even if MIchael Powell is a book-burning monk, and various conservatives have breast- and penis-fixations, their pecksniffery ultimately amounts to little, by Frank Rich’s own admission.
So what’s his problem? That the attitudes underlying the impulse to censor could lead to real-life discrimination against real people. After another ritual reference to McCarthy, with J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn thrown in, Rich closes his piece by quoting the lesbian parents whose episode of “Buster” was excised. All one can glean from the quote is that their feelings were hurt:
"I feel sick about it," Karen Pike of Hinesburg, Vt., told The Burlington Free Press, after learning that PBS had orphaned the "Buster" episode showing her, her partner and their three children. "I understand they get public funding, but they should be the one station we feel confident in, in knowing that what we see there represents our country."
Having one’s nose out of joint because one ends up on the cutting room floor is hardly equivalent to persecution.
The Tiffer has tried to wave the bloody shirt, but it’s not a shirt, it’s a paper napkin. And that ain’t blood, Frank. It’s ketchup.
Update: added the image of the annoying educational bunny.
Update: Mickey Kaus weighs in and chides Frank, too. Of course, Mickey just thinks Frank's wrong on this one. I think he's an insufferable prig. But that's what makes horseraces.