February 26, 2005

Though Snarky As Ever, Mr. Insufferable Has a Point

Although at the end this week's piece by the insufferable Frank Rich careens into its usual ditch of paranoia about some slight or another to all things gay, the Tiffer has a point worth thinking about.

He notes that even as the Feds get ready to impose stiffer [you should pardon the expression] fines against the networks for offenses such as wardrobe malfunctions, it is audience demand that drives the descent of popular culture into all things prurient. Not only does Homer Simpson perform a gay marriage, and Chris Rock promote his Oscar-hosting debut with headline-grabbing musings about the Oscar show, but also porn-on-demand in hotel rooms and the internet commands a vast audience, sponsored by corporations who would have you believe in their staidness.

Frank's right, of course. The laws of the market apply as much to the heroin market or the sex trade as to cell phones and sow bellies. If there's a demand, someone will create a supply. And there's a huge demand for sex, drugs, and what passes for rock 'n' roll nowadays.

Although the resulting coarsening of the national character is troubling, few now have the heart or the philosophical inclination to advocate systematic state action to stem the tide. Aside from the inevitable dire consequences of government deciding what shall be disseminated, suppression of anything people desire creates a black market where prices rise as a function of the effectiveness of the suppression on the one hand and the inelasticity of the demand on the other. In other words, make something hard to get and the prices on the black market will go up as long as people want it badly enough to pay more.

So Frank is right both about the unlikelihood of the anti-indecency political theater having much effect, as long as pillars of the community in the anonymity of their hotel rooms will dial up porn, and about the hypocrisy of many in the anti-indecency industry.

Nevertheless, Frank can't really be Frank unless he waves the bloody shirt of persecution, and he does not fail us. The real purpose of these anti-indecency gestures, says Frank, is to advance "the larger agenda of the decency crusaders, which is not to clean up show business, a doomed mission, but to realize the more attainable goal of enlisting the government to marginalize and punish those who don't adhere to their 'moral values.'"

Frank's two examples are the removal of the Gay etc. label from a talk at some Federal conference on suicide prevention, and a gratuitous mention of an unspecified potentially lethal denial of sex education to gays and teens. Frank's feared Inquisition turns out to be trivial on the one hand, and undocumented on the other. No punishment in sight, and hardly enough to marginalize anybody.

It goes without saying that when the President says something Frank finds unexceptionable, rather than giving him credit, Frank accuses him of persecution (without using the word) through "surrogates."

Frank points to real contradictions, such as that between the impulse of some conservatives to use government to resist the coarsening of the culture, and the fealty of others (or sometimes the same people) to the market, where demand for raunch burns on unabated.

Unless it is far more draconian and comprehensive than Americans today are likely to tolerate, effective government action to police the culture would be ineffective even if we could agree about what's unacceptable where (cartoon bunnies visiting lesbian mothers on public TV, closed circuit orgy flicks at the Marriott, foul-mouthed heroes on Saving Private Ryan on the networks?). The most government can do is encourage islands of decency or blandness for those who prefer it, and to keep certain matters somewhat private as opposed to public. If the proliferation of the indecent is to be combated, as with the drug trade, the arena of combat should be on the demand side. A difficult task, given the fallen nature of man, that we must leave to parents, pastors, and the Holy Ghost, but one that is not beyond the reputed powers of the latter.

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