March 13, 2005

Does Comstockery Reign?

Frank Rich's latest once again sounds the alarm bells. Censors are apparently poised to throttle all creativity and freedom in the American media, and Anthony Comstock rides again.

Rich starts out by claiming that a post 9/11 telling of a very old joke at a roast for Hugh Hefner was a liberating moment, and excoriating a supposed post 9/11 trend to suppress everything from cartoon baby buttocks to federally sponsored history pamphlets. Frank goes on to praise the quality of NYPD Blue and Deadwood.

'Twould be tedious to go through all of Frank's examples. The ominousness of the threat to worthy forms of indecency as depicted in this column is odd, to say the least, because in past columns Frank made much of the irrepressible drive of the free market in masscult product toward the tawdry and the indecent, fueled as much by the red-state as the blue-state market. Which is it? Does the demand for such product guarantee mass-production of the vulgar, or are we on the verge of a new era of strait-laced suppression of the narsty?

It's hard to tell, if you read the guy from week to week. Frank's right, of course, that some excellent cultural products are raunchy. He's also right in his previous columns that suggest that there's a continuing demand for raunch regardless of quality.

I happen to like NYPD Blue, although I happen to think most of the bare-assed scenes are gratuitous. Even though it's beautifully produced, I gave up on Deadwood because I found the flow of profanity, although perhaps in character, annoying and unpleasant, and the show just too dark to follow week after week.

That's me. I happen not to like scary movies or violent movies, and hence never saw The Passion of the Christ in spite of the fact that it was an important cultural moment.

Should the government be suppressing this sort of thing? I think not. That there should be a time for families to turn on free TV without unexpected exposure to profanity, sodomy, or Dennis Franz's buttocks, does seem reasonable to me. The "parents can always turn it off" meme doesn't reflect how most Americans live. Should there be times and venues when Dennis's buttocks, the "f-word" and dirty jokes are available? If there's a market for this sort of thing, and there is, I don't trust the government to say no.

What I don't share is Frank's constant state of alarm. Plenty of good films, maybe more than we see today, were made when the Hays office limited what could be shown and said in Hollywood movies. The Republic and the culture survived, as they will survive the Rev. Wildmon, Bent Bozell, and Sen. Ted Stevens ringing the indecency alarm bells.

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