The moment the names of Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman were added to this year’s national tickets, it should have been clear that the entertainment industry would become an issue in the 2000 campaign. Both the senator and Lynne Cheney, wife of the Republican vice-presidential nominee, have been among Washington’s harshest critics of Hollywood. Oh, others have tried cultural warfare during campaign season - Bob Dole, for example, briefly and halfheartedly tried to make an issue of Hollywood in 1996 - but like the old veteran’s campaign itself, the argument fizzled out.
Joe Lieberman, however, is no Bob Dole, at least not on this issue. Nor is Lynne Cheney. Both have spent years decrying popular culture’s excesses, and neither was about to pass up a chance to speak to a nationwide audience. If the entertainment world’s moguls really were surprised to become a campaign issue this year, perhaps they’re not so smart after all.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that both Lieberman and Cheney have scored points among voters with children. Parents, even those with liberal or libertarian ideas on other issues, recognize the power of today’s pop culture, and they understand that its values can and do overwhelm good parenting. They don’t want their children exposed to gratuitous violence and sex on screen or profane and often misogynistic lyrics in what passes for pop music. But they are often powerless to filter out everything. These days, an unmonitored television with cable channels can be a dangerous thing indeed.
The entertainment industry, particularly its film division, did not take the combined criticisms of Lieberman and Mrs. Cheney with a good deal of grace. No surprise there, either. A screenwriter complained that while he expected criticism from Republicans, he felt betrayed by criticism from a Democrat. After all, hadn’t the entertainment industry helped bankroll Democratic national campaigns in recent years? Some gratitude. The screenwriter said that Lieberman and his Democratic allies had betrayed their most important, fundamental values. It is not clear whether Hollywood’s political activists made a similar argument when a Democratic White House went along with the abolition of welfare and the passage of trade agreements that sent American jobs overseas, but then again, some issues clearly are more important than others.
Meanwhile, the head of a company that produces high art in the form of video games called Mortal Kombat and Duke Nukem said something unintentionally enlightening. He described his critics in Washington as a bunch of weasels scrambling for votes. Well, now, there’s an interesting attitude toward democracy. People who scramble for votes are weasels. What, one wonders, does that make entertainment executives who produce violent fare to be marketed to children? Noble public servants?
That there are votes to be had, even if they must be collected by weasels, suggests that Mr. Mortal Kombat may understand the degrading nature of the swill he brings to market. After all, a self-confident mogul comfortable with his or her product would be amused, rather than agitated, by a politician’s criticism. If Mr. Mortal Kombat believed that his product was nothing more than a little harmless faux violence, if he was convinced that his product did not desensitize children to murder and mayhem, well, he’d know there were no votes to be had from criticizing his product.
His words, however, suggest he knows otherwise, that he is plying a kind of pornography to children, that his marketing division has the power and resources to make mincemeat of parental discretion and that as a result, a lot of parents are ready and eager to hear the truth from a vote-seeking politician.
Certainly both the Democrats and Republicans believe that there is great dissatisfaction with the vulgarity, and worse, that has infiltrated the family living room. Obviously people like Mr. Mortal Kombat are extremely defensive about their products.
And yet...and yet. In an age when the grotesque and often obscene spectacle of so-called professional wrestling is popular prime-time fare for young people, in an age when people can stroll into a neighborhood pub and observe patrons listening casually to an utterly obscene song on the juke box (yes, I was that observer), it’s fair to wonder if the outragethe kind of outrage that leads to mass protests, which lead to cultural changesreally exists, or if parents and other well-meaning adults are more resigned than angry.
After all, there has been no great movement to boycott particularly appalling recording artists, (indeed, they are given awards) or television shows (the entire Fox network comes to mind). Parents continue to look benignly on third graders who idolize the likes of Britany Spears (last seen performing a nearly authentic striptease live on MTVor so I read). And nobody objected when a representative of the egregious Worldwide Wrestling Federation was given an honored placeat the Republican National Convention!
Could it be that the politicians who so offend Mr. Mortal Kombat are doomed to scour barren landscapes? Anecdotes aside, it’s easy to reach such a conclusion. Americans have gotten used to being treated as mere consumers of popular culture, rather than its guardians. (Consumption requires less energy than guardianship.) While some object and others try to build little fortresses of decency to protect their children, the mass of Americans seem content with the degradation represented by MTV and wrestling and blood-drenched films.
So in matters of mass entertainment, the fault may not be with the stars after all.