What is it about Al Gore that makes him so partial to censors? Is it that he simply can't escape his home state's Scopes-Monkey Trial parochialism or does he think his rigid physicality is nicely set off by rigid thinkers? Whatever it is, Gore surrounds himself with censors the way Brigham Young surrounded himself with wives.
Gore's wife, Tipper, was once called a "cultural terrorist" by the late Frank Zappa. In the mid-1980s, she stepped out from behind her husband to lead the charge against the music industry. At a time when music was still played with a needle, her campaign against "porn rock" encouraged the Senate to launch hearings into how music lyrics were corrupting the nation's youth. Along with two other Washington Wives, she co-founded the Parents' Music Resource Center, an organization demanding record labeling so parents would able to keep Sheena Easton and Prince songs from their teen's tender ears. At the time, an incensed Zappa told a congressional committee the PMRC was pushing "trade restraining legislation whipped up like an instant pudding by the wives of Big Brother."
In the years since her husband has been on a presidential ticket she has tempered her public stance -- not wanting to have her husband's hand pushed away from the deep pockets of Hollywood. But it isn't likely the censorious instincts of a woman who wrote Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society have waned.
Now, Gore has picked as his vice presidential running mate Joseph Lieberman -- the Senate's human label-maker.
Lieberman thinks our culture should be labeled like packaged fruit juice. He led the effort for the V-chip and succeeded in strong-arming television networks to adopt a rating system to go along with it -- as if the scenes of death and mutilation in Natural Born Killers are the equivalent to those in Saving Private Ryan.
As the economy boomed over the last decade, juvenile crime and teen pregnancy have been falling. Yet, with the instincts of a religious conservative, Lieberman has cast Hollywood, not poverty, as the great corruptor of our youth. In May, he co-sponsored the Media Violence Labeling Act, a bill that tells video game, music and movie makers to "voluntarily" adopt a uniform violence rating system. (If they don't, one will be imposed upon them by the Federal Trade Commission.) Retailers would be punished if they sell or rent products in violation of age restrictions.
Lieberman likes to claim his rating and labeling systems are not censorship. But, as Marvin Johnson, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, says, Lieberman's claim of merely seeking the voluntary cooperation of the entertainment industry is like "putting a gun to someone's head and saying "confess.' Then claiming the confession's voluntary."
In fact, Lieberman appears to be willing to use any coercive means at his disposal to sanitize Hollywood to suit his tastes. Anywhere the courts have created a loophole to freedom of speech, Lieberman has tried to slip on through. He recently joined three fellow senators in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking the agency to use its licensing authority as a moral club. The letter asks for a "broad reexamination of the public interest standard and the license renewal process," implying the FCC should develop acceptability standards for the content of programming.
Unfortunately, broadcasters are vulnerable to government censorship, but the rest of the entertainment industry enjoys broad free speech protection. Lawmakers who have tried to control the content of movies, video games and even the Internet have typically had their efforts laid waste by the courts. That's why Lieberman is planning a rear-guard action. He pushed for the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the marketing practices of the entertainment industry, saying it targets young people for ultraviolent products. He wants to assert control over Big Media the way the government tamed Big Tobacco. Civil liberties be damned.
Lieberman is one of the new breed of Democrats who think the Constitution is maleable when it comes to such things as violent programming. He needs to be reminded freedom of speech is not a cafeteria plan where government gets to pick out the speech it doesn't like for special control. Expressive freedom is pretty much an all or nothing proposition.
Gore, who chose moralist Lieberman as a kind of Clinton-antidote, says all policy decisions will be his alone. But one has to wonder whether Gore, surrounded by the flapping lips and wagging fingers of his running mate and wife, will as president resist congressional and regulatory efforts to control America's entertainment choices or whether he'll become head nanny himself.
© St. Petersburg Times