Creative Matrix

What we lose by regulating culture


"Whereas the distracted state of England, threatened with a cloud of blood by a civil war, calls for all possible means to appease and avert the wrath of God, it is therefore thought fit and ordained by the Lords and Commons in this parliament assembled that, while these set causes and set times of humiliation continue, public stage plays shall cease and be forborne."

–Parliamentary edict, September 2, 1642

In the United States, Congress does not close the playhouses. It just holds periodic hearings to bully the people who produce popular entertainment. They bow and scrape and halfheartedly apologize for their audience-pleasing products, usually by vague reference to unnamed works that go too far. Then everyone goes back to their business until the next time a committee chair decides the nation's distracted state warrants an attack on its favorite arts.

All of which happened, pretty much according to script, in response to the murders in Colorado. The Senate Commerce Committee convened its show trial in early May. The agenda was to make popular art into the equivalent of cigarettes: a demon drug sold by greedy liars to corrupt our youth. "Joe Camel has, sadly, not gone away," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (R-Conn.), the committee's most eager attacker. "He's gone into the entertainment business."

Bill Bennett, described as "the conscience of America" by committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), came prepared to name works deserving censure, and possibly censorship. He showed clips from Scream and The Basketball Diaries. "Can you not distinguish between Casino and Macbeth, or Casino and Braveheart, or The Basketball Diaries and Clear and Present Danger?" Bennett said. "I can make that distinction."

Despite some chilling moments, the hearings flopped. Executives from the movie studios and record companies declined to come and cooperate in their own denunciation. Deprived of dramatic confrontations or lying CEOs, reporters and the nation yawned. A month later, the House soundly defeated two bills to regulate entertainment products–one through outright bans, another through cigarette-style labeling. A significant, bipartisan majority disagreed with Bennett that "in the matter of the protection of our children, nothing is off limits."

Not so the Clinton administration. It acted unilaterally to appease the soccer-mom gods. Adopting the tobacco model, the president ordered the Federal Trade Commission to investigate "whether and how video game, motion picture and recording industries market to children violent and other material rated for adults." The commission will exercise de facto subpoena power, demanding proprietary memos, private e-mail, and internal marketing studies. The attack on Hollywood is now part of the Clintonite campaign to restore the FTC's pre-Reagan punch; the issue is not free speech but free markets. The president is embracing Bennett's belief that "this is predatory capitalism."

If you want to eliminate a product from the American marketplace, this is the way you do it–not by act of Congress, but through administrative agencies helped along by liability suits. Clinton has unleashed the regulators, and, as Jesse Walker discusses below, the lawsuits have begun.

But what does it matter? Suppose all violent movies vanish from the theaters, made uneconomic by regulatory burdens, unpredictable lawsuits, and congressional harassment. Who cares?

The audience, for starters. Tens of millions of people saw The Matrix, a blockbuster hit and one of the recent movies most often attacked as a blight on our culture. Most of those moviegoers, including me, think The Matrix is a fine film whose existence is a positive good. It is visually striking, well acted, and intelligently written. It explores classic themes, arguing that it is better to face reality and struggle for freedom than to accept comfortable slavery and live in illusion. It is not Great Art, but it is good art, and good entertainment. We, its paying audience, would not want to see it destroyed.

This raises the problem that so annoys Bennett: the subjectivity of distinctions. Any objective standard that would censor The Matrix (or Casino) as too violent would have to curb Macbeth and Braveheart as well. Shakespeare's Scottish play is horrifyingly violent–Akira Kurosawa's retelling is aptly called Throne of Blood–and so is Mel Gibson's Scottish movie. Braveheart depicts torture and celebrates warfare. You cannot ban Scream, The Matrix, and Casino and make an exception for Bill Bennett's bloody favorites. The distinctions required are too fine, and a different critic would cut things differently.

I do sympathize with Bennett on one point: It is tiresome and clichéd to keep invoking Shakespeare, whom no one would dare ban today. But there's a reason the Bard keeps coming up, and it isn't that everyone in Hamlet ends up dead.

That reason is seared in the consciousness of every English-language player, right down to the members of the Screen Actors Guild: You can ban Shakespeare. It happened. In 1642, the greatest period of English theater was ended by an act of Parliament. The milieu that had produced Shakespeare, and that continued to perform his plays, was destroyed. Those theaters were full of sex, violence, and special effects–and of poetry, ideas, and creative promise. English drama never fully recovered from the loss. Had the closure come a mere 50 years earlier, we would have lost Romeo and Juliet and everything that followed.

Loss and near loss haunt last year's Shakespeare in Love, Hollywood's fondest vision of itself and its art. A Puritan preacher appears early on, denouncing the theaters as "the devil's handmaidens," and the authorities are always closing the playhouses. Romeo and Juliet barely finds a stage. "I would exchange all my plays to come for his that will never come," says Will Shakespeare when Kit Marlowe is killed. We modern moviegoers are presumed to know better. But it is not that easy a call. Marlowe's small oeuvre is extraordinary, all written before he was 30. Who knows what might have been his Hamlet?

Loss is at the heart of the argument against regulating creativity, whether in art, technology, or enterprise. The innovative process is a fragile one, dependent on a complex, often messy interplay of imagination, competition, and exchange. Curbing new ideas hurts not only individual creators but the audience for which they create and the posterity that inherits their legacy. Regulators destroy some goods directly, and we can count the cost. Other losses, like Marlowe's never-written plays, we can only imagine.

This is not simply a matter of great work but of the milieu from which it springs. To get the good stuff, you have to put up with the experiments that fail and the junk produced to pay the bills. Alongside the hack work of Greene and Dekker, even Shakespeare wrote some dogs. But crush Titus Andronicus, and you will lose King Lear. The same process produced them both.

How does it matter that in the 15th century China turned its back on exploration and innovation, that the world's most technologically creative nation became a backwater by decree? We cannot know for sure. But the loss, to the Chinese people and to the world, was surely significant.

When congressional pressure and anti-competitive opportunism created the Comics Code, declaring American comic books an inherently childish medium, EC Comics was destroyed and its readers bereft. That was the short-term effect. The larger loss was in the stories untold, the techniques unexplored. We can infer something of its magnitude by looking at the development of graphic storytelling in Europe and Japan. But we can never know what might have been.

In The Future and Its Enemies, I argue that individual creativity and enterprise are not only personally satisfying but socially good, producing progress and happiness. For celebrating creativity and happiness, I have been called a fascist by critics on both coasts. It is a peculiar charge, since fascism entails subordinating the individual to the nation–hardly a recipe for either self-expression or joy. But the charge expresses a coherent worldview, one that imagines freedom as the will to power and the good life as docile obedience.

This view quite naturally leads to crusades against popular art, particularly American art, since our native culture is anti-authority. Writing in The American Spectator, movie critic James Bowman denounces The Matrix, whose science fiction setting he clearly does not understand, for teaching "kids contempt for the values of work and sobriety and conformity to social norms." This critique condemns not just the movie but the inventiveness that made it possible. It is a prescription for the death of creativity and an attack on the American spirit. By this standard, Hamlet is safe. But what about Huck Finn?