The theme of the panel discussion was "The Sins of Society vs. The Sins of Big Government." I wasn't sure what that meant, and after participating in the discussion I'm still not sure. But I guess that's what you get when you debate politicians.
The panel was part of the conference that used to be known as the Dark Ages Weekend, a mocking reference to President Clinton's "Renaissance" gabfests. Now the annual gathering of conservatives, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, is called simply The Weekend.
David Horowitz, the center's president, was kind enough to invite my family and me to stay at the Broadmoor, a posh resort in Colorado Springs, in exchange for my participation in the conference. My role, as I understood it, was to serve as the token libertarian. As it turned out, it was also to serve as the token optimist.
This is not a part I generally find myself playing, but the crowd at the session on sin was unusually dour. Most of the panelists and audience members seemed to agree that the country is going to hell in a handbasket. The exact reason for that feeling wasn't clear, but apparently it had something to do with the Littleton massacre.
The moderator, Denver talk radio host Mike Rosen, tried to inject a note of skepticism regarding the conventional wisdom that "all of us are responsible" for the murders committed by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School last spring. He asked the people in the audience how many of them felt personally responsible for Harris and Klebold's crimes.
Nobody raised his hand, but the premise underlying the discussion was that something is terribly wrong with "society" that needs to be fixed. That view was nicely summed up by Boston College political scientist David Lowenthal in "The Case for Censorship," an essay that appeared in The Weekly Standard shortly before the conference.
"We are on the road to decadence and decline," Lowenthal wrote. "The choice is clear: either a rigorous censorship of the mass media, in conformity with responsible republican government, with censors known to all and operating under law, or an accelerating descent into barbarism and the destruction, sooner or later, of free society itself."
None of my fellow panelists was bold enough to endorse censorship, but all of them-- including Writers Guild of America Executive Director John McLean, who favors more spending on education to improve the nation's moral fiber--seemed to share Lowenthal's pessimism. Senator Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.) emphasized that "the sins of society" feed "the sins of big government," suggesting that he and his colleagues may have to step in if we don't stop misbehaving.
Brownback, who is putting together a special Senate committee to investigate "the decline of America's culture," repeatedly asserted the need to "renew" said culture, without ever spelling out what he had in mind. He ridiculed the notion that Congress can solve complex social problems through legislation, and he praised local, decentralized efforts to encourage moral behavior. Yet in the next breath he was pushing a forum at which presidential candidates could opine about how communities should accomplish that goal.
For his part, Representative Bob Barr (R-Ga.) was content to take potshots at the Clinton administration, which he suggested exemplifies what happens in a "cartoon world" without consequences. This rant was related to the theme of the discussion, he said, because you can't have sin without consequences.
When my turn came, I suggested a few reasons why conservatives should resist the temptation to use big government for their ends. True virtue cannot be compelled, I said, and the power you entrust to the state today can be seized by your enemies tomorrow.
I did not directly challenge the notion that "we are on the road to decadence and decline," because this seems to be an article of faith that cannot be refuted by statistics or historical perspective. Every generation has its cultural alarmists, who look back with nostalgia and forward with dread.
But I did ask members of the audience to think about how it is that they, and all the decent people they know, manage to lead good lives and raise responsible, productive children despite the immoral messages emanating from popular music, movies, and TV shows. That's the question that really matters, and it's one that politicians are ill-equipped to answer.