Civil Liberties

Get Yer Ya-Yas Out


We've got every reason to

believe that Senate Majority

Leader Trent Lott knows at least

as much about conducting witch

hunts as he does about

maintaining links to white

supremacy groups. So when the

Republican from Mississippi

— a state that's generally

considered to be among the most

demonically possessed places in

the contiguous United States

— told reporters last week

that a proposed Special

Committee on American Culture

was definitely not "a witch

hunt," we took a long pull from

our hip flask of holy water,

mumbled a quick rosary, and

tried to believe him.

Trouble was, the other members

of Lott's congressional coven

didn't keep the faith, and plans

for the committee, which would

have spent upward of US$500,000

to "study the causes and

consequences of cultural

regression" (by which, we

assume, they meant more than

giving Devo the third degree),

went straight down the same

commercial-grade crapper that

has reputedly swallowed American

popular culture as if it were

nothing more than the inevitable

in-store voiding of a

super-sized McDonald's Extra

Value Meal.

Of course, that's not to say

that Washington's interest in

regulating culture has in any

way waned. At President

Clinton's request, the Federal

Trade Commission is still

investigating the marketing

practices of Hollywood (hoping,

no doubt, to find the

smoking-gun memo proving that

The Powerpuff Girls are not

targeted only at adults), and

the surgeon general is studying

the impact of violent

entertainment on children (if

it's taking awhile, it's because

he first has to read all the

other Surgeon General reports on

the same topic).

And though they didn't get a

full-blown tribunal on culture,

Senate Republicans, along with

Democrats such as Connecticut's

Joe Lieberman, will almost

certainly set up an official

"task force" on the same topic.

The task force will lack a

committee's full subpoena powers

— alas, no HUAC-style

grilling of Mr. Hankey, the

Christmas Poo — but it will

surely maintain the same live

feed to the network news


So censorship is in the air.

Before the civil liberties crowd

launches into its predictable Al

"You're Outta Ordah!" Pacino

bit, though, it's worth pointing

out that, in an age in which it

is easier than ever both to make

and consume culture on your own

terms, such gestures pack all

the oomph of a very special

episode of Touched by an Angel.

Indeed, it's high time to

recognize the huge benefit of

this new flurry of censorious

activity: It does the drudge

work of scanning every

potentially offensive book,

movie, music CD, and TV show,

culling the good parts and then

bringing them directly to the

overstimulated consumer. Think

of the censors as a search

engine that actually works —

as push technology for smut and


Consider, for instance, the

latest photo op by the Siegfried

and Roy of the new censorship —

Lieberman, along with

one-time drug czar, education

secretary, and virtues virtuoso

William Bennett. In

mid-September, they announced

their third "Silver Sewer

Award," given annually to the

country's top "cultural

polluter" (previous winners have

included CBS for broadcasting

Howard Stern's radio show). This

year's top offender — the

envelope, please! — was the

Fox Network's chairman, Rupert

Murdoch, who has, Smokin' Joe

told reporters, "done more than

any other programmer in

television to foul the public

airwaves and define our cultural

norms down." The senator

continued his attack, though it

wasn't clear if Lieberman was

describing the 68-year-old news

baron's TV network or his recent

marriage to 32-year-old Wendy

Deng: "Orgasmic moans,

incestuous leering, urinating

for revenge — nothing seems

too cheap or degrading to be

played for a laugh." (To add

irony to insult, Murdoch's

political fragazine, The Weekly

Standard, had actually made "The

Case for Censorship" in an

August cover story.)

Lieberman and Bennett then

rolled tape of Fox-aired scenes

they found offensive, including

Illeana Douglas' celebrated

package check of Keanu Reeves in

the premiere episode of Action

and an ad for the Emmy Awards

broadcast in which hosts Jenna

Elfman and David Hyde Pierce

talked about the statuette as

though it were a penis. In other

words, Lieberman and Bennett

saved us the chore of slogging

through hours of tired,

fourth-network programming to

bring us a highlight reel of, as

Lieberman put it, "language and

behaviors that the average

person would probably be

arrested for if spoken or acted

out in the public square of most

American communities." Who says

elected officials don't care

about voters?

Bennett is an old hand at this

task, having performed a similar

trick at the Senate hearings on

"Marketing Violence to Children"

held in the wake of the

Columbine High shootings last

spring. Perhaps mindful of the

fact that Bob Dole hadn't

actually gotten to see the

movies he attacked during his

ill-fated 1996 run (well,

shuffle), Bennett opened his

remarks by playing long, bloody

excerpts from films such as Scream

and The Basketball Diaries. He

also went the extra distance and

performed a cover version of

Marilyn Manson's "Irresponsible

Hate Anthem." In so doing, he

gave perhaps the best dramatic

reading of a rock song since

Sebastian Cabot talked his way

through Bob Dylan or William

Shatner rendered "Rocket Man" on

a science-fiction awards show in

the mid-'70s. "Hey, victim,"

cooed Bennett on hearings

broadcast over C-SPAN,

mesmerizing the legislators not

only with his nuanced

inflections but his ability to

pronounce asterisks: "Should I

black your eyes again? / Hey,

victim, / You were the one who

put the stick in my hand / I am

the ism, my hate's a prism /

Let's just kill everyone and let

your God sort them out / F***

it, F*** it, F*** it, F***."

Lieberman and Bennett, of

course, can't do it all by

themselves. Groups such as the

Parents Television Council are

sharing the burden. Among other

treats, the PTVC summarizes

Howard Stern's singular brand of

"raunch" and "sewage" for folks

too busy watching Bill Bennett

bust a dirty rhyme or who

unfortunately reside outside of

the shock-jock's markets. For

instance, recapping a Stern show

from earlier this year, the PTVC

helpfully sets the scene

("Kennedy, former MTV vee-jay,

tells Howard that James Woods

once asked her to sit on his lap

during a hockey game while

wearing a Catholic school girl's

uniform") before getting jiggy

with it:

Howard: "… Now he supposedly

has a very … he's very large

in his pants. Can you imagine

sitting on his lap with that

Python in his pants? I mean …

with a schoolgirl outfit on? …

While you were a VJ, you were a

virgin, and you weren't kidding

about that?"

Kennedy: "No. I never had any

pee-pee in the coochie at


Would-be censors delivering

user-friendly chunks of "raunch"

and "sewage" right to the

consumer? We do indeed live in a

world of wonders. In fact, the

only thing that could improve on

this unforeseen Cinderella

outcome is if that Senate task

force, after a strong showing

during sweeps week — and we

shudder in anticipation of the

depths to which the rechristened

Two Guys and a Girl will stoop

in order to compete with the

next congressional episode

featuring Bill Bennett —

gets upgraded to a full-blown


Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.