Civil Liberties

Artists For Censorship

An argument for the uselessness of culture


Last time we checked in on Pat Boone, the white-shoe crooner was drawing fire from fellow Christians for his effort to cross over into big band/heavy metal fusion music. "I am proud to say that Pat is currently doing very well in turning good Christian children into homosexual lunitics (sic) that take plenty of drugs and have unprotected anal sex," one music critic averred when Boone released his 1997 album In A Metal Mood, a collection of Van Halen, Deep Purple, and Ozzy Osbourne covers. Furious viewers of Trinity Broadcasting Network, or maybe just fans dismayed at the way Boone's leather bar regalia made explicit the gay undercurrent that had always been part of the "Tutti-Frutti" singer's Tab Hunterish appeal, flooded TBN with hate mail and succeeded in getting his show Gospel America yanked from the airwaves.

It may seem disappointing that Boone, having suffered such an outbreak of artistic intolerance, would come out in favor of suppression of free speech, but during a recent lobbying junket in the nation's capital, he defended "healthy" censorship that "has become a bad word because everybody associates it with some kind of restriction on liberty."

"[W]e do know that at some point a line has to be drawn between one man's liberty and another man's license," Boone told the Washington Times. "It must be majority approved…voluntary…and self-imposed… Censorship is healthy for any society, and that goes for arts, entertainment, anything. Self-imposed means that the majority of people say that is what we want, and it can be changed if people's attitudes change, which is how a democratic society works."

Is this a paradox, an artist absurdly calling for limits on artistic expression? Or just a self-satisfied old square's contempt for the new, a counterpart to the denunciations of rock 'n' roll Frank Sinatra issued after his career peak (and before his own, equally disastrous attempt to steal some of rock's pale fire)?

Maybe it's both. Pat Boone, whose whitebread versions of raucous "race" music created one of rock's first cultural splits, is an especially attractive and laughable target for defenders of free expression. But long before the author of 'Twixt Twelve and Twenty got into the act, bigger names were warning about the dangers of artistic expression.

An early example of such a warning (not counting Plato's banishment of poets from his Republic) comes in Don Quixote. Now Cervantes' masterpiece is rightly revered, as the greatest parody and fullest expression of the genre of chivalric romance, as the first novel in the basic form we now know it, as the depiction of one of western civilization's most enduring and amusing characters, as the first "buddy" story, and, in its little-read second half (wherein Quixote and Sancho Panza themselves read Cervantes' bestselling depiction of their adventures) as a precursor to self-referential postmodernism. But before it is any of these things, Don Quixote is a forthright warning about the danger of reading books. The main character's psychosis is explained as being the result of his fondness for adventure stories—an explanation that is never seriously questioned in a relentlessly ironic narrative. So complete is the book's anti-book message that when the local priest attempts to cure Quixote's mental illness by burning his library, the act is treated as a rational (though comical) response to the problem.

If this humorous picaresque were alone in depicting culture as a clear and present danger, we could dismiss it. But the book generally considered the first "modern" novel, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, goes even further in its condemnation of popular literature. Readers dazzled by Flaubert's poetically precise, icily clinical narrative of domestic ruin tend to underplay the first cause of the book's tragedy: The heroine is unhinged by her reading of romances. This 19th century critique of reading is seemingly more sophisticated than Cervantes': Emma Bovary's problem is not that she's a reader, but that she's an uncritical reader who expects real life to measure up to literary fancy. But Flaubert's judgment is harsher and more moralizing than Cervantes': Quixote is deluded but still pious and brave, where Emma becomes a thoroughly treacherous and immoral character. Ironically, Madame Bovary, after beating an indecency rap, became (and remains) a shining symbol of literary free expression. (The 1949 film version even features a framing device in which James Mason, playing Flaubert at his obscenity trial, narrates the tale, in his most archly Masonic tone, from the witness box.)

There are plenty of other examples of respectable creative narratives condemning the culture people choose to consume, and you don't have to refer to the fabled punk rock episode of Quincy, M.E. (in which a Mohawk and a three-chord song become tickets to the morgue) to find them. The fiction of Joyce Carol Oates teems with tales of naive young girls coming to bad ends at least partly due to the pop music they've put into their pretty little heads. Sidney Lumet's entertaining 1976 movie Network makes a pretty straightforward argument that television audiences, if allowed indulge their own appetites, will become robotic quasi-fascists; the movie is still absurdly praised for its "prophetic" view of the television industry. You'd be hard pressed to find any theatrical film, from A Face In the Crowd on, that doesn't pontificate about the dangers of the so-called culture of television. Since every new medium becomes a whipping boy for the next-youngest medium, it's not surprising that TV solons like Ted Koppel in turn have few kind words for the web.

Even rockers less embarrassing than Pat Boone are not immune to warnings about free expression's horrors. To Frank Zappa's small but fanatical fan base, the epic story album Joe's Garage is a hilarious send-up of censors and moralists and their campaigns against popular music. But the record's real stroke of genius is that it literalizes the fears of the very prigs it's satirizing: The rock lifestyle really does bring the record's eponymous hero to a hideous end. Nor is this another rock flameout epic such as David Bowie's Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, which stages early death as an act of Byronic heroism. By casting himself as the "Central Scrutinizer," an institutional censor who narrates the story, Zappa gives the game away: The squares are right to worry; rock really does warp kids' minds.

Comical, sarcastic, or absurd as some of these examples may be, they have a virtue that an abstract defense of free expression lacks: They take seriously the idea that there may actually be dangerous ideas, and dangerous artistic vehicles for communicating them. For every kid who watches The Matrix and shoots up his high school, we can cite millions more who saw the same movie and did nothing. Does this demonstrate that art is harmless? And if it is harmless, what's the point of it?

Sadly, I suspect that it is harmless, and that there is no point to it. Even so cold and unsentimental a figure as Flaubert may have been wearing rose-colored glasses when he posited that something as inconsequential as a book could really make a difference in anybody's life. In the fight over Howard Stern's tenuous ability to make a living with his mouth, little attention has been given to the reality that his complaints about President Bush will have about as much impact as the proverbial banana cream pie fifteen feet in diameter dropped from a height of ten feet. If the administration's increasingly apparent incompetence, treachery and criminality are not enough to budge the poll numbers, Howard's shrill rants are utterly useless. The idea that free expression is a dangerous or even powerful tool is a fiction artists and censors alike delude themselves into believing.