Nightmares of Depravity

July 9, 1995


“Nightmares of Depravity”

“Nightmares of depravity” — it’s certainly strong language, but that’s what Senator Bob Dole called the brutal violence and casual sex pouring into thousands of American homes by way of TV channels, records, phone lines and certain computer networks. I’m always a bit sceptical of overwrought rhetoric from politicians running for high office, but in this case I think he is absolutely right. We are experiencing an epidemic of violent, brutal words and images that degrade language and debase the human spirit, especially in children who watch or hear at an age too young to discriminate between what is decent and what is shabby.
I agree with Mr. Dole’s message even if, as his critics are quick to point out, it seems rather carefully timed for political advantage. The Senator wants very much to be president , and my guess is that his recent shot at Hollywood and the recording companies may indeed be closely related to his need to woo the far right Christian Coalition if he hopes to win the Republican nomination. It was probably no accident that he aimed no criticism as such stars of violence as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, who both happen to be ardent Republicans. Nothing was said about Diehard: With a Vengeance, certainly the most mindless glorification of violence now in the theaters but one that happened to be bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch, a generous supporter of Mr. Dole’s political party. Instead, with the wisdom of an experienced politician, he chose to aim at Time Warner which gives money to Democrats. I would probably be selective in the same way if I were trying for the presidency, since it seems impossible to be totally and fair and honest, and still win. So I cheer Senator Dole’s slap at Time Warner, even if his motives are a bit mixed and his targets dictated in part by political consideration.
I tend to use the word “evil” rather sparingly in the pulpit because so much of what was called evil by the fire-and-brimstone preachers of my boyhood came to seem later more like ignorance or weakness that might better be ministered to in more gentle ways. But some things are evil — diabolical and debasing — so bad that no sufficient excuse can be found for them. The Holocaust was evil. And if you value the potential in young people, much of what is purveyed on some TV channels and in movies and by some recording studios is evil. And as the editor of the prestigious Christian Century weekly magazine pointed out a few days ago, you can sometimes name specific agents of that evil. People, he says, like the decision-makers at Time Warner, the giant communications company that publishes Time magazine, runs the largest recording company in the nation, and owns a major Hollywood film studio. I have limited power to show Time Warner how I feel except to stop buying their most popular magazine, which I plan to do with a letter of explanation. . One tiny grain of sand, that’s all it will be, of course — a drop of water in a vast ocean. But what if every subscriber did it for the same reason? The drops of water would become a flood, and that giant corporation might be swayed by subscription losses even if, as Mr. Dole said, they have obviously peddled their souls for money and have no concern for the ethical and moral life of Americans.
When I say that the sleaze peddled by this huge corporation has become inexcusable, I hope I will not be dismissed as a prudish, puritannical, pulpit person who is simply saying what he thinks his job requires. Sex and violence have been portrayed in the arts forever. I hadn’t a moment’s hesitation about teaching Medea or Oedipus Rex from the great age of Greek drama, or Shakespearian tragedies that left the stage littered with bodies. But treatment is everything. It is one thing to deal with sex and violence in ways that ultimately elevate an audience’s sense of the meaning and mystery of human life, and quite another thing to exploit both of them for no other apparent purpose than the profits gained by turning up the shock voltage until calling the result a “nightmare of depravity” seems no overstatement at all. Some of the pornography gets into computer networks where it is now possible for a smart cyberspace kid to download pictures you would not wish to hear described.
Senator Dole hopes to shame these people rather than recommend any kind of censorship. He belongs, after all, to a political party that wants less rather than more government regulation. I hope shame will work. I doubt that it will. As long as the the virulent hatred of gangsta rap is profitable, and as long as there are no regulations against it, my guess is that it will continue until even it becomes too common to shock us anymore and something more offensive yet has to be created to keep the market healthy. Unless — unless, for the common good, we put some restraints on people who have no conscience. I know the shouts of alarm that go up when anyone talks of limiting freedom of expression, but public outrage against the filth now poisoning unprotected, and in some ways unprotectable, children may have made us ready for the imposition of some restraints. I have said it over and over from this pulpit, so it will come as no surprise this morning: absolute freedom is impossible in any human society I can imagine. One man cast ashore on an empty island in the South Pacific may be as free as any of us get, but bring in a second person and if the two are to co-exist, each one will have to defer in certain ways to the needs and concerns of the other. When more people come, until you have first a city and then a nation, the problem of individual rights versus the common good really gets complicated. Even for adults it is illegal to yell “Fire” in that proverbial crowded theater, and if as an adult you abuse children in certain ways, you can be brought into court. Christian Century editor James Wall, whom I mentioned earlier, feels that Time Warner’s filth-for-profit assault on our children is an intolerable form of abuse. “Our children,” he says, “are threatened by the irresponsible behavior of corporate executives who lamely declare that they are giving the public what it wants, and then argue piously that parents should shield their children from cultural pollution.” Some parents will. Some parents won’t. And some parents can’t. We now have a new generation from the homes of the parents who wouldn’t and the parents who couldn’t, and in our shock at what we see in some of them we are starting to wonder how long we can buy the notion that all the burden of censorship must fall on homes and none on the sources of corruption.
Richard Heffner, who retired not long ago after 20 years as chairman of the ratings board of the Motion Picture Assocation of America, pointed out in a recent speech something extremely important. The ratings system that worked fairly well for “out-of-the-home” exhibitions — that is, where the child goes to a movie theater — does not work well at all for what has become more and more an in-the-home, in-your-face industry. The old movies required an intermediary to reach the consumer — namely, the local movie house. The new technology brings debasing violence and raw, brutal language directly into the home, and Mr. Heffner thinks the media masters had better take Robert Dole’s charges seriously or — as he puts it — ‘an angry public will eventually rise up and strike them down.” And that response, he says, may be destructively harsh and uncontrollable, and go far beyond the reasonable restraint Dole and others are calling for.
It seems ironic to me that a factory owner is not allowed to pour toxic waste into the environment without punishment, while the poison made available to our kids is shielded by stretching the idea of freedom of expression to amazing limits. I have a hard time with the idea that my neighbor is prohibited from emptying his garbage into my back yard, but that the immensely profitable factories of moral filth can dump their garbage into the laps of hundreds of thousands of children whose working parents find it difficult to monitor all their children do. It seems ironic to me that the Supreme Court has just said, “Yes, you can test high school athletes, randomly, for drug use” — that this infringement of personal freedom is legal — but that against the poisoning of the mind by people like Time Warner, all we can do is join Mr. Dole in crying, “Shame on you!”
The purveyors of filth defend themselves from regulation by saying, “It’s the job of parents to protect their children. If they find what we peddle objectionable, all they have to do is click the remote control and turn off the TV set, or monitor the records their children bring home.” Well, it is the job of parents, and kids with intelligent, caring parents will be sheltered. But what about the hundreds of thousands of kids who do NOT have intelligent, caring parents, or who have parents who must both work long hours to pay the bills and whose unsupervised children watch the set for hours on end, or sit up in their rooms and play records the parents know nothing about, ask nothing about, are relieved so long a the kids stay quiet.
A public school requires vaccinations, to protect the individual and the whole classroom — an infringement of personal liberty for which most of us are grateful. Why, in what really is a nightmare of depravity, would it be so bad to set some minimum standards of decency and say to smut peddlers, “You do not exceed these limits because those you will harm lack the ability to make healthy choices or lack the parental discipline that would protect them”? I hear people who make millions from filth scream about the horrors of censorship, invoke the First Amendment, sing the praises of unrestricted freedom….but the truth is that for the common good our freedoms are constantly being limited. I am not allowed to run a red light without punishment. I buckle up or face a stiff fine if I am stopped. I favor speed limits that intrude on my freedom to drive as fast as I may wish, aware that if there are no rules some unrestrained speeder may kill me or my child. I’d like to believe that if there were no regulations I would always do the right thing, but I know better about myself and I think you know better about yourself. A complex social life, in a city like this one, works only where certain freedoms are denied for the safety and good of all of us. We may have reached a time when for the good of all of us we need to do more than shout “Shame!” at those who obviously feel none.
A man named Michael Medved made a speech recently to students at Abilene Christian University where I once spent a couple of years and met a girl in their choir who now sings in ours. He makes a living by keeping himself well informed about movies as a co-host of “Sneak Previews” on PBS, and the chief film critic for the New York Post. As a guest in the ACU Distinguished Speakers series he told the students that by the time the typical American kids are six years old they will have spent more hours watching TV than they will spend talking to their fathers in an entire lifetime. He calls that “the most frightening statistic” about the power of the media in people’s lives, a power he thinks we still do not comprehend adequately.
Millions of us are desperately concerned about what we eat. We worry about how much cholesterol there is in this item, how much fat there is in the vanilla wafers. You can see in any grocery store women poring over labels to be sure what they buy is not harmful to their families. It now takes Billie twice as long to shop because she spends so much time in the aisles struggling with the small print of nutritional data, having left her glasses at home! I’m grateful, but I am distressed that many mothers who do that can be so unconcerned, back at the house, about the images and messages pouring into the minds of their children from films, TV, and recording studios.
Medved talked to the Abilene Christian students about the deliberate lies which Hollywood and recording companies tell the public. “It’s just entertainment,” they say piously. “We don’t influence anyone.” Even the industry executives don’t believe that one, he says, because if they really did they should refund billions of dollars they accept for advertising. Sponsors who spend fortunes to tout products on TV do it not from charity but because they know clever ads will influence peoiple to buy. A recent letter to the New York Times says it about as sensibly as it can be said: “I’d like to pose a question. If children (and adults) are not influenced by what they see and hear on television, why are commercials, many of which appeal neither to reason or logic, so effective? Be assured that if these commercials were not effective, the sponsors would take them off the air. If the commercials affect people, why wouldn’t program content affect eople?” Or, as thge sage of Chicago, Mr. Royko, says pungently: “If great art is good for us, real junk has to be bad for us. You can’t say that Shakespeare elevates us, but Madonna has no impact.”
Another media defense goes like this: “We don’t create reality, we just reflect it.” This blatant lie unravels quickly for anyone willing to think about it. Taste can be created, and is created all the time. I have gotten rid of suits and ties and slacks not because they were worn out but because the fashion industry decided to change my tastes and put pictures before my eyes that convinced me I must get with it. It is not simply a fact that we buy what we want. It is equally a fact that we tend to want what becomes available and is persuasively merchandised. Advertising lives by the principle that taste can be manipulated, that people who never heard of a product or thought of using it can be made to want it if the advertising is clever and persistent enough.
Smut peddlers plead their case on the grounds that if people did not demand it, smut would not exist. But they know that when they flood the market with their product they invest it with a kind of respectability. Parents who try to instill morality during their children’s upbringing get caught in a frustrating dilemma. They learn that it is almost mpossible to enforce normal morality when these standareds are not upheld by institutions in the community. The fatal accusation of being called “old fashioned” often shocks parents into paralysis and they give in to what the media has convinced their children is the “in” thing to do. They need help.
As for use of the First Amendment by the peddlers of smut, let me remind you of something. That Amendment says Congress ahll make no laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion, nor shall it abridge the freedom of speech or of the press. This is invariably interpreted to mean absolute freedom, and that is patently untrue to the intention of that amendment. When I used an encyclopedia to check the exact wording of the First Amendment I observed the following commentary printed just beneath it with words so appropriate for my purpose that I want you to hear them. “None of the rights protected in Amendment 1 can be considered absolute. For example, Congress cannot prohibit the free exercise of religion, but it could pass legislation against any sect which practices customs contrary to morality. Some Mormons held that it was entirely proper for a man to take more than one wife. But the clause protecting freedom of religion did not extend to this practice.”
“In the same way,” the entry went on, “it has been held that Congress may abridge the freedom of speech….in times of ‘clear and present danger’ to the state.”So the real issue, then, is not whether freedom is absolute, because it obviously cannot be, but how and when one discovers a “clear and present danger” to the state. I get the feeling that we are closer than ever to a consensus that such a danger exists, and that the time has come to impose some restraints against those who are creating a “nightmare of depravity.” If I am grateful to the health department when it closes a restaurant serving contaminated food, I see no adequate reason to grant unlimited freedom to those who glorify copkilling, rape, bestiality, and child pornography. We justify a war on drugs, admitting as we wage it that the vast profits in that industry make it hard for us to win.. The same profit motives, driving an unparalleled assault on decency, will make it hard to win but we need to wage war against the current nightmare of depravity.
For those who meet here, what can be more compelling than this urgent plea from the writings we call sacred: “And now, my friends, all that is true, all that is noble, all that is…. pure [and] admirable and gracious….fill …. your thoughts with these things.” If that strikes you as a goal for yourself and your children, work at it. Parents have always had to be censors, but that job has never been more essential than it is now.

Deliver us, Eternal God, from the notion that we are oldfashioned
to insist on nourishing ourselves and our children with what is
noble, admirable, and gracious