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Hell in a Handbasket

By Russ Smith | Posted 4/20/2005

If you ask this disgusted observer of America’s current “cultural war,” hysterics on both sides of the political spectrum jabbering daily about the degeneration of society ought to avail themselves of all those anti-depressants you see advertised on television.

The New York Times wasted a lot of space last week trashing John Bolton, speculating that his confirmation as ambassador to the United Nations would be an insult to an institution that, in my opinion, is so shabby and deferential to dictators around the globe that a man like the blunt Baltimorean is just what it needs. The Washington Post wasn’t enthusiastic, but, unlike its Manhattan-based counterpart, gave an endorsement to Bolton.

The Times, however, did find time in an April 16 editorial to focus on the shortcomings of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the soft-knuckled politician who indulges a fantasy of succeeding George W. Bush as president. The increasingly bitter tabloid dressed as a broadsheet criticized Frist for appearing in an ad sponsored by the conservative Family Research Council about the Democratic refusal to allow Bush’s judicial nominees a fair majority vote in the Senate.

Dumb politics on Frist’s part—that’s what lobbyists are for—but the Times comes off worse simply for the editorial’s lead sentence. “Right-wing Christian groups and the Republican politicians they bankroll,” it reads, “have done much since the last election to impose their particular religious views on all Americans.” Come again? “Right-wing Christian groups” haven’t had a dash of influence on this American’s religious views, and it’s paranoia (or propaganda) of the highest magnitude to advance such an undocumented attack.

On another front, Brent Bozell, president of the vitriolic, take-me-back-to-the-imaginary-1950s Media Research Center, is equally nutty in his ubiquitous columns and TV appearances ranting about the supposed sewer-dwelling of entertainers in the United States today. On April 8, Bozell set his sights on an easy target, Sin City, a harmless and forgettable film that he claims has shocked theatergoers by the “gratuitous level of violence and sexual depravity” that zooms by in two hours.

It was my misfortune to see Sin City at the Senator Theatre in its first week of release, goaded by my 12-year-old son, a budding cineaste whose bedroom is festooned with posters of Quentin Tarantino films, and I took a peek at my watch every 10 minutes or so. But it wasn’t because of the cartoon violence—mutilation, castration, decapitation, you know, the usual horror effects that have no absolutely no shock value in the 21st century—but rather that, aside from stylish cinematography, the film was badly acted and dull.

Bozell goes on to chide critics such as Slate’s David Edelstein and the Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter, who found Sin City a worthwhile experience. Bozell, a morals arbiter who’s just as obnoxious as his opposite, the Times’ Frank Rich, ludicrously declares: “Slate.com should never be allowed to lecture anyone ever again about morality of any kind.”

This man is so self-righteous that he probably didn’t even realize that he’s proposing censorship, even in half-jest, when his own writing is just as offensive about morals as Edelstein’s to about half the country. Bozell concludes: “Film is not just entertaining, it can be intoxicating. It can be a very malignant influence. Can you sit on the fence as this cinematic disease spreads? Just wait until the Sin City DVD starts traveling around in teenager backpacks.”

I’m sure time will stand still.

Bozell’s equivalents in the 1960s made similar dire forecasts about the Beatles’ visits to the U.S. and films like I Am Curious (Yellow). What about the violence in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films or almost any western or war movie that starred conservative icon John Wayne? Somehow the country survived, mostly because entertainment evolves (although Green Day sure does sound like the Clash), and Americans exercise the freedom of choice to consume the music, books, and movies of their preference.

Meanwhile, pragmatic Democrats are desperately trying to present themselves as cultural moderates to conservative voters. In an April 16 OpinionJournal.com piece, Dan Gerstein, a former strategist for Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a notorious Hollywood scold, practically begged his colleagues to embrace restraints on entertainment. He writes: “One can only imagine how insulting our [the libertine Democrats] elitism is to the average mother in the exurbs of Georgia or Colorado who might be uncomfortable with open talk of threesomes on Friends at 8 p.m.”

I like Lieberman’s courageous foreign policy views, but domestically he’s pretty squishy. How does his adviser know that a Georgian mother is offended by Friends? And there are plenty of John Kerry voters here in Maryland who find that particular show and R-rated movies harmful. Political partisans, on both sides, ought to realize by now that they can’t have it all.

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