Reviews > Culture

Two definitions of freedom

Culture | Artists and children need to learn moral self-government

Issue: "The Sudan crisis," June 10, 2000

The mavens of the entertainment industry-the television barons, movie producers, rockers and rappers, cable executives, and Internet tycoons-are sounding like advocates for "family values." In opposing any measures to make them clean up their acts, they piously invoke parental responsibility. Not the government, not laws, not artists, but parents and only parents should have the say-so in what their children are exposed to in the media.

This is certainly true, but it is also a convenient cop-out. If parents did,

collectively, exercise their responsibility as the entertainment industry recommends, a good number of the industry's products would go unwatched, unheard, and unbought. The producers must be pretty sure that a widespread parental crackdown is not likely to happen.

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Parents do have the responsibility, but they would like a little help. But the Supreme Court struck down even the small request to keep scrambled-but-still-audible pornography off cable channels during times when kids are still up and channel surfing.

Non-subscribers to a "premium" channel, such as HBO or the Playboy Channel, get a scrambled picture, but typically the audio-complete with profanities and sex-talk-makes it through, and the images themselves sometimes come into clear relief. In 1996, Congress passed a law that required cable operators either to completely block cable sex channels for non-subscribers or to restrict such programming to between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.

The Playboy Channel--along with Spice and the Hot Network--filed suit, and the Supreme Court agreed that the law is an unconstitutional infringement of the freedom of speech. It is up to parents to protect children from bad influences, the court said. Individual families may demand that cable companies put a block on their own line, which can be done without blocking everyone. There are also other blocking devices, the court noted, such as the V-chip.

The V-chip-which allows TV sets to filter out shows with objectionable ratings-is now a standard feature of all new TVs. But by all accounts, almost no one uses it. Even the federal task force that oversees the V-chip law complains that parents ignore the feature.

This is understandable. The rating system is so inconsistent that filtering out TV-Ms (a rating almost never given on nonsubscriber networks) or TV-14s does nothing to protect children from TV-PGs, which are nearly as bad. And if parents blocked everything that is objectionable for their children, there would be little for them to watch. They would have to surf from one blue screen to another, underscoring how the true solution is the black screen: Just turn it off and keep it off.

Parents should scrutinize their children's computer games and CDs. But it is almost impossible to catch problems until they have already happened-until a child watches a show, visits a chat-room, or purchases a CD. Then the parent has to go through with a messy, emotional confrontation. Why shouldn't the culture make it a little easier on parents? Why should parents have to protect their children from their own culture?

We are hearing more and more about the family values of members of the entertainment industry. We hear of movie producers who do not let their own children see the movies they make for other people's children. Many hard-core rappers do not want their children listening to hard-core rap. So why are they corrupting other people's children?

If artists--including the whole array of the entertainment industry, nearly all of whom think of themselves as artists--would exercise more discretion about the products of their own craft, they need fear neither government censorship nor angry parents. This would mean holding a higher view of their own art, which would become not merely an occasion for

a degrading self-expression, nor a commercial commodity pandering to the marketplace. Rather, they could use their creativity as a means of making something good.

Of course, in the absence of a biblical worldview, this is unlikely to happen. But it is worth remembering that the American founders considered the essence of freedom to be in self-government--not just in the political sense, but in the moral sense. Those who control their own behavior do not need coercive governments to keep them in line. This is also the key to genuine artistic freedom.

For parents, the challenge is not simply to use external restraints to keep cultural decadence away from their children. Rather, their challenge is to form the character of their children morally and spiritually so that they themselves will recognize and reject what is bad. Parents have to teach their

children how to be free.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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