Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Year of Living Indecently

The New York Times
February 6, 2005
The Year of Living Indecently

LET us be grateful that Janet Jackson did not bare both breasts.

On the first anniversary of the Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction that shook the world, it's clear that just one was big enough to wreak havoc. The ensuing Washington indecency crusade has unleashed a wave of self-censorship on American television unrivaled since the McCarthy era, with everyone from the dying D-Day heroes in "Saving Private Ryan" to cuddly animated animals on daytime television getting the ax. Even NBC's presentation of the Olympics last summer, in which actors donned body suits to simulate "nude" ancient Greek statues, is currently under federal investigation.

Public television is now so fearful of crossing its government patrons that it is flirting with self-immolation. Having disowned lesbians in the children's show "Postcards From Buster" and stripped suspect language from "Prime Suspect" on "Masterpiece Theater," PBS is editing its Feb. 23 broadcast of "Dirty War," the HBO-BBC film about a terrorist attack, to remove a glimpse of female nudity in a scene depicting nuclear detoxification. Next thing you know they'll be snipping lascivious flesh out of a documentary about Auschwitz.

This repressive cultural environment was officially ratified on Nov. 2, when Ms. Jackson's breast pulled off its greatest coup of all: the re-election of President Bush. Or so it was decreed by the media horde that retroactively declared "moral values" the campaign's decisive issue and the Super Bowl the blue states' Waterloo. The political bosses of "family" organizations, well aware that TV's collective wisdom becomes reality whether true or not, have been emboldened ever since. They are spending their political capital like drunken sailors, redoubling their demands that the Bush administration marginalize gay people, stamp out sex education and turn pop culture into a continuous loop of "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm."

With Sunday's Super Bowl, their crusade has scored a touchdown. MTV has been replaced as halftime producer by Don Mischer, the go-to guy for a guaranteed snoozefest; his credits include the Tony Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors and the 2004 Democratic National Convention at which the balloons failed to drop. (His subsequent cursing was heard on CNN, but escaped government sanction because no Republicans were watching.) Fox Sports Net has changed the title of its signature program "Best Damn Sports Show Period" to "Best Darn Super Bowl Road Show Period." The commercials, too, will "be careful" and in "good taste," according to the head of marketing for Anheuser-Busch. Fox, which recently pixilated the bottom of a cartoon toddler in a rerun of the series "Family Guy," now has someone on full-time rear-end alert: it rejected a comic spot for Airborne, a cold remedy, showing the backside of the 84-year-old Mickey Rooney as he leaves a sauna.

This might all be laughable were the government not expanding its role as cultural cop. But it is. The departures of Michael Powell, the Savonarola of the Federal Communications Commission, and John Ashcroft, whose parallel right-breast fixation was stimulated by a statue in the Justice Department, are red herrings. "Thank God he's gone, but God help us with what's next," said Howard Stern upon learning of Mr. Powell's imminent exit. He's right. After all, L. Brent Bozell of the Parents Television Council condemned Mr. Powell for "four years of failed leadership" in fighting indecency. (Mr. Powell's commission had the temerity to actually reject some Parents Television Council jeremiads, which are distinguished by their inordinate obsession with the penis.) Mr. Bozell, whose organization has been second to none in increasing the number of annual indecency complaints from 111 in 2000 to a million-plus last year, is angling for a tougher successor and may well get one.

His wish has in effect been granted even before Mr. Powell's chair is filled. The second Bush term began with the installation of a powerful new government censor in another big job, Secretary of Education. Margaret Spellings hadn't even been officially sworn into the cabinet when she took on "Postcards From Buster," threatening PBS with decreased financing because one episode had the show's eponymous animated rabbit hobnobbing with actual lesbian moms while visiting Vermont to learn how maple syrup is made. Though Buster had in previous installments visited Muslims, Mormons, Orthodox Jews and Pentecostal Christians, gay couples (even when not identified as such on camera) are verboten to our new Secretary of Education. "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode," Ms. Spellings wrote in her threatening letter to Pat Mitchell, the C.E.O. of PBS.

The letter, as it happened, was unnecessary: Public broadcasting says that it had decreed on its own only a few hours earlier that it would not distribute the offending show - the most alarming example yet of just how cowardly it has become and how chilling the Janet Jackson effect has been. (Since then, some two dozen member stations out of a total of 349 have rebeled and decided to broadcast the episode anyway.) But the story won't end with this one incident. Ms. Spellings' threats against PBS are only the latest chapter in a continuing saga at an education department that increasingly resembles an authoritarian government's ministry of information.

A month before the election, The Los Angeles Times reported on its front page that the department had quietly destroyed more than 300,000 copies of "a booklet designed for parents to help their children learn history" after Lynne Cheney, who has no official government role, complained about its contents. The booklet burning occurred under the watch of Rod Paige, the education secretary who, we would later learn, was simultaneously complicit in another sub rosa exercise in heavy-handed government information management: the payment of $240,000 in taxpayers' funds to Armstrong Williams, a talking head and columnist, to plug Bush administration policies on radio and TV.

Mr. Paige fled his post last month without adequately explaining what he knew about these scandals. Enter Ms. Spellings, previously a White House aide who by some accounts had been a shadow administrator of the education department during Mr. Paige's out-to-lunch tenure. With all the other troubles in public education, why would she focus on a single episode of a single children's program on her second day in the job? We don't yet know. But her act was nothing if not ideologically synergistic with still another freshly uncovered Bush propaganda effort. Just as Ms. Spellings busted Buster, two more syndicated columnists copped to receiving taxpayers' dollars, this time siphoned through the Department of Health and Human Services, to help craft propaganda for a Bush "healthy marriage initiative" that disdains same-sex couples as fervently as Ms. Spellings did in her letter to PBS.

What makes this story more insidious still is the glaring reality that the most prominent Republican lesbians in America are Mary Cheney, a former gay and lesbian marketing liaison for Coors beer, and her partner, Heather Poe, who appeared as a couple in public and on TV during the presidential campaign. That Ms. Spellings would gratuitously go after this specific "lifestyle" right after taking office is so provocative it smells like payback specifically pitched at those "pro-family" watchdogs who snarled at the mention of Ms. Cheney's sexual orientation during the campaign whether it was by John Kerry or anyone else. Surely Ms. Spellings doesn't believe in discrimination against nontraditional families: by her own account, she was a single mother who had to park her 13-year-old and 8-year-old children in Austin when she first went to work at the White House. Then again, President Bush went on record last month as saying that "studies have shown that the ideal is where a child is being raised by a man and a woman" (even though, as The New York Times reported, "there is no scientific evidence that children raised by gay couples do any worse").

That our government is now both intimidating PBS and awarding public money to pundits to enforce "moral values" agendas demonizing certain families is the ugliest fallout of the campaign against indecency. That campaign cannot really banish salaciousness from pop culture, a rank impossibility in a market economy where red and blue customers are united in their infatuation with "Desperate Housewives." But it can create public policy that discriminates against anyone on the hit list of moral values zealots. Inane as it may seem that Ms. Spellings is conducting a witch hunt against Buster or that James Dobson has taken aim at SpongeBob SquarePants, there's a method to their seeming idiocy: the cartoon surrogates are deliberately chosen to camouflage the harshness of their assault on nonanimated, flesh-and-blood people.

This, too, has its antecedent in the McCarthy era. In his novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," Michael Chabon was extrapolating from actual history when one of his heroes, a gay comic book artist, is hauled before Congress to testify about pairing up "strapping young fellows in tight trousers" as superheroes. A Senate committee of the time did investigate the comics. Its guiding force was the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham's fear-mongering 1954 tome "Seduction of the Innocent," which posited that Batman and Robin could corrupt children by inducing a "wish dream of two homosexuals living together." The decency cops of that day, exemplified by closeted gay right-wingers like J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn, escalated a culture war into one with human costs by conflating homosexuality with the criminality of treason.

One big difference between that America and ours is that the culture industry, public broadcasting not included, has gained much more power since then. Should Sunday's Super Bowl falter in the ratings, its creators will lure that missing audience back next year with wardrobe malfunctions that haven't even been invented yet.

But gay parents whose "lifestyle" is vilified by a cabinet officer don't have that power. They're vulnerable even in a state like Vermont that respects their civil rights. "I feel sick about it," Karen Pike of Hinesburg, Vt., told The Burlington Free Press, after learning that PBS had orphaned the "Buster" episode showing her, her partner and their three children. "I understand they get public funding, but they should be the one station we feel confident in, in knowing that what we see there represents our country."

No one had told her that some stories are no longer welcome. You have to wonder if anyone has told Mary Cheney: Focus on the Family could not have been pleased to read last week's New York Post report that she has hired Bill Clinton's high-powered literary dealmaker to peddle her own story as a book.