Clinton and the Culture Wars

November 29, 1992

President-elect Clinton's recent remarks about sex and violence in the media offer a small but revealing example of why politicians shouldn't try to turn the work of artists, writers and filmmakers into grist for the political mill.

In a TV Guide interview published after the election, Mr. Clinton said he was "mortified" by some of what is shown on television and suggested Hollywood should take the lead in "deglamorizing mindless sex and violence." He then went on to claim television ** and filmmakers could do this "without undermining their artistic integrity."

Many Americans probably agree with him. Certainly many people suspect that violent movies and television are an unhealthy influence, especially on children. But problems arose when Mr. Clinton tried to specify what he would like to see changed:

"For instance, I thought the movie 'Boyz N the Hood' did a very good job of showing the superficial appeal of the gang culture and why it worked for kids who were fundamentally disconnected," he said. "But it also showed. . . mindless killing."

Well, yes, the movie did depict instances of "mindless killing." But surely the motive behind such scenes was to show the tragic results of precisely the kind of social alienation and isolation Mr. Clinton praised the movie for addressing. To not show such scenes, or to depict the murderous consequences of gang warfare in bloodless, prettified form would constitute a betrayal of both the truth and the filmmaker's artistic vision.

Mr. Clinton rightly criticized Vice President Dan Quayle's campaign attack on the unwed heroine of TV's "Murphy Brown." He said Mr. Quayle "picked the wrong target and was obviously trying to politicize it." Yet Mr. Clinton apparently failed to see the connection between his own remarks about "Boyz N the Hood" and Mr. Quayle's Hollywood-bashing.

In a society saturated by media, it may be too much to expect politicians to avoid sounding off about their likes and dislikes. But ultimately it must be remembered that their job is to run the government -- not decide what citizens should read, listen to or watch.

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