They Want It, but They're Ashamed of Themselves

September 07, 1995|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- The New York Times asked Americans what they think of American popular culture. The response was ''starkly negative:'' People blame television as the principal force behind teen-age violence and irresponsible sex, and more generally, for its degrading influence upon public standards.

More than half the adults polled could not think of a single positive thing to say about American television, movies or popular music, while nine out of ten had bad things to say about them. They objected not only to sex and violence, but to vulgarity, bias and plain stupidity in the products of the popular cultural industry.

Yet although more than 80 percent believe that TV programs should have ratings to warn about their content, only 39 percent believed that government should make the ratings, and only 40 percent thought it should be left to industry, while 63 percent said it would make no difference to what children actually watched. Roughly the same views were expressed with respect to video games and pop music.

Against this popular condemnation of the popular cultural industry, a curious alliance of wealth and ideology defends it. Those who profit from providing violent entertainment say it is what the marketplace demands, and are supported by a civil-liberties lobby which denies that violence in entertainment has anything to do with how people behave. The latter does this in the name of unlimited freedom of expression in every possible medium, deriving this position from its commitment to the defense of political expression.

Ira Glasser, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, recently maintained (again in the Times) that there is no evidence of a causal connection between television and violence, and that to say otherwise invites censorship. He said that studies which purport to demonstrate such a connection merely show correlation between discrete phenomena -- like concluding that because ''the rate at which grass grows correlates with the number of drownings'' in summertime, the latter is caused by the former.

Such sophistry is deployed against the fact that American business and politicians spend billions of dollars on television because they know that television does influence behavior. It defies the ordinary parent's experience of the effects of popular entertainment upon own children. This is one reason the ACLU in recent years has increasingly marginalized itself, tending to become a disintegrative and destructive influence on American society.

Industry says it gives the public what it wants. It is perfectly true that profits lie in the appeal to what is most base in people. The steady slide not only of American television and films but of magazines and newspapers toward what is most vulgar and demagogic demonstrates that the public is implicated.

Nonetheless, as this poll demonstrates, the public is ashamed of itself. It is true that this is hypocrisy. But civilization has always been sustained by the hypocrisy of defending public standards of conduct superior to those which many, or even most, observe in their private lives.

The wish to attach public reprobation and shame to certain forms of conduct is an acknowledgment that a superior standard of conduct exists, which society wishes respected -- even in the breach. The existence of the standard invites public emulation, exercising an educational and normative influence.

The broadcasting networks once provided important loss-making public-service programs. The NBC Symphony Orchestra, created for Arturo Toscanini, performed each week in prime-time. CBS television broadcast experimental drama and distinguished documentaries in the 1950s. These existed because the law required public service from the broadcasting companies, but also because David Sarnoff and William Paley believed that it was a matter of personal as well as corporate self-respect to present such programs.

The American presidents since the war can be classified as having offered either dynamism, to reform society, or the maintenance of standards -- implicitly, moral and social standards. Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Clinton all won office by saying they would shake up society or change the national course. Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, Carter and Bush offered reassurance that standards of American public life and society would be defended. Harry Truman and Gerald Ford were accidental presidents, but in office were standards-defenders.

Today the appeal of Bill Bradley and Colin Powell as possible independent presidential candidates is that they seem to represent a higher standard of public life. On the other hand the Gingrich wing of the Republican party has about it an air of adventurism and irresponsibility, while the more conservative Republican candidates are tainted by the cynicism with which they have compromised with extremist opinion.

When public opinion about the standards people want in public life and popular culture is confronted with a deliberate and cynical political demagogy, and a continuing search by major corporations for profit in degrading entertainment, finding ideological support from both civil libertarians and believers in the unrestricted marketplace, there has to be a bad outcome.

The rage of citizens against the country's establishment has already provoked violence from one alienated segment of the public, and there is massive electoral non-participation. There is also, as this Times poll shows, much despair that either government or industry will do anything to meet the public's demands for higher standards. These are serious warnings.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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