It is true that most Republicans opposed the V-chip when it was first floated by the White House team. It was only by striking a devil’s-pact with a rump group of Republicans from the Christian right that Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey was able to sneak the V-chip into the 1996 telecommunications bill.
But once the Clinton White House showed them how politically popular censorship could be — and how much easier it was to fight crime on television than in the streets — Republicans began to pile on. First it was Bill Bennett, then John McCain and most recently, Henry Hyde.
Liberals and conservatives, of course, have different demons they want to exorcise — which creates the illusion that their instincts for censorship are different. For liberals, it’s violence; for conservatives, sex. In the wake of the Columbine tragedy, Hyde thought he had a found a way to split the difference by defining violence as “obscene” and making it a criminal offense to purvey obscene violent images to children.
Though the Hyde amendment (mercifully) failed, it had support across the left-right spectrum, including Republican moderates like Christopher Shays, Sherwood Boehlert and Jim Greenwood, as well as conservatives like Helen Chenoweth and Steve Largent.
Violent obscenity was defined in the amendment as a “visual depiction of an actual or simulated display of, or a detailed verbal description or narrative account of a sadistic or masochistic flagellation by or upon a person, torture by or upon a person, acts of mutilation of the human body, or rape.”
Lawyers for the Interdigital Software Association (makers of video games) pointed out that under this definition, the whipping of the slave Kunte Kinte in “Roots” would qualify as obscene and would send its makers to jail if the video was marketed to minors. They also wondered whether the law would apply to violent acts committed on animated characters.
Which brings us to “South Park,” the most irreverent and — for some of us — the most irresistible opposition to the tide of Savonarolism sweeping the two national parties. Cultural reactionaries are already in various stages of apoplexy over the moon-faced midgets whose political incorrectness has made them a cult obsession.
According to a Focus on the Family publication, “South Park” is a “twisted new series about a group of foul-mouthed third-graders.” “The spoiled chubby kid responds to taunts with shouts of “go to hell” and “screw you,” notes the publication.
An AP story indicates how broad the potential backlash is: “Denise Clapham, a mother of four from Brunswick, N.Y. [is] not thrilled that her 16-year-old son and his friends are fans.” Says Clapham of the show: “I think they can be funny without being that far out, and I’m a liberal.”
Well, some of us would not agree.
Peggy Charen, the most celebrated liberal champion of the children’s television hour, faults the show’s tone and the way the kids throw racial slurs around. “It’s the words they use in ordinary life, in the cafeteria, in the school room, that’s dangerous to the democracy,” according to Charen.
My hunch is that what she really doesn’t like is the send-up of the sensitivity crowd which has made her their hero. In a famous episode of “South Park” called “Damien,” a new kid comes into the class: