The editors also invited four distinguished conservative intellectuals — Bill Bennett, Irving Kristol, Terry Eastland and Jeremy Rabkin — to contribute their wisdom.
Lowenthal’s manifesto turns out to be a screed on behalf of full-blown moral dictatorship by government guardians of what the public should see and hear, and what it should not. According to Lowenthal, Hollywood is so “enamored of its profits” no appeals to its conscience will work. On the other hand, without drastic measures to stop the current flow of cultural filth, the prospects for the nation are dire indeed.
“The mass media,” Lowenthal writes, have become “the prime educational force in the country,” and their “pernicious” influence already overwhelms that of “schools, synagogues and churches.” They have “immersed us” in violence as well as sexual depravity, “habituated us to the most extreme brutality” and “surrounded us by images of hateful human types so memorable as to cause a psychological insecurity that is dangerous.”
Nothing less than the future of civilization is at stake and no power short of the state is sufficient to save us:
“Government, and government alone, has a chance of blocking this descent into decadence … The choice is clear: either a rigorous censorship of the mass media … or an accelerating descent into barbarism and the destruction, sooner or later of free society itself.” Even more distressing than this horrifying jeremiad is the failure of any of the conservative commentators assembled by the Standard to find it just that — horrifying.
“I agree with much in professor Lowenthal’s article,” writes Bill Bennett, while defining himself as a “First Amendment absolutist.” But how absolute is Bennett’s commitment to the First Amendment when he does not reject Lowenthal’s proposal on absolute grounds?
Instead of condemning it as the reflection of an anti-democratic mentality, he argues for its rejection on the grounds of its political imprudence. The “main problem for Lowenthal’s argument,” writes Bennett, “is democracy itself, specifically the current state of thinking among the American people: They do not want, to use Lowenthal’s words, ‘rigorous censorship.’” And if they did, that would be all right?
What Bennett proposes is an effort, using the authority of government, to bring the industry to heel by a combination of public humiliation and government threat: “Among other things, Congress ought to begin treating the entertainment industry the same way it treats the gun and tobacco industries: Invite the executives to testify in public, let them defend [themselves] … Is there anything you won’t sell? Why was this ugly, stupid, horrible scene put in this movie?”
So now congressmen are going to be entertainment critics. I wonder if Bennett has tried to imagine the scene if Parliament had hauled Shakespeare before it in the time of Elizabeth to explain why both eyes of the 80-year-old Duke of Gloucester are plucked out on stage in King Lear, or a virginal Ophelia has such obscene fantasies in Hamlet or why eight people are killed in the last scene of the same play. “Mr. Shakespeare! Is this really necessary? Don’t you find eight corpses a little excessive? Have you no shame, sir?”