American Spectator publisher Terry Eastland, who is a lawyer as well, is even less restrained than Bennett. “Censor the mass media? In theory, I agree.” But he, too, concedes there are practical objections. There is the tricky matter, for example, of American law which “stands in the way” of the kind of censorship Lowenthal is proposing, particularly as it has been interpreted for the past 50 years.
Behind current interpretations of the law, moreover, there is still that unruly beast, the American people. “Persuading the public” to abandon its prejudice against censorship would be impractical as a result of the moral decline of the culture in recent decades. In providing a Bill of Rights that included the First Amendment, Eastland reminds us, the founders counted on “a certain degree of virtue in the people,” a condition that in his view it can no longer meet. He refers to this state of affairs as “the disabling of America.”
Then it is Irving Kristol’s turn. The éminence grise of American neo-conservatism could not be happier with Lowenthal’s authoritarian vision. “I want to welcome David Lowenthal to the Walter Berns-Robert Bork-Irving Kristol club,” he writes. “Each of us has, in the last three decades, argued in favor of censorship …”
(A recent conversation I had with Judge Bork, however, suggests that he is having second thoughts about his membership in this club because of the use that is being made of its arguments.) Like Bennett and Eastland, Kristol finds the otherwise worthy project of censorship unworkable owing to the sorry state of the American people who can’t be counted on to support it.
Bizarrely, Kristol attributes this resistance to the influence of the post-’60s culture and the left’s institutional dominance of the American Bar Association, the law schools and the media. These institutions, Kristol concludes, would crucify any nominee to the nation’s higher courts who indicated a pro-censorship bias.
Kristol is certainly right about liberal resistance to censorship when liberals are convinced the censor’s axe will fall on the artistic avant-garde and other left-wing communities they favor. On the other hand, the left has already shown that it wants to censor the offensive speech of its opponents and the violent imagery of the media.
Kristol fails to take into account the fact that leftists can disagree among themselves. They can also be adept at employing double standards that allow them to support the censorship of others while abhorring censorship of themselves. He seems unaware of how his position makes him a bedfellow of feminist harridans like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, and moral busybodies like Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore.
Among the commentators assembled by the Standard, only government professor Jeremy Rabkin seems to appreciate that the censors who would implement Lowenthal’s proposal would inevitably be drawn from the class of political missionaries whose passion in life is to tell the rest of us how to live.
“The people prepared to take the job would be ideologues — mostly of the crazy left, perhaps also of the religious right, but certainly ideologues,” he writes. (perhaps also of the religious right?!) Censorship by such zealots, Rabkin does recognize, is “a recipe for a very nasty sort of politics and is sure to be self-defeating.” Once again, the strongest criticism that can be mustered against this proto-fascist agenda is that it is impractical.
What is going on here? What happened to the conservative attitude that government can’t tie its shoelaces without putting entire populations in danger? How is it that a government unable to hand out money to poor people without destroying families and communities in the process can be entrusted with the infinitely more complex task of deciding what is — and what is not — morally healthy for 270 million diverse people to hear and see? How could any self-respecting conservative not be repelled by a social prescription like Lowenthal’s that overlooks this little problem of social engineering?