Lieberman and the Ghost of Agnew
Friday, September 15 2000, 8:45 PM
Archmoralists never have to say they are sorry about gutting the First Amendment. They rip the guts out and make love to the constitutional corpse, just like in a Dennis Cooper novel. The difference is that Cooper makes ethical statements by acknowledging sex and violence as constituent elements of human nature, whereas Joe Lieberman demands that they be excised from American culture.
Since sex and violence are not going to disappear from the United States or elsewhere anytime soon, running a campaign against them is as meaningless as making stump speeches against the iniquities of death.
By traversing the country praising the Divine Name and calling for a New Moral Order, Joe Lieberman has worn out the small welcome granted him as a change from the usual ethnic line-up. The prospect of suffering four years of a more intelligent and truly God-fearing version of Spiro Agnew galls.
In truth, it would be preferable if Spiro's Ghost could be persuaded to return and run for VP again, since the sight of a fool preaching nonsense is always more enjoyable than earnest men doing God's errands. With Agnew there was always the pleasure of watching the hypocrisy of a man who damned the immoral media with flaming alliteration and then sat down for a private screening of Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat.
If Spiro Agnew was the loudmouthed town crier of American Puritanism, a corrupt officeholder who disregarded his own words, then Joe Lieberman arrives as the stern and righteous magistrate.
Lieberman's record as an ostentatious moralist might have predicted his appearance as a one-man Moral Majority and the Democratic Party's response to political fallout from Bill Clinton's sex drive. Bill Bennett, the ex officio Republican sex-and-violence czar, has been Joe Lieberman's most loving extracurricular relationship. On their bipartisan fling a year ago they joined in championing the 'Appeal to Hollywood' calling for voluntary self-censorship to make movies safe for America.
Now Gore and Lieberman have elevated this same idea into a centerpiece of their virtue campaign. They are co-opting the Republican Party on culture, just like the Clinton administration co-opted crime as a Democratic Party issue. Eminem will serve the New Democrats as their whipping boy of choice, conveniently avoiding discussion of Eminem as a class phenomenon. Legislative proposals like the Media Violence Labeling Act are the new game and cultural scapegoats are the winning ticket.
There is a new McCarthyism abroad in America that demands we relinquish First Amendment protections. It recognizes with exceeding reluctance that free speech remains legally protected, but insists that all decent citizens should refrain from exercising these protections. In the 1950s the Fifth Amendment was treated as now Lieberman, McCain, Bennett and many more would have us treat the First Amendment. Visualizations of sex and violence are being turned into the new Fifth Amendment communists, hiding their illegitimacy behind the beneficence of over-liberal readings of the US constitution.
It was this McCarthyite censorial specter that compelled Robert Pitofsky, chair of the Federal Trade Commission, to present its report on violence in entertainment together with the statement that "I don't want the Federal Trade Commission to be the thought police." Yet the commission served precisely such an anti-democratic purpose, notifying Hollywood that the Feds were on their case. Even as Pitofsky denied censorship intentions, he outraged constitutional protections.
Moralism easily becomes a mask for anti-democracy. Published and broadcast offenses to public morals, on the other hand, are some of the oldest and sturdiest guardians of democracy. As far back as the 1840s-50s, when the 'penny dreadfuls' hawked sex and violence they also printed the radical democratism of George Lippard, early novelist, labor advocate, and women's suffrage advocate. A century later in the 1950s, the putative corruptions of comic books were still causing masturbation, social disorders and Communism.
Yet by 1960, when Justice Michael Musmano frothed so famously in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Robbins over the sexuality of Henry Miller's prose and "vermin crawling out of our schoolchildren's desks", his minority dissent seemed part of a rearguard defense of official barriers against free expression. Library censorship fights nonetheless were held over the Evergreen Review throughout that decade and the First Amendment remained under attack. During the '80s and early '90s, the NEA Wars revealed the pervasive censorship and self-censorship that shapes public arts funding in the United States. The anti-censorship struggle never ends.
With Senate hearings against entertainment violence, where Lieberman appeared briefly as a visiting senior patron of the censorship movement, rich and conservative corporations are now suffering the irony of censorship attacks that individual artists and small arts organizations used to endure. In essence, the FTC violence report accused the entertainment industry of a marketing success where meager public arts funding failed. One way of restating the election-year argument being made by public moralists is that the entertainment media are doing too good a job re-packaging American violence.
From a wide variety of popular sources, graphic representations of sex and violence have been at the forefront of political progressivism in the United States. Graphic sex and violence bring to the fore what polite society refuses to acknowledge about its sadistic desires and invisible victims. John Waters' early film work, for example, can be understood as a response to the same cramped society that gave rise to Agnew's attacks on the FCC and the "liberal media". The 'dysfunctionality' that Waters celebrated challenged the sober functionality that button-down Americans demanded as the admission ticket to a decent life. Social demands for decency, as Waters illustrated, are no more than demands for self-enslavement and perpetual conformity.
Lieberman has become the morals flying column of the Gore presidential campaign. In the division of rhetorical work between the Democratic candidates, Joe Lieberman is Al Gore's centurion of virtue.
That precious quality called human decency dwells invisible in the soul, not in a conspicuous and state-sanctioned code of virtue. "There will be no peace until murder is eliminated from the heart and mind," wrote Henry Miller, and this is the work of open and free representation. The current anti-sex-and-violence campaign that calls itself a presidential campaign is indecent.
Joe Lockard is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.