The Magazine

THE CASE FOR CENSORSHIP?

Aug 30, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 47 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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As a teacher of political philosophy, Professor Lowenthal raises questions that are very much worthy of discussion. But like Aristotle's defense of monarchy or Rousseau's plan for radical democracy, Lowenthal's proposal should be raised in an academic seminar. As an actual policy program, it is far more imprudent than the Supreme Court rulings Lowenthal condemns.


The problem isn't just that legislators won't enact this program or that courts won't allow it. They won't, but I concede that arguments from "prudence" should rise above the quick calculations of lawyers and pollsters.


The more serious problem is this: Lowenthal is quite wrong when he says we could "enlist some of our most distinguished citizens . . . to serve as censors." Even if "distinguished citizens" agreed with Lowenthal's argument, they would not agree to take on the job themselves. He mentions a former president, a former governor, a former war leader -- do such people want to have "Public Censor" on the last line of their resumes? Even crusty old John Adams wanted to be called "Defender of the People's Liberties," not "Censor of Corruptions."


Lacking censors with commanding personal prestige, we would end up with a very different class of monitors. The people prepared to take the job would be ideologues -- mostly of the crazy left, perhaps also of the religious right, but certainly ideologues. Lowenthal's position virtually guarantees this.


He wants to go beyond the suppression of pornography to suppress enticing presentations of pernicious ideas. He wants to discard the "clear and present danger" test to allow the suppression of material that has a bad "tendency," even if its immediate effects are obscure. Who but an ideologue can be so sure about remote tendencies?


If the aim is to secure credibility for the board of censors, Lowenthal's own logic suggests that we must reach across ideological divisions. That will encourage a censorship program built not on an actual public consensus but on the familiar logrolling techniques of legislatures. To suppress films that seem to condone adultery or promiscuity, the board will feel obliged to approve the bans targeting sexist or homophobic or ecocidal messages.


Lowenthal ends with the argument that, after all, "they" already decide what "we" get to see -- "they" in Hollywood or New York or wherever media titans congregate. In fact this is not true now, if it ever was. We live in an era where ninety cable channels (and a half million Web sites) can cater to the most specialized tastes. In a few years, home viewers will be able to dial up documentaries and movie selections from a staggeringly vast menu of choices.


But the facts hardly matter. Lowenthal's premise is ideological: Once you start appealing to "the people" to save themselves from moral disaster, you naturally come to see the business executives of the entertainment industry as an obstructive "them," blocking the collective efforts of the virtuous community -- "we, the people." This is a recipe for a very nasty sort of politics and is sure to be self-defeating in the end.


I believe -- and clearly, most of the American Framers believed -- that the preaching of atheism can be harmful. But it does not follow that we would strengthen religion by trying to censor arguments for atheism. Surely, we would only succeed in stirring suspicion of government, sympathy for the censored, and a whole lot of distracting and pointless argument about rights instead of about what is right.


I am sympathetic to efforts to limit the most graphic depictions of sex and violence in the mass media -- where there is still some public consensus to build on (and where, consequently, we still do better than most countries in Europe). But Lowenthal's preoccupation with mass media seems to me to have the problem almost backwards.


The "mass" of Americans is less corrupt than the most highly educated. I don't know what to do about the grotesque confusions of, for example, half the law faculties and two-thirds of the humanities faculties in this country. But I am sure that encouraging their own yen for censorship is not the answer.




Jeremy Rabkin teaches constitutional law at Cornell University.