The Censorship Smokescreen

by | Oct 14, 2000 | Free Speech, POLITICS

For the past week, our politicians have been busy constructing the foundations of censorship in America. And worse: They have been doing so unanimously. Censorship is being promoted across the political and cultural spectrum, from Al Gore and Joe Lieberman to John McCain and Lynne Cheney, from Bible-thumping religious fundamentalists to jargon-spouting social scientists. Amazingly, […]

For the past week, our politicians have been busy constructing the foundations of censorship in America. And worse: They have been doing so unanimously. Censorship is being promoted across the political and cultural spectrum, from Al Gore and Joe Lieberman to John McCain and Lynne Cheney, from Bible-thumping religious fundamentalists to jargon-spouting social scientists.

Amazingly, there has been no opposition. The Hollywood liberals are silent. The Motion Picture Association of America is following a strategy of appeasement. The ACLU is AWOL.

Where are the defenders of free speech?

The answer is that they have been intellectually disarmed. They have been disarmed by a smokescreen of misleading arguments designed to fool the public into thinking that Washington’s attempt to regulate what we see on our television and movie screens is not really censorship.

Let’s be clear about what’s at stake. Gore and Lieberman have vowed to create a government agency to regulate films, television shows, video games, music, and who knows what else, allegedly to prevent “inappropriate” material from being marketed “to our children.” If they fulfill this promise, we will soon discover that filmmakers, musicians, and publishers are allowed to present their creations to the public, not by right, but only by government permission. It will be the greatest step toward full-fledged censorship this country has ever seen.

But the truth about this proposal is hidden behind a series of smokescreens.

The biggest is the myth that this is just about “protecting our children.” But it’s not about preventing children from sneaking into R-rated movies, for example, because that’s already prohibited. What Gore and Lieberman want to suppress is print ads and promotional trailers, which don’t contain any gory violence or explicit sex. And the advertising ban is targeted, not just at Saturday morning cartoons, but at any program where children might possibly be watching. Hence the comic spectacle of an FTC report complaining that violent films are being marketed during professional wrestling matches.

If a group of politicians claimed that we can’t allow “inappropriate” books into libraries or bookstores because there might be children there, it would be a clear attack on the freedom of the press. Yet that’s exactly what they’re doing with movies, games, and music.

The real purpose of these regulations is to force the targeted products into a late-night marketing ghetto that will keep them from being advertised to many adults. Or worse: The purpose is to make the marketing of films dependent on the caprice of federal regulators, who might “suggest” that a filmmaker would receive more lenient treatment if certain “offensive” scenes are removed.

And that leads us to another smokescreen: the claim that this is just about “marketing” and not about artistic expression. This is like declaring that you have a right to think whatever you want in the privacy of your own home — you just can’t say it to anyone else. What our politicians are saying to Hollywood is: “You’re free to make whatever movies you want — you just can’t market them.”

For decades, the liberals have pretended that they can be anti-big-business, anti-commerce, and anti-marketing — while still being staunch defenders of free speech. But in a free society — where art and literature are not monopolies of the state — the private sale and marketing of books, movies, music, etc., is the indispensable means by which artists and intellectuals express their ideas. The phrase “a free marketplace of ideas” is not just a figure of speech — and it’s no coincidence that the Federal Trade Commission, created to impose sweeping controls on business, is now being used to spearhead controls on art.

As a last ditch attempt to hide the truth from the public (and, I suspect, from themselves), the censors have claimed that they prefer to have the industry accept new “voluntary” guidelines — backed up by the threat that if filmmakers don’t “volunteer” to muzzle themselves within six months, the tanks will start rolling in.

It is the job of our intellectual leaders to expose these smokescreens and sound the alarms against would-be censors. They haven’t been doing their job, so we have to do it ourselves.

We need to tell our politicians that the only truly voluntary guidelines are those demanded by viewers, not those demanded by the state. We need to tell them that the only way to safeguard freedom of speech is to keep government out of the marketplace of ideas. And we need to tell them that “protecting the children” is no excuse for muzzling the adults.

Robert Tracinski was a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute from 2000 to 2004. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Mr. Tracinski is editor and publisher of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily, which offer daily news and analysis from a pro-reason, pro-individualist perspective. To receive a free 30-day trial of the TIA Daily and a FREE pdf issue of the Intellectual Activist please go to TIADaily.com and enter your email address.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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