Creative Matrix

By Postrel, Virginia | Reason, August-September 1999 | Go to article overview

Creative Matrix


Postrel, Virginia, Reason


What we lose by regulating culture

"Whereas the distracted state of England, threatened with a cloud of blood by a civil war, calls for all possible means to appease and avert the wrath of God, it is therefore thought fit and ordained by the Lords and Commons in this parliament assembled that, while these set causes and set times of humiliation continue, public stage plays shall cease and be forborne."

- Parliamentary edict, September 2, 1642

In the United States, Congress does not close the playhouses. It just holds periodic hearings to bully the people who produce popular entertainment. They bow and scrape and halfheartedly apologize for their audience-pleasing products, usually by vague reference to unnamed works that go too far. Then everyone goes back to their business until the next time a committee chair decides the nation's distracted state warrants an attack on its favorite arts.

All of which happened, pretty much according to script, in response to the murders in Colorado. The Senate Commerce Committee convened its show trial in early May. The agenda was to make popular art into the equivalent of cigarettes: a demon drug sold by greedy liars to corrupt our youth. "Joe Camel has, sadly, not gone away," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (R-Conn.), the committee's most eager attacker. "He's gone into the entertainment business."

Bill Bennett, described as "the conscience of America" by committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), came prepared to name works deserving censure, and possibly censorship. He showed clips from Scream and The Basketball Diaries. "Can you not distinguish between Casino and Macbeth, or Casino and Braveheart, or The Basketball Diaries and Clear and Present Danger?" Bennett said. "I can make that distinction."

Despite some chilling moments, the hearings flopped. Executives from the movie studios and record companies declined to come and cooperate in their own denunciation. Deprived of dramatic confrontations or lying CEOs, reporters and the nation yawned. A month later, the House soundly defeated two bills to regulate entertainment products - one through outright bans, another through cigarette-style labeling. A significant, bipartisan majority disagreed with Bennett that "in the matter of the protection of our children, nothing is off limits."

Not so the Clinton administration. It acted unilaterally to appease the soccer-mom gods. Adopting the tobacco model, the president ordered the Federal Trade Commission to investigate "whether and how video game, motion picture and recording industries market to children violent and other material rated for adults." The commission will exercise de facto subpoena power, demanding proprietary memos, private e-mail, and internal marketing studies. The attack on Hollywood is now part of the Clintonite campaign to restore the FTC's pre-Reagan punch; the issue is not free speech but free markets. The president is embracing Bennett's belief that "this is predatory capitalism."

If you want to eliminate a product from the American marketplace, this is the way you do it - not by act of Congress, but through administrative agencies helped along by liability suits. Clinton has unleashed the regulators, and, as Jesse Walker discusses below, the lawsuits have begun.

But what does it matter? Suppose all violent movies vanish from the theaters, made uneconomic by regulatory burdens, unpredictable lawsuits, and congressional harassment. Who cares?

The audience, for starters. Tens of millions of people saw The Matrix, a blockbuster hit and one of the recent movies most often attacked as a blight on our culture. Most of those moviegoers, including me, think The Matrix is a fine film whose existence is a positive good. It is visually striking, well acted, and intelligently written. It explores classic themes, arguing that it is better to face reality and struggle for freedom than to accept comfortable slavery and live in illusion. …

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