Are We A Nation of Prudes?
by W. James Antle III
10 May 2004
Despite what Howard Stern thinks, the United States is hardly some kind of uniquely prudish, neo-Victorian, censorious country.
The idea is occasionally
batted around that the United States is some kind of uniquely prudish, neo-Victorian,
censorious country. Granted, America is not one big red light district
stretching from sea to shining sea, but from where I sit I simply don’t see
what these critics are seeing.
Turn on a TV. Yes, yes, I know that some mainstream European and Japanese
television stations are likely to broadcast things that the major networks
wouldn’t end up showing here. But everything from beer commercials
to news-magazine type programs consists of a prolonged, pronounced celebration
of the libido. “Friends,” one of the tamer shows in its genre, ended
its 10-year run with Ross and Rachel deciding to turn their sporadic sleeping
with one another into a relationship (awfully sporting of them, considering
that they have a child), but not a marriage.
If you want sex, profanity and hedonism, in America it really isn’t that
hard to find it. Uptightness about sex certainly isn’t a quality people
would associate us with in, say, the Islamic world. Yet to listen to some
people you would think there is some massive fundamentalist crusade that
is on the verge of turning the entire country into some kind of Puritanical
nightmare, reducing our television viewing options to old reruns of the “Lawrence
The latest crusader to see the sky falling on our free speech is radio shock
jock Howard Stern, whose sophomoric show has been impacted by the backlash
against Janet Jackson’s breast-baring Super Bowl performance, leading to
some unpleasantness with Clear Channel and the FCC. The upshot of it
is that stations have dropped Stern's program and he has responded by inveighing
against those who would muzzle him.
Stern blames President Bush and the religious right for this turn of events
and has begun sharply criticizing both. His website, where one would
expect pictures of Howard yukking it up with scantily clad women, now looks
like a composite of material rejected by Mother Jones. At the top
is a self-serving (not to mention self-righteous) invocation of the late
liberal Supreme Court Justice William Brennan on the First Amendment’s protection
of expressing ideas, as if Stern is mainly trafficking in ideas. Throughout
are links to liberal opinion outlets and news stories about censorship, antiwar
activism and the evils of Republicans. He has an entire section of
“Bush Facts” which link to anti-Bush commentary on sites like BushWatch.com,
SmirkingChimp.com and the Democratic Underground.
All of this marks something of a change for Stern, who briefly considered
running for governor of New York on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1994.
In his past occasional forays into politics, he has usually endorsed Republicans
like George Pataki. Forget Al Gore and Al Franken. As a talk
show host with millions of nonideological swing voters in his vast audience,
Stern's shift to the left is a far greater threat to Bush’s reelection prospects
than Air America or Gore’s new liberal TV network could ever hope to be.
But precisely the fact that we live in a country where millions of people
listen to Howard Stern and could potentially be mobilized against any effort
to stifle his off-color jokes demonstrates that this isn’t a nation
of prudes. Yet the myth persists. About a month ago, Canadian
pop star Alanis Morissette engaged in a little skit at the Juno Awards tweaking
the censorial tendencies south of the 49th parallel. Complaining about
how radio stations in the U.S. wouldn’t play her using the word “a—hole”
in a song, she boasted that she was happy to be home in Canada where free
speech is embraced.
Aiming at the still-simmering Janet Jackson controversy, Morissette disrobed
onstage. Except she wasn’t really naked, just wearing a skin-colored
suit that made it look like she was. As they implicitly conceded in
the skit, she couldn’t have appeared naked on this Canadian broadcast either.
Perhaps nearly a decade after her hit song “Ironic,” Morissette has finally
learned the meaning of irony. (She is also, as I write this, about
to go on tour with the Bare Naked Ladies. Isn’t that ironic, dontcha
Personally, I tend to be libertarian on these questions. I don’t think
we need a spate of government regulations to eradicate the F word or crack
down on shock jocks and Super Bowl halftime shows. I don’t lie awake
nights worrying about what “Will and Grace” will do to Western civilization.
I find a lot of conservative fretting about Hollywood, such as columnist
Kathleen Parker’s suggestion that the soldiers who abused Iraqi prisoners
at Abu Ghraib were imitating the Farrelly Brothers, excessive and silly.
But I also understand why parents don’t want to expose their children to
this sort of content and I have no objections to them trying to carve out
an oasis where they are not constantly bombarded with filth as they try to
go about their daily lives.
This is really what people who find Americans overly prudish are offended
by – the existence of concerned parents, devoutly religious people and others
who form value judgments about popular culture and find it offensive.
To consider an extreme example of what such people object to, look at the
AIDS scandal rocking the pornography industry. No fewer than five porn actors
have been found HIV-positive. It is not a superstition that subordinating
self-control to sexual desire can have consequences; it is a plain fact.
When raising children, what might seem like prudishness to the unattached
urban single is really common sense.
Parents often find their struggle to coexist with the prevailing pop culture
a never-ending battle. Even if they do occasionally succeed at getting
some foul-mouthed DJ tossed off the air, the balance generally tips against
them. The idea that prim fundamentalists have John Ashcroft dictating
what the rest of the country can watch or listen to is so easily refuted
by flipping through the channels as to make you wonder how it can be taken
seriously. If these are the people secretly controlling our airwaves,
then they must be bigger fans of nudity, the F word and Britney Spears than
W. James Antle III is a primary columnist for Intellectual Conservative.com. He works as an assistant editor of The American Conservative magazine and is also a senior editor of EnterStageRight.com.
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