Intemperance Movement

Following Miley Cyrus’s controversial performance during last month’s MTV Video Music Awards, the Federal Communications Commission received some 160 formal complaints from unsuspecting viewers, who portrayed various levels of umbrage at the former child star’s sexually suggestive set.

Last Friday, the FCC publicly disclosed the content of those grievances.  Having sifted through a representative sample of this document dump, I can affirm the complaints are more entertaining than Cyrus was.

Not one of these protests is grammatically correct.  Many seem wholly unaware both of the FCC’s function and the nature of its authority over cable television.  Some make pricelessly awkward attempts to describe precisely which sexual acts Cyrus was suggesting and why they crossed the line.  Still others are so spectacularly over-the-top in their disgust that one hopes they are tongue-in-cheek but suspects they are not.

And this from parents who worry that their children are growing up with inadequate role models.

It can very easily be argued that Cyrus’s VMA act was indeed beyond the pale for broadcast television.  The debate about the line between what is provocative and what is profane is nearly as old as television itself, as the envelope continues to be pushed and people’s tolerance for smut has struggled to keep pace.

Accordingly, I frame the conflict within this conflict as the following question:  Are you made more or less comfortable by the fact that, in this debate, the gang that has grabbed the microphone on the pro-“family values” side is a gaggle of hysterical, borderline illiterate wackadoodles?

Certainly, the brashness and immaturity of those who publicly object to arguably inappropriate content on the airwaves does not make their central argument wrong.

For that reason, I would think their more temperate and dignified fellow travelers would be rather alarmed that such crazed loons have fashioned themselves the spokespeople for the cause of upholding a basic standard of decency on cable television.

So long as the public face of this argument assumes a ridiculous, farcical form, the pro-regulation movement will continue to face undue hardships along the way to any possible eventual victory.

For purposes of illumination, permit me an historical analogy.

In 1968, as all hell was breaking loose amidst the escalating Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the riots outside the Democratic convention in Chicago, presidential candidate Richard Nixon appealed to what he termed “the silent majority” of Americans as he vowed to restore “law and order” to the United States.

The idea, according to Nixon, was that the agitators protesting in the streets might be loud, passionate and able to command enormous attention in the national press, but they do not reflect the views of most of the public and should be marginalized as much as possible in polite society.

The election returns that November seemed to vindicate Nixon’s assessment, even though history has shown many of those protesters’ concerns to have been entirely legitimate.

By 1968, opposition to the Vietnam War and the policies that unleashed it was a perfectly respectable position to assume.  However, as he assumed the presidency and further escalated the war, Nixon successfully conflated the obnoxiousness and extremism of many antiwar demonstrators with the antiwar arguments themselves, thereby delegitimizing the very idea that the Vietnam War was a less-than-noble cause for America.

In more recent times, similar fates have befallen environmentalists, whose effective leader for a time, Al Gore, did not always prove the most helpful figurehead for the cause.  Likewise, the anti-abortion movement has not been terribly well-served by folks who roam the countryside with jars filled with aborted fetuses.

The complication to this is the fact that, from time to time, various forms of extremism have actually worked.

Today’s opponents of gun control have made no effort to appear cool-headed, but their determination and political savvy have enabled them largely to get their way.  A century ago, America’s various temperance societies successfully lobbied to enact Prohibition, even as their most famous cheerleaders were known for marching into taverns and demolishing the merchandise with hatchets.

But these are exceptions to the rule.  Most of the time, crazy does not effect results, and that’s good.  It’s bad enough that so many Americans are under the infantile impression that bad behavior will ultimately be rewarded.  Imagine how much worse it would be if the rest of us managed to prove them right.


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