The Game Is On, and On TV

Ever since Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gave her blessing for the Democratic-led House oversight committees to launch an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump the Republicans have been griping about it. The Republicans demanded a formal vote for the inquiry by the full House and then open and televised hearings, and after the Democrats gave them both Thursday that Republicans will probably regret it.
There’s nothing in the Constitution or statutory law or historical precedent that requires a full House vote to launch an impeachment inquiry, and a federal court recently confirmed that as it gave blessings to a slew of subpoenas the House committees has sought, but it gave the Republicans and their media allies something to gripe about. The Republicans also held out hope that the Democrats wouldn’t dare do it, as they might risk defections from the 30 House members representing districts where Trump won in the last presidential election and remains relatively popular, but only two declined to vote for inquiry and the rest presumably know their districts well enough to conclude they could get away with a yea vote.
None of the Republicans defied the party’s opposition to the inquiry, although former Republican and recent Indent Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan decided he could run for reelection in his narrowly Trump-voting district despite his pro-inquiry stand. A handful of Republicans running for reelection in the sorts of affluent and educated suburbs that the Republicans have lately been losing were reportedly tempted to defect, and we’re sure that some of the 18 congressional Republicans who have decided not to run were tempted as well. In any case a united Democratic caucus overwhelmingly outnumbers a united Republican caucus, so Thursday’s vote portends an eventual impeachment of the president.
A slim Republican majority in the Senate makes it unlikely that Trump will be removed after an impeachment trial, but there’s a handful of Senators running for reelection in districts where Trump lost and is widely unpopular, and any defections will be embarrassing for Trump as he faces a hard-fought reelection campaign of his own.
The open and televised hearings that the Republicans rashly demanded will probably prove embarrassing for Trump as well. Already the congressional committees have interviewed an impressive parade of decorated military officers and distinguished diplomats and esteemed national security experts with careers that have risen through Republican and Democratic administrations alike, all of them have testified that Trump did indeed withhold congressionally appropriate funds for military and other aid beleaguered Ukraine unless it provided information damaging to one of Trump’s potential Democratic rivals, as well as an amateur diplomat who was appointed Ambassador to the European Union who got the job by donating millions to Trump’s campaign and wound up coming across as a bumbler and a liar. The Republicans seem to believe that if only the public could have seen the testimony the controversy would vanish, except for a lingering public resent that the Democrats ever launched such a witch hunt, but we wonder how they’ve came to that cockamamie conclusion.
Trump and his reconstituted Republican party and their media allies regard politics as a long-running reality show, with the usual heroes and villains and occasional salaciousness and daily intrigue, and for a certain segment of the public they control the narrative much like Trump used to on “The Apprentice.” On their channel the Democrats are all God-hating crazy people intent on keeping Trump from making America great again, and have been conducting a Soviet-style star chamber proceeding where no Republican is allowed to ask questions our mount any defense of the president, and if it were only televised people would watch the traitorous witnesses and their “deep state” conspiracy unfold before a nation’s eyes. Surely the people would also see, the Republicans seem to truly believe, that Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, as in all matters, have been perfect.
The impeachment hearings will come in live and unedited on several other channels, though, and won’t look the same for much of the country. The witnesses all lack horns and cloven feet and tails, and will likely come off as military officers and diplomats and national security experts who have risen through Republican and Democratic administrations without so much as a squeak of public objection until now, when they felt compelled to tell the truth as they know it about something Trump did that they considered an abuse of his presidential powers and a breach of America’s national security interests. The president’s own rough transcript of his telephone negotiations with the Ukrainian president over aid and a possible favor Trump wanted to ask and the possibility of Ukraine investigating a potential Democratic rival’s son’s business dealings in the country, so it’s hard to believe the witnesses are all lying about that.
It’s just their opinion that there’s anything wrong about the call, though, and Trump and his supporters are just as entitled to believe that the phone call was perfect in every way. The argument that it’s perfectly fine for a president to solicit or even coerce campaign help from a foreign government is hard to make, though, even if can be explained so a sizable segment of the country as a purely disinterested effort to rid Ukraine of corruption. The witnesses’ credentials do seem to entitle them to their opinions, too, and we expect they’ll make a persuasive case.
The Republicans will have their chance to question the witnesses and state their cases, just as they have all along, but we can’t see them making much of it. Righteous indignation has thus far been the main rhetorical response, along with attempts to smear the witnesses as lying co-conspirators who have been hiding in the “deep state” for the last 20 to 30 years 40 years awaiting their moment, and neither plot line is sustainable. There’s also that transcript Trump wants to read on a televised “Fireside Chat” because it’s so perfect, testimony from numerous government officials about the involvement of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who is currently under investigation by the Southern District of New York that he once ran, and has two associates currently in jail for Ukraine-related matters.
There are indeed some God-hating crazy people in the Democratic party, but the Republicans have a lot of explaining to do on national television. It won’t be like way back in our youthful Watergate days, when the impeachment hearings preempted the afternoon soap operas and game shows and there was nothing else to watch on summer vacation, but then as now things will unfold live and television, and reality is not a reality show.

— Bud Norman

Daddy Pa, the Moon, and the Brave New World

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of an American spacecraft landing on the moon, and Neil Armstrong becoming the first man step foot on its surface, which thankfully gives us something to write about other than President Donald Trump.
We retain a vivid memory of watching it on a grainy black-and-white television at our grandparents’ home in Oklahoma City, and realizing what an extraordinary achievement it was. What a brave new world we would grow up in, we clearly remember thinking, and our nine-year-old imaginations envisioned that by now we’d be flying around in one of those space cars that George Jetson drove to work at Spacely Sprockets.
As it turns out we’re getting around town in an aging Chrysler Sebring, but the top comes down at the push of a button, and when we get home there’s a computer and internet and microwave oven and all manner of technological marvels, while our aging parents are getting health care their parents never did and have machines that will answer any question they ask and change the channel on their high-definition television and play any song they want to hear at spoken request. It’s a brave new world after all, the current lack of flying cars notwithstanding, and the still-remarkable feat of landing a man on the moon was one of the milestones that made it seem possible.
Our beloved maternal grandfather, known as “Bud” to his friends and “Daddy Pa” to his nine grandchildren, didn’t know what to make of it. He was born in the Oklahoma Territory, and in a covered wagon according to family legend, and he couldn’t be fully convinced that he’d lived long enough to watch a man walk on the moon. In any case he didn’t believe that people had any business walking around on the moon. He thought it was the same sort of hubris that brought down the Tower of Babel and sank The Titanic, and he firmly believed in a more down-to-Earth way of living. Still, he let us stay up long past our bedtimes to watch the moon landing live on the newfangled television machine.
We’ve largely inherited Daddy Pa’s luddite instincts, and eschew those smart phones and smart-alecky machines that answer all your questions and turn all your appliances on and off, and still have a nagging worry that eventually technology will turn on us like that HAL computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and when we try to step outside into the open air of actual rather than virtual reality it will say “Sorry, Bud, but I can’t let you do that.” With all the considerable respect due to Daddy Pa, however, we think he failed to fully appreciate one of the most remarkable moments of his extraordinary life.
America landed on the Moon on because it had run out of the North American space that was its Manifest Density, with even the Oklahoma Territory admitted to the union as a fully-fledged state, and there’s something in the American nature that constantly wants to peacefully expand its boundaries. The moon mission was driven by a desire to go farther than man had gone before, prove that even the most implausible tasks are possible, and to learn more than was previously known, which ranks right up there with humility and compassion among the very best traits of our flawed human species.
Daddy Pa would be pleased that modern medical technology has kept his third daughter alive for more years than he enjoyed down here on Earth, and impressed that she can hear his beloved Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys’ western swing music any time she asks her know-it-all machine for it, and he’d probably admit that it wasn’t the end of the world when a man walked on the Moon. We’ll try to keep our place in the old world he so dearly loved, but we’ll do our best to help along this brave new world.

— Bud Norman

MTM, RIP

On a cold and windy Wednesday afternoon we heard the news that Mary Tyler Moore had died at the age of 80, and it felt like a sunnier and spunkier era of American popular culture had passed along with her. She really could turn the world on with her smile, not to mention that body of hers, and the body of work she created over her long and varied career is even more impressive.
Moore began her show business career as a dancer, most notably as the perfectly lithe female figure in the skin-tight suit prancing around in the Hotpoint appliance company’s commercials for the “Ozzie and Harriet” show, but she soon moved into acting and got a number of small television roles on small shows, most notably as the elegant legs and inviting lips and mesmerizing eyes of an otherwise unseen answering service girl on “Richard Diamond, Private Detective.” She was reportedly turned down for the forgettable role of Danny Thomas’ daughter on the lame sit-com “Make Room For Daddy” because her perfectly upturned nose would have raised doubts about the famously well-schnozzled star’s paternity, which turned out to be a lucky break when she instead landed the plum role of the suburban housewife on the still-dazzling “Dick Van Dyke Show.” America got to see all of Moore’s top-to-bottom beauty in the program, along with the charming personality and comedic flair and undeniable intelligence and wide range of talent that went with it, and after that Moore was pretty much a permanent star.
This was right around the same time we were starting to notice women and all that, and Moore made an indelible impression on our impressionable minds. We were gobsmacked by the beauty and charm and flair and smarts and talent, and how nicely it was all packed into those capri pants and belly-revealing sweaters that became all the fashion back then and still look good on similar women even to this day, but we were also forewarned by the comedic genius of her portrayal of a perfect suburban housewife that even the best of women can be insecure and prone to cry and and shout “oh, Rob” and will occasionally put a dent into your beloved sports car. Re-watch some of those scenes on the late-night UHF re-runs and you’ll marvel at how brilliantly Moore played them for laughs, and how utterly appealing even her most flawed womanhood was.
After that Moore tried for the upper rung of movie stardom, but despite some memorable performances in some otherwise forgettable movies she wound up back in television, which was another lucky break because it resulted in the still-dazzling “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Her first marriage to a salesman who was the father of her only child ended in divorce, she re-married a big-wig at 20th Century Fox, and although the marriage produced no children it did result in a production company that made some of the best television of the next several decades. Moore’s eponymous sit-com was the first of it, and would have made the partnership notable by itself.
The situation for the comedy was an unmarried woman in her  mid-30s trying to make a living as a producer for a low-rated television news program in frigid Minneapolis, with a lovably neurotic Jewish neighbor and a meddling Nordic landlady and a gruff-but-sweet editor and bored but droll news writer and inept yet arrogant news reader thrown into the mix, and if you’re up late enough to catch one of the re-runs that are still playing on the UHF channels you’ll still notice how well the cast of veterans from small roles in small shows pulled it off. Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman were so good as the Jewish neighbor and Nordic landlady they had their own hit spin-offs, Ed Asner was so good as the gruff boss he had a popular and critically-acclaimed hour-long drama spin-off, and Ted Baxter’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the bumptious broadcaster landed him that unforgettable role in “Caddyshack.” Betty White also did such a good job exploiting her previous image as a television sweetheart a the man-hungry and amoral but almost convincingly sweetheart “Happy Homemaker” that she’s still a star even in her ’90s, but despite her willingness to assume a ensemble role Moore stood out.
At the time Moore was hailed as a feminist heroine, being 30-something and still unmarried and fighting for wage equality in the workplace and perhaps even having sex and all the rest of it that was still slightly cutting-edge in the ’70s, but she also continued to perfectly portray the insecurities and crying jags and the lament of not having a husband to cry out to and everything else you need to be forewarned about women, and it’s hard to imagine any feminist heroes of the moment being so universally desired by men. Moore never did embrace that feminist heroine status, and we’d like to think it’s because she didn’t like how it how it failed to appreciate the very subtle nuances of her performances, but her work in television gave women plenty of reason to be proud. Her subsequent attempts at name-in-the-title television were dull variety shows and mostly lame sit-coms that were short-lived and quickly forgotten, but the production company she’d formed with her husband gave birth to such excellent television-of-the-time as “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Newhart” and “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “Hill Street Blues,” and the talent they nurtured also led to such worthy entertainment as “The Simpsons,” which is still occasionally dazzling after 30-some years on the air. If you haven’t seen any of it don’t worry, it’s just TV, but at a time when everyone was watching TV it was as good as it got.
Moore continued to act on both the large and small screens until not along ago, and although her youthful beauty had aged her talents had ripened. She played an embittered mother who passively-aggressively tormented her son after the death of a favored sibling in “Ordinary People” with exquisite iciness, won Emmy Awards for made-for-TV roles as a breast cancer survivor and a Mary Todd Lincoln succumbing to mental illness, and the former comedic beauty was always undeniably good. We also liked that she was almost always quite reserved about her private life and political opinions, but it leaked out that the sunny sweetheart who could turn the world on with her smile and make a nothing day suddenly seem worthwhile had endured a harsh girlhood with two alcoholic parents, suffered the death of her only child due to a gun accident caused by a manufacturing glitch, endured the deaths of both of her husbands, fought her own alcoholism and childhood demons and diabetes and other health problems throughout her life, and did so with an interview-denying dignity that is all too rare these days. You can sense something of it from almost every moment she spent on screen, and everything else she poured into her other projects, but the laughs that she and the rest of the world of got from it are the most of what remains.
We’ll be needing some of that sunniness and spunk and best sort of feminism in the coming days, and we’re grateful that it will still be showing up on the late night UHF channels for a while, and we hope Laura Petrie and Mary Richards and all the other beguiling creations of Mary Tyler Moore will rest in peace.

— Bud Norman

The Two Choices in a Discontented Age

The most popular politician in America at the moment, according to all the public opinion polls, is President Barack Obama. He’s not all that popular, only recently barely nudging past a 50 percent approval rating for the first time in several years, but at this discontented moment in history that’s plenty good enough for first place.
Our only explanation for this thoroughly awful president’s modest bare majority of approval, even as supermajorities of the public describe the country as “on the wrong track,” is that no one’s been paying much attention to his still thoroughly awful presidency lately and instead are focused on the thorough awfulness of both of his most likely successors. We also note that nothing and nobody are very popular these days, though, so anything over 50 percent is something.
Nowadays the most popular television shows are watched by only fractions of the nationwide audience that used to tune into mediocracies as “M*A*S*H” and “All in the Family,” few people over the age of 30 can name any of a currently popular pop music star’s hit songs, the latest hit movie is probably some comic book super-hero flick that you probably won’t bother to see, even such literary types as ourselves couldn’t tell you what’s currently on the best-seller lists, and the rest of the entire culture is similarly disdained. Government and business and organized religion are widely despised, and both of the most likely successors to our thoroughly awful president seem to suffer any consequences for their disdain of the First Amendment, which most of the under-30 set already agrees has got to go, and even the longstanding and generally acceptable social arrangement regarding men using the men’s room and women using the women’s room is by now widely disdained enough that neither of the thoroughly awful likely successors to the thoroughly awful president who proposed this thoroughly awful change is willing to take a forthright stand against it.
This is partly because of the largely beneficial diversification of the marketplace, of course, and all that creative destruction our capitalist sensibilities usually appreciate. There are now a gazillion channels on television and the internet and whatever new technology we’re not yet aware of, so it’s inevitable that even the best shows won’t get the same chunk of the audience that even the worst shows used to get when there were only three channels. The internet allows us to listen endlessly the great music of the past, as it does to anyone no matter how less refined their tastes, so it’s hard to imagine anyone achieving that Elvis Presley or The Beatles ubiquity that made even the over-30 set aware them. Although there are fewer movie theaters in most towns than there used to be there are far more screens, and there are no more “Gone With the Winds” and “Casablancas” and “Godfathers” with lines that everyone knows by heart. There are all sorts of notions afoot about how government and business and organized religion should be run, and by now everyone has a problem with somebody’s use of the First Amendment, and even that tiny sliver of the public that’s upset with current social arrangement regarding bathrooms has a hit show compared to what the rest of the country has divided itself into.
We also believe that the thorough awfulness of the overwhelming majority of it all also plays a part. Once upon a time in the glorious history of American music there were singular artists in a wide range of styles who truly earned this widespread popularity against challenging competition, but these days only the most addled of the under-30 set insist that any of is any good. There are a few good shows on television these day, in most cases better than the hit shows of the past, but these days there’s only niche mark for such fare. There are some very good movies, and without comic book super-heroes, but they can’t become hits like very good movies used to do. The last best-seller we were aware of a self-described feminist Sado-Masochistic porn novel, which of course was made into a well-publicized movie, and we’re slightly relieved that despite all that publicity a vast majority of the country never read the book or watched the movie. Government and business and organized religion have all their problems lately, too, but the current unpopularity of the First Amendment and that longstanding and generally agreeable social arrangement regarding restrooms can only be explained by how very discontented our country has become.
Politics is the only marketplace in our culture where consumers are still faced with only two choices, although we’re still holding to some faint hope that the culture’s penchant for creative destruction might change that final longstanding and once generally-agreeable arrangement, so it’s not surprising that the widely diffused ratings of mostly thoroughly awful shows have turned up two such thoroughly awful final options.

— Bud Norman

The Presidential Boob Tube

As much as we’d like to be snobbish about it, honesty compels us to admit we rarely watch television for reasons that are not all high-minded. We’re too much the cheapskates to shell out the exorbitant prices for cable television, our nocturnal schedule is out of sync with the networks, and most of our spare time is spent listening to antique honky-tonk music or reading English comic novels or brooding about the sorry state of the world. Not watching television no longer has the intellectual cachet it had back in the days when the high-brows lamented a “vast wasteland,” anyway, and except for the classics we occasionally find on Netflix what little television viewing we do is mostly devoted to such low-brow fare as the “Green Acres” and “Sea Hunt” re-runs that come over-the-air as we fall to sleep.
Even so, we can’t help feeling a wee bit superior to the President of the United States. We have been apprised of the President Barack Obama’s viewing habits by no less an authority than The New York Times’ television critic, and what he reports is alarming.
Which is not the reaction that The Times intended, of course. Ever eager to flatter the president, and without anything flattering to plausibly say about Obamacare or the deteriorating situation in the Middle East or any of the other consequences of the administration’s policies, The Times has apparently been reduced to bolstering the president’s reputation as an intellectual by lauding his exquisite taste in television programs. Headlined “Obama’s TV Picks: Anything Edgy, With Hints of Reality,” the story gushes over the president’s masterful command of the White House channel changer. After noting the weighty responsibilities of Obama’s office, the writer notes with unmistakable approval that “in his quiet moments, this president seeks not to escape to the delicious back-stabbing of the ‘Real Housewives’ or the frivolity of the singing teenagers on ‘Glee.’ By his own accounts, Mr. Obama is drawn in his spare time to shows like HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ the kind of heavy, darkly rendered television that echoes the sadness and strife that make up so much of his workday.” Similar admiration shines through as the writer notes that Obama is watching a box set of “Breaking Bad” discs, is eager for the next season of the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and is also a regular viewer of “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” “Homeland,” and “Downton Abbey.” The Times believes these choices provide a hopeful insight on the president’s political philosophy, and quotes the creator of “The Wire” saying that his show represents “the America that Mr. Obama is keen to transcend.”
We’ve seen either little or nothing of most of the shows mentioned, and thus cannot render judgment on the president’s tastes, but we doubt that his preferences reveal an unusual profundity or justify his presidency. Each of the shows are famous enough that we are aware of their acclaim by the likes of The New York Times’ television critic, which is effusive enough that one needn’t be embarrassed in sophisticated circles to admit to watching them rather reading Thucydides or Noam Chomsky or the Dodd-Frank Act or similarly weighty fare, but we are not at all amazed that president’s taste align so neatly with the consensus of pseudo-intellectual opinion. We’ve seen enough of “Glee” to be slightly surprised that the president isn’t susceptible to both its teenaged frivolity and its relentless propagandizing for homosexuality, and after enthusiastically watching every episode of the terrific “The Wire” we’d have expected the president to be a bit put off by its frank depiction of a thoroughly corrupt African-American political machine and the dysfunctions of a fatherless urban underclass, neither of which he seems at all interested in transcending, but otherwise it’s much as we’d have assumed.
Perhaps it is heartening that the president isn’t indulging in “Green Acres” and “Sea Hunt” through the old rabbit ears in the early morning hours, but we can’t help being worried by what a dedicated couch potato they president seems to be. Each of the president’s favorite programs are sprawling epics that require considerable time, and we’ve binge-watched just enough of them to know how they can cut deeply into a working day. Dishes have gone unwashed and floors unswept around here as a result of old premium cable series on Netflix, and it is therefore worrisome to think that the far more consequential chores of a president might go undone as a result of a television addiction. Elsewhere in The Times we are told that the president’s unprecedented presidential golf habit is “Carrying On a Presidential Tradition, One Leisurely Round at a Time,” as if Obama’s time on the links somehow makes him another Eisenhower, but it cannot dispel a nagging suspicion that Obama isn’t quite the workaholic one might want in the Oval Office.
On the other hand, given what the president has done during intermittent time on the job, we might grateful for any distractions he might encounter. A while back we became hooked on Netflix’ always-available episodes of the “The Tudors,” an obviously expensive multi-season tale about a megalomaniacal monarch’s treacherous intrigues, to the point we got almost nothing else done, and we’d highly recommend the series to the president.

— Bud Norman

No Cheering in “The Newsroom”

Ordinarily we would not bother with a rebuttal to the television program called “The Newsroom,” if only because we never watch it and were only vaguely aware of its existence, but after hearing a brief clip from the first episode played on a local radio show we felt compelled to offer a response. Not because the anti-American views expressed in the clip are so extraordinarily offensive, but rather because they are so infuriatingly commonplace.

The clip portrays the show’s hero, a cable news reader played by Jeff Daniels of “Dumb and Dumber” fame, appearing on a panel at some sort of symposium where a young woman asks him why America is the greatest country in the world. After rudely dismissing the young woman as a “sorority girl,” the news reader goes on an obscenity-laden rant about how America isn’t “so star-spangled awesome.” He scoffs at the notion that America is great because it has freedom, saying that Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and most other countries have freedom, then reels off a series of seemingly damning statistics about literacy, educational rankings, child mortality rates and such, then cites the number of prisoners and people who believe in angels as well as the size of the defense budget to suggest that America isn’t even a very good country. With his audience humbled into the awed silence that always follows a televised liberal rant, he goes on to recall a bygone era of American greatness when “we waged wars on poverty and not on poor people,” “we built great big things,” “we explored the universe,” “we aspired to intelligence, didn’t belittle it,” and “we didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election.” That past greatness, he explains, occurred “because we were informed by great men, great men who were revered.”

Given the swelling soundtrack, the complete lack of irony in the smugness of Daniels’ delivery, and the fact that the show is produced by former “West Wing” creator and archetypal Hollywood lefty Aaron Sorkin, we assume that the rant is intended to express the show’s point of view. Although the scene is permeated with the usual air of self-congratulation for being so bold in speaking such shocking truth to power, the rant also expresses a point of view that is not just commonplace and respectable but also quite fashionable among the cultural elites.

One hardly knows where to begin pointing out all the nonsense. The notion that freedom is the prevailing condition of mankind is self-evidently absurd, and even the rare exceptions to the rule named in the show’s rant are free to a lesser extent than Americans have been accustomed to expect. Each of the countries mentioned restrict free speech in the name of human rights, have done away with the right to bear arms altogether and the right to self-defense to an alarming extent, and they’ve long restricted economic freedom in ways that account for their relatively poor economies.

Most of the statistics that are rapidly reeled off are either false, misleading, or meaningless. Does the show really expect Americans to believe that there are 177 countries that provide better maternity care? That the country that has been at the forefront of most of the scientific and technological breakthroughs of the past decades is 27th in math? That third in median household income is a disgrace? The claim regarding the number of prisoners is perhaps true, although one wonders if the self-righteous news reader would prefer to have more criminals on the streets, but the claim about people believing in angels seems suspicious and not at all worrisome.

The angst-ridden nostalgia portion of the speech is also bunk. Anyone still longing for the days of the War on the Poverty simply cannot recall its disastrous consequences, and misunderstands why the country doesn’t seem to be doing “great big things” anymore. Somehow people such as the writers of “The Newsroom” can look back at a time when America was more religious, more capitalistic, and less governed, note the subsequent decline and conclude that the problem is those crazy Jesus nuts with their money-grubbing economics and that the solution is more government.

We notice that nowhere in the speech does the hero say which country is the greatest in the world. We hope that Aaron Sorkin will be able to identify it soon and then move there. We suspect that he’ll choose one with low tax rates.

— Bud Norman

Profanity, Nudity, and the Court

While flipping through the broadcast channels on our aging analog television this past Monday, searching in vain for the college football championship game, we happened upon a program called “Fear Factor” just as it presented the strange spectacle of an attractive young woman drinking a soup of animal blood and live maggots. We kept flipping and put it out of mind as quickly as possibly, but were reminded of that distasteful scene while reading up on the latest goings-on at the United States Supreme Court.

Not because the right honorable court is always reminiscent of a reality show gross-out contest, of course, but because the justices heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case concerning the government’s right to regulate the content of programming on the public airwaves. The regulations in question don’t address the kind of vulgarity offered by the likes of “Fear Factor,” only the use of profanity and the depiction of nudity, but at least in some small way the court was weighing in on the declining standards of television.

The wheels of justice apparently turn quite slowly, far more so than our fast-changing popular culture, because the programs involved in the case were “NYPD Blue,” a show we haven’t heard mentioned in many years and assume is long since off the air, and a music awards show featuring the profanity-laced remarks of Cher, a performer we associate with a long-ago era of entertainment. Judging by the questions posed by the justices, the court itself isn’t very up-to-date on matters of popular culture.

The liberal justices seemed unable to understand that not all profanity and nudity are the same. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg decried “the appearance of arbitrariness” when the FCC allowed the discomfiting nudity that underscored the horror of a concentration camp scene in “Schindler’s List” but objected to a titillating flash of a callipygian starlet’s bare buttocks on “NYPD Blue.” A museum that proudly displayed “Venus de Milo” while declining to hang the latest Hustler centerfold could be accused of the same arbitrariness, and probably will be at some point in the post-modern age of cultural relativism, but we’re inclined to call that discernment. Similarly, one can argue that the profanity peppering “Saving Private Ryan” is justified as necessary for verisimilitude, because the soldiers on Omaha Beach probably weren’t saying “Gosh darn it” as the bullets flew, the cinema of the World War II-era notwithstanding, while Cher’s pathetic attempt to seem hip with a few cuss words on an awards show billed as family entertainment is hard to justify on any grounds.

Ginsburg also fretted that the FCC’s strait-laced sensibilities might also deny the over-the-air television audience a chance to see “Hair,” the Broadway musical that was at the cutting edge of popular culture way back in the hippie days. Younger readers are advised to ask their pony-tailed grandfathers for a dissenting opinion about the show, but we expect that if they did encounter it on a broadcast station they would likely find the cutting edge has dulled considerably since then, which probably has more to do with its absence from prime time than any government regulation.

Ginsburg’s apparent fondness for the old peace-and-love, song-and-dance pastiche is typical of a liberal aesthetic sensibility which we blame for a popular culture that is permissive in some ways yet downright puritanical in others. Those of a certain age might fondly recall the old “Dean Martin Show,” which each week showed Dino with a cigarette in one hand and a martini in the other, leering at the cleavage of the buxom Gold Diggers on his arms, but we doubt Ginsburg laments that such sybaritic fare has all but vanished from the airwaves, replaced by sit-coms full of twenty-somethings who hang out at non-smoking coffee shops between sexual conquests.

The conservative justices were also predictably un-hip to the latest happenings on the pop culture scene, as this is an endearing trait common to conservatives of all occupations, but we were surprised that they showed so little faith in free markets. The old three-network hegemony of television has been so thoroughly destroyed that we wound up watching the college football championship on a cable network’s internet site, with plenty of fare that would have made the Marquis de Sade blush just a few mouse clicks away, and most homes now have a wider variety of entertainment options than any Pharoah or Sultan of the past. Yet Chief Justice John Roberts expressed a desire for a “safe haven” network that provided only programming that parents could count on to be free of profanity, nudity, and other offensive material, and seemed concerned that no one would cater to this market without the government’s insistence, a worry that strikes us as baseless.

Roberts also seemed unaware that there is no longer any “safe haven” from profanity even for those who do away with television altogether, as one is now routinely assaulted by harsh language from t-shirts, bumper stickers, and the overly loud patron at the next table in even the swankest restaurants. A few cuss words uttered by a has-been celebrity and a fleeting shot of a shapely bottom are a very small part of what’s wrong with television, and television is an increasingly small part of what’s wrong with the broader popular culture.

Fixing the pop culture problem is beyond the power of Washington, D.C., however, and Hollywood also seems unable to address the matter, so we can only hope that cultural renewal will come from somewhere in the vast area in between.

— Bud Norman