Sunday, May 02, 2004

Culture Considered Harmless

As a defense of the notion of unfettered freedom of speech, Reason's Tim Cavanaugh puts forward the argument that censorship, being based on the claim that there are such things as "dangerous" ideas, is a pointless endeavor, for the simple reason that art is harmless.

Even rockers less embarrassing than Pat Boone are not immune to warnings about free expression's horrors. To Frank Zappa's small but fanatical fan base, the epic story album Joe's Garage is a hilarious send-up of censors and moralists and their campaigns against popular music. But the record's real stroke of genius is that it literalizes the fears of the very prigs it's satirizing: The rock lifestyle really does bring the record's eponymous hero to a hideous end. Nor is this another rock flameout epic such as David Bowie's Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, which stages early death as an act of Byronic heroism. By casting himself as the "Central Scrutinizer," an institutional censor who narrates the story, Zappa gives the game away: The squares are right to worry; rock really does warp kids' minds.

Comical, sarcastic, or absurd as some of these examples may be, they have a virtue that an abstract defense of free expression lacks: They take seriously the idea that there may actually be dangerous ideas, and dangerous artistic vehicles for communicating them. For every kid who watches The Matrix and shoots up his high school, we can cite millions more who saw the same movie and did nothing. Does this demonstrate that art is harmless? And if it is harmless, what's the point of it?

Sadly, I suspect that it is harmless, and that there is no point to it. Even so cold and unsentimental a figure as Flaubert may have been wearing rose-colored glasses when he posited that something as inconsequential as a book could really make a difference in anybody's life. In the fight over Howard Stern's tenuous ability to make a living with his mouth, little attention has been given to the reality that his complaints about President Bush will have about as much impact as the proverbial banana cream pie fifteen feet in diameter dropped from a height of ten feet. If the administration's increasingly apparent incompetence, treachery and criminality are not enough to budge the poll numbers, Howard's shrill rants are utterly useless. The idea that free expression is a dangerous or even powerful tool is a fiction artists and censors alike delude themselves into believing.

Being a great believer in freedom of speech myself, including the freedom to say all sorts of unpleasant things that would probably land one in jail in many continental European countries, I'm sympathetic to Cavanaugh's goal, but I must say that his argument is not in the least convincing. For one to believe that all forms of artistic expression are harmless to the powers that be, one would have to buy into the notion that ideas do not matter, and that what people see and hear has no effect on either their thoughts or their actions, which is clearly an absurdity. Would the likes of Lenin or Hitler have gotten into the position to wreak havoc without tirelessly expounding the ideas in which they believed for years beforehand? Did The Wealth of Nations and Capital have no influence on the world whatsoever? How about One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or The Gulag Archipelago?

It surely is not an accident that repressive regimes of every persuasion, in every age, have striven mightily to control the the outpourings of poets, philosophers, literateurs and musicians, as even the most callous autocrats can put themselves enough in the shoes of others to recognize that satirical songs and stories are powerful means for undermining the legitimacy of their regimes, especially when they issue from unusually gifted minds. Artistic ideas can indeed be dangerous, often fatally so, as more than one European monarch hasd the misfortune to discover in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Even when we confine ourselves to the less exaulted sphere of ordinary people going about their business, it simply isn't true that exposure to themes in artistic media has no influence on the way in which they behave; it is beyond dispute that Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther had a tremendous (and, in my view, largely baleful) effect on many a young European of the 19th century, while Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel probably did more than any other factor to confer a retrospectively glorious air to the experiences of the First World War in the minds of young Germans; on the British side, Siegfried Sassoon and others like him are also largely responsible (culpable?) for the extreme reluctance of the British to oppose Hitler's aims if that meant risking the lives of their young men in yet another pointless outbreak of bloodletting. Slightly closer to our day, Beat artists like Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac were as much creators of the new cultural zeitgeist as recorders of it.

Clearly, ideas do matter, even if presented in artistic garb, and in fact they matter a great deal. As such, to argue against censorship on the ground that it constitutes a struggle against impotent influences is to adopt a position to blatantly untrue that one's cause is actually set back by the air of mendacity that clings to one's words. If one is to argue against censorship, it cannot be because there are no ideas that aren't dangerous to propagate, but because the potential benefits to be obtained from censorship are far outweighed by the costs of censorship in terms of foregone critiques of smelly orthodoxies, unheard reinterpretations of established ideas, and paths left untrodden because no one was lighted the way to them. Having to listen to the pointless rantings of creationist crackpots, Holocaust deniers and race-lunatics are part of the price to be paid for all the wonderful new notions that are constantly being brought to light.