A year or so ago, a concerned citizen asked Carl Fox, our district attorney, to listen to 2 Live Crew’s nasty album As Nasty as They Wanna Be. Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of the Duke English department had just argued in the New York Times that the album’s lyrics were a valid expression of the vibrant folk culture of African-Americans, but our D.A. wasn’t buying it. He’s black himself, but he didn’t have the advantage of a Duke education, having gone instead to the state university (where, as a matter of fact, he took a course from me). Carl thought the record was both misogynistic and obscene, as it most certainly was, and announced that he would prosecute any record dealer who sold it in his jurisdiction.

Guess what? His phone started ringing off the hook, and before very long, he backed down. He said that most of the voters who elected him appear to believe, “shockingly so, that the only thing that should be restricted is child sex.”

I’m glad he’s shocked, but he’s probably right about voter opinion. I’m afraid putting up with obscene rap songs is one of the prices we have to pay for the dwindling pleasure of living in Chapel Hill. Those of us who believe in local control have to take the bitter with the sweet.

You know, communities really ought to decide these matters for themselves, even if they decide wrong. But our legal system doesn’t make that easy. The Supreme Court now includes “contemporary community standards” as part of the definition of obscenity, but recent experience as an expert witness in a Charlotte pornography trial—expert, I hasten to add, in social research methods, not pornography—leads me to conclude that the Supremes have screwed up again. (They mean well—but, then, they usually do.)

Let me tell you about that trial. The Charlotte police busted two out-of-staters who owned and ran an “adult” video-rental shop, and their lawyer, a big gun from Detroit, commissioned a bunch of surveys to show that their merchandise didn’t violate Mecklenberg County’s standards. I was hired to vet the methods used.

The surveys did show, essentially, that most Charlotteans believe their neighbors ought to be able to watch any damn video they want, even one rented from a Yankee-owned smut shop. In other words, Charlotte seems to have no standards, at least in this matter.

You might think that would settle it, but think again. The prosecutor argued that the jury, as representatives of the community, could ascertain the community’s standards by introspection, and when the judge ruled the survey evidence inadmissible on technical grounds they had to. The jury was heavily weighed (literally) with middleaged black women who looked like good churchgoers to me; how the defense lawyer ever let that happen I can’t imagine, but it didn’t surprise me when they concluded that a couple of the films in question were obscene. (They found that several others, indistinguishable to the untutored eye, were not, and I still can’t decide whether that was Solomonic or just nonsensical.) Last I heard, the decision had been upheld on appeal and the defendants were looking at something like seven years in the pokey.

I actually feel sorry for them, but not because I have any problem with Charlotte’s trying to close their business down. In fact, if I lived in Charlotte, I’d be for it, in a casual sort of way. I don’t think Debbie Does Dallas is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind—although with Jefferson you never know, do you? I don’t have any problem with harsh sentences for “victimless” crimes either, although it’s true that lots of murderers these days don’t pull as much time as these guys are going to.

But there is something wrong when it takes an elaborate and expensive trial to figure out, not what you’ve done, but whether it breaks the law. Consulting “contemporary community standards” is a great idea, in principle, but even if you get them right (by survey research, say) they can change. And if jurymen are going to tell you what the standards are by examining their consciences, standards are going to change from jury to jury. It seems to me that laws ought to be written so you can know when you’re breaking them.

Most other countries have obscenity laws like that, but lately our courts won’t let us have them. It has become so hard to figure out what you can forbid and what you can’t that the temptation is just to give up and allow anything.

Here’s where decentralization could come to the rescue, if we’d let it. If the federal courts want to tie themselves in knots about what can be sent through the U.S. mails, that’s OK. But if Charlotte’s elected government wants to forbid over-the-counter traffic in video nasties, what’s that to the rest of us? If dirty old Charlotteans can drive to Chapel Hill and buy anything short of child pornography, or mail-order it from an 800 number, or get it from the inevitable black market, what is it even to them? It seems to me that the citizens of Charlotte should b? able to use their representative institutions to establish “contemporary community standards” of decency in their common, public life—especially if they can do pretty much what they please behind closed doors. Anyone who really” wants to live where he can buy Animal Lovers at every convenience store can move. What’s wrong with that?

True, we have a meddlesome federal government that recognizes no limits on its authority and is prepared to make all our states and communities look alike in various ways. The Tenth Amendment was almost a dead letter even before the states’ pigging out at the federal fisc gave the federales the lever they needed to dictate everything from drinking ages and school-bus colors to speed limits and cable television rates.

But it’s interesting that they haven’t seen fit to impose uniformity in every respect—even in some fairly important respects. Maybe we could use those chinks to make a case for allowing diversity in other areas. But we need to be more consistent about it.

It seems to be settled, for example, that it’s no business of mine, as a North Carolinian, if Louisiana lets grocery stores sell liquor, or Massachusetts runs a lottery, or Nevada permits brothels. It also appears that Californians can legalize sodomy and (for the time being) that Georgians can forbid it, without interference from the rest of us. That’s all fine with me. How about you?

Well, if you’re still with me, how about if Utah rethinks polygamy again, or Oregon wants to legalize marijuana? What’s your beef?

I can argue this case with some sincerity because to get right down to it here—I do just barely care what other states do. As far as I’m concerned, Californians can outlaw North Carolina’s cigarettes, we’ll outlaw their pornography, and everyone will be healthier. Californians who want their smokes and Carolinians who want their smut can move, smuggle, or do without. That’s what the Founding Fathers had in mind, or should have.

Of course you have to draw the line somewhere—at slavery, for example. We settled that. Some individual rights do trump corporate liberties. Even a North Carolinian wouldn’t get to be indifferent to, let’s say, a neo-Aztec revival of human sacrifice in New Mexico. And those who see abortion as human sacrifice without even a propitiatory motive, like those who see its absence as a form of slavery, won’t find the Hatch Amendment a satisfactory resolution of that troublesome question.

No, decentralization wouldn’t mean tranquillity in every respect. In fact, it’s a recipe for more conflict of a wholesome sort: conflict about where to draw the line. I seem to recall that William Buckley wrote once that much of libertarianism is foolishness, but that our politics would be healthier if we were actually debating whether to sell the lighthouses. Just so, I think we’d be better off if the debate about states’ and communities’ rights were taking place well to windward of where we are now.

Alas, though, it’s not just liberals who want to centralize power in D.C. My principal complaint about the neoconservatives that some of my Chronicles colleagues have been bashing with such gusto lately is their enthusiasm for federal solutions to problems. Sure, they’re real problems, but so is the metastasis of federal intrusion, especially since half the time it wouldn’t work right anyway.

Chester Finn, late of the USDOE, has said a lot of smart things about education, for example, but he said a monumentally dumb one when he called recently for a national curriculum. Principles aside, he needs to reflect that such an innovation could as well be used for experiments in multicultural empowerment as for the sort of little civics lessons he has in mind—and it undoubtedly would be, as soon as the Democrats won a presidential election.

Neocons may be especially unreliable on this score, but they’re not alone. As I write, for instance, my state’s senior senator is calling for a federal law to punish HIV-infected healthcare workers who knowingly treat patients. Now, that might make a pretty good state law. We could pass it in North Carolina, our HIV-positive doctors and dentists could move to states that hadn’t passed it, and—well, we’d see, wouldn’t we? But I can’t begin to imagine why Senator Helms thinks this is an appropriate subject for federal regulation. There must be something in the water in Washington.

That would also explain why, when Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois got annoyed at attempts by the Sensitivity Police to ban “hate speech” on some of our more fashionable campuses, he jettisoned his limited-government principles and introduced a bill that would forbid private colleges and universities to interfere with student speech.

That idea stinks to begin with. Conservatives should have better things to do than protecting students’ rights to call each other “nigger” and “faggot.” Sometimes colleges and universities ought to regulate what their undergraduates say. My ideal college would throw students out if they didn’t behave like ladies and gentlemen, and calling each other hateful names would do it. (Of course, so would occupying the dean’s office or disrupting Republican politicians’ speeches—even Henry Hyde’s.)

But the important, apparently forgotten point is that these are private, voluntary institutions we’re talking about. What they do in this respect—even when they do stupid, wrongheaded things—should be no business of the government’s. Religious schools should be allowed to forbid blasphemy, if they want to, and if Duke wants to become the Bob Jones of the left, it’s entitled. It’s a free country, as we used to say (back when we also said “sound as a dollar”).

We decentralists can take comfort from the fact that, however futile and unavailing our views may seem to be, time is really on our side. I attribute my sunny and equable temperament to that. Come what may from Washington, I’m calm. Grants for performance artists, pay raises for Congressmen, minority set-asides, New World Orders—none of this discourages or depresses me. Whatever detestable enormities our would-be leaders visit upon us, I comfort myself by reflecting on a simple truth:

Anything that tends to bring the federal government into disrepute isn’t all bad.