When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke at Harvard University two decades ago, one of the most unfathomable lines in his widely panned commencement address was his lament about “the forfeited right of people not to know.” This line was buried within his section charging the press with hastiness and superficiality—and the reporters in attendance rushed out to prove him right about that. With so many misimpressions by the inflammatory foreigner to correct, commentators could hardly be expected to use up precious space to contradict such an obvious instance of tone-deafness to our blessed Bill of Rights from someone manifestly conditioned by totalitarianism. Even those Americans who appreciated Solzhenitsyn’s call for spiritual renewal as an antidote to Western hedonism considered this line in-passing an embarrassing piece of hyperbole.
“The people’s right to know” is virtually sacrosanct today. Our Sam Donaldsons repeat the mantra routinely as a sure-fire argument-stopper. Citizens who flinch with discomfort when these words are spoken by media millionaires with vested self-interests are nonetheless disinclined to challenge the line itself When CNN’s Peter Arnett reports information from Baghdad that might imperil the military mission against Saddam Hussein, even patriots fall silent before the principle of the “people’s right to know,” which trumps any hint of treason.
Solzhenitsyn did amplify his counter-principle a bit. Borrowing our familiar language of rights, he spoke of the people’s right “not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk,” adding, “A person who works and leads a meaningful life has no need for this excessive and burdening flow of information.” Mention of “divine souls” goes right past our chattering classes as so much archaic clatter. Religious people, on the other hand, take notice of such rhetoric. If human beings really have souls—and the majority of Americans reportedly think they do—we can hardly ignore the effect on souls of today’s so-called information explosion, especially as it is carried into our homes by media elites who generally think we are soulless.
Before the house right now—and apparently for quite a while—is a classic case study of the people’s right to know: President Clinton’s alleged sexual adventures. Polls show that most Americans would rather not know about them. Such data confound conservative moralists. Mainstream pundits, in contrast, say Americans are becoming mature and sophisticated (like the French) about what they are sure is a constitutional right to privacy. As we have learned by now from Bill Maher and other Deep Thinkers, what happens between two consenting adults is no one else’s business, as long as no one is hurt. Besides, guilt-free adultery is a social advance over grandma’s puritanical judgmentalism. Americans are approaching the nirvana of total tolerance. That’s progress.
Commentators can rise above this lowest-common-denominator tolerance and still not get the story right. Charles Lane, in a column in the New Republic
I doubt our pundits’ complacent explanation of Clinton’s poll numbers, because I think that the media elites misconstrue human nature and are disconnected from the majority’s moral standards. But I also doubt that our conservative moralists—who, goodness knows, have plenty of reason to worry about licentiousness as a growth industry—have evaded the trap of undue alarmism. I prefer to think—and, I admit, I hope—that many, maybe most, people who say they would rather not know about the President’s alleged misbehavior say so not because they are tolerant toward it or fatigued by it but because they are offended and embarrassed by it. The graphic details of kneepads and oral sex in the Oval Office make them queasy. Parents of young children, for example, find themselves in a particularly awkward situation as “presidential” news filters into their homes and kids ask questions, as kids will. Public ignorance is not bliss, but it is perhaps the last bulwark of the largely eclipsed concept of common decency, which includes the notion of the President as moral model. Even our talking heads—with old Sam leading the way—first reacted to Monicagate with shock before turning blasé, as if their hearts were not as fully liberated from old moral strictures as their heads are. Ironically, polls show the citizens to be more upset with the newsbearers than with the newsmaker. Why, if not that they are inchoately revealing their wish not to know?
I think the people are validating a legitimate principle but—in this case—are wrongly applying it. Closing an eye to the current tawdriness is not the best strategy for keeping alive the old vision of the President as moral exemplar. When the Head Resident of the White House himself hawks the view that the voters simply “hired” him to do a CEO’s job, the public is encouraged to downgrade its sense of the office—and with it a piece of national grandeur. In this situation, I think averting our gaze is too passive a response.
But no matter. The main thing is the principle at stake. There are some things it is bad for us to know. Stuffing our brains with gossip is bad for our souls. So is watching a man blow his brains out on a Los Angeles freeway. Relieving our boredom or satiating our sleaze quotient by observing the grotesquely disfigured lives that Jerry Springer parades across our living-room screens is the wrong thing to do. Drawing a curtain across the naked shame of a drunken Noah was the right thing to do.
Media gurus retort that televisions come with an on-off switch. This advice is fine, as far as it goes, which is not far at all. Since most people won’t know what to turn off if it’s not first turned on, the advice is preHy frivolous and thoroughly self-serving. It leaves the producers with all the rights and the consumers with all the responsibilities. What is the socially redeeming value of this moral asymmetry?
This facile advice tells us more about media types than they realize. It depends upon a solipsistic view of individuals in an atomized society, for it assumes that encouragement of deviance by example will not rend the social fabric. It denies that evil communications corrupt good manners. It assumes the opposite of the ancient principle that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the third and the fourth generations (our connectedness through time) and imagines that individual actions are devoid of social consequences (our connectedness through space). It neglects any possibility that in the media world we are our brother’s keeper. It reveals, in short, the moral vacuity of the advisers and the amoral character of the advice—what Solzhenitsyn calls a “smug secularism that cannot see beyond itself.”
Does the logic of these musings lead to a case for censorship? We are now on secular America’s holiest ground: censorship is the greatest abomination. But of course we don’t really abhor censorship. A politicized society hears “censorship” and thinks “government.” In practice, we all accept censorship of some sort. Parents engage in it daily. So do professors, and just about everyone else, media elites included. They know there are lines they cannot cross—the ire of the editor, the preoccupations of the publisher or producer, the desires of advertisers, the concerns of vocal media watchdog groups, the cautions of ombudspersons, the approval of professional peers. The heart’s desire of media professionals may prompt them to keep testing the lines at any given moment, and they may—and do—try to shift the unspoken lines to encompass content hitherto forbidden. But they implicitly or explicitly self-censor daily. They just don’t talk about it. As communication scholars put it, the media are gatekeepers. This very image vitiates their proclamations of the people’s untrammeled right to know.
The issue, then, is not censorship per se. The issue is on what basis, and according to whose standard, censorship is conducted. Ask broadcasters this question, and a one-word answer returns: ratings. What unseemly traffic will the public bear? As the Romans learned long ago, even quite prurient appeals to people’s base desires will generate quite a bit of traffic. What this answer fails to acknowledge, however, is that the media create an appetite for the unwholesome, the degrading, the illicit—for the next generation Jerry Springer—as certainly as they satisfy it.
Whatever else this answer tells us, it bespeaks the amorality of the marketplace. (One useful function of the Democratic Party used to be to remind us of this.) If morality is to be imbued into the media marketplace, someone must do the imbuing. Who? The transmitters? Sure, but only according to the lights of their worldview, and these limited lights do not at the moment include the needs of human hearts. The transmitters can produce programs on the dangers of smoking and bad eating habits and on medical breakthroughs and on whatever else might nourish the unspoken impossible desire to keep our animal beings thinking and copulating in perpetuity. But a shrunken view of human beings curtails the range of their moral vision. So there’s nothing to stop the mainstreaming of porn on TV or the ever racier lines by heavy-breathing women selling Levi’s to men.
Short of the infiltration of high media offices by people with high moral sensibility, which would probably take a religious revival to achieve, receptors will have to do the main job of self-censorship. All hail to those who are trying. Some parents, considering the situation extreme, have taken the extreme measure of junking their TV sets, willing to do without C-SPAN’s wonderful window on the world to avoid the ravaging of their children’s souls, and their own, too. It is not impossible for discontented consumers to achieve the critical mass necessary to get morally subversive products canceled. Boycotts can override the moral somnolence of advertisers.
But how much better it would be if there were some moral symmetry between the two sides in the media exchange! Hark back to the advent of television. The talk then was of the social cohesion, the intellectual enrichment, the moral reinforcement that the new medium could provide. In our decayed cultural condition, the odds are against implementing that vision, for what once seemed pristinely possible now seems pitifully naive, if not downright intolerant. Solzhenitsyn observed of America, “Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of” But there are Americans who believe in the principle, and nothing requires them to stay silent about it. Reticence and modesty are not un- American precepts.
Television exposes its bad conscience by staging navel-gazing talk shows in which commentators second-guess their own decisions. Imagine if every time someone invoked “the right to know” on one of these programs, someone else countered with the equally valid right not to know. It would be a rhetorical response only. But words have power, and repeating words is how we create common wisdom. Who knows? Maybe we’d start hearing conversations that moved beyond rights-talk. Maybe social responsibility would become more than an empty slogan. That would be a real countercultural revolution.
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