My interest in censorship issues was first piqued by the Parental Advisory Label; its standardization in 1990 coincided with my first music purchases. At the time, my strong feelings about the PMRC led me to write a letter to Tipper Gore (it was written in pencil on 3-hole paper from my Trapper Keeper). I’m not sure if I ever sent that letter, or if she received it, so consider this blog post my 20-year-late follow-up.
Even as a pre-teen I sympathized with parents’ desire to know about their kids’ musical choices (though this would be better accomplished through research and conversation), and I knew that limiting sales to those under 18 was not exactly tantamount to censorship. But the movement and its leaders’ intentions made me wary of the creeping scope to which civil liberties infringements are susceptible.
For example, the PMRC originally proposed labels that were more specific than, say, the FCC’s guidelines for obscenity (which I also find suspiciously subjective). One of their proposed categorizations was “O”, which would apply to music with occult content. This was clearly religious discrimination. After the senate hearing, the RIAA dropped these categorizations in favor of a general label, and the labeling program is voluntary; still, it left me suspicious about the motivations of would-be censors.
A related 1985 quote by then-president Ronald Reagan:
“Music and the media floods [parents’] children’s world with glorifications of drugs and violence and perversity, and there’s nothing they can do about it, they’re told, because of the first amendment. Well, I don’t think James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights and one of Virginia’s proudest sons, ever imagined that his great document of liberty would be twisted into a pretext for license. I don’t believe that our Founding Fathers ever intended to create a nation where the rights of pornographers would take precedence over the rights of parents and the violent and malevolent would be given free rein to prey upon our children.”
Civil liberties have been on my mind a lot lately. Last week, I went to see Glenn Greenwald present about “Civil Liberties in the Age of Obama” at Brown University. He made many great points, including that civil liberties are hard rules…not negotiable, for example, in “times of war”. We can’t, as Reagan did in the above quote, speculate on the intentions of our founding fathers. The Bill of Rights is so powerful and relevant because of its non-specificity: it continues to protect the minority from the majority reglardless of the specifics of current issues.
I’d like to share a few of the points he made (undoubtedly less eloquently):
1. Many people believe if they aren’t currently targeted, civil rights violations shouldn’t worry them. But Mr. Greenwald emphasized that they should, because civil liberties violations are subjective and bound to have a creeping scope: a scope which may very well include them someday. This really resonates with me.
2. Potential civil liberties violations are “sold” to the public by the use of repugnant examples. A case I saw recently: US can conduct off site searches of computers seized at borders. It’s OK, because it helps us catch pedophiles, right? We should be suspicious of this kind of marketing.
An endorsement of civil liberties does not have to be an endorsement of everyone they protect. This famous quote comes to mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Voltaire summarized by Evelyn Beatrice Hall)
3. Bi-partisan disregard for civil liberties is deadening the public debate about these issues. When a Republican was in the White House, Democrats were eager to point out violations of civil liberties, and Obama explicitly promised a change in the way civil liberties were handled. Now that civil liberties violations have continued, and in many cases gotten worse, it’s important to keep the public discourse alive. Two related links about the Obama administration’s failings in the civil liberties arena: