Vulgarians at the Gate

by Steve Allen

(Prometheus Books, 2001)


(This column was first published in the October 25, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


We lost one of our finest comedians when Steve Allen died earlier this year. In his death we also lost the late night host who, in those pre-Jack Parr years, defined that kind of activity. We lost a fine musician and composer. And we lost a writer, not only of novels but also of social criticism.


His Vulgarians at the Gate: Trash TV and Raunch Radio, Raising the Standards of Popular Culture falls into this last category and, despite my concern for the freedoms given us by our constitution, I found his case compelling.


Because I simply do not watch the kind of television or listen to the kind of radio that has proven so attractive to our young people, I was not aware just how bad things have become. Allen tells us in no uncertain terms. I won't quote here any of these terrible examples, the worst of which is a broadcast conversation between Madonna and David Letterman, but I will offer his take on them: "No one assumes that there was ever a Golden Age of personal rectitude among creative people. The statistics about alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, and emotional instability in the general population are tragic enough. They have always been higher in the arts, and particularly so in the creative art known as show business. When, therefore, we say the present degree of moral turpitude is shocking, we are not naive enough to compare it to some sort of moral never-never-land in which entertainers were as righteous and heroic as the roles they played or the public images they manufactured.


"But the sinners and offenders of earlier times at least attempted to keep their transgressions private, if only for selfish reasons. It has now become almost impossible to shame our public figures....


"To say that what Howard Stern does on his daily radio show is disgusting is not, strictly speaking, to express a formally critical judgment but merely to make a written record of what is the common assessment not only among Mr. Stern's detractors -- which would only be expected -- but even among his admirers. The point is that they admire him because he is disgusting."


Allen defines the problem that we face today: "American parents today are deeply worried about their children's exposure to an increasingly toxic popular culture. The events in Littleton, Colorado, are only the most recent reminder that something is deeply amiss in our media age. Violence and explicit sexual content in television, films, music, and video games have escalated sharply in recent years. Children of all ages now are being exposed to a barrage of images and words that threaten not only to rob them of normal childhood innocence but also to distort their view of reality and even undermine their character growth.


"These concerns know no political or partisan boundaries. According to a recent CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll, 76 percent of adults agree that TV movies, and popular music are negative influences on children, and 75 percent report that they make efforts to protect children from such harmful influences. Nearly the same number say shielding children from the negative influences of today's media culture is 'nearly impossible.'


"Moreover, there is a growing public appreciation of the link between our excessively violent and degrading entertainment and the horrifying new crimes we see emerging among our young: schoolchildren gunning down teachers and fellow students en masse, killing sprees inspired by violent films, and teenagers murdering their babies only to return to dance at the prom.


"Clearly, many factors are contributing to the crisis -- family disintegration, ineffective schools, negligent parenting and the ready availability of firearms. But, among researchers, the proposition that entertainment violence adversely influences attitudes and behavior is no longer controversial; there is overwhelming evidence of its harmful effects. Numerous studies show that degrading images of violence and sex have a desensitizing effect. Nowhere is the threat greater than to our at-risk youth --  youngsters whose disadvantaged environments make them susceptible to acting upon impulses shaped by violent and dehumanizing media imagery."


Just how bad is the situation: "[A]ccording to the A. C. Nielsen Company the average child (age 2 through 11) watches nearly four hours of television per day. In August 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children under the age of two not be permitted to watch television at all, on the grounds that doing so deprives them of social interaction which is critical for early brain development. The same physicians' organization recommended that older children sleep in media-free bedrooms to reduce their exposure to questionable references. And yet more than half of all children in America have a television set in their bedrooms. A 1994 study by the Center for Media and Popular Culture reports an average of fifteen violent acts being televised per channel per hour between 6 a.m. and midnight, an increase of 41 percent in only four years. In his 1999 national address on media violence after the student massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, President Clinton reported that 'by the time the typical American child reaches the age of eighteen, he or she has seen 200,000 dramatized acts of violence and 40,000 dramatized murders.' And there are scores of reliable studies suggesting that television violence may contribute to aggressive behavior."


Allen correctly identifies the problem, not as the performers -- bad as are Madonna and her ilk -- but those who sponsor them -- the executives of TV, film and radio. "Among those who once formally guarded the moral and ethical ramparts were the corporations," he tells us, "consisting chiefly of men who had been reasonably well educated and were by-and-large responsible citizens -- the conservative country-club set, in other words -- but their role as moral guardians now appears to have been almost totally abandoned. Corporate America, granting exceptions, has not only largely given up its former admirable participation in the maintenance of society's general sanity but has joined those who would undermine it and is, in fact, funding them in large measure.


"This is nowhere more dear than in the context of TV and radio. The owners of television and radio stations, and the networks by which they are strung together, are apparently so concentrated on the bottom line -- to use the tiresome phrase -- that they simply turn a blind eye to what is nothing less than the partial collapse of their own society. As a result not only is television awash in foul language and repulsiveness, but the owners -- those holding the most power -- are not just permitting but encouraging their creative representatives to further extremes of muck and mire. Once it became clear that there is a definite cause-and-effect relationship between the schlockiest forms of sexual display and achieving higher ratings, the battle was over."


And Allen carefully counters the response of the executives' PR staffs and lobbyists like Jack Valenti: "One of the weakest arguments advanced by those who, in effect, say 'I can do anything I want on television or other media, no matter how disgusting because of the First Amendment' involves pointing out that the great majority of those exposed to morally corrosive vulgarity and violence never actually proceed to commit rape, murder, or any other serious crime.


"So what? A majority of those who have smoked cigarettes nevertheless do not eventually die of lung-cancer or heart disease either. But it is still a fact that the small percentage of Americans who do die from the poisonous effects of tobacco-smoke number well over 400,000 per year!


"It is instructive to note that once our society began to fully grasp such tragic facts, two things happened: (a) laws and other restrictions on smoking were enacted, and (b) the people who made a living by selling tobacco products simply went on lying on a daily basis in defense of a business they were perfectly aware often had lethal effects.


"As regards vulgarity and violence in entertainment, thousands of responsible studies have shown what was apparent enough all along. And yet this same pattern of denial is precisely what we have seen in recent decades from the entertainment industry. As far back as 1972, U.S. Surgeon General Jesse Steinfeld issued a report and testified before Congress that television violence 'does have an adverse effect on certain members of our society' and yet the Hollywood corporate and creative community have consistently denied any responsibility whatsoever for the past thirty years."


There are many sections of this book that I found quite moving but one deeply impressed me. Allen tells us: "In the July 21, 1997, U.S. News & World Report, social critic John Leo referred to the phenomenon in another context: 'In thirty years of college teaching, Prof. Robert Simon has never met a student who denied that the Holocaust happened. What he sees increasingly, though, is worse: students who acknowledge the fact of the Holocaust but can't bring themselves to say that killing millions of people is wrong.'


"Think of it: Over forty million people were killed n World War II, presumably in defense of certain moral principles. What Hitler and his Nazis did was among the supreme atrocities of history, and Jews were by no means their only victims. Among the victims were the elderly and infirm, gypsies, homosexuals, intellectuals, artists, and others. But despite the massive suffering and sacrifice of the war against Hitler and his axis, and despite the fact that the concept of democracy itself is a moral idea designed to make less likely the monstrous evil inflicted, over thousands of years, by countless emperors, kings, dictators, and -- especially tragic to say -- religious leaders, we now have a generation of young Americans who apparently take a lackadaisical attitude toward not just evil but one of the supreme evils of recorded history. Leo continues: 'Simon, who teaches philosophy at Hamilton College, says that 10 to 20 percent of his students are reluctant to make moral judgments -- in some cases even about the Holocaust. While these students may deplore what the Nazis did, their disapproval is expressed as a matter of taste or personal preference, not moral judgment. 'Of course I dislike the Nazis,' one student told him, 'but who is to say they are morally wrong?'


"'Overdosing on nonjudgmentalism is a growing problem in our schools. Christina Hoff Sommers, author and professor at Clark University says that many students come to college 'committed to a moral relativism that offers them no grounds to think about cheating, stealing, and other moral issues.'"


I find that situation deeply disturbing and I only hope that the sudden turn our thinking has taken in the past six weeks will make inroads on this situation as well.


Finally, I cannot close this commentary without quoting Allen on the often rejected role of humanists in our world, today once again so threatened by religious fundamentalists: "When the churches literally ruled society, the human drama encompassed (a) slavery; (b) the cruel subjection of women; (c) the most savage forms of legal punishment; (d) the absurd belief that kings ruled by divine right; (e) the daily imposition of physical abuse; (f) cold heartlessness for the sufferings of the poor; as well as (g) assorted pogroms ('ethnic cleansing' wars) between rival religions, capital punishment for literally hundreds of offenses, and countless other daily imposed moral outrages. Again it was the free-thinking, challenging work by people of conscience, who almost invariably had to defy the religious and political status quo of their times, that brought us out of such darkness.


"Religious believers of the world, you are free to continue to debate the simple, narrow question that divides you from atheists, but you have no right, in so doing, to treat the Humanists of the world with contempt. You owe them a deep debt of gratitude, for not only have they shed much light on a naturally dark world but they have very probably helped civilize your own specific religion."


I have long respected this fine man. This book and another I have been reading, his Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion & Morality, have raised my regard for him to new heights. We have indeed lost a remarkable citizen.