Smut is not the canary in the coal mine of our liberties.
By Jonah Goldberg
April 01, 2009, 0:00 a.m.
In 1996, Miloš Forman directed The People vs. Larry Flynt, the propagandistic film that made a “First Amendment hero” out of the publisher of Hustler, a racist and filthy porn magazine. Frank Rich of the New York Times dubbed it “the most timely and patriotic movie of the year.”
Even if you’ve never seen the movie (or read Hanna Rosin’s contemporaneous debunking of it in The New Republic), it’s easy to guess why the film was a favorite of people like Rich. It whitewashed Flynt while demonizing conservatives as religious prudes.
Before it was screened in Washington, James Carville — who played a Comstockian scold in the movie — said in a speech introducing the film, “Miloš Forman lost his parents in the Holocaust.” And then he pressed the point home: “The first thing a totalitarian state goes after is pornography, and when they do, the public applauds. It gets worse from there.”
This is the sort of statement that is so stupid it almost sounds smart. Cracking down on porn was hardly the first priority of the Nazis or Soviets. More important, if a state is already totalitarian, it has already “gone after” the things that really matter — like liberty. Banning On Golden Blonde is an afterthought.
Now, I’m not in favor of a federal ban on porn (though it’s fine with me at the state or local level). But the notion that smut is the canary in the coal mine of our liberties is a profoundly asinine and dangerous myth, and it may be costing us the things that really matter.
The argument from supposedly liberty-loving liberals goes like this: We protect “extreme” and unpopular speech because if that is safe, they’ll never get to our core liberties. If they can ban trash, argue the slippery-slopers, what’s to stop them from banning criticism of politicians?
One problem: While Frank Rich et al. are preening on their soapboxes for making filth as American as apple pie, the government, under Republican and Democratic presidents alike, has been banning criticism of politicians.
Just last week, the Obama administration argued before the Supreme Court that it has no principled constitutional problem with banning books.
The case before the court, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, involves a documentary-style film, Hillary: The Movie, that ran afoul of campaign-finance laws designed to censor so-called stealth ads as well as electioneering paid for by corporations or unions.
To be fair, the film does amount to partisan advocacy. It’s a scorching indictment of the former Democratic presidential front-runner, produced by an unapologetically conservative outfit. It’s as one-sided as a MoveOn.org-produced documentary about George W. Bush would be. But, some might wonder, should partisan advocacy ever be illegal in a democracy?
Several justices asked the deputy solicitor general, Malcolm Stewart, if there would be any constitutional reason why the ban on documentaries and ads couldn’t be extended to books carrying similar messages. Stewart, speaking for a president who once taught constitutional law, said Congress can ban books “if the book contained the functional equivalent of express advocacy” for a candidate and was supported, even slightly, with corporate money. Such advocacy, Stewart conceded, could amount to negatively mentioning a politician just once in a 500-page book put out by a mainstream publisher.
Virtually every newspaper in America is owned by a corporation; does that mean they can’t endorse candidates anymore? To even ask such a question as if it were reasonable shows how close to the heart of our democracy the poison has reached.
When the myth that the Patriot Act targeted libraries — it didn’t — was all the rage, liberals manned the parapets. When some citizens — not government officials — destroyed Dixie Chicks CDs, the collective response from liberals was to channel Martin Niemoller: “first they came for the Dixie Chicks . . .” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman compared it to Kristallnacht. When then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer made the off-the-cuff suggestion — in response to some unfunny idiocy from Bill Maher (and a bigoted comment from a Republican congressman) — that Americans needed to “watch what they say,” Rich (again) concluded that Fleischer’s comment was as significant for our domestic freedom as 9/11 itself.
But when the Obama administration approves the constitutionality of banning politically relevant books before the Supreme Court, where’s the outrage? Yes, there are some sober, responsible editorials. But the soapboxes stand unmanned by the self-appointed paragons of freedom.
But perhaps they’re right to be silent. It’s not as if anyone is trying to ban Hustler.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.