Does Hollywood hurt America? — with Camille Paglia (1995) | THINK TANK

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. There is a great deal of sex and violence
on television, in the movies, and in our popular music. Does this lead to unacceptable behavior? Is this coarsening our lives? Or are sex and violence age-old staples of
art and literature? In any event, what tools are available in
a free society to change popular culture? Joining us to sort through the conflict and
the consensus are Camille Paglia, professor of humanities at the University of the Arts
in Philadelphia and author of the recently published “Vamps and Tramps”; Robert Bork,
senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the forthcoming book, “Slouching
Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline”; and John Leo, columnist for US
News and World Report and author of “Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police.” The topic before this house: Does Hollywood
hurt America? This week on “Think Tank.” It is one of America’s great ironies. We love to watch television, to go to the
movies, and to listen to popular music, but when we do, many of us strongly object to
what we see or hear, and we are especially concerned about what our children see and
hear. Recently, Senate majority leader and Republican
presidential contender Bob Dole attacked Hollywood. Bob Dole [from videotape]: Our music, movies,
television, and advertising regularly push the limits of decency, and they bombard our
children with the destructive message of casual violence and even more casual sex. And I concluded that we must hold Hollywood
and the entire entertainment industry accountable for putting profit ahead of common decency. Ben Wattenberg: Dole criticized movies like
“Natural Born Killers” and “True Romance.” Dole and others have singled out the Time
Warner Corporation for particular criticism. C. Dolores Tucker [from videotape]: I’m
C. Dolores Tucker, chair of the National Political Congress of Black Women. William Bennett [from videotape]: I’m Bill
Bennett, codirector of Empower America. C. Dolores Tucker [from videotape]: I’m
a liberal Democrat. William Bennett [from videotape]: And I’m
a conservative Republican. C. Dolores Tucker [from videotape]: Time Warner’s
music division promotes music that celebrates the rape, torture, and murder of women. The lyrics are both offensive and do terrible
harm to our children. William Bennett [from videotape]: Isn’t
anybody at Time Warner embarrassed by these lyrics? Ben Wattenberg: Time Warner’s response has
been quite cautious. “It is certainly not an easy matter to decide
who the ultimate arbiter of creative content should be. We prefer to err on the side of freedom of
expression.” President Clinton had spoken out even earlier. Bill Clinton [from videotape]: People in the
entertainment industry in this country, we applaud your creativity and your worldwide
success, and we support your freedom of expression. But you do have a responsibility to assess
the impact of your work and to understand the damage that comes from the incessant,
repetitive, mindless violence and irresponsible conduct that permeates our media all the time. (Applause.) Ben Wattenberg: Okay, panel, lady and gentlemen,
President Clinton and Senator Dole think that sex and violence in the movies can cause bad
behavior. Judge Bob Bork, do you think that there is
a relationship between what we see on our television screens and hear in popular music
and actual behavior? Robert Bork: If there isn’t, the advertisers
are wasting billions of dollars a year. Michael Medved cites over 3,000 studies that
show that a diet of constant violence in entertainment leads to aggressive, antisocial behavior. As to the word sex, I think the lady who worked
with the single mothers put it best. They said, how can we stop illegitimacy? She said, “Shoot Madonna.” Now, that may be a little extreme, but you
see her point. Ben Wattenberg: Camille Paglia, does depraved
or decadent popular culture cause depraved or decadent behavior? Camille Paglia: Well, as a great fan of Madonna,
I have to say that I am more skeptical than Judge Bork of those thousands of studies,
which I believe only show an anecdotal and incidental kind of relationship between what
is seen on screen and what is done on the street. I think in fact that violent fictions may
provide a kind of cathartic release for certain eternal human energies. I mean, by this standard, we would have to
look very closely at “Hamlet,” let’s say, or — which has multiple corpses on
the stage at the end. This was, in effect, the argument that the
Puritans used to close the theaters in Shakespeare’s time. Or we’d have to look at “Oedipus Rex.” All of Greek drama, it seems to me, is full
of barbarities. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. John Leo. John Leo: I think it obviously does have an
effect. I mean the popular culture is the air that
our kids breathe. And if you call women whores and bitches in
a thousand songs, you shouldn’t be surprised if young males start to treat them that way. Ben Wattenberg: How do you account for the
fact — I mean Camille alluded to it — that in earlier times, I mean we had cartoons and
Westerns and private-eye movies and monster movies and cop shows, as well as terrible
violence in Shakespeare and Sophocles and terrible — not terrible — interesting,
amusing sexuality in Aristophanes and so on and so forth. So why do you claim that now is different,
either of you? John Leo: Let me jump in. I think that Camille is right that there is
a cathartic aspect to it, but that works best in a stable culture with social controls. When you have a culture that seems to be melting
down, as our does, you are going to find the next generation taking its messages of quick
solutions through violence from the screen. It’s not just that there is some violence
in “Hamlet.” It’s that our children are watching thousands
of murders and Bruce Willis is upping the body count in every “Diehard.” I think that gets through to kids, particularly
young males, that that’s the way to solve things and it’s an OK solution. Robert Bork: Kids watch about 20 hours of
television a week. And the count for violence and murder is very
high. I forget exactly what it is, but I think that
they see nine murders an evening. They don’t see Shakespeare that many times. We’re drenched in violence. Ben Wattenberg: No, but people in Shakespeare’s
time saw Shakespeare that many times, or Sophocles in Sophocles’ — Robert Bork: I don’t think anybody saw Shakespeare
20 hours a week. But be that as it may, also the violence was
presented in a different context there. It had a plot to it, and there was a reason
for it. The violence now, they always refer to it
as senseless violence. It is. It’s just for the pleasure of seeing bodies
fly apart. Camille Paglia: Yeah, I think there has been
a terrible decline in aesthetic standards in Hollywood, but I feel this is due to the
transition from the great Hollywood studio era to the America of the 1950s, when television
has now kept mass audiences at home. So over the last 30 years, I feel, there has
been an evolution in the kind of movies being made. The only people who really go out to movies
now are young people, people on dates, who like these kinds of cartoony mutilation of
bodies, and so on. There’s no doubt that just in the period
since I was in college, this was a great era of incredible classy, philosophical foreign
films, art films that are completely gone now. I do — I am concerned as a professor about
the condition of America. I’m a great lover of popular culture, but
we cannot have the young raised only on a diet of popular culture. This is why I am for also the canon of great
writers in order to balance out this. So as opposed to censorship, I say build up
the high art and the study of great thinkers. Ben Wattenberg: But people other than teenagers,
including me, do watch movies. I happen to think movies — I mean the ones
I watch — are pretty wonderful. We have a — it is a great American art form. It is being watched by more people these days,
plus the international market. This is what is showing America’s face,
for good or for ill. I think mostly for good. I think many of those movies have a message
of American individualism and upward mobility. And so why are we — why are we beating up
on the fact that some of it is rotten? John Leo: Well, let me give you an example,
I’ll use a Republican perpetrator, since Bob Dole didn’t. I like the “Terminator” movies, but in
“Terminator 2,” Schwarzenegger comes down naked from the future, and his first act is
to walk into a pool room and beat the living hell out of these guys who have jackets and
motorcycles that he wants. Well, first of all, this is a typical urban
crime, but secondly, it’s also seen through his eyes. You walk in, you see it through his eyes,
and you’re invited to enjoy the decimation of these characters — who have done nothing. It’s a pro-violence message in a way that
you didn’t used to get in American movies. You are given the taste and feel of violence,
and it’s made very inviting. And you’re justified. You’re here to stop World War III, so it’s
OK. Camille Paglia: But again, I don’t feel
that there’s a direct relationship between such movies and such scenes and the actual
violence in the streets. For me, there are sociological factors for
the violence in the streets, and that is the utter breakdown of community life in the inner
cities because of the flight of the black middle class to the suburbs and the absence
now of manufacturing jobs. There are a lot of unemployed black kids. I, in point of fact, can remember stories
that my relatives told of the violence of Italian-American youth 60 years ago, let’s
say. We should really examine, you know, the level
of juvenile delinquency among ethnics other than blacks from the early part of the century. I’m not so sure — now they have better
weapons than they did then. They used to settle problems with knives and
fists, and now, unfortunately, with Uzis. Ben Wattenberg: Haven’t you written, Camille,
that you think pornography is good stuff? Camille Paglia: Yes. I am radically pro-porn — I know that that
is an extreme position — because I feel that pornography shows the truth about sexuality,
the truth about our animal natures. At the same time, I feel that it is appropriate
to ask that pornography not be displayed in public spaces, that it should be available
for private consumption, that no one has the right to intrude into public spaces and to
— Ben Wattenberg: Is a movie theater a public
space? Camille Paglia: No, not in the sense that
a public square or, let’s say, even newsstand would be. In other words, I want the pornography available
at the newsstand. I don’t feel anyone has the right to display
the pornography for Christian people who are wandering on the street. Robert Bork: Well, the problem is that the
people who enjoy the pornography change. They change themselves, and they change themselves
for the worse. On internet right now, I’ve learned that
you can get alt sex stories, and there you can read about the castration of a 7-year-old
boy that is being shot, about the gang rape of a 6-year-old girl. You can get stories telling you when to lurk
outside a girl’s school, how to bundle into the van, whether to tell her in advance that
after you’re finished with her, she’s going to be murdered. That stuff is on the internet now. Wait till George Gilder’s digital films
from all over the world are available. Ben Wattenberg: And you have just repeated
it on public television. Robert Bork: Not in the same loving detail. Camille Paglia: Let me say about that, this
proves my point that the effort, the coalition between the religious right and the feminist
anti-porn wing has failed, that they thought they had finally cornered the market and limited
it in the realm of pornographic films and videos. But look, the moment there’s a new medium
of communication, the — what can I say? — the perverse human soul bubbles up everywhere. And so to me, the presence of these horrific
stories on the internet simply proves my point, that it may be the human imagination that
we cannot fully police. Robert Bork: Well, we used to have restraints
of various kinds, not only law, but religion and morality, that kept these things in the
corner at best. Now it’s out in the open, and it may be
the technology is such that it will be impossible to control it. Ben Wattenberg: All right, well, let — go
ahead, John. John Leo: Well, I was going to say that I
agree with Camille that various ethnic groups commit horrific violence. The Irish were very good at it into the last
century, but it usually came under control because of the churches and the institutions
which are now in collapse. So I think the attention to the public culture
now is partly to acknowledge that the family and the churches can’t stop this, that the
public culture is the preacher now, so whatever is put into the pot of the public culture
is likely to have direct effects that it didn’t have before. Ben Wattenberg: All right, let us stipulate
that. You have at least one skeptic here, me, but
let us stipulate that bad culture drives bad behavior. What are you going to do about it? You alluded fondly to censorship. Robert Bork: Fondly — well, yes. I think it’s inevitable that we’re going
to try censorship at some stage. I didn’t used to think so. It hought that the public culture was beyond
agreement on any form of censorship. But when you get the kind of stuff that’s
now on the internet, the kind of stuff I described, and when that appears in digital films you
can watch on your home computer, I think we’re in a very dangerous situation as we begin
to appeal to perverts who could be triggered into action. I think we’re going to have to try censorship. Whether we can do it or not, I don’t know. Ben Wattenberg: You would like to see it succeed? Robert Bork: Oh, yes. I don’t want that kind of stuff floating
around in this society. Ben Wattenberg: Any — I mean not even undisplayed
at a public newsstand, the way Camille was saying? It’s not out in front of you, but you can
say, I want a copy of “Hustler” and get it. Robert Bork: I’m worried about the fellow
who wants to get stories about young children being raped and murdered. That is not a normal mind, and I don’t want
to trigger that mind. Ben Wattenberg: What about “Playboy,”
“Penthouse,” getting down to “Hustler”? What about those magazines? Robert Bork: Oh, I haven’t seen — I’m
too embarrassed in the barbershop to pick one up, so I haven’t really seen one for
a long time. Ben Wattenberg: As part of your research,
you could purchase one. Robert Bork: Yeah, that’s right. (Laughter.) No, I have seen — occasionally seen them,
and some of them, I think, deserve censorship. John Leo: I think the real problem is — Ben Wattenberg: John, you’re in the First
Amendment business. John Leo: Sure. No, I’m not for censorship, but my solution,
however dreamy, is a change in consciousness. I think cultures do change, sexual attitudes
change abruptly from generation to generation, as they have through English history quite
regularly. And I think we can change consciousness in
America. Ben Wattenberg: Camille. Camille Paglia: Well, my analysis of pornography
and history has been that the more there is a taboo of any kind in a culture, the more
you will get imaginations that profane that sacred subject, whatever it is. So I have the feeling that possibly the majority
of these horrific fantasies of child abuse and murder and so on may be coming from other
forces in the culture, not because people want to enact such frightful scenarios. So, and I — again, I — as a student of
psychopathology, I am simply doubtful of a direct correlation between people who indulge
in such fantasies and the people who actually carry them out, because we have the example
of Jules Duree (sp) and the Countess Dracula and Nero. These, such examples, they did not need printed
pornography or internet in order to stimulate their acts. John Leo: We don’t know. Robert Bork: No, we don’t. That’s right. Remember those two young boys in England who
killed the toddler? Camille Paglia: Mm-hmm. Robert Bork: It turns out that their father
was an addict of snuff films, and one of them was the precise way in which they killed that
kid. And there were some boys who just strangled
a friend from the rear seat of a car — they strangled — sitting in the front seat. They got that from “Godfather II,” they
said. Camille Paglia: But it may be that — millions
and millions of people may see similar scenes; only a small number may be pushed into committing
such acts, but perhaps they would have done these things anyway. Are we going to close down the whole society
in order to prevent such I would say sociopaths from acting who might have acted anyway? Ben Wattenberg: John, you have written about
the role of shame to get change done. Is that what you want to do when you say you
want to change the culture? John Leo: That’s why I think the campaign
against Time Warner is so interesting. What it is, it’s a clear appeal to shame,
and I think it’s working. The noises I hear within the Time Warner empire
are shame noises. We can’t make them do anything. It’s a tiny part of their empire; they’re
a tiny part of the cultural pollution business, but they are writhing. They’re stunned by this. They don’t know what to do. It’s the purest leverage that shame induction
has had in years. And I think it’s a good lesson. Ben Wattenberg: Yeah, but what is the bottom
line? Let us say that your campaign, and it’s
a larger campaign now, to sort of shame Time Warner, which is one of the big guys on the
block, to get rid of that sort of gangsta rap music — John Leo: Someone else picks it up. Ben Wattenberg: Someone else picks it up,
let’s say another big company, I guess Sony, whatever, and they can be shamed into it — or
shamed out of it. But then you go down the food chain to smaller
companies, or if you can shame the smaller companies that — and that’s hard, because
they don’t have theme parks, they don’t have books, they don’t have a lot of other
things you can boycott, but suppose you can, then you’re getting new — brand new companies
putting out gangsta rap. John Leo: I don’t see the shame campaign
going company to company, garage to garage. I think we’re trying to get a psychic movement
going among people, and so that it really is a demand-side revolution. You’re going to have to tell people that
we are all ashamed of this stuff and let’s not buy it. So you’re not going to go company by company. It’s not a supply-end thing. We’re just trying to get the whole mechanism
going in the culture. Robert Bork: Well, what you have to do is
rebuild authority in the family because the people who are buying this gangsta rap are
predominantly white suburban adolescents whose parents are letting them do it. John Leo: The other thing that’s happening
is this is creating a great new debate within the black community. I think black people are very conflicted about
this. They don’t like to see their culture attacked
by whites. On the other hand, a lot of them are very
nervous about the image of black people that’s being put out in these songs. So I think this campaign, and to the great
credit of Dr. Tucker, has given great leverage to people in the black community who want
change. Camille Paglia: I believe that there should
be public incentives for the great producers and the — and Time Warner, and so on — to
start focusing on quality productions. And I don’t mean Shirley Temple productions. But I think when the momentum of the culture
is to demand aesthetics in the style, again, of the old Hollywood studio system, where
— we look back at some of those movies, extraordinary quality at every level, from
the lighting to the makeup to narrative to plot, and so on. And you could sit with grandparents and children
in the same room and not be embarrassed. You could have a multigenerational experience
in watching — Ben Wattenberg: And that all passed through
the legendary Hayes office that was censorship. Camille Paglia: Well, you see, these arguments
actually were going on in early Hollywood. There were producers who wanted to make movies
more upscale, to make them — to bring culture to the masses — others who wanted to bring
blood and guts. After all, let’s remember the great circulation
wars of the William Randolph Hearst era. It appears to be the case that the working-class
audiences, the popular audience really does like kind of a high level of sex and violence
that may make upper-middle-class white people uncomfortable. So I worry about a kind of elitist attitude
that perhaps has crept into some of this cultural debate. Robert Bork: I don’t know that it’s a
class attitude, but there are differences among people. And there are some people who would be better
off if some of that material is kept out of their hands. And it was, as Ben said, censorship agreed
to by the industry through the Hayes office. And the best movies — that was the golden
era of Hollywood. Camille Paglia: The ’30s, yes. As it happens, and this is true, after — I
hate to say it because I do love lurid pornography — but after the Hayes rules went through,
we had fantastic films of the ’30s and’40s that are still studied in classrooms. Ben Wattenberg: Bob, you had alluded to it
— family values, religious values. Are we in for what would be what the fourth
great awakening, a turn of the cultural pendulum? Robert Bork: Well, some people see — for
example, this promise-keepers movement, which is men getting together, 50,000, 75,000, in
an auditorium where they pay money and they come and they pray and they sing hymns and
they promise fidelity to their wives, and so forth — some see that as the beginning
of a religious awakening. But I really think the public culture could
only be reformed by a religious awakening. In the regency in England at the beginning
of the last century, it was a dissolute, corrupt culture, and it was followed by the Victorian
era. And the difference, apparently, was Methodism
percolating through the upper classes and upper-middle classes, and then to the working
classes. So without a religious revival, I’m not
sure where we’re going. Camille Paglia: I have to say that I agree
with what you just said, Judge Bork. I speak as a radical ’60s libertarian. I think, in fact, that there is a movement
back toward religious fundamentalism in the world because of the failure of modernism,
modernism which gave only nihilism and has destroyed the education, I think, of — you
know, for the masses. I’ve been warning my fellow liberals for
a long time that they have pushed the country to the right and that I see among many young
people a return to traditional religion as a kind of — a hunger for spirituality that
is missing. Ben Wattenberg: John, do you see that going
on? John Leo: Oh, I think so, too. I think, just to pick up the thought about
liberalism, that liberalism has never really been endorsed by any major religion. Everybody feels a little uncomfortable about
the emptiness of it. And I think there is the beginning of a turn
toward a religious — but I don’t see any religion filling that need. You get books like Gertrude Himmelfarb calling
for a return to Victorian values. Well, who’s going to do that? Well, normally a church does something like
that, but no church now has that status quite, or that grasp of the American imagination. Ben Wattenberg: All right, let’s have just
one final little conversation here. Does this belong in politics? Are these political issues? Bob Dole was criticized, in part, for saying
it: “Oh, he’s never really paid much attention to this and now he’s making a big political
issue out of it.” President Clinton is apparently telling some
of his staff aides, “How come he’s getting all the publicity? I mentioned it first.” (Laughter.) Should this be part of this political debate? Robert Bork: Certainly it should. A political leader is not just somebody who
talks about economics. He’s also a cultural force. And there’s no reason why that cultural
force shouldn’t be exerted in good directions. Camille Paglia: Well, I feel, look at the
Kennedys. I mean, Mrs. Kennedy brought a distinction
and a kind of feeling for high art to the White House that I think we sorely need. John Leo: I think politicians should speak
out. I just don’t want Washington to do anything
about it. I think they’ll only screw it up. I think it belongs to the people, that we’re
trying to grapple with a highly democratic, wild and raucous public culture and we have
to grapple with it ourselves. Nobody is going to impose an answer to this,
and Bob Dole and President Clinton are not going to solve our problems. I’m glad they’re talking about it, Bill
Bradley, too, but I don’t want them to solve it for us. They’ll only mess it up. Ben Wattenberg: Do you think in this wild
and raucous culture there is also some very vibrant health? I mean, I think so. Does anybody here — Camille Paglia: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, I love America. I think America is the healthiest place in
the world. Ben Wattenberg: You are “slouching toward
Gomorrah” in your book. Robert Bork: But I think that’s true of
Western civilization in general. The industrialized countries of Western Europe
are sort of heading in the same direction we are, and the poor Arab world, the Muslim
world, they’re trying to keep it out. They’ve got the Iranian police running around
looking for satellite dishes so they can’t get American culture. It’s ridiculous; it’s dictatorial, but
one does see that they have a certain kind of point. Ben Wattenberg: You’re anti-censorship in
Iran, but in favor of it here? No. John — John Leo: I think the good part about this
cultural moment is that everything is now on the table. Everyone has a voice; everyone’s a publisher;
everyone’s a consumer. There’s no suppressed minority. Everybody can say whatever they want. And you’re getting a lot of pain now, but
I think something good could come out of it. Ben Wattenberg: OK. Thank you, Camille Paglia, Robert Bork, and
John Leo. And thank you. Please send your comments and questions to
New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20036.We can be reached
via email at [email protected] For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

10 Replies to “Does Hollywood hurt America? — with Camille Paglia (1995) | THINK TANK”

  1. Why is it so hard to find discussions like this today? At least ones that don't involve certain people screaming and trying to deplatform anyone that doesn't already agree them.

    As usual, I largely agree with Camille. It's also worth noting that in the decades since there have been many studies on the effects of violent media, and the consensus seems to be that there is no causal link between real world violence and violent media.

  2. Edward Bernays wrote that the American motion picture is a great carrier for propaganda, so the answer is yes.
    That being said, propaganda isn't inherently bad depending on who is using it to push what kind of message, but we know how immoral Hollywood is.

  3. Its not the sex and/or violence…its the propaganda that is harmful. 25 yrs on, Paglia is def aligned with the AEI….everything is inverted

  4. Having been both a teacher and a gamer, I can see where both sides come from. Kids who play games where they act obnoxious or watch/listen to music and movies that have some questionable content act like idiots, but people who are emotionally mature can play violent video games and watch violent media without going nuts. It boils down to the emotional maturity of the people experiencing the media.

  5. Remember when the left used to be all for free speech? Guess what? They're only for free speech if it screws the other side over. When they're getting criticized and panned by the trolls, they suddenly call for censorship.

  6. This is a discussion from a many years ago. BUT: nothing has changed, the propaganda and wrong messages ftom Hollywood has got worse in my opinion.

  7. Natural Born Killers was just violence for the sake of violence. Bill Clinton is such a phony. He never met a movie star he didn't love.

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