The New Moral Majority, Same As The Old Moral Majority; On the allure of censorship

[Originally published by Arc Digital:]

Like many right-wing American anti-obscenity activists, Terry Rakolta was a very concerned and busy citizen in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The self-described housewife and founder of the watchdog group Americans for Responsible Television (note the acronym) first made headlines for spearheading the boycott of the television sitcom Married with Children in 1989. Through a grassroots letter-writing campaign, Rakolta lobbied the show’s sponsors to pull their advertisements, citing the sitcom’s “blatant exploitation of women and sex and anti-family attitudes,” and threatened to start a boycott of the sponsors’ products if they continued supporting the show. Her campaign had a temporary impact, as several companies including McDonald’s and Coca-Cola pulled their sponsorship, a potentially controversial episode (“I’ll See You in Court”) was pulled, and Fox moved the show from 8:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Rakolta was a sudden force in the crusade to keep what she called “soft-core pornography” off network television. She was interviewed by The New York Times, made the rounds on daytime talk shows, and appeared on Nightline. The campaign against Married with Children was just the beginning — the Michigan homemaker seized her moment to push for the censorship of shows like Howard Stern, Roseanne, and The Phil Donahue Show. But Rakolta’s boycott soon backfired; viewers tuned in to see what the controversy was all about, ratings increased, and Married with Children became a hit. To make matters worse, all of the sponsors who dumped the show were back on board less than a year later. Her failure in boycotting was a success in advertising.

Rakolta’s political ties — her sister was married to Scott Romney and her husband was the chairman of Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign — situate her squarely within conservative activism. But Rakolta was just one of many conservative voices in a broad movement — enthusiastically led by the religious right — that fought in the name of decency and family values for the censorship of television, literature, film, radio, music, and art starting in the 1980s. Newly formed Christian groups such as Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” and James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” were defining the political ideology of the New Christian Right based on moral allowances that instigated a culture war that continues to smolder to this day. This movement, which to quote Falwell sought to report and repress “immoral, anti-family, and anti-American content,” was met with a fierce pushback, predominantly from liberal and libertarian corners, citing unconstitutional infringements on freedom of speech.

Nearly 30 years later, it looks as if Rakolta, thanks to some unlikely allies, is getting her wish after all. Ironically, the coup de grâce for the prospect of rebooting (or even just replicating) a show like Married with Children hasn’t come from a continued censorship effort from the right, but from liberal attitudes responsible for the swelling category of “shows that could never be made today.” There have been rumors of a reboot of Married for awhile, but barring a thorough sanitizing, it’s unlikely to happen in our current political environment. Satirical license aside, the show’s portrayal of the misogynistic husband Al Bundy, a wife who self-identifies as a freeloader, frequent fat and slut shaming, domestic abuse jokes (Peg: “Did you miss me, Al?”, Al: “With every bullet so far!”), and the constant stereotyping and derogation would likely be too much for the left’s heightened standards of acceptability.

Censorship, as a tool to suppress, marginalize, or exclude undesirable speech, runs up against a basic Enlightenment value that is neither the property of one party or another, but a protection for everyone. Yet this value, rooted in classical liberalism, is often used arbitrarily. It is wielded whenever one needs justification for doing something controversial, but dropped the moment that same person or party really dislikes what their political opponents are doing. Although the propensity to be offended by free speech — and the ensuing suspicion of it — has been trending towards the left for sometime, the election of Donald Trump, an unprecedented conservative libertine, both foul-mouthed and Bible-quoting, represented the single greatest contribution to the left’s growing outrage machine. In an era when the country’s sitting president is sued by a porn star, is on the record bragging about grabbing women by the pussy, and whose constant vulgarity and questionable behavior has sparked a crisis of republican principles, it’s the left that now senses an obligation to uphold standards of propriety with its own brand of moral certitude. The two sides have apparently switched places, a growing movement on the left now engraving policies of dos and don’ts with an evangelical fervor once belonging to their political opposites.

During the culturally conservative presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, the right and left were often on opposite ends of the censorship vs. freedom of speech debate. Conservatives used concern for children as their rationale for standing behind censorship, as liberals erred on the side of tolerance and the right of an individual to change the channel if offended. The American Library Association fought back against Jerry Falwell’s criticism of certain books by creating the Banned Books Week, which promoted “the freedom to read”; musicians spoke in front of Congress to defend their First Amendment rights in the face of obscenity charges; the “Satanic Panic,” which roped in heavy metal music and role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons as dangerous accessories within a broader movement of Satanic ritual abuse, was exposed as unfounded suburban hysteria.

Like Rakolta’s boycott, the efforts of the religious right were often thwarted or limited, either by political pushback or the eventual prevailing of common sense. But the left, energized by the rise of Trump, have not only picked up the fight in the cloud of a moral epidemic, but armed with a younger and more media-savvy front, have banished and censored far more successfully, in a shorter period of time, than the religious right was ever able to do a generation before.

The same year that Rakolta was leading the boycott of Married with Children, ultraconservative joy-vacuum Jesse Helms and other conservative figures were lobbying the National Endowment for the Arts to pull funding from controversial artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley, and Andres Serrano. In the case of Finley, her and three others — dubbed “The NEA Four” — had their grants vetoed by NEA chairman and Bush appointee John Frohnmayer due to their subject matter. The artists took their case to court and were eventually awarded their grants, but it wasn’t without consequence as the NEA ceased funding individual artists. The relationship between the conservative government and the arts — especially during the Reagan years — was volatile and provoked reflection on the practice of censorship. It also provoked a countercultural urgency to push the envelope even further — the political landscape helped propel the careers of many truly iconoclastic artists of the era, like Lydia Lunch, Penny Arcade, John Waters, Annie Sprinkle, and so many more.

Today, when we hear of art being boycotted or censored, conservatives are rarely involved. Instead, it’s artists themselves, outraged not by conservative censorship, but by art that is insufficiently progressive. Calling for a boycott of an artist, art show, concert, or performance is a daily occurrence on social media. Art boycotts, which have actually always been fashionable within the art world, have now reached a fever pitch. 2018 alone has seen a slew of gallery and museum protests including a “die-in” at the Metropolitan Museum’s Sackler Wing because of the Sackler family’s ownership of Purdue Pharmaceuticals, and a group calling for reparations during an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, in defiance of the hiring of a white woman as curator of African art. Zooming out to an episode that has had more national coverage, an enraged artist called not only for the Whitney Museum to take down Dana Schultz’s abstract depiction of Emmett Till in an open casket, but to utterly destroy it. Another example is the ongoing Boyle Heights conflictsbetween activist groups pressuring, protesting, and even vandalizing artist studios and art galleries perceived as gentrifying institutions. This round of purification, originating on the left, has resulted in canceled shows, ruined art careers, removed artwork, lost jobs/income, and closed or relocated galleries. Jesse Helms couldn’t have done it better himself.

This movement has had an impact on literature as well. When Falwell attempted to have books banned from schools, educators, activists, and libraries fought to keep titles like Catcher in the Rye, Our Bodies, Ourselves, andThe Learning Tree on the shelves. But there has been little fight against the more recent attempts by the left to cleanse classic texts like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, or redact The Canterbury Tales, or drop lunatic fascist Ezra Pound from the poetry canon. Books that were once considered must-reads are falling out of circulation, works that have been influential for decades are being excluded from syllabi not because they’re suddenly appraised as possessing less merit than they used to, but strictly in the name of progress. Some authors worry about this trend, like Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevinwho told The Guardian earlier this year that “politically correct censorship” is making the landscape of fiction “a timid, homogeneous, and dreary place” and that many authors operate under a fear of expression.

Circling back to television, the plight of Roseanne is a particularly interesting example of the left expelling what the right couldn’t budge. The original series, which began its run in 1988, was considered risqué and progressive for its time, with its unapologetic tackling of modern issues, inclusion of a multi-dimensional gay character, and blue-collar feminist head of the household. Barr herself didn’t garner any patriotic sympathy with her Yoko Ono-esque crotch-grabbing rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” in 1990. But despite her show being tuned out in conservative households, and infuriating network censors for using words like “sucks” and “menstruation,” it earned top five ratings in nearly all of its 10 original seasons. But 30 years later, when Barr re-entered the spotlight not as a left-leaning symbol of domestic goddessness, but as an unabashed Trump supporter and gum-chewing conspiracy theorist, it was clear that the reboot was doomed from the start. The announcement of the show was immediately met with a #BoycottABC campaign. The left was seething before the show even aired, worried that allowing it to air represented the normalization of Trump. Soon enough, a barely-veiled racist tweet by Barr made it easy to pull the plug on Roseanne, and the reboot was canned after just one season. In a near parody of boycott culture, the #BoycottABC tag migrated over to the right, where Roseanne’s supporters cried foul over the hasty termination and chalked Barr up as a victim of vindictive left-wing political correctness. But despite the social media hashtag threats on the right, ABC stood their ground. In contrast to the Rakolta boycott, not a single sponsor had cancelled before the decision to end the show was made.

Roseanne Barr’s Twitter comments and her occasional Infowars-level of extremist paranoia shouldn’t have come as a surprise. She had been tweeting crazy right-wing stuff for years, and before that she was tweeting crazy left-wing stuff. Still, it’s interesting that after enduring as long as she had as a controversial figure, poking the sensibilities on both sides of the political spectrum, it was the left (with no small assist from Barr’s own tweets) who may have successfully and thoroughly ended the career of Roseanne Barr.

In many cases it seems that where the religious right failed in expunging what they considered problematic, the activist left has made headway. The left, of course, would resist this equivalence. They’d point to a massive difference between evangelicals burning Harry Potter books because they “teach children to become witches” and progressives editing works of literature to exclude hurtful or oppressive language; or between a right-wing group attempting to ban a shot because it includes positive depictions of homosexuality and a left-wing group boycotting an art show over perceived racist elements. Those on the left would argue that these examples are about political correctness, which is not inherently a form of censorship, but — as HuffPost contributors would say — is about civility and decency. But isn’t that the same justification used by the Moral Majority and other morality patrollers on the religious right 30 years ago? In the landmark freedom of speech case between Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt, Falwell’s case centered around the malicious expressions that “may have an adverse emotional impact on the audience.” Today, the right might see that as “snowflake” behavior, whereas the left would adopt — and has adopted — that rationale toward their own aims.

I don’t want the above to be misconstrued as the idea that “political correctness has gone too far.” That phrase is actually self-undermining. Actually, political correctness can hardly go too far when it is applied as a rudder against hate speech and oppressive, extremist ideologies while guiding language and behaviors towards cultural inclusivity. But when extremist ideologues themselves begin to wield the power of political correctness as a form of censorious moral policing, when the boundaries extend beyond hate speech to include hurtful speech, vaguely triggering speech, and oppositional speech more broadly, then it’s not so much about political correctness going too far, but about going beyond political correctness, and often with a uniquely self-righteous flavor and punitive twist. The activist left desperately needs to learn this lesson. Its recent propensity for censorship will ultimately backfire — just as it did for the Moral Majority before them.