Schoolmarm Joe's moral crusades have so far played well among the media, who lauded him as the "conscience" of the Senate. But Lieberman's efforts go beyond merely speaking out: Lieberman was also one of the chief proponents of the V-chip, the piece of TV hardware that allows a so-called voluntary system of screening programs for sexual and violent content. So-called, that is, because while actually using the V-chip is voluntary, paying for it is not: The chip is mandatory on new TVs, so even if you're not interested in using it and most viewers demonstrably are not you're still obligated to pay for it.
More disturbingly, Lieberman has advocated what amounts to government intervention against programming he finds offensive, arguing that the FCC should consider TV stations' content when renewing their licenses and suggesting that the courts hold entertainers liable for "dangerous" content, as they might cigarette or gun manufacturers.
Obviously the Gore team has decided that running against Hollywood sleaze is a winner, as evidenced by the Democrats' sudden, Sister Souljah-esque turning against longtime supporter Hugh Hefner. But what's really dangerous is a national political figure endorsing the notion that certain messages need to be controlled for the good of society. That technology and media have made it too hard to inculcate your own values in your children and that, therefore, we simply have too much freedom in society. That it's not good enough that I be able to turn off a sleazy program on my own television: I need to make sure it's not available on your television, either.
Ironically, one of the TV series Lieberman awarded the Silver Sewer last year, the outstanding Fox Hollywood satire "Action," made Lieberman's case far better than he does, scathingly portraying movie execs as venal, corrupt sleazebags. Like most moralists, of course, the senator was too narrow-minded to look past the fact that the show contained a bunch of dirty words. But one standout episode also contained a blistering rejoinder to Lieberman's kind of moralizing. The show's antihero, movie producer Peter Dragon, defends his sex-and- blood-soaked movies to a sanctimonious senator at a congressional hearing:
"I never voted to subsidize the growing of tobacco while turning my back on food programs for starving kids. I've never vetoed a gun-control bill; all my guns are fake, Senator. I've never rushed to the defense of Kuwaiti oil fields while ignoring genocide in Africa, because big oil companies that line your fat pockets aren't concerned with black Africa. Those are all your productions of your company.... [The American people] want chase scenes and car crashes. They want firm breasts and tight-assed Latino men. They want their cowboys to be strong and silent. They want their cops to bend the rules to get the job done. They want the boy to get the girl. They want the alien to be killed, unless he's cute. They want the good guy to win. They want the bad guy to die, hopefully in the biggest explosion the budget will allow. But most importantly, Senator, they want to walk into a theater and for 90 minutes forget the f____ing mess that you have left of this nation."
"Action" died quickly last fall, owing less to Lieberman's seal of disapproval than to the fact that its scathing, brilliant satire was too "inside" for most viewers. One would hope Lieberman (and his Republican allies like Bill Bennett) would take the lesson: that audiences are perfectly capable of changing the channel, accepting and rejecting entertainment in a free market. But don't count on it.
In the meantime, you can still catch "Action" in reruns on the FX network. It's on Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m., convention prime-time, when its breath of sewer air will make a refreshing antidote to the specious perfume wafting down from the podium.