Wednesday, June 08, 2005

In praise of the V-chip

Garance, Matt, and Kevin Drum are talking about whether Democrats should attack popular culture to win the parent vote. If we do it, let's do it with the V-chip.

If you're a recent grownup like me or Matt, you want to gain the political benefits of accommodating parental unease about pop culture while not getting rid of the awesomeness that is Grand Theft Auto. While you don't want to actually do anything that would restrict artistic brilliance and fun, it's important to have some nice legislative proposal you can push to show you're serious. Clinton's support for legislation mandating a V-chip in every TV was a great way to do this. It enabled him to empathize with all the concerned parents while not actually censoring anything. It'd be nice if one of our left-wing policy shops could think up some insignificant but cuddly-sounding proposals so we can do this thing again.


Rousseau said...

Wait, do you endorse moves like this because empowering parents in new ways is the best way to deal with offensive culture, or because we don't actually want to do anything about culture and this is a way of pretending to do that doesn't actually do anything?

(If latter: yes but it's cynical maneuvering like this that makes the country believe Dems are bad on culture. Say what you believe. Or say what you think sounds good as if you believe it. But for dear lord please don't say "I think this would sound good".)

If former:

Personally while the V-chip isn't as bad as mass censorship, a proper progressive libertarian has no reason to appreciate how parents raise their kids that much more than other institutions. I mean I know plenty of kids with repressive parents who I want to have all the access possible to get information and choices their parents dislike. That's the heart of liberalism.

And like other authoritarian devices, it's still horribly cludgy and ineffective. A very similar but better understood example is web-filterting software. It can't keep porn out, and it frustrates many legitimate sources.

I remember being amused when reading a libertarian angst about what to do regarding home-schooling. On one hand he liked their independence from the government. On the other hand, some of the mindless patriotism they were teaching their kids scared the shit out of him : )

Dennis said...

I would tend to say this: no, I personally think there's little we can do about offensive culture because there's lots of good-but-offensive culture (who didn't like Sin City?) we shouldn't want to limit. At the same time, I see no particular reason we shouldn't take people's concerns to heart -- there's money to be made by frustrating parents' efforts to raise their kids, so corporations are doing it. I'm not a proper progressive libertarian, so I have no trouble with trying to find some policy middle ground. I'd just not want Dems to not say that offensive culture is a problem even though they feel it because they don't happen to have a good policy solution, which I'm sure is the more common case.

I certainly know why the blogospheric oldbies take the idea that this matters more seriously (we don't have kids, and (more importantly) they didn't grow up attuned to the messages that all this culture they were consuming would turn them into ultraviolent freakshows and then fail to become said ultraviolent freakshows). Even so, I think there are at least some policy solutions I could agree to readily: better media consumption classes in public schools, for instance. I remember two dry presentations in ninth grade about how commercials work, and I think teaching kids to be good media consumers is the best possible solution to this problem. Yes parents should mostly do this themselves, but educating the consumer is something every good progressive should be able to get behind.

On a completely separate point, the V-chip is actually relatively innocuous in terms of kludgyness, since it works by reading labelling in the signal done by a human, which is obviously impossible on the internet. Only kids are trying to foil the V-chip, where people on both sides of the barrier try to foil blocking software.

Neil Sinhababu said...

The latter, Tony! And I realize that cynical maneuvering like this makes Democrats look bad. If someday I become somebody people actually listen to, I won't say stuff like this.

Rousseau said...

I think the V-chip is less worrisome because TV content is much more finite (or rather, polynomially bounded *grin*), and thus the solution "manually label all controversial content" is more plausible. Philosophically it still has the same authoritarian cludginess, and I would not surprised if the authoritarian cludginess inevitably manifests (the core of a respectable libertarian argument, I think).

How much impact do we have? I mean, I'm sure freepers say the same thing about how it's ok if they say bad-PR stuff as long as the candidates don't. Certainly I think Yglesias and Ezra are well read enough that I shudder when they openly discuss cynical motives for Democratic rhetoric. And the degree to which what we say is wide-read enough to be useful to democrats, but won't be seen by non-democrats, I think is small.

But you're right, that would take a lot of fun out of the blogsphere. And I am glad you are honest about where you fell there.

However, I think deontological voters are not entirely fools, and consistently support the Republican party because of more than just easy rhetoric they make. We're called the un-Christian party, but we run just as Christian candidates as they do (an altar boy, a div school grad, etc). The GOP adherence to "family values" always comes with a cost (they always frame it as being opposed to other forces), and the economist in me thinks thats well received.

(I was most amused by one Yglesias post recently criticizing Hilary saying "well yeah, if Hillary IS going to convince values voters, she needs to be criticized by people like me : ) "

Justin said...

Seems to me that Democrats shouldn't really try to *win* new voters on this issue, they should just make enough of a gesture that if you otherwise want to vote Democrat but worry about this sort of cultural stuff, you aren't going to be turned off by them -- that is, they should try to avoid *losing* voters on this issue.

Actually, I *very* strongly believe that on this issue, the libertarian card is a good one to play with Red Staters on the whole. In my own experience, the reason "liberal" is a bad word here isn't because of, say, the death penalty or even abortion, it's because liberals are the people who come in and say that you can't mention Christmas during your school program, you can't have guns, you can't use certain politically incorrect language, etc. Most of the people I went to high school with are the sort of white Christian Republicans who vote Republican, but they also play Grand Theft Auto, watch South Park and Desperate Housewives, go to casinos and occasionally strip clubs, etc. Among the *gettable* Red state Republican voters, I think Democrats should want to have real anti-censorship credentials.

Justin said...

I'm going to post a 2nd time on this, I feel so strongly. After my 1st post, I checked out the links to Garance, Matt, and Kevin Drum, and I have to say that none of them resonated. I actually think that this is another area where Democrats could be playing offense instead of defense, both with red-staters and with married parents.

If I were a Democrat running for some office in Nebraska and the issue came up, I'd say some blah-blah about the coarsening of our culture -- whic probably is genuinely worrisome (do we really need Aspercreme commercials where the jingle is "you bet your ass... percreme"? Or Revenge of the Sith commercials saying "Sith happens"?) -- but then say, look, while this is a real concern, I don't want Republicans telling me that I can't watch Saving Private Ryan because it's too violent or Desperate Housewives because they mention sex. I trust people to judge what they want to watch, but Republicans don't. And if the letters to the editor at the Omaha World Herald and the bar conversations I've overheard are any indicator, this would go over like gangbusters.

Incidentally, I saw one letter to the editor awhile back saying that the fact that Private Ryan wasn't shown here was a result of liberals and political correctness. The writer lumped it in with the fact that certain stores says Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. My point isn't that people here widely believe that liberals are responsible for this, but rather that anytime you get this sort of letter in which there's a lashing out at liberals, you know a nerve has been struck.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Are the semi-libertarians twentysomethings you're talking about parents yet, Justin? The parent vote is what this proposal is about.

There's a proposed reform to the cable laws that'd let you buy only the channels you wanted. Matt has proposed this as a V-chip-like issue. The GOP is against it because the telecom industry is lobbying against it, so we could do the family values thing.

TheJew said...

In Bizarro World, this is how the Bizarro World Democrats handle cultural issues. In particular, this falls under the “family resources” aspect of the triplet: “family resources, diverse ideas, and opposition to crony capitalism”.

Justin said...

A number of them do have kids, although I should note that the demographic may be skewed young -- among the people I went to high school with, it's way more common to have your first kid at 25 than it is at 35. And my impression is that younger parents tend to be more okay with this sort of stuff than older parents are.

Look, there's no real mystery as to why married parents voted Bush in 2000: Lewinsky. No poll analysis or focus groups needed here. And, while my reason for thinking this is entirely anecdotal (I haven't seen the data), I suspect that the biggest issue among married parents in 2004 was terrorism, in which case a big part of the explanation for why they voted Bush would be the same as why most people who were most worried about terrorism voted Bush. If that's right, there's no need to make a special appeal to parents which isn't just an appeal to voters in general.

I think the cable proposal is okay -- I myself don't love it, but at least by talking about it you get to keep bringing up how Santorum and others took money from porn channels, which is enjoyable. But I doubt you'll really make that big of gains on this sort of issue -- the people most worried about MTV etc., probably aren't in general gettable voters.

More importantly, don't position yourself in such a way that you'll be unable to credibly portray the Religious Right (or Evangelicals or whatever) as the people who want to come in and tell you what you can or can't do. I think it is impossible to overestimate how successful this way of portraying the Religious Right is among most Red State voters, and even among Red State parents. I suspect that most Blue State Democrats who look at polling data don't suspect that this is so, but it really is. It would be horrible if, in response to the moral values voters of 2004, Democrats just tried to appeal to the moral values crowd rather than try to paint Republicans as moralistic busy-bodies.

Adam said...

Hi, I just came across this interesting discussion and have a comment:

While V-chips seem to have a lot of benefits for a minimal cost, I wonder if any political discussion about "culture" and censorship is just a distraction from real issues.

These proposals address a superficial problem while alowing the underlying cause to fester. Why can't parents control their children's cultural exposure the old-fashioned way--by encouraging good activities with responsible adult supervision? Are the parents overworked? Have traditional communities (including parental support networks) broken down? Has culture become so commercialized that only "thriller" culture can surive?

Any reform that helps regular folk to become active participants in cultural creation and conscious consumers of cultural goods would get to the heart of this issue...and these are connected to reforms that allow regular folk to be more active participants in the general economy.