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Archive for Sunday, July 29, 2001

A skirmish in American culture wars

July 29, 2001

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— The largest city in the Granite State is blessedly free of presidential candidates this summer, but it is not devoid of controversy. A rock concert that drew an estimated 10,000 young people to a city park last Sunday night produced more than 80 complaints to police and touched off what Mayor Robert Baines told me was for him an unprecedented furor.

As late as Thursday, the Page 1 headline in The Union Leader, New Hampshire's biggest paper, read, "Concert War Rages." A day earlier, when I came to town to do some totally unrelated political reporting, the paper ran two separate editorials denouncing the event.

Publisher Joseph McQuaid declared on Page 1: "Manchester should do whatever it takes to put a quick and decisive end to the kind of filth that masqueraded as a 'music concert' at Singer Park last Sunday evening." On the editorial page, editor Bernadette Malone Connolly agreed that "what happened at Singer Family Park on Sunday cannot happen again."

"Manchester residents," she wrote, "should not have to hear the 'F-word' repeated throughout the evening over a rock band's amplifiers, nor should they have to put up with young girls ripping off their shirts and bras and couples indulging in bedroom activities out in the open."

But when I asked Mayor Baines if he was considering shutting down the concerts, he said, "Absolutely not. I'm planning to be there with my daughter at one of the September dates." The mayor said, "I'm trying to work with the promoters" to adjust the sound system, so people with nearby homes along the river are protected. "The series is very good for the community."

The promoters of the event sounded unrepentant. Bud Comstock, president of the company that booked the heavy metal bands called Slipknot, Disturbed and Mudvayne, was quoted by the Union Leader as saying, "We're trying to appeal to a wide variety of people with each show. The attendance speaks for itself on what people want." A rock radio station organized a demonstration at City Hall to keep the concerts going.

This is just a small skirmish in the culture wars that increasingly dominate our politics. Look at the controversies in Congress, the courts and the White House in just the last few weeks over flag burning, school prayer and stem cell research. But it is hard to figure out what Americans really want their government to do about such issues.

On the flight to Manchester, I read news reports about a Kaiser Family Foundation survey indicating that the V-chip, which Congress and President Clinton insisted was vital to enable parents to control their children's television viewing, is used so rarely it might as well not exist.

Five years ago, when the law was passed requiring this electronic censoring device to be included in all new TV sets, it was asserted that families were desperate to protect youngsters from violent or suggestive shows. Guess what? The survey of 800 families found that 40 percent of the parents have bought TVs recently enough that they include V-chips. But half of them didn't even know the V-chips were there. And of those who did, barely one-third said they had ever used them.

Those same parents still claimed to be very concerned about sex and mayhem on the tube, the survey found. So go figure.

Yet another case. In the current issue of the American Prospect magazine, California journalist Peter Schrag argues that the federal government is "out of sync with voters" in pursuing the so-called war on drugs. He says that the success of all but one of 15 ballot initiatives allowing medical use of marijuana or decriminalizing drug possession and diverting users into treatment programs demonstrates that politicians who promise to "get tough" on drugs just don't get it.

Having covered some of those initiative battles, I know that George Soros and the two fellow multimillionaires who have financed these efforts generally have outspent their opponents by a wide margin. But it's hard to maintain that the voters in all these different states have been duped or brainwashed. Yet candidates who take a hard line on drugs win at the polls even in the same states where these initiatives have passed.

People just refuse to be as consistent as either the moralizers or the civil libertarians wish. Drugs and sex and violence are bad things to be denounced. But do we really want to close them down? As Mayor Baines says, "Absolutely not." Condone them? "Absolutely not."

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