Does the Bill of Rights desecration bill (also known as the flag protection bill) have anything in common with the rap album, "As Nasty as They Wanna Be," legally obscene in South Florida, but merely repulsive everywhere else? Do the obscenity of contemporary politics and the obscenity of contemporary culture have anything in common? You bet they do. One is a reaction to the other.
There is this to say about "As Nasty as They Wanna Be." It's filthy. It's lewd. It's offensive, and it contains -- at least to my ears -- not a particle of wit. It's not even about sex, but about the sexual degradation of women. In tone, in content, in its total absence of tenderness, romance, love or even seduction, the album celebrates nothing less than male rage. We have come a long way from "Dancing in the Dark." This is darkness itself, fascism with a beat.
But I hear from others that I am wrong. The album expresses the language of the black ghetto, some say. It is intended to shock, others say. It's not to be taken seriously but is merely an attempt at humor, still others say. The proof of something is in the ledgers: About 1.7 million copies of the album have been sold. As Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole might say in the context of the flag, the people cannot be wrong.
Whatever the album might be or represent, this much is sure: it will soon be gone. "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" is yet another cultural day lily. Were it not for the current legal skirmish (the album has been banned in south Florida), record store clerks would at this moment be plucking the filthy thing from the shelves. It would pass into the tabloid night while, we moved on to something just as silly. Looking back, we would ask: What was the harm? How was the record different from Penthouse magazine or, for that matter, a Rambo movie in which the pain and agony of war are reduced to pornography? It is really no different.
The real damage comes if the authority of the government is used to censor. We live in an age of paradox. The more devices we invent and buy to control our lives, the more we lose control. Video, records, radio, television, movies, even the print media -- they all represent loss of control. A parent watches the back door, on the lookout for smut. But it comes in the front door -- an album the parent knows nothing about, a video that is a mystery, a television show that raises an offensive topic suddenly and without warning. These are our times. This is our plight.
It is the same with the flag bill. Television brings the offensive act into our homes. We react: How dare they? In Louisiana, hardly the Athens of the modern world, a bill is working its way through the legislature that would punish the assault of a flag-burner with a mere $25 fine, a kind of parking ticket for assault and battery. Dole and President Bush have their own reaction: a constitutional amendment to make flag-burning illegal. For the first time in American history, the Bill of Rights would be altered: Congress can make some laws abridging freedom of speech.
Polling gives precision to demagoguery. In an interview with Tom Brokaw, Dole defended the proposed constitutional amendment by saying 70 percent of the American people supported it. He is wrong in detail (it's more like 80 percent) and wrong in principle. The question for him -- the question for the entire Congress -- is not whether the bill is popular but whether it's wise. Almost to a person, Congress knows the answer. We can live with flag burning, but the first constitutional restriction of individual rights in our history is another matter. This, like the deficit Congress does nothing about, would be a debt paid by future generations.
Flag burning, like a filthy rap album, raises the same question: Is the remedy more dangerous than the problem? The answer, again, is yes. Dole says that limits on free speech already exist. You cannot yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater, he says. Yes, but to do so imperils life. That's not the same as being offended either by a lewd song or by the burning of our national emblem. The sun still comes up, the bills still arrive in the mail. Life goes on.
The urge to control, to limit, to feel at ease in our own culture is understandable. Who wants to hear dirty words? Who wants to see a flag burned? But these acts, as obnoxious as they are, represent bubbles on the surface of the culture. They last for a moment before bursting. On the other hand, censorship or a restriction on free speech tends to last a long time. With both the rap album and flag burning, the proposed cleanup is more dangerous than the pollution. In attempting to regain control, we lose it to the government censor.