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The Gores’ Culture Wars

Within the past month we’ve had an FBI report on the “school shooter” threat profile, which again strains to make a link between popular culture and teenage mass murderers. We’ve had a report from the Federal Trade Commission lacerating the entertainment industry for marketing violence to minors. The Senate Commerce, Science & Technology Committee, on which Joe Lieberman sits, held hearings on these issues in September. For their part, Al Gore and Lieberman have told the entertainment industry that it has six months to clean up its act, or, once installed in the White House, the next Democratic administration will draft laws to compel Hollywood, the computer and video companies, and the music industry to mend their ways.

Grandstanding about the entertainment industry has been a specialty of Al and Tipper Gore since Al first entered Congress in 1977 (the year the couple were formally Born Again). Tipper was part of a Congressional wives’ club agitating against violence and sex on TV, and then in the mid-eighties came Tipper’s famous campaign, abetted by her husband, against explicit rock ‘n’ rap music. Until Gore brought Lieberman onto the ticket, Gore apologists tended to blame this foray into censorship as a misadventure by Tipper, ultimately rectified when the Gores traveled to Hollywood and told recording-industry executives that the whole drive to censor music had been a mistake and somehow not their fault. But since Gore and Lieberman are now revving up a culture war far more sinister than anything proposed by Dan Quayle back in 1992, it’s worth remembering what exactly Tipper and Al got up to fifteen years ago in their campaign against explicit rock ‘n’ rap.

In early June of 1985 Tipper’s group PMRC (Parents’ Music Resource Center) sent a letter to Stanley Gortikov, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, demanding a ratings code. The group called for an X to be put on records that contained profanity, violence or sexually explicit lyrics, including “topics of fornication, sado-masochism, incest, homosexuality, bestiality and necrophilia.” The
inclusion of homosexuality harked back to Al’s comment in 1976 as he campaigned for Congress that he considered homosexuality to be “abnormal” behavior.

But this was not all. Just as Gore and Lieberman now protest their affection for the First Amendment and insist they are opposed to censorship, Tipper back then swore up and down that she and her group were against censorship. This was false. In a memo to Gortikov the PMRC wrote that it wanted the record labels to “reassess contracting artists who engage in violence, substance abuse and/or explicit behavior in concerts where minors are admitted.” So much for Al’s favorite band, the substance-abusing Beatles. So much too for Tipper’s Rolling Stones or Grateful Dead, whom she welcomed into her office in 1993, thus honoring a band that had introduced two generations to the joys of drugs.

From the start, Tipper’s PMRC worked hand in glove with right-wing fundamentalist Christian groups. One of her partners in the PMRC was Susan Baker (wife of James Baker, a Cabinet officer in the Reagan/Bush years), who was also a board member of the Rev. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. This outfit, now based in Colorado, is notoriously antigay and antiabortion. Dobson, who argued that serial killer Ted Bundy had been driven to murder by an addiction to pornography, served on Attorney General Ed Meese’s 1985 commission to eradicate smut.

This was not the only group touted by Tipper’s PMRC. Take the Missouri Rock Project, an outfit run by an associate of Phyllis Schlafly, which distributed information packets, prepared by the Victory Christian Church of St. Charles, Missouri, claiming that the Holocaust was overblown, that Hitler didn’t write Mein Kampf and that Hollywood shamelessly advocates race-mixing. The church described the slain civil rights leader, whose memory is often invoked by Al Gore, as “Martin Lucifer King.” Enthusiastically plugged by the PMRC as a useful resource were the writings of David Noebel, author of Rhythm, Riots and Revolution, whose essays in music criticism include the following: “The full truth is that [the origin of rock] goes still deeper-to the heart of Africa, where it was used to incite warriors to such a frenzy that by nightfall neighbors were cooked in carnage pots!”

Contrary to Tipper’s repeated suggestions that the PMRC wanted to act only as an agent of consumer information, the rock “porn” crusade quickly transmuted into a spate of legal proposals and criminal trials of musicians, songwriters and record retailers. In Maryland a bill that would have made it a crime to sell “obscene” music to minors was only narrowly defeated. Similar measures were proposed in eighteen other states. In 1986 Jello Biafra, lead singer of the anarchopunk band the Dead Kennedys, was charged with producing “material harmful to minors.” Tipper applauded the prosecution and lamented that she hadn’t personally been responsible for the charges being brought. For Tipper, the band’s “tastelessly styled” name may have been enough. But Biafra had enclosed in one album a poster of a painting by Swiss artist H.R. Giger titled Landscape #20, depicting, as Tipper excitedly put it, “multiple erect penises penetrating vaginas”.

The Gores and PMRC were prudent about one sector of the recording industry, headquartered in their occasional home port of Tennessee. Country music, despite its obsession with despair, drinking, adultery, suicide and revenge, was spared their scrutiny. Ed Meese was successfully ridiculed by liberals for his censorship campaign. The Gores survived intact, and their concerns became Administration policy in 1993, with the successful drive for the V-chip, the war on teenage mothers (often linked to the one against music and MTV) and kindred moral campaigns. And now the PMRC crusade is being Born Again in Campaign 2000. All this year Al Gore has boasted about his wife’s PMRC campaign, most recently on The Oprah Winfrey Show. “She was early, and she was right,” he has said.

The film director Robert Altman told a British newspaper recently that he feels it will be a “catastrophe for the world if George Bush is elected. You won’t see me for dust. I for one will be leaving the country and living in France.” As an entertainer, he’s got the wrong candidate. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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