It’s a clich? because it’s true: Context is everything. Vulgarity may be one thing late at night on Hollywood Boulevard, but it’s quite another on prime time television in our homes. And a gun in some hero’s hand may be one thing on prime time television in our homes, but it’s quite another in a would-be hip-hop culture icon’s hand on a billboard in a demographically targeted part of the city.
Paramount Pictures was promoting rapper 50 (We’re supposed to say “Fiddy”) Cent’s new movie, “Get Rich or Die Trying,” with billboards depicting the rapper with his tattooed back toward us, arms outstretched, a microphone in one hand and a gun in the other. Daily Variety now reports that Paramount has taken down about a half-dozen billboards near Los Angeles area schools “in response to parents’ complaints that they glorified gangs and violence.” E! Online has reported that a handful of the signs in certain L.A. regions were taken down, but they remain standing in other locations.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, a real soldier for good, who sent a letter to Paramount executives asserting the signs promoted gun violence and asking for their removal, said, “I give them credit for responding and being sensitive to the community’s needs. It’s after the fact, but nevertheless the bottom line is they are removing the billboard.”
Some weeks back, I complained that any of us could find our city at the mercy of an urban bumpkin like the strip club owner near L.A. International Airport who defended his “Vaginas R Us” sign over the boulevard with “I felt that there was nothing terrible about it since ‘The Vagina Monologues’ was on Broadway.” The fact that we can find our youth at the mercy of the “street cred” poseurs of corporate showbiz is more troubling, because these guys are irresponsible not in isolation but with apparent orchestration!
We call our culture as a whole our “atmosphere” because today it is everywhere; all of us are its captive audience, and we all must breathe it. Too often, we must gag on it. A letter on official stationary is the least we should ask of an elected official like Mr. Antonovich. Government regulates production and sales of many things in order to protect innocents like spotted owls and unwitting passive smokers who must be afforded their zones of ordinary safety. So how about similarly protecting some impressionable inner city kids?
Those elected to political power too often shun using it this way. Amidst the judicial ferment that seems now abloom in America, it is well for us to remember that high-court decisions often aren’t understood in enough detail not to change the atmosphere more broadly than intended. Time and time again, what the Supreme Court is thought to have prohibited provides elected officials an easy dodge from controversial leadership, and this suits many of them just fine.
In fact, they endanger neither the Constitution nor their own re-election prospects if they work to restrict indecent or inflammatory public displays by those who hide behind the “free speech” trump card. Without government officials performing this duty, citizens in our age of mass culture are stuck with a daily life in which each newly violated public decency taboo becomes a landmark, a new standard and a bellwether that nobody can un-ring.
Thanks to schizoid rulings that have protected virtual child pornography sites and yet restricted campaign season political utterances, a whole body of free speech legalities is overripe for revisiting by the Supreme Court. And further legislating (which is how the ship of state actually ought to manage routine course adjustments) may likewise be appropriate now.
The cultural atmosphere does matter tremendously in modern America! All of us must inhale pretty much the same pollution, and “free speech” cannot be a trump card for every drive-by indecency from the corporate or the private perpetrator. As for the quality of our urban atmosphere, the pendulum has swung too far in favor of the libertine and the violent, so that decent local folks have to work very hard to take their streets back to being even near worthy of their children’s footsteps.
The parents and community activists who achieved a measure of success for core decency in South Central Los Angeles are due a hearty “Right on!” for their efforts. Sometimes it does take a village – an aroused, aware and activist one.