Thursday, November 13, 2008

Obscene Images in the Public Square

There is an obscene billboard on the Rockaway Turnpike that is being fought by the Orthodox community that is near it. I haven’t seen the billboard. But it wouldn’t surprise me to see a very pornographic image on it. The advent of what is known as the sexual revolution of the sixties has virtually guaranteed that we would someday see such a billboard. The birth control pill combined with a permissive parenting – a misunderstood and misapplied concept - of the ‘baby boom’ generation has resulted is an explosion of sexual permissiveness and explicitness in this country. Hollywood is the number one contributor to this phenomenon.

Before the sixties we lived in relatively modest times. Even words like ‘pregnant’ were taboo on TV. So too was anything but twin beds in a bedroom. Never would one see a man and a woman in the same bed. All the women on TV were modestly dressed in those days. There were no sex jokes. Language was clean. There were no sexual situations on any TV program of any type.

But once the sexual revolution took place, it changed everything. What added to that was the advent of cable TV. They had no censorship since they were not automatically broadcast into the home. You had to pay to get it. That meant you were willing to allow such programming into your household. It was correctly felt by broadcast censors that since broadcast TV was automatically fed into every home that had a TV – it had to be censored to family friendly standards so that children would not be so easily be exposed to pornography. Besides - very few people had cable TV in its early days.

But cable TV grew to the point where it gave broadcast TV competition. They had to somehow meet the challenge. They prevailed on the censors to lower the standards. At first it was minimal. But after a while things started getting increasingly more risqué. Now we have a TV culture that is 90% sexual in content! Images that were once taboo are now common. Nothing has the impact on American culture that TV does. Decency has been defined down.

Advertising has followed suit. One of the most egregious commercials in recent times featured an almost naked Paris Hilton ‘washing’ a car in a manner that would make the most culturally sophisticated person blush. The ad was pulled after only a few showings. But that it was there at all tells you how low the decency level of American culture has fallen since the sixties. And this is not the only example of such porno on broadcast television now. We now have Victoria’s Secret fashion specials on during prime time – when young children are up!

This in my view is why a billboard like the one being protested on the Rockaway Turnpike is considered acceptable by advertising executives. They can advertise a ‘Gentleman’s club’ in the most suggestive of ways and still feel that it is well within the decency norms of society.

The question arises as to whether the Torah world has any culpability in the way the American culture has evolved. The ‘gut’ reaction would be to say, ‘Of course not!’ ‘The Torah world is in the forefront of rejecting such fare.’ ‘We are all about holiness.’ ‘Pornography is the opposite of that.’

But I think we do have culpability. And the primary culprit here is the Charedi world. That’s because of their attitude of separation and withdrawal. They see a world full of increasingly explicit sex and they just condemn it and withdraw further. The worse it gets the more they withdraw - and the more they criticize the culture as evil. But that is the wrong approach.

I am not advocating that they all go out and buy TVs. That is not my point. One can debate the merit of owning a TV even in the current climate. But that is another post. I am talking about how Charedi leadership has chosen to disengage completely from the culture instead being more proactive in trying to influence it.

Instead of saying, ‘See how evil the culture is let us withdraw further from it’ - the leadership should be in the forefront of protesting it publicly. Not just in their own backyard but in the public square.

Agudath Israel has an excellent infrastructure in Washington that knows how to get things done. They have a great track record of achievement on behalf of all of observant Jewry. But they have been silent when it comes to what’s shown on TV. It does not exist as an issue for them. They simply tell their constituency to avoid it. The result is that by not getting involved - the surrounding culture has deteriorated to the point where one can now see a pornographic billboard near an area where religious Jews live.

One cannot ignore the culture, even if one condemns it. The Agudah has dropped the ball here. They should have been protesting the decline in decency standards right along with other religions who have been doing so. Their added lobbying may have had an impact in the level of decency standards we now have in this country.

They should not ignore American decency standards and just withdraw from the culture. That’s not enough. They need to be proactive in trying to maintain as high a decency standard for the nation as they can. That doesn’t mean that they can or even should try and achieve the Torah standard of decency. But they need to proactively seek in whatever way they can to keep that standard as high as possible. Perhaps if they had done so, we could have avoided that obscene billboard in our midst.