THE capitalist system has been astoundingly vindicated in recent years. Almost no one challenges its ability to produce a higher standard of living than any alternative, or to best complement a democratic polity. But the entertainment industry may prove to be its Achilles heel. The industry's creativity and technical excellence are superb, but it is the enemy of values (self-discipline, civility, a willingness to defer certain gratifications, a regard for community needs) that are essential to the long-run health of society. The results, I believe, are increasingly clear to those willing to see. Americans worry about the explosion of teenage pregnancy, unwed mothers, and single-parent families. Time magazine reported: ``Social workers are almost unanimous in citing the influence of the popular media - TV, rock music, videos, movies - in propelling the trend toward precocious sexuality.''
Will and Ariel Durant, after a lifetime studying the history of civilizations, wrote in ``The Lessons of History'' that sex among the young ``is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group.''
The entertainment industry has joined the family and the school as a major influence upon youthful values and attitudes. It has become the principal factor in weakening the restraints that the Durants warned were necessary. As Susan Sontag has written, our society is becoming saturated with entertainment values.
I found it significant, recently, when the usually liberal New Republic editorially declared that ``only the willfully blind will argue that there is no correlation between what we see and what we are.... Is it only conservatives who are to worry about whether wholesomeness will survive the 20th century?''
Lawrence Stone, the foremost chronicler of sexual attitudes and practices throughout history, made an observation a few years ago that should give us pause. He noted that ``sexual libertinism'' was formerly confined to elite circles. ``Its dissemination to a population at large is a phenomenon unique in the history of developed societies.'' The entertainment industry is the major instrument through which this dissemination occurs. Are the dangers implicit in this development something we should ignore?
If the media cannot stomach any censorship, they could at least use the potent weapon of scorn to shame our most irresponsible entertainers. But they are much too busy denouncing censorship and Puritanism to play this constructive role.
Those who say, ``No censorship - ever'' rarely mean what they say. Except for a tiny percentage of First Amendment dogmatists, most of those who think they reject all censorship would oppose live sex as a spectator sport or stage or screen presentations of explicit sexual sado-masochism. Even in the realm of art, those who most vociferously condemn anything remotely approaching censorship would mostly be silent if subsidized art exhibits that presented photos or picture with a strongly anti-Semitic flavor, or that portrayed blacks as degraded or inferior, or ridiculed homosexual practices, were challenged. And what sensible person doesn't oppose the production and sale of child pornography? Few of us favor censorship, but we draw the line at some points.
I am puzzled by how many sensible people who typically eschew extremism have embraced it where entertainment is concerned. Here alone, they have been persuaded, one principle never meets a counter-principle that limits its proper reach. Here alone, no excess is so flagrant that society should intervene. Is this what either history or our deepest instincts tell us? Is the principle of ``nothing too much'' uniquely inapplicable here?
There is, of course, the ultimate defense of those ugly trends in entertainment that threaten our long-term welfare. Just declare evil good. Some of our entertainment critics are becoming pretty adept at that already.