When the Messenger Deserves to Be Heard

FOR his recent pronouncements on family values, Dan Quayle has been getting a lot of derision from those journalistic pundits and Hollywood producers and intellectuals that he sees as a "cultural elite."

It's hard to be taken seriously - even when you are vice president - if you're the butt of Jay Leno's nightly humor and a prime target on "Saturday Night Live."

Politics are obviously in play here; Mr. Quayle is clearly out to recapture the muttering conservative right wing of the Republican Party for President Bush.

But if the critics are taking pot shots at the credibility of the messenger, what of the message itself? Could it be that there is something valid to what Quayle is saying about the importance of religion, and family values, and patriotism?

When he deplores the TV shows that extol pregnancy out of wedlock, when he questions condom giveaways in the schools and homosexual marriages, is he really as far removed from the mainstream of American thought as his critics would have us believe?

Is there a "cultural elite" and is it, in the salons of Hollywood and Georgetown, out of touch with the quality of thought in the American heartland?

If Quayle and his advisers are right, and substantial numbers of Americans deplore an emerging culture that promotes moral permissiveness and depicts violence and bestiality as everyday occurrences, then the Bush-Quayle camp is onto something of considerable significance to the outcome of this presidential election. If Quayle is wrong, and the cultural pornographers have already subverted our society, then we are in deep trouble.

What has been clear for some time is that some creators of our movies, videotapes, popular music, books, and magazines have reached the outer limits of tastelessness.

Listen to the vulgarity on some radio shows. Listen to the obscenity in some pop-music lyrics. Witness the graphic displays of sexuality on TV. Observe the array of violence from cannibalism to exploding brains in current movies, and there can be no denying that this adds up to a concerted assault on the values Quayle wants to preserve - and hopes most Americans want to preserve.

Scan the headlines of recent days and you find the trend is getting worse.

Surveying television coverage of New York, the New York Times finds that it projects a city that is a "grim wasteland ... a sustained scream, a bloodied mess." Intense competition between television stations has produced coverage of violence and mayhem that is, according to Joan Cooney, former president of the Children's Television Workshop, "injuring our brains." Says television reporter Gabe Pressman: "The whole thing is: Can we be more outrageous and sensational than the next guy? Can we tease people into the 10 o'clock news?"

Another Times story says that almost 40 percent of movies made for television are now based on crimes or real-life tragedies. One TV movie executive is quoted as saying: "There is a horrifying quality to the job. You have to hear about every mass murder, every case of sex abuse. You get a fairly dim view of the human condition."

Still another Times story warns that even nature films on television are including larger and larger doses of violence and sex, including close-up mating shots of various animals that "leave nothing to the imagination."

Newsweek says that America's grisliest home videos are coming to Sunday night TV viewers on NBC this fall. They include pictures taken by police officers of murders and shootouts, photos of dead robbery suspects, and a sequence where a dashboard-mounted video camera in a patrol car captured the death of the police officer from the car itself.

Of a prominent film festival this year, Newsweek says the entries were charged with "dread, violence, sexuality."

If the public's patience with all this has reached the breaking point, Quayle's message may strike a responsive chord, whatever the motives of the messenger, and whatever the derision of his critics.

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