To censor or not? Finally an answer without slogans

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One of the great arguments missing from our time is about the effects of pop culture, which is now the dominant culture, on ourselves and our children. Of course, the argument doesn't seem to be missing. It seems, in fact, loud and ever-present. It tends to split the old from the young, the religious from the secular, the conservative right from the liberal left. You can read one side in the Daily Mail and the other in the Guardian. One side says: "Violent images breed real violence - stop it, censor it!" The other replies: "Prove it, prove it!" And that, usually, is as far as we get; a small bombardment and counter-bombardment from fixed positions, usually about a specific cause celebre (Natural Born Killers, Reservoir Dogs), in which the argument gets lost under the smoke-screen of ad hominem abuse. John Grisham v Oliver Stone; Old Fart, Sussex v Modish Wanker, N1.

A piece in the current New Yorker fills the gap, I think. It is a thoughtful, honest expression of a parental dilemma, by, pertinently, a film critic, David Denby. How is he to save his children, their minds and their behaviour, from what he describes as "the avalanche of crud" rolling down on them from Disney, video games, Terminators, rap, Beavis and Butthead etc? The answer is that he can't, but on the way to this conclusion he takes apart both the usual conservative and liberal arguments. In one of many excellent paragraphs, Denby writes:

"Conservatives would like to believe that capitalism and its extraordinary executive tool, the market-place, are not only productive and efficient but good. Thus they may criticise the 'excesses' of a company like Time Warner; they may even criticise 'greed', as if greed were some aberration normally unknown to capitalism. But they can rarely bring themselves to admit that capitalism in its routine, healthy, rejuvenating rampage through our towns, cities and farmlands forces parents to work at multiple jobs, substitutes malls for small-city commercial streets and neighbourhoods, and dumps formerly employed groups (like blacks in the inner cities) on to the streets or into dead-end jobs. Or that these developments loosen our parental control, and help create the very nihilism and anomie ... that find release in junk movies, rap, pornography, and the rest."

Denby does not want censorship. He wants the great cultural monoliths such as Disney and Sony to be broken up, more regulation to produce more educational television, and an "active and engaged liberalism" from parents, which would make the argument in the defence of taste and values come "aesthetically and morally alive". He may be dreaming; Anglo-American pop culture has become invincible throughout the world. But his is a more persuasive rallying cry than the Archbishop of Canterbury's call for classroom lessons in morality.

WATCHING the events in Portadown on television, I thought of the first time I went to that town. It was the autumn of 1967, and I was going to be introduced to my girlfriend's parents. We sailed on the overnight steamer from Glasgow to Belfast - cabins, a coal fire in the saloon. The only check at Belfast next morning came from the Ministry of Agriculture. Men in belted raincoats asked us if we had been in contact with cows. Foot and mouth disease was then the greatest threat to Northern Ireland's security. We walked around Belfast all day. It seemed much like Glasgow, as cold and damp, the same creaking echoes from the shipyards, though the streets were red-brick terraces rather than stone tenements and the pubs served "hots" - warmed whiskey or rum - which were never available in Scotland. My girlfriend's father, who then loomed as a prospective father-in-law, met us at Portadown station and we drove to a cottage deep in the Armagh countryside. He and his wife were teachers and, a group not much heard from these days, liberal Unionists. That night he talked about the coming of forward-looking politicians such as Terence O'Neill and Sean Lemass and fine cross-border institutions such as the society for Irish bridge players, of which he was a leading member.

His daughter had a less rosy view. At Queen's University, she'd joined a fledgling civil-rights group called People's Democracy. She said Special Branch informers had attended their meetings, which to me (knowing nothing) seemed fantastical. The next year, People's Democracy held a march in Glasgow. We assembled in a streetflanked by a hostile crowd. We began to walk. The pavement crowd shouted "Fenian scum!" and our fellow marchers hurled back "Orange, blue-nose bastards!" in reply. I wasn't surprised by the first, but I didn't expect the second. I thought I was marching in a cause which was above and against sectarianism. The roaring and the counter-roaring continued, and we left the march after a few hundred yards.

Faint-hearts, perhaps. In the Northern Ireland issue, ours wouldn't have been the first. Whenever I think of my innocence in 1968, I think of the words of the Ulster historian, A T Q Stewart, to the effect that the Northern Ireland conflict will never end in a just, amicable solution, but in winners and losers.

ON Wednesday, on Radio 3's Nightwaves programme, I was involved in a discussion on the changing style and content of national broadsheet newspapers. The rise of the columnist was remarked on, and broadly condemned. Anthony Howard said there were some excellent "real" columnists - Watkins and Ascherson in this newspaper, Worsthorne somewhere else - but very many spurious ones. Newspapers had promoted attitude and opinion, which can be produced relatively cheaply, over factual reporting, which costs a lot in salaries, air fares and hotel bills.

Many journalists make the same complaint; I'm one of them. It's morally fitting, therefore, motes and beams and so forth, that this is my last column - at least in this slot, at least for a while.

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