Taken from Salt Lake Tribune (Jan 23, 2005)
Sundance panelists take on 'Culture Wars'
by Sean P. Means
The Salt Lake Tribune
PARK CITY - In a nation of red and blue states, where sex on television is publicly reviled but "Desperate Housewives" is among TV's most popular shows, is there a place for common ground in American culture?
No, says musician Michael Franti, and that's a good thing.
"I don't want a common culture," Franti, founder of the band Spearhead, said during a panel discussion, "The Culture Wars," here Saturday at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. "I do my things independently. . . . I try to link up and support others who do the same - and we go on with our freaky little dance."
What was billed as a talk about the intersection of politics and pop culture ranged much further afield, covering artistic philosophy, economic reality, freedom of expression - and whether the sight of a cartoon baby's butt crack is a threat to the republic.
The buttocks in question belong to Stewie, the megalomaniacal infant on the Fox animated series "Family Guy." A recent rerun of a 2001 episode, in which Stewie mooned a Christmas ornament, was pixelated to blur the baby's rear - when Fox executives worried the offending image would fire up the FCC and TV watchdogs.
John Podesta, former Clinton White
House chief of staff and now director of the Center for American Progress, the progressive think tank that co-sponsored Saturday's talk, noted that political hysteria - after the uproar of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction" - has made major media companies second-guess what they should broadcast.
Another recent example was the decision by 60-some ABC affiliates to pre-empt "Saving Private Ryan" because of use of the F-word.
Podesta also noted that much of this hysteria is manufactured. He cited a recent report that of the 1 million-plus complaints the FCC received in 2004, 99.9 percent were generated by a right-wing watchdog group, the Parents Television Council.
When corporations knuckle under to such pressure, "it ends up creating a culture that is less rich, and certainly not being demanded by the general public," said Podesta, who pointed out that ABC's saucy soap "Desperate Housewives" is "No. 1 in the red states as well as the blue states."
Filmmaker Don Roos, whose gay-friendly comedy "Happy Endings" opened the festival, said that Americans have always been hypocritical about sex, publicly abhorring it but secretly watching it. "It's very human," Roos said. "I disapprove of chocolate cake, but I eat it all the time."
Sometimes the cultural battles get downright silly. Marty Kaplan, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and the panel's moderator, cited the recent protest by the conservative group Focus on the Family's James Dobson against SpongeBob SquarePants. (The cartoon sea creature was linked to a gay-tolerance video.)
"If your only biology comes from creationist science," Podesta joked, "you don't know that sponges are asexual."
Byron York, White House correspondent for the conservative journal National Review, said he was fine with broadcasters policing themselves to avoid obscenity - though he agreed the "Saving Private Ryan" case "needs to be fixed."
Franti's opinion was more blunt: "I don't think television stations should be parenting children - I think parents should be parenting children."
Podesta and York disagreed over whether the Bush administration has harmed civil liberties. But while everyone agreed that the right for anyone to speak their voice remains strong, several speakers said the ability for every voice to be heard is in danger.
The chief culprit is capitalism, said Devil in a Blue Dress author Walter Mosley. "The most important person in almost every American's life is not their parent, their spouse, their child, lover, friend or even their hero, but instead the person that signs their paycheck," Mosley said. "We're all whores."
Not that there's anything wrong with that, Roos said. "I like to be paid for bringing pleasure to the lives of others," Roos said. "There are some things I won't do, but that doesn't mean I won't do a lot."
But when pleasing an audience, asked British director Antonia Bird ("Priest"), "who decides what the audience wants? There's a point where we're making a film where we're censored, and it's well before an audience sees it."
Technology may help non-mainstream messages find their audiences, Podesta said. He cited the left-wing exposé documentaries of Robert Greenberg, "Outfoxed" and "Uncovered," which his Center for American Progress helped make. They sold thousands of DVD copies via left-leaning Web outlets, such as MoveOn.org, building up enough demand for theatrical runs. "It found an audience first through, in essence, direct marketing," he said.
Podesta worried America's political divisions are expanding into other areas. "Not only has politics become divisive, and the country become divided . . . the more political media have become more divided," he said. "The attempt to speak across the political divide has caused a cultural divide."
During the panel session, even the language used to discuss those divisions was in dispute. When a panelist made a reference to gay marriage, a man in the audience, columnist Jim Fouratt, objected. "It's 'same-sex civil marriage,' " Fouratt said. "The Republicans want everyone to call it 'gay marriage.' "
Roos, who is gay, disagreed. "I like 'gay marriage,' " he said. "It sounds more fun."