To Hell With Values

Michael Kinsley says “To Hell With Values” in his latest LAT column.

It’s been less than a month since the gods decreed that, due to the election results, American political life henceforth must be all about something called “values.” And I gave it my best. Honest. But I’m sick of talking about values, sick of pretending I have them or care more about them than I really do. Sick of bending and twisting the political causes I do care about to make them qualify as “values.” News stories about values-mongers caught with their values down used to make my day. Now, the tale of Bill O’Reilly and phone sex induces barely a flicker of schadenfreude.

Why does an ideological position become sacrosanct just because it gets labeled as a “value”? There are serious arguments and sincere passions on both sides of the gay marriage debate. For some reason, the views of those who feel that marriage requires a man and a woman are considered to be a “value,” while the views of those who believe that gay relationships deserve the same legal standing as straight ones barely qualifies as an opinion.

Meanwhile, NYT’s Frank Rich [RSS] decries “The Great Indecency Hoax.”

Oh, the poor, suffering little children.

If we are to believe the outcry of the past two weeks, America’s youth have been defiled en masse – again. This time the dirty deed was done by the actress Nicollette Sheridan, who dropped her towel in the cheesy promotional spot for the runaway hit “Desperate Housewives” that kicked off “Monday Night Football” on ABC. “I wonder if Walt Disney would be proud,” said Michael Powell, the Federal Communications Commission chairman who increasingly fashions himself a commissar of all things cultural, from nipple rings to “Son of Flubber.”

It’s beginning to look a lot like “Groundhog Day.” Ever since 22 percent of the country’s voters said on Nov. 2 that they cared most about “moral values,” opportunistic ayatollahs on the right have been working overtime to inflate this nonmandate into a landslide by ginning up cultural controversies that might induce censorship by a compliant F.C.C. and, failing that, self-censorship by TV networks. Seizing on a single overhyped poll result, they exaggerate their clout, hoping to grab power over the culture.


Though seen nationwide, and as early as 6 p.m. on the West Coast, the spot initially caused so little stir that the next morning only two newspapers in the country, both in Philadelphia, reported on it. ABC’s switchboards were not swamped by shocked viewers on Monday night. A spokesman for ABC Sports told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he hadn’t received a single phone call or e-mail in the immediate aftermath of the broadcast.

Even the stunned Mr. Limbaugh, curiously enough, didn’t get around to mounting his own diatribe until Wednesday. Mr. Owens’s agent, David Joseph, says that the flood of complaints at his office and Mr. Owens’s Web site also didn’t start until more than 24 hours after the incident – late Tuesday and early Wednesday. Were any of these complainants actual victims (or even viewers) of “Monday Night Football” or were they just a mob assembled after the fact by “family” groups, emboldened by their triumph in smiting “Saving Private Ryan” from 66 ABC stations the week before? Though the F.C.C. said on Wednesday that it had received 50,000 complaints about the N.F.L. affair, it couldn’t determine how many of them were duplicates – the kind generated by e-mail campaigns run by political organizations posting form letters ready to be clicked into cyberspace ad infinitum by anyone who has an index finger and two seconds of idle time.

Like the Janet Jackson video before it, the new N.F.L. sex tape was now being rebroadcast around the clock so we could revel incessantly in the shock of it all. “People were so outraged they had to see it 10 times,” joked Aaron Brown of CNN, which was no slacker in filling that need in the marketplace. And yet when I spoke to an F.C.C. enforcement spokesman after more than two days of such replays, the agency had not yet received a single complaint about the spot’s constant recycling on other TV shows, among them the highly rated talk show “The View,” where Ms. Sheridan’s bare back had been merrily paraded at the child-friendly hour of 11 a.m.

While I, too, am somewhat perplexed by the outrage over the Owens-Sheridan skit, which I found unfunny but not particularly prurient even by 1980s standards, I think Rich and Kinsley both miss the point. For one thing, “values” is a flexible container indeed. To the extent that people chose Bush over Kerry on the “values” issue, it had much less to do with sex in the popular culture–which was, after all, hardly mentioned in the campaign, much less the four debates–than it did with a sense that Bush is more “in touch” with the concerns of ordinary folks than Kerry. Additionally, the perceived personal character of the two men fall under that rubric. A majority perceived Kerry as an indecisive flip-flopper and Bush as someone with convictions. Further, Kerry came across as a phony, with his awkward pandering at black churches and his amusing attempts to relate to NASCAR, Red Sox, and Packers fans.

Kinsley essentially debates a straw man when he goes off on a tangent about how much one wants the government to be involved in “values.” Government is at its essence about the allocation of scarce resources and deciding between competing values. After all, everything–from tax policy to judicial appointments to abortion to medical research to gay marriage to what holidays to take–is ultimately a value judgment.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Popular Culture, Religion, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    It’s also worth pointing out that the “values” business derives from an exit poll that offered the issues question as a multiple-choice question, whereas the best results don’t come from that approach.

    When the issues question was not multiple-choice, the economy and the war on terror both far outplaced “values.”

    I can only conclude that Democrats and the media (but I repeat myself) are deliberately trying to avoid learning from their defeat.

  2. Cassandra says:

    Kinsley’s predictably asinine follow-up to his earlier inane article about values was worth reading, if only for the treacly sweet joy of seeing him admit he’s:

    “…sick of talking about values, sick of pretending I have them or care more about them than I really do.”

    The man has the attention span of a gnat.

    There was so much to fisk in the article it’s hard to know where to start….perhaps with the sheer [yawn…stretch…] superfluity of Kinsley’s having taken the time to share his opinion about values in the first place?

    Gasp! Oh please don’t ruin the suspense! He’s not not in favor of them?

    And this just destroyed me:

    Why should anyone care, or care so much, whether the people running the government have good values? Shouldn’t we prefer a bit of competence, if forced to choose?

    OK, Mr. Kinsley. So by your argument, Richard Milhous Nixon was a darned good President. After all, the man liberals love to hate was undoubtably competent. He just lacked what you call ‘values’ 🙂

    Watching Kinsley twist himself into a rhetorical pretzel is always so entertaining.

  3. Cassandra says:

    Oops. Sorry for the double negative above.

    Must have an extra ‘not’ in my head….

  4. Skaje says:

    ” It’s also worth pointing out that the “values” business derives from an exit poll that offered the issues question as a multiple-choice question, whereas the best results don’t come from that approach.

    When the issues question was not multiple-choice, the economy and the war on terror both far outplaced “values.””

    This is quite true. This election was FAR more about terrorism and Iraq. Gay marriage was about as important as healthcare, which is, not much in the whole scheme of things this year. Kerry was hurt by the Swift Boat Veterans much more than by any anti-gay backlash among conservative voters. It’s really a red herring. Give the country 30 years and gays will be getting married without anyone caring. There is no “moral revolution” or whatever. Fox Network, the creator of arguably the most conservative News channel on TV, turns its money around into financing some of the most shocking and prurient shows ever made. The Jerry Falwell crowd is only getting airtime because of the poorly worded exit polls. The GOP used them to win, but won’t pay them any notice after the election…it’s the way of things afterall.