Steve Allen to Jerry Springer

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Dysfunctional excess

Is all it took for my success.

(Peter Gabriel, from his song “The Barry Williams Show”)

Last week Jerry Springer made a return visit to Cincinnati for a question and answer forum.  Before hosting a nationally syndicated “trash” talk show, Springer was a TV anchorman/commentator in Cincinnati, and before that, he was mayor (until he was caught writing a check to a prostitute).  I guess there’s a segment of society that’s attracted to “dysfunctional excess.”  One of the folks at work went to the forum and referred to Springer as being “smart” (how smart can you be if you pay off a prostitute with a personal check?!).  It got me to thinking about another smart guy who was a talk show host: Steve Allen.

For those who may not know, Steve Allen was the very first host of “The Tonight Show,” long before Jay Leno, and even before Johnny Carson.  He was largely responsible for developing the format of the TV talk show.  He didn’t look it, but he was actually pretty hip, being one of the first to book a young Elvis Presley, and helping to promote writer Jack Kerouac, author of the beat-generation bible “On the Road.”  And a teenaged Frank Zappa appeared on Allen’s show, playing an upside-down bicycle as a musical instrument!  In addition, Allen was an accomplished jazz musician and song composer, a talented comic, and he wrote a staggering 50 books during his lifetime.

Toward the end of his life (he died in 2000 at age 78), Allen became increasingly concerned about the amount of gratuitous sex, violence, crudity, and stupidity that the entertainment media was dishing out.  His last book was called “Vulgarians at the Gate: Trash TV and Raunch Radio: Raising Standards of Popular Culture.”  In the book he castigates TV producers, personalities like Springer and shock-jock Howard Stern, the film industry, and the music and video gaming industries for helping to facilitate a breakdown of mores in society through their product.   In my opinion, his voice carries weight.  Allen was there at the very beginning of TV, and he witnessed a number of changes over a 50-year period.  That combined with the fact that Allen was a voracious reader and researcher and he was constantly trying to improve himself.

Politically, Allen was a Democrat.  And as far as religion, he considered himself a secular humanist (he wrote several books that critiqued the Bible, but only after doing a lot of research on Christianity).  He didn’t believe in censorship.  But he did feel that Hollywood and the entertainment industry needed to do a much better job of policing themselves, and citizens needed to become more engaged and speak out against the crassness.  Parents are the best police for their kids, but they’re powerless once the kids leave the house. Allen felt so strongly about these things that at the end he was taking out ads in city newspapers and he became honorary chairman, with actress Shirley Jones (Mrs. Partridge!!!), of the conservative Parents Television Council.  The group is still active today, though unfortunately few of the board members have the acuity or worldliness of Allen.  Most recently, it started a petition to ban Seth McFarlane from ever hosting the Academy Awards again.

In another post on longitudes, I rebuked the NRA and gun lobby for their incomprehensible use of the Second Amendment to bludgeon attempts at sensible gun legislation.  But I also pointed a finger at the entertainment industry for shoveling out whatever garbage they could get away with under the First Amendment.  Until Second Amendment conservatives and First Amendment liberals stop blaming each other for gun violence, and decide that the problem is multifold, I’m afraid our society will continue its ineluctable slide into the muck of violence and vulgarity.  And we need more Steve Allens to hold accountable the Jerry Springers.

America and Guns

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It’s been almost a week since the horrible massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Unless one is a parent of a child who was killed there, no one can fathom the hell they’ve undergone.  But because this was such a brutal act, and the victims were innocent children, the entire nation feels a deep, deep wound.  Just last night I found my wife in tears.  When I asked her why she was crying, she told me she just saw a photo of one of the kids.

America was born out of violence.  If our colonist forefathers hadn’t said “Enough is enough” and shouldered their muskets to throw off their tyrannical governors, we would still be British subjects.  Since then we’ve employed violence for good and ill: to maintain a union of states; to free the slaves; to wrench land away from Native Americans and Mexicans; to topple fascism; to try to prevent the spread of ideologies we don’t like; to avenge ourselves against terrorism.

Hunting game is one of the most popular pastimes in America and a tradition that’s passed down from parent to child.  Our favorite sport, football, requires the athletes to practically dress in suits of armor to prevent serious injury (and it’s only now that we’re beginning to see a link between football and brain trauma).  Most evening television dramas feature a large dose of crime and violence, and it proliferates in Hollywood movies, video games, and many of the most popular types of music, particularly with young people.  One could almost argue that violence is in America’s DNA.

But there comes a point – and the slaughter at Sandy Hook may finally be that tipping point – when one has to emulate the forefathers, and say “Enough is enough.”  There’s something wrong when an entertainment industry and their Washington watchdogs deem it unacceptable to show two people making love, but it’s perfectly fine to show a man sticking a gun barrel in his mouth.  And there’s something wrong when it’s illegal to grow or smoke a plant that makes your head a little fuzzy, but it’s ok to go out and buy a weapon with a high-capacity magazine, whose sole purpose is to mow down masses of humans.

We’ll probably hear a lot of talk in the next few months about who is to blame: liberals or conservatives, parents or teachers, gun makers or Hollywood, the NRA or CBS.  Most of the talk now is about having a “national conversation.”  I’m not sure yet what’s meant by “conversation” and why it wasn’t held a long time ago, before Sandy Hook, Portland, Aurora, Tucson, Red Lake, Paducah, Columbine, etc. etc.  For me it’s pretty evident what needs to be done, at least with regard to guns.  We need far stricter gun laws at the federal level, beginning with an absolute ban on sale AND ownership of any type of weapon or ammunition (assault, high-capacity, whatever) that isn’t considered a handgun for self-protection, or a rifle for hunting or target shooting.  We also need to close the so-called “loophole” that exists to enable criminals, juveniles, and those with a history of mental illness to purchase guns at unregulated gun shows.  We also need background checks and licensing and registration of any and all firearms, similar to the licensing and registration requirements for operating automobiles.

Of course, arguments for the above legislation have in the past met with head-on opposition from the National Rifle Association (NRA), the oldest and most powerful lobby in America.  The NRA – or at least the leaders and most members – believes that any attempt to regulate the sale and possession of firearms is a violation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution – the right for a country to maintain a “well regulated Militia,” which guarantees that the right “to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  It’s cloaked itself in the Second Amendment to time and again stonewall legislation that would address the hundreds of gun deaths that occur every day in America, not to mention the new American ritual of mass murder in public places.

And this is what lawmakers will be up against when they try to toughen America’s gun laws.  How should we interpret the Second Amendment, which was worded in 1791 in such a vague manner that multiple interpretations have been argued for decades?  Should we continue to adhere to a strict interpretation, as the NRA argues?  Or agree that gun manufacturing, sales, and ownership are permitted in America, but with sensible regulation and restriction?

It seems to me the Second Amendment has increasingly become a noose, and one that is getting ever-tighter around our neck.  For too long our politicians have cowered under the laser gaze of gun manufacturers and a powerful lobby’s “scorecard.”  But who elects these politicians?  In truth, there’s a lot of blame to go around: parents who won’t take time with their kids; an entertainment industry whose motto is “give the people what they want;” a gun lobby that has fought common-sense gun legislation at every turn; and voters who continue to vote for politicians who are bought and sold by special interests.

We’ll never totally eradicate gun deaths and events like what recently occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Portland, Oregon.  But we can at least try to minimize them.  It’s time to show the rest of the world that America has civilized a little since the days of the Old West, and violence is not in our DNA.  We owe it to the memory of 6-year-olds Jack Pinto and Noah Pozner, who were buried Monday in Newtown, Connecticut.  And to all the victims, at Sandy Hook and elsewhere, whose senseless deaths by firearms could have been prevented.