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Ramping up the culture wars
President Bush’s divisive re-election strategy. Plus, civil rights for all.

IN ONE OF HIS infamously blunt assessments of the political landscape, former Vermont governor Howard Dean warned that Democrats will lose the 2004 presidential election if they let Republicans define the issues as "God, guns, and gays." Add another culture-war touchstone to that list: porn. And make no mistake about it — this is exactly what White House strategist Karl Rove wants to do.

Since President George W. Bush took office, Rove has warned in many different forums that the 2004 election will be close, and that to win, Bush must see the GOP’s core base — radically religious conservatives — turn out in high numbers. It’s estimated that at least four million of these voters stayed home in 2000 (some believe that the late-breaking news of Bush’s drunk-driving arrests hurt him with this group). Rove wants them all at the polls come November. But these voters — true ideologues — will not vote for a candidate who does not espouse their theocratic, anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-porn agenda. (They hurt Bush’s father in 1992, when they rejected his candidacy in favor of Pat Buchanan’s. And they damaged Bob Dole in 1996, when they stayed home.)

Throughout his term, Bush has signaled his sympathy with religious conservatives by using of biblical phrasing in his major speeches. Who can forget his 2003 State of the Union address, which contained these nuggets for the religious right: "There is power — wonder-working power — in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people"; "God does miracles in people’s lives"; and "May He guide us now." And then there have been his attempts to give taxpayer money to religious organizations (in the guise of "faith-based initiatives"). But all that was just a warm-up for what’s to come.

On Valentine’s Day, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Justice Department has hired Bruce Taylor to prosecute obscenity cases. Taylor worked in the department during the 1980s and was a lead prosecutor for former attorney general Ed Meese’s Reagan-era jihad against pornography. He has worked on more than 600 obscenity prosecutions, including one targeting Hustler publisher Larry Flynt.

Taylor was featured in a 2002 Frontline report titled "American Porn," in which he acknowledged meeting with Attorney General John Ashcroft shortly after Ashcroft was confirmed. As a result of the meeting, Taylor and other former prosecutors gave Ashcroft a detailed memo on obscenity "trial tactics and investigative methods."

But the election-year timing of Taylor’s hiring is clearly designed to placate the religious right, which has been lobbying Ashcroft and the Bush administration for a serious crackdown on pornography. (Under President Clinton, obscenity prosecutions all but came to a halt. Former attorney general Janet Reno explained to Frontline: "What we tried to do is to take the resources that we had and establish priorities. I suppose somebody could decide to use all their resources for obscenity prosecutions and not for other matters. It seems to me, clearly, that national security and human life free of violence are two very important priorities.")

What form this crackdown will take remains to be seen, but as Taylor told Frontline: "[Pornographers] sort of know that, you know, President — this President Bush, George W. Bush, and Attorney General Ashcroft, I mean, they’re about as serious as a heart attack."

Taylor’s move to the Justice Department came just weeks after the Federal Communications Commission launched an investigation into the puerile Super Bowl halftime show aired by the Viacom-owned CBS. MTV, another subsidiary of Viacom, produced the extravaganza, which featured scantily clad singers and dancers and culminated with Justin Timberlake ripping Janet Jackson’s bodice, exposing her right breast. (See "Fighting Indecent Acts," Editorial, February 6, available online at BostonPhoenix.com.)

The FCC’s investigation into CBS came mere weeks after FCC chair Michael Powell vowed to appeal a decision by the FCC’s enforcement bureau that Bono’s use of the word "fucking" on live television (after accepting an award at the 2003 Golden Globes, Bono said, "This is really, really fucking brilliant") wasn’t obscene.

Powell’s outburst ("I personally believe that this growing coarseness in use of such profanity ... is abhorrent and irresponsible," he said in a speech about the decision) came just weeks after the president signed the "Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003," which outlaws intact-dilation-and-extraction procedures. It was the most significant restriction on abortions to be signed into law since the Supreme Court’s legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade.

And the signing of the abortion bill came just weeks after the president put his stamp of approval on the first-ever Marriage Protection Week. The event, which ran from October 12 to 18, was billed as a time to focus on "building strong and healthy marriages in America." In truth it was a massive nationwide lobbying effort to ban same-sex marriages. As Kristen Lombardi reports this week (see " ‘Conservative’ Too Often Equals Hate," page 1), Marriage Protection Week fact sheets purported to show how the marriages and even the civil unions of lesbian and gay couples would ruin the American family. Participants in Marriage Protection Week were urged to contact their US senators and representatives to support an amendment to the US Constitution banning gay marriage. There was next to no discussion of the true threats to American families: poverty and divorce.

It is telling that the Bush administration has embraced the role of morality police when terrorism remains a global threat, the war in Iraq has turned into a quagmire, civil liberties continue to be encroached upon, and the economic recovery has yet to move to Main Street from Wall Street. Rove is clearly planning a campaign of distractions, one that focuses on, as Dean put it, "God, guns, and gays." It’s already been ugly, as Dan Kennedy reports this week (see "Apostles of Slime," page 1). Expect it to get uglier and more divisive as we move toward Election Day.

IN WHAT CAN only be described as an act of breathtaking hypocrisy, a number of African-American religious leaders have come out in opposition to same-sex marriage and have denounced the description of the marital-equality struggle as a civil-rights issue. The Reverend Wesley A. Roberts, president of the Black Ministerial Alliance, said last week: "I don’t see this as a civil-rights issue, because to equate what is happening now to the civil-rights struggle which blacks had to go through would be to belittle what we have gone through as a people." And in a forum at Harvard Law School, Jesse Jackson bizarrely claimed that gay activists’ use of the "civil rights" term is wrong because "the comparison with slavery is a stretch in that some slave masters were gay, in that gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution." As State Representative Byron Rushing put it so eloquently during a speech at last week’s constitutional convention: "Shame on you."

Civil rights are rights granted to citizens by our civil government. What African-Americans fought for in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s — the right to attend quality public schools, the right to sit anywhere they wanted on a public bus, the right to vote without harassment — certainly fits that definition. So does the women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900s, during which women won the right to vote. And so does this current battle for marital equality. After all, the legal rights, benefits, and privileges of marriage are not conferred on a couple by our churches; they are bestowed by our state and federal government.

These leaders surely know better. That they cloak their religious bigotry with self-righteous claims to ownership of the term "civil rights" utterly diminishes their credibility.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]phx.com

Issue Date: February 20 - 26, 2004
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