No easy answers

Wednesday, May 12, 1999

(Editor’s note: This editorial ran in The Fresno (Calif.) Bee on April 27, 1999. Reprinted by permission.)

Censorship is a greater danger than Marilyn Manson. It’s a natural phenomenon: Outrage leads to outcry. This time, it’s the eruption of anger over a scheduled May 4 concert in Fresno by shock-rocker Marilyn Manson. An appearance by Manson would likely spark controversy at any time in Fresno, but it’s white-hot in the wake of the tragedy in Littleton, Colo., on April 20.

The two boys who appear to have done the killing at Columbine High School left some references to Manson in the mad minutiae of their alienation, and many have made a straight-line connection between the performer’s calculated crudities and the impulse to violence in teen-agers.

But in the rush to bar Manson from Fresno, too many are willing to surrender something precious and vital: the First Amendment. That guarantee means nothing unless it applies to all. To violate it in order to silence anyone’s voice, even one so offensive as Manson’s, would be to commit a crime against this nation far worse than anything the androgynous misanthrope is likely to do on stage.

That’s not a truth with which everyone is comfortable; witness the immediate and angry letters that have appeared in The Bee. … Reasonable people struggle with the demands of the First Amendment and the impulse to suppress a noisome nuisance such as Manson.

But Manson is only a convenient scapegoat. He is much less about rebellion, angst, violence and blasphemy than he is about marketing. At best, he is a cheap knock-off of Alice Cooper, the prototypical shock rocker, and Manson’s music isn’t nearly as good.

This is rather about the widespread fear that things have gone badly wrong, that a generation of precious children is being lost to alienation and gunfire, and that we are at a loss to know what to do.

There are no simple answers, however much the posturing politicians, locally and nationally, would like us to believe. The principal responsibility for raising children rests with parents, and no amount of legislation, suppression or censorship is going to make better parents out of bad ones. Society may be able to do so, with time and persistence, but such quick fixes as mandating labels and warnings on everything teen-agers might touch won’t help much unless their parents are paying attention to what’s going on in the bedrooms, in the video games and on the television and computer screens.

There are means to address the scheduled Manson visit short of censorship: letters, phone calls, marches, rallies, prayers, even picketing the concert venue. There is an alternative concert being scheduled. These are all expressions of the First Amendment, too. In the end, the best way to protect the First Amendment is to use it.

Censure, not censor, is the proper response — the American response. It is galling to have to share the rights of free expression with the likes of neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and Marilyn Manson, but it would be far worse to apply those rights selectively. That’s the surest way to see that they are lost to all.