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Anything Goes in a High-Tech, Lowlife Society

In a population obsessed with media, 'too gross' is just right.

July 11, 2002|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton writes a column for Newsday in New York.

What happens to the world when everything is permitted? That was the question asked in 1881 by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky in "The Brothers Karamazov" as he brooded over the withdrawal of traditional religious strictures.

Today, a new god of sorts--technology--ordains the opposite lesson, proliferating media choices and teaching us to display our innermost everything--not to heaven but to each other.

And so the battle lines are drawn, between the Most High and high tech.

Who's winning? One answer can be found on the cover of the July 25 issue of Rolling Stone. There's Ozzy Osbourne, ex-front man for the rock band Black Sabbath. Once he was notorious for biting off the head of a bird and for urinating on the Alamo, but now, in the wake of his huge MTV show "The Osbournes," he has been embraced by the establishment. He has earned his own star on Hollywood Boulevard, appeared at the White House Correspondents Assn. dinner and sung for Queen Elizabeth II at her recent jubilee.

Meanwhile, a new film, "Notorious C.H.O.," features the bisexual misadventures of comedian Margaret Cho. The Korean American comedian puts her own spin on service to one's country, as when she volunteers to perform a certain sex act on all the rescue workers at the World Trade Center.

And the New York Post reports that porn star Jenna Jameson has crossed over into the mainstream; she will be doing ads for Ikea and has also signed a two-book contract with Reganbooks, an imprint of the venerable publisher HarperCollins.

Even harder-core stuff is working its way into the culture. takes note, for example, of porn director Lizzie Borden. If that nom de smut sounds obscurely familiar, that's because the real Lizzie Borden was accused of hacking her parents to death in Fall River, Mass., in 1892. But today, as reporter Janelle Brown observes, "Borden has emerged as a porn powerhouse who manages to offend, disgust and/or alienate not just feminists, politicians and most Americans with a conscience, but a great percentage of the unshockable pornography industry as well."

Brown lists some of Borden's movies, the titles of which can't be printed here. One concerns geriatric women having sex with younger men, and a second concerns post-coital women drinking vile concoctions of vomit and other bodily fluids. Most horrifying, Brown adds, is the slasher-porno film "Forced Entry."

So maybe everything is permitted nowadays. That was the conclusion of David Segal, music critic for the Washington Post, after chronicling the silence of conservative cultural critics in the wake of new albums from the likes of Eminem, the rapper who rhapsodizes about murder. "There was a time when an album that imagined diabolical ways to poison women with anthrax would stir a little protest," Segal declares, but now the monitors and moralizers have quietly surrendered.

"They've won," concedes William Bennett, author of "The Book of Virtues," who now concentrates on fighting foreign terror. "They get to say and do anything and make billions."

OK, so maybe everything is permitted in the realm of speech and expression. But isn't such permissiveness cyclical? Won't the cultural pendulum swing back, someday, to the more chaste and tasteful? Maybe. But probably not.

Human nature may be cyclical, but technology is linear. Is television going to revert to three easy-to-police channels? And who will ever get control of the Internet? Already out of this multimedia, multichannel environment has come a new ethos of visibility and transparency, in which people use technology to peer into everything from their child's nursery to the weather forecast to the military battlefield. And who knows, perhaps even corporate financial statements will someday become more scrutable.

Meanwhile, the same techno-trends encourage not only discovery but also new styles of confession and revelation. People display the most intimate details of their psyches and their physiques, on the Web and in the flesh, as even the most casual observer of youthful fashion must have noticed by now.

But is this permissiveness good or bad?

That's an interesting question, but also a moot question, because the great god of our time, technology--which sees all and lets us see all--has already announced the answer: Permissiveness is, and will be.

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