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Monday, Dec. 31, 2007

Censorship serves to flag our own limits


LOS ANGELES — It appears that many mainland Chinese moviegoers are traipsing over to Hong Kong in droves to view the uncensored version of Ang Lee's latest blockbuster, "Lust, Caution." With their feet, in effect, they are voting for lust — and as if wishing for official Beijing caution to be gone with the wind.

As it is, on the mainland, authorities are allowing their moviegoers only a somewhat de-sexed version of the sexy espionage thriller. In effect, Beijing much prefers the caution part of the Ang Lee film to that other part.

The great director Ang Lee himself took the news of the partial censorship calmly and professionally. Perhaps he was quietly pleased that bosses of Beijing were permitting the inherently racy and riveting firm to be shown at all.

But serious cinema-philes were expectedly outraged. They note that the director isn't just another Hong Kong or Hollywood hack but the Academy Award-winning director of "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." He is on the level of a Spielberg. He has more creative, artistic talent in one of his two pinkies than the entire State Council, the ruling cabinet of China, has in its collective body. With this High Priest of the cinema, no one should mess.

Ang Lee, it says here, needs to be worshipped, not censored. When I heard the news, I was angry, and blurted the story out to my friend, but the response I got back in return was as surprising as it was fascinating.

This graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and UCLA (California's two best public universities) is a social worker officially licensed by the state of California. For the last five years she has been a staff professional at a federal agency that does a lot of work with "failed people."

Statistics show that divorces and out-of-wedlock birthrates remain high in America. Our culture produces women who are beaten by addictive husbands, parents of both sexes who cannot hold jobs, and children of broken families who have a hard time climbing out of the socioeconomic ditch into which they were pitched.

The causes behind these human tragedies are many and complex. But in the expert opinion of the certified social worker, one root cause of the problem may be the sexual and moral permissiveness of a society that seems to be unable to say no — and so rarely does. This hypothesis is hard to prove, but the social worker says serious unease with the lack of discipline in American culture is widely shared among professionals who work with "broken families and failed individuals."

The answer, of course, is not to bring back some sort of postmodern restoration of Puritanism. Even most Chinese authorities do not propose that. Much of the sexual content of "Lust, Caution" was censored, but far from all of it.

Even so, the Chinese officials' decision does strike a positive chord with those Americans who sense that perhaps our Western secular culture is headed toward some overly relativistic moral abyss.

The issue is relevantly raised during this holiday season. This is customarily a time for reflection as well as celebration. Did America become great in part because of its permissiveness? No doubt our emphasis on freedom of choice and prioritization of the individual drives this culture's extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit. But does it not also drive us in some negative directions?

America is not China, to be sure, for many good and positive reasons. But we do have too much drug and alcohol abuse, too much overt sexual imagery forced on our teenagers when they are at a stage of personal evolution where they scarcely know yet who they are or what they might be capable of becoming.

Maybe we should listen more to the great ancient philosopher Aristotle rather than to sexed-up contemporary voices pimping for instant gratification and total personal freedom. Aristotle argued that the better ethical choice for man and society was often the one that fit somewhere between two extremes. Avoid those extremes and you will probably avoid bad decisions.

Government censorship is never the answer, to be sure — and certainly it is not the American way. Governments rarely possess enough wisdom to serve as moral arbiters. But Beijing may be onto something when it implicitly raises the Aristotelian question of when enough is enough.

To be sure, a film, however steamy, by the great Ang Lee is not the ideal vehicle over which to raise this sort of question. But as the Chinese raised it with their crude cutting shears, we here in America do need to face the question of whether we should seek to cultivate a more thoughtful temperament that puts limits on our tendencies toward excess.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is the author of the recent "Confessions of an American Media Man." Copyright 2007 Tom Plate


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