BOSTON - This is how the rant entered its second generation. Two women who share their DNA with a toddler were sitting within TV range of a baseball game. Suddenly the screen shifted from the game of Johnny Damon to an ad for The Amityville Horror. Balls and strikes gave way to blood and gore.
As the boy's eyes widened in horror, the mother grabbed the remote control with an adrenaline rush usually reserved for snatching children out of traffic. The two women then launched into a diatribe about how thoroughly remote is their control of the media, how out of control they feel in shielding even the most carefully protected child from the world beamed in, around and over their heads.
Lest you think these two women belong to a tribe that wants to ban Harry Potter for wizardry, let me describe them. The grandmother is a certified First Amendment junkie and journalist. The mother runs a theater troupe that lives up to the name Broad Comedy.
These women work on one edge of the cultural bell curve. If they have turned ballistic at home invasions and totally unsympathetic when media moguls defend sex and violence as a matter of "creative freedom," exactly who's left on their side? When more than 70 percent of Americans think that moviemakers "don't share their values" and are "out of touch with most Americans" - thank you, Pew survey - that vast entertainment complex has lost nearly everyone who lives in a family with people under 18.
Want to know why PBS is so popular that its funding is likely to be saved? It isn't Bill Moyers, bless his heart, or Antiques Roadshow. It's the PBS safety zone for kids programming.
Want to know, conversely, why the Family Movie Act passed, thereby allowing technology to edit out sex and violence on videos over the outrage of the auteurs? It isn't because we all want sanitizers editing nakedness out of Schindler's List or gay characters out of My Best Friend's Wedding. It's because even these two women found themselves in uncharacteristic agreement with Family Flix's Sandra Teraci when she said, "A lot of people are just really tired ... of turning on the TV or renting a movie and constantly being hit by violence, profanity and nudity."
Parents are forever being told to monitor their children's media without being told how. We are subject to ratings creep - yesterday's R is today's PG-13 - and Internet creeps. The most recent evidence of our impotence came over the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It turns out that this popular teaching tool for crime and violence could be modified so players could create their own porn fests.
In Everything Bad Is Good for You, maverick Steven Johnson swears that today's popular culture is making us smarter. It isn't the content but "collateral learning" that matters, says this unabashed fan of Grand Theft Auto. We should worry less about "the tyranny of the morality play," he says, and smile more about the way the games challenge skills. But if the culture now provides a "cognitive workout," what muscle is it building? Better and smarter pornographers? Maybe everything bad is worse for you.
It is the rare Democrat who gets it. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was a leader of the pack that got Grand Theft Auto rated "adults only" and is willing to make a pact with super-conservative Rick Santorum to back a bill for research on the effect of media on kids. For the most part, the campaign against media mayhem has been left to the untender mercies of the right.
The problem is not one ad for Amityville. Nor is it about one toddler at the Heffalump stage of pop culture. It's about a world in which families are trying to shape their children's values, while Hollywood feels unashamed. Today, the right creates a counterculture as a wildly successful recruitment tool and the left remains inhibited by cries of censorship and the clink of Hollywood dollars.
This is a time when Democrats keep talking about finding common ground. Take it from one family entering its third generation: The most crowded piece of common ground is right under your nose.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.