Review: Jon Katz, Virtuous Reality: How America Surrendered Discussion of Moral Values to Opportunists, Nitwits, And Blockheads Like William Bennett (nonfiction)

Alan P. Scott - Rants - Reviews


What's up with what's goin' down,
In every city, in every town
Crampin' styles is the plan.
They've got us in the palm of every hand...

--L7, "Pretend We're Dead," from Bricks Are Heavy

From its title forward, Jon Katz's book Virtuous Reality places itself in distinct opposition to the unwieldy Book of Virtues compiled and promoted ad nauseam by reactionary pundit William Bennett. Slim where the Book of Virtues is fat, inexpensive where BoV is costly, original where Bennett's book is largely the work of others, and current where BoV is dated, Virtuous Reality is an outspoken guide on behalf of parents who wonder how to raise their children to be responsible adults, in the face of nearly constant opposition - both persuasive seductions and cries of alarm, both from and about media both new and old.

As a parent myself twice over, the issues Katz addresses are of deep concern to me. I know (or at least I'm always being told) that I am supposed to preserve the unsullied purity of my children's minds, no matter what the cost. However, as an opponent of censorship and a self-described "First Amendment fundamentalist," I believe that the common and easy remedies being proposed for parents - that we abdicate our responsibility in favor of ambiguous and unConstitutional legal apparatus and mechanical guardians such as V-chips and censorware - are not at all the best ones when it comes to molding children into responsible adults.

The course Katz recommends is not at all easy, nor is it common. He points out the utter practical failure of kneejerk responses to "protect" children from offensiveness on the Internet, and recommends instead that parents trust their children, and vice versa: that children be taught to question the things they see on the 'Net, on television or even in the newspapers, and to trust their parents to answer those questions honestly. This is of course more time-consuming and difficult for the parents than simply installing electronic guardians, and more difficult to justify, especially for parents whose information about new media comes solely from alarmist reports in weekly print magazines, but Katz outlines in admirably clear language (much clearer than this review!) how it can - and should - be done.

From time to time, to be sure, Katz descends to personal vitriol; it must be granted that his attacks, however justified, on William Bennett's less-than-stellar career as George Bush's drug czar, and on the Book of Virtues itself, are sometimes a little shrill. But Virtuous Reality does not at all pretend to be a work of objective journalism (in fact, Katz decries "The Failed Cult of Objectivity"). And Katz does provide fair warning of his intentions.

This book is most definitely a worthwhile addition to your parenting shelf, a worthy counter to the unctuous voices calling for an unworkable "protection" that would amount to the loss of parents' rights to decide, for themselves, what their children should see.

* * *

Jon Katz, Virtuous Reality: How America Surrendered Discussion of Moral Values to Opportunists, Nitwits, And Blockheads Like William Bennett. Random House hardback, January 1997. ISBN 0-679-44913-2, US$21.00

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This document was last updated March 25, 1998.

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