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On March 28, 1986, the political debate show Crossfire turned its attention to the question of whether censorship has a place in American society, and, specifically, whether rock music lyrics should be censored. Appearing on the show are hosts Tom Braden and Robert Novak and guests John Lofton and Frank Zappa. For 21 minutes, a classic rhetorical conflict unfolds in which all aspects of the public debate are explored: defining key terms, appearance and non-verbal communication, tone, research and preparation, psychological tactics, and the end game.
The topic under consideration — censorship — came about following the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in 1985 which was created to inform the public on what they considered was a rising explicitness in sex-related topics in rock music. Their efforts resulted in parental guidance labels identifying various degrees of mature content being affixed to albums, but many proponents wanted to take the effort even further and put restrictions on what artists could sing about.
Sex has always been a component of rock music, but the issue came to a head by the increasing popularity of music videos following the start of MTV in 1981. While some form of music videos have been around in one form or another during the rock era, the 24-hour format of MTV and its ubiquitous appearance on basic cable packages made it more popular than ever — and productions vied to push the envelope, however tame by today’s standards they seem.
The point of a public debate is not so much as to get the audience to change their minds on a topic, but rather to convince them that, despite disagreements, you can make a logically valid argument with support and evidence. In today’s politically polarized environment, public debate is often used as a tool to preach to the converted with brutal language filled with logical fallacies. Neither the public discourse nor the body politic is served by this use of the debate.
Tom Braden: Liberal political commentator. Although aligned with the left, Braden has solid anti-Communist credentials as a CIA agent active in covert intelligence operations against the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, his political commentary ended him up on Nixon’s enemies list. His personable demeanor often serves as a moderating influence, although he is quite willing to step back and let opponents go at it. Braden also authored Eight Is Enough, the book on which the late 1970s TV show was based.
Robert Novak: Conservative journalist who started with the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal and later enjoyed a long career as a political commentator in print and on TV. Despite his strong socially and politically conservative views, and support of Ronald Regan, Novak was a registered Democrat and identified himself as agnostic.
John Lofton: Far-right conservative political commentator. Lofton is ideologically a nationalist theocrat who often makes arguments based on appeals to religion, patriotism, and traditionally conservative family values. Although closely aligned with the Republican Party for part of his career, he later distanced himself and authored a blog titled “Recovering Republican.” His extreme positions on social issues and mercurial personality stalled his career within the GOP and in the media at large; however, he continued to pop up periodically as a gadfly for the religious right. Lofton took pride on never having attended college, and in this forum it shows.
Frank Zappa: Conservative musician and producer. Although Zappa self-identifies as a conservative, he is really a classic libertarian — socially liberal, fiscally conservative, and a strong proponent of individual freedom and personal responsibility. Zappa also adheres to a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as it regards matters of legal rights. Due to his background in rock music, and being closely identified with the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, Zappa may have been underestimated by his conservative opponents in the debate over the censorship of rock music.
Appearances and Non-Verbal Communication
In a public debate, appearance involves two components: dress and non-verbal communication. In the video, all the participants are wearing two or three-piece suits (interestingly, both conservatives are wearing three-piece suits). Men’s business suits and ties are a sort of uniform. Its commonality of design and ubiquity results in a loss of individuality. The result is that we focus less on the person than on their ideas or what they represent. In this regard, all of the participants adhere to this standard, yet Lofton’s suit, a basic blue, makes his size more apparent than a black suit which would have blended in with the background. The coat seems a bit tight in the shoulders and bunches up at times as Lofton’s posture periodically changes.
Meanwhile, Zappa is wearing a dark, understated, bespoke suit, and probably the most expensive one on the set. It blends in well with the background and, given Zappa’s tall, thin frame, and steady posture, the suit wears well throughout the debate.
Our non-verbal body language is a visual indicator that either reinforces or detracts from our credibility. Zappa, throughout the debate, generally exhibits a calm and collected demeanor. He maintains a firm posture, limits his gestures, and does not even uncross his legs during the entire show. Despite the aggressiveness of Lofton’s attacks, Zappa, for the most part, keeps his cool.
Meanwhile, Lofton is constantly changing his posture. He’s often seen slumping in his chair, leaning over, making flailing gestures, pointing his fingers at Zappa, and continuously violating Zappa’s personal space. Granted, there is not much room on set, but at no time does Zappa violate Lofton's personal space. The overall impact on the viewer is that Lofton is acting out of anxiety and desperation.
|John Lofton reaches into Frank Zappa's personal space to make a point.|
One lesson about debating is to settle early on the definition of the keywords and terms under discussion. Tom Braden specifies at the :29 second mark (all time references are synched to the above video):
Braden: . . . but when you actually listen to the words of the
song you get a shock.
song you get a shock.
Although the discussion is framed by music video clips, it is the lyrics, the words, of the songs that is identified as the problem. Nevertheless, to many middle-aged American audiences of the time the images of scantily-clad models, tame by today's standards, in music videos were risqué. While the topic is the question of censorship, various attempts are made to put Zappa on the defense, defending pornography, such as in this exchange at 1:12:
Novak: Are you saying there is no filth, no pornography, no obscenity that should not be permitted to be sold and distributed freely in the country in the form of music videos and rock music?
Novak is being a bit underhanded here in his questioning. He is insinuating that by being against censorship, Zappa also supports pornography, obscenity, filth, etc. Essentially, this is a Red Herring logical fallacy. Novak tries to shift the topic from censoring words to rather vague concepts such as filth, pornography, and obscenity. These are abstract terms which vary in definition from person to person. It is a classic ploy in an attempt to discredit someone by shifting the topic and associating their position with something ethically dubious. Zappa, however, does not take the bait.
Zappa: I don’t think music qualifies as pornography and especially since this whole business started with words. We’re talking about words. All of the complaints are about words.
Suggestive imagery is always a more challenging position to defend to a socially conservative opposition; however, Zappa shifts the conversation to the one point he knows is settled law: the First Amendment. When dealing with just words there are few restrictions that can be placed on a citizen. As long as Zappa keeps the conversation on that point, he can dominate the debate. Indeed, the impact is immediate and Novak concedes at 1:35, “Ok, take the pornography out.” Zappa then reiterates his point:
Zappa: We’re talking about words, and I don’t believe there is any word that needs to be suppressed. There’s no scientific or, uh, realistic reason why you should keep people from hearing certain words.”
And again at 2:35
Lofton: When we’re talking about rock videos we’re talking about . . .
Zappa: We’re not talking about rock videos. We’re talking about words.
Zappa later, at 3:09, defines who he is politically:
Zappa: I'm a conservative, and you might not like that, but I am, and the fact of the matter is this bill that they're talking about in Maryland is stupid.
By identifying himself as a conservative, which is further supported by his later statements, Zappa gives himself credibility to argue against censorship. One expects a hippie liberal rock musician to be against censorship, but that a conservative is against it gives the idea more weight to those undecided on the topic.
By defining the terms of the debate — that it is about words, not images — Zappa succeeds in establishing his dominancy at an early point. By self-identifying as a conservative, Zappa puts Lofton on the defensive and gives independent-minded conservatives an alternative. From this point on, Zappa’s opponents have to attack aggressively, which can expose weaknesses in one’s argument. Having achieved the high ground in the argument, all Zappa has to do now is point out the flaws in the opposition’s position — a much safer rhetorical position.
A person’s tone in a debate regards their overall attitude. Are they too passive or too aggressive? Do they sound reasonable or closed-mined? Do they show respect to their opposition despite ideological differences? Zappa, as previously discussed, generally maintains a cool demeanor.
Lofton at 7:00 engages in hyperbolic exaggeration to make the point that the Founding Fathers could not have foreseen this type of music, so the First Amendment does not apply. Zappa, however, does not fall for it and maintains his position:
Lofton: Do you believe think the Founding Fathers really had the First Amendment . . . that they gave us the First Amendment to defend songs that glorify Satanism, and suicide, and incest? You really believe that?
Zappa: Absolutely. Yeah, I believe that.
Lofton: Then you’re an idiot.
Zappa: I tell you what . . . kiss my ass! How do you like that?
Lofton: Take your teeth out. Take your teeth out and we’ll talk about it! [Lofton gets bleeped]
Lofton tries the same tactic Novak tried at the start of the show (see 1:12) — attempt to discredit Zappa by asserting a Red Herring fallacy in associating his position with ethically dubious ideas — and similarly Zappa does not fall for it. While Lofton engages in a classic ad hominem fallacy by calling Zappa an idiot, Zappa does not do himself any favors by telling Lofton to kiss his ass. This is Zappa’s one and only fault committed during the match; nevertheless, the exchange leaves Lofton exasperated. He continues to mumble under his breath and gets bleeped by the show’s censor (ironic considering Lofton’s position on censorship). While not Zappa’s shining moment, Lofton nonetheless manages to fumble the opportunity.
A better tact for Zappa may have been to point out to Lofton the fallacy of limiting an interpretation of a constitutional right based solely on what the Founding Fathers knew at the time the amendment was authored. If we take Lofton’s suggestion at face value, then it follows it would be fair to put limitations on the Second Amendment to prohibit the sale of semi-automatic weapons, or indeed any weapon that can fire more than one bullet at a time, since neither technology was known at the time the Bill of Rights was authored. Lofton, being an ardent NRA supporter, I’m sure would disagree. Such a counter by Zappa would have pointed out a further logical fallacy in Lofton’s argument.
All that being said, Lofton often does Zappa’s job himself. Throughout the entire debate, Lofton exhibits a distinct unwillingness to take a reasonable tone. His arguments are filled with logical fallacies and, as we shall explore, factual inaccuracies as well. Zappa is firm in his position, but relaxed in his approach. While Zappa tells Lofton to “kiss his ass,” he otherwise does not overtly disparage Lofton’s intelligence. Why should he? Lofton is managing to do that job well enough all on his own.
Research, Preparation, and Creditability
While Braden, Novak, and Lofton all share a similar disgust at 1980s rock music, none manage to conjure up a single artist’s or band’s name as examples of their thesis, that rock music lyrics should be censored, throughout the entire debate. In fact, only Zappa mentions other artist’s names.
One noteworthy observation is that three of the participants, Braden, Novak, and Lofton, all carry notes and refer to them repeatedly throughout the debate. Despite this, Novak and Lofton repeatedly get basic facts wrong or provide incomplete information. Zappa, however, carries absolutely no notes and not only gets his facts straight, but also corrects his opponents when they get information wrong. The results make Lofton and Novak look unprepared and lack creditability at crucial points in the debate.
|John Lofton checks his notes. Frank Zappa does not need any.|
Lofton attempts to draw a correlation between rock music and its influence on society by focusing on, of all things, incest. At 3:35, Lofton provocatively asks:
Lofton: Are you [unintelligible] songs that portray incest as just another kind of sex, and perhaps preferable sex? Are you for that?
After some exchange on this point, Zappa respond at 4:30:
Zappa: I didn’t realize that incest was such a terrible problem in the United States that we suddenly needed government intervention to cure incest in America by keeping words off of records.
Lofton: Well, incest in America never used to be a problem did it Mr. Zappa? That’s come about in the last twenty years or so.
Braden: Oh John, that’s not so.
The suggestion that rock music is singularly responsible for an alleged rise in incest in America in only the last twenty years of its 200-plus years of existence is so ludicrous that Braden’s disbelief is almost palpable (Novak curiously has no comment on this blatant lie). Hyperbole is a rookie mistake for a professional debater. Lofton’s obsession with incest as a point of argument is odd. He certainly would have gotten more traction by suggesting a correlation between the rise in the use of recreational drugs and a rise in the mention of its use, and in some cases glorification, in rock music over the last twenty years, but instead Lofton curiously sticks to incest as his talking point. From here on, barely five minutes into the debate, Lofton’s creditability is effectively dead on arrival.
When Braden presses Lofton on his plan to implement a censorship policy (at 9:00), he is unable to provide any details and speaks of it only in the most general of terms. For someone so passionate about the topic, it is odd that he is unable to provide a proposal of any sort. As censorship is a radical departure from the American tradition of a free press, a detailed plan could alieve fears of abuse. The absence of any plan not only demonstrates a lack of preparedness on Lofton’s part, but also increases the dubiousness of his proposal and decreases the likelihood his position will be deemed creditable.
Novak himself is also guilty of some sloppy research on his part, which makes him look unprepared, as in this exchange at 14:39:
Novak: There is a rock video, it’s about to come out, that has a, a school teacher undressing in front of the students . . .
Zappa: It’s out already and it’s one of the ones they use for bumpers. They showed it at a senate hearing. It’s called “Hot for Teacher” and the group is Van Halen.
None of this was classified information. Despite it being before the Internet, a look at MTV, Billboard magazine, or talking with any teenager at the time, would have confirmed these facts. Certainly Novak, who worked for both print and cable news outlets, had considerably more resources at hand, so there's no excuse for sloppy research. Novak makes a similar faux pas at 17:34:
Novak: Mr. Zappa, when you were testifying in Annapolis, yesterday I think, they had some kids that were picketing outside who were from the school for the mentally disturbed and they said that rock music almost ruined their life, rock music really disturbed them. Doesn’t that give you some pause as if maybe you were making a — you might be in error on this question?
Zappa: Well see, you’re in error as to where those kids came from. It’s not a school for the mentally disturbed. There’s a place called Freedom Village run by a man named Pastor Fletcher A. Brothers. A Christian organization, he collects money for it, they have a farm in upstate New York. I’ve debated Pastor Brothers on the radio before. I’ve also seen his literature, Basically, what he has done is taken the children who have come to his place for rehabilitation — I don’t know where he gets them, who sends them — but he carts them around the country on the Freedom Village bus and makes them go in and testify all the bad things that happened to them before they came to his place and then he connects it to rock music.
Zappa then goes on to provides details as to particular rock songs Pastor Brothers found offensive. The overall effect on the audience is that Zappa is more prepared. Not only has he studied his own talking points, but also those of his opponents as well. In fact, Zappa seems more informed on their own evidence than they are themselves.
The Mind Game
The psychological aspect of the debate is a component not to be overlooked. If an opponent can be caused to lose their focus, get caught up in tangents, or get angry, their creditability will be damaged. If one’s opponent is well-prepared, has done their research, and is intellectually reasonable and confident, it will be almost impossible to rattle them.
Lofton’s psychological ploy is to act aggressive to the point of anger. As noted before, he gesticulates widely and frequently invades Zappa’s personal space. He insults Zappa, from saying he is part of the problem (despite Zappa’s lyrics never being in question) to outright calling him an idiot. While unethical from an academic debating point of view, such tactics can nonetheless weaken an opponent’s concentration and focus, giving you, at least temporarily, the upper hand.
On the other hand, if one’s opponent is overtly passionate, aggressive, and ill-prepared — all signs of basic insecurity — it will be easier to rattle their cage, so to speak. Consider the following curious exchange that begins at the 5:58 mark:
Lofton: Would you look at the camera and tell them . . .
Zappa: Which camera?
Lofton: Any camera . . .
Zappa: Are you directing the show now?
Lofton: Yeah, yeah . . . that’s right. Well, you certainly need some direction Mr. Zappa.
Zappa: Are you going to spank me here? Come on, what are you trying to do?
Lofton: Are you into that too? No, I’m not into spanking . . .
Zappa: I love it when you froth like that.
Lofton: Now, would you tell our viewers what the Founding Fathers . . .
Zappa: I thought he [referring to Novak] would be the one frothing today. I’m glad that you’re doing it.
Lofton: Wrong again Frank, wrong again.
Zappa: I got a napkin for you when you drool.
And later again at 15:01:
Lofton: He [indicating Zappa] thinks it’s amusing you might have a grade school class that’s “hot for teacher” in a sexual way. Why is that amusing?
Zappa: Why shouldn’t it be amusing?
Lofton: You’re not smiling. You don’t look too happy at that.
Zappa: [talking over Lofton] Why should I smile when I’m sitting here with you?
Lofton: Well, you can fake it Frank you . . .
Zappa: I like him [pointing to Novak] better than you. Does that give you a rough idea of what’s going on here?
At first, I was confused as to why Zappa would engage in such exchanges, but I think he zeroed in on a key aspect of Lofton’s psychology. There is an insecure over-eagerness to Lofton. He desperately needs to prove he’s right. It is the sort of approach a determined younger brother might take when matched against older siblings. Zappa constantly interrupts Lofton during these two exchanges and barely lets him complete a sentence without getting needled, increasing Lofton’s frustration and getting him off-topic. In this way, Zappa demonstrates a psychological dominance over Lofton that pervades the entire debate.
|Despite Lofton's aggressive tactics, he is often seen slumping in his seat, |
suggesting a submissive posture.
In another example of Zappa’s deft use of language, he successfully uses Lofton’s own words against him, as in the following exchanges at 5:38, 5:49, and 8:11:
Lofton: There are songs that advocate incest.
Zappa: Tell me them. I haven’t heard them.
Lofton: Well, you ought to get out more.
Lofton, however, is unable to name any songs. His response, “Well, you out to get out more,” is a somewhat juvenile attempt to distract the audience from his own inability to provide the artists, song titles, or lyrics of any songs that he thinks promotes incest. Rather, Lofton’s response is to suggest that it is Zappa who is uninformed. Zappa, however, in a bit of rhetorical judo, uses Lofton’s phrase against him to point out Lofton’s own very real factual errors at 5:49 and 8:11:
Lofton: Your group is called the Mothers of the Invention . . .
Zappa: It’s Mothers of Invention. You should get out more.
Lofton: You once wrote a song called, “We’re All in it for the Money,”. . .
Zappa: That’s not a song. It’s the title of an album. You should get out more.
In both these exchanges, Zappa tosses Lofton’s petty remark, “You should get out more,” back in his face. This puts Lofton off-beat for a moment and adds to his overall frustration at not being able to get the better of Zappa in the debate. Lofton earlier used the remark, unsuccessfully, to suggest Zappa was uniformed. Zappa responds in kind with Lofton’s own words to successfully point out Lofton’s own actual factual inaccuracies.
When to Walk Away — The End Game
Typically, people will only remember the last couple minutes of any speech or debate, so it is important to end on a strong note that reminds your audience of your position. On a TV show, keeping track of the time is even more important because each segment and program break is carefully timed out. This episode clocks in at 21:10. Minus time for the credits, that leaves less than twenty minutes for four speakers to discuss the issue, not a lot of time.
Consider this following exchange starting at 16:59, with only about three minutes left in the debate:
Zappa: If you don’t link the spirit then change the things that make the spirit happen.
Lofton: I agree with that.
Zappa: In other words, if you have kids that are rebellious and kids that are hopeless. You have kids that go to drugs. Then give them something to hope for.
Lofton: Like what? What would you tell a kid he ought to hope for nowadays Frank?
Zappa: What I tell kids and what I’ve been telling kids for quite some time is first register to vote and second, as soon as you’re old enough, run for something.
Lofton: You really think that’s going to give kids hope, telling them to vote?
Zappa: Well, I don’t know if it makes them commit suicide [Lofton previously tried connecting rock music to suicide], but I think it gives them a little more hope.
Not too intense an exchange, but Lofton curiously decides to denigrate Zappa’s advice to young people — register to vote and run for public office. In a political discussion, this seems to be fairly harmless advice, but for some reason it rankles Lofton and he just can’t let it go, as in this exchange about two minutes later at the 19:05 mark:
Lofton: [interrupting Zappa] I want to talk now. You’ve talked for a little while, ok? I think your answer about where hope is supposed to lie shows the bankruptcy of what used to be considered the radical message. We have millions of kids in this country Frank who may be suicidal, who see no meaning in life, who see no hope in life, and you’re going to tell them the hope is in registering to vote Frank? Are you serious?
Zappa: Are you trying to dissuade them from registering to vote? Are you trying to dissuade those kids from running for office? Is that what you’re doing?
Lofton: We’re talking about kids who don’t know the meaning of life and you’re telling them to vote? That’s no answer.
At this point, Tom Braden interrupts Lofton and ends the debate.
Lofton is attempting using a classic ploy to draw an opponent into commenting on something outside their area of expertise by creating a hypothetical situation. Zappa is no minister or psychiatrist, and answering such existential questions are not only beyond his area of expertise (music and the Constitution), but attempting to do so would weaken his creditability, particularly in the short amount of time left in the program. Rather than take the bait, Zappa instead issues a call for action to the young people watching: vote, run for office, and become the decision makers. Now, who in their right mind could possibly find anything offensive with that?
Only John Lofton, apparently.
Lofton’s response, that such a call somehow shows “the bankruptcy of what used to be considered the radical message” is just too absurd a claim to make any rational sense out of it. How can encouraging young people to exercise their basic rights as citizens be a morally bankrupt? Indeed, Lofton is practically frothing at the mouth at Zappa’s response while an aloof Zappa barely acknowledges Lofton’s presence.
And that is how the debate ends.
Winners and Losers
As far as the moderation is concerned, Braden comes out on top. He asks a few questions to guide the conversation, seldom interferes, and calls Lofton out on his obvious lie about incest only being a problem in the 20 years prior to the broadcast (inferring that rock music is to blame). Novak gets a low score, however. He starts off by attempting a Red Herring logical fallacy, which gets rebuffed by Zappa, does not call Lofton out on his lie about the rise in incest, and gets basic facts wrong which Zappa points out.
Regarding the debate between Zappa and Lofton, there is no doubt Zappa is the clear winner. Unlike the two moderators and his opponent John Lofton, Frank Zappa needs no notes and comes across as the most well-informed member of the group. He is composed, uses gestures effectively, makes no distracting movements, does not invade others’ personal space, and makes his points without histrionics. Except for the “kiss my ass” comment, Zappa delivers a near-perfect performance.
Lofton is the clear loser in this debate. He comes across as anxious, desperate, and unreasonable. His arguments contain logical fallacies and he even outright lies, as in his claim that incest has only been a problem in America in the last twenty years. He alternatively slumps away from Zappa and then tries to invade his personal space. Despite holding several pages of notes, Lofton is unable to provide the names of any artists or songs that are so egregious that they deserve to be censored.
Zappa does make one insightful prediction in this 1986 debate that has, rather unfortunately, proved prophetic. At the 10:05 mark, Zappa builds off Lofton’s assertion that America is under attack and defending children against the onslaught of rock music videos is a matter of national defense.
Zappa: Could I make a comment about National Defense? The biggest threat to America today is not communism. It’s moving America toward a fascist theocracy, and everything that’s happened under the Reagan Administration is steering us right down that pipe.
While most read this comment as a prophetic insight (and to an extent, it is) it should be noted that Lofton is a theocrat, and this comment was likely intended by Zappa as a retort to Lofton for suggesting rock music videos are a direct threat to the nation. Without mentioning his name, Zappa makes it clear that he considers Lofton to be the real threat. While most of the audience would have missed this subtext, I have no doubt Lofton got the message.
Without wading too deeply into the current political situation in the United States, it is fairly safe to say that Zappa’s prediction has come true. American politics have come to be dominated by a far-right contingent that uses religion to excuse political expediency and push a fake news narrative. Lofton’s kind of political debate is anti-intellectual and nationalistic in nature and has been partly responsible in empowering fringe extremist groups in America today. Every time I see this debate, I am reminded how much Frank Zappa’s presence is sorely missed on the national stage.
All four members of this particular Crossfire panel have since passed away, but I like to think that somewhere out in the great eternal, ethereal void, Frank Zappa is still telling John Lofton, “You should get out more.”
More likely though, Zappa is probably telling Lofton to kiss his ass.
Related Content from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel
The Gauntlet — Political Talk Radio in 1989: A point-counterpoint political debate show in the spirit of Crossfire. I’m on the left, my colleague Scott Lounsbury is on the right.
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