22 December 2006


Of all government agencies, the FCC is probably my least favorite. On the one hand, it appears to have no concept of antitrust enforcement, since it continually allows large commercial media to gobble up or otherwise force out smaller competitors and has been thoroughly captured by those it regulates. On the other hand, it also worries about boobs on TV (MP3, artist-authorized) (while not worrying at all about heads being blown off on the evening news) under the rubric of regulating "indecent speech" on the "public" airwaves. Sometimes, though, a few of the guerrilla warriors (those who haven't been fired yet) find a way to stick it to the FCC. Ironically, a show owned by a corporation that is also a major defense contractor has a history of pushing the limits... at times.

Saturday Night Live broadcast a bleeped-out Natalie Portman rapping about an alternate-history version of herself (an interesting contrast with her first major film role). More recently, the show included a pop singer making a small gift for his girlfriend. Probably very small, either censored or uncensored. I found both versions of that song pretty limp, but only because they're so [expletive deleted in case this e-mail is ever forwarded to the Pacifica Foundation] obvious. It's actually funnier if one substitutes Victorian/Edwardian euphemisms for the term, like "Manhood in a Box." (But then, my misspent youth included a lit. major, so of course I'd think of something nerdy like that.)

What this really reminds me of, more than anything else, is The Muppet Show. Really. Rudolf Nureyev guest-hosted one episode, and did a wonderful little routine with Sam the Eagle. Sam, as usual, was demanding more decent, wholesome entertainment, such as "a brilliant interpretation of classic ballet"... and Nureyev proceeded to do a music-hall number, much to Sam's disgruntlement. It's also reminiscent of Itzakh Perlman's notorious appearance as a guest on Soundstage (an episode called "Fiddlers Three") with Doug Kershaw, in which Perlman was invited to do some improv along with a couple of other bluegrass "fiddle legends" and blew their socks off with his technical prowess. (But I digress more than usual.)

In short, "indecency" is a matter of cultural preference, while "obscenity" rises closer to a matter of cultural imperative. That we no longer have anything resembling a uniform culture in most mid-sized cities — let alone the country as a whole — should be enough to reject both areas as properly subject to government regulation. The insane Colonel Kurtz (Apocalypse Now!) captured the ridiculous nature of the distinction:

We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won't allow them to write "fuck" on their airplanes because it's obscene!

Personally, I think that the Supreme Court precedent holding that obscenity is not First Amendment speech is wrong; one need only consider Ben Franklin's reputation to see that not all of the Founding Fathers would have agreed... But even within that rubric, there's no justification for "indecent," particularly not on the arbitrary and capricious basis asserted by the FCC.