March 05, 2004
What Janet Revealed

As many of my faithful readers know, I'm not very good at remembering names or dates -- which makes my choice of being a history major in college something of a mystery even to me.

So I can't remember if it was Attorney General Edwin Meese or Senator Jesse Helms, but *someone* up there in the federal government during the 1980's, when unable to actually define what constitutes pornography, uttered the famous words: "I know it when I see it."

The Supreme Court, equally decisive in condemning offensive material and vague in defining exactly what constitutes the same, favored the notion of relying upon "community standards" to determine what is, and what is not, offensive.

The FCC at the time was less vague. I worked in broadcast commercial radio at the time, and we had very clear guidelines on what was acceptable. The "seven dirty words" (as memorialized in George Carlin's comedy routine about an earlier Supreme Court decision banning seven specific words from the public airwaves) were never appropriate. Innuendo was fine any time of day, but any overt sexuality (such as the Dr. Ruth show) was to be saved for after 10pm.

For a couple of years, I ran a two-hour comedy show each week on Sunday nights at 11pm. We set and followed our own guidelines, whereby material we deemed to be risque would be held until after midnight.

Certainly, accidents happened, both at the station as a whole and during my comedy show in particular. These mistakes could take the form of a miscued bleep of one of the aforementioned dirty words, or somebody making an error and swearing while his or her microphone was accidentally left on. One idiot at our station referred to Aretha Franklin as "Urethra Franklin" on air by mistake because he'd gotten into the habit of doing so off the air.

There was a procedure for handling these kinds of situations. We'd log what happened in our daily FCC log, and we'd prepare to face the music if anyone ever complained to the FCC.

As it so happens, no one in Ithaca, New York ever complained about such mistakes, which were not common but not unheard of.

Flash forward fifteen years or so. Half-time acts during the Super Bowl regularly make a spectacle out of themselves by grabbing their crotches and undulating on stage, draping flags around themselves and singing about punching out cops and bonking their fuck-buddies. This has been going on for several years, and I guess the lines have been getting blurry. With an apparent lack of guidelines as to what is and is not appropriate for the public airwaves, the ambiguity of "community standards" when talking about a national audience, and the problem of who knows what when they see what, the lines have gotten so blurred that the notion of offensive material was almost forgotten by those waltzing along the lines.

Then, this year, Janet Jackson flashed a pasty (pastie?) covered boob in a choreographed routine that positively exuded sex with a hint of violence, and someone at the FCC jumped up and said, "That's it! I see it! I knew I'd know it when I saw it! That's offensive!"

I'm not making this up: I actually heard a sound clip of the FCC chariman refer to the Super Bowl halftime show as a "sacred moment", the enjoyment of which was permanently soured when his family was so unexpectedly exposed to this . . . this . . . boob.

So, like, Mr. FCC Man: what freaking planet are you living on? The Super Bowl is a popular sporting event. It is not sacred. Get over it.

And where were you during all the crotch grabbing?

Where were you when Kid Rock danced on the stage wearing an American flag that had been torn in the middle and turned into a poncho?

Where were you during the songs about punching out cops?

And why was any of the sexual suggestivity on the stage any more suggestive than the freaking *cheerleaders* who shake their groove thang in front of the cameras going into every single commercial break? Mr. FCC Guy: how did you explain cheerleaders to your young and impressionable progeny?

Why are you more afraid of a boob than you are of rows and rows of heavy thugs lining up time after time on opposite sides of a pig-skin with the singular purpose of pummeling each other into the ground?

Americans are more afraid of sex than of violence. I acknowledge this fact intellectually, even though I don't understand it. (As a history major, I can give you all kinds of reasons, stemming from our Puritan roots. It's still insane.)

Let me go on record as saying that I prefer sex to violence, and I'd rather see a shapely breast than a boxing match. (And, let me also concede that, having said this, I was watching the Super Bowl nonetheless with the expectation of seeing a football game rather than a peep show.)

Janet and her buddy Justin, though, combined sex with implied violence, which I guess makes it a little worse than even just sex.

So the American public was all atwitter about what happened during the Super Bowl, and the media couldn't stop talking about it for weeks. Nor could the rest of us. Often I'd go out to various meetings, only to have the issue come up. Some folks thought Janet's performance was obscene. Some thought the rest of the halftime show was obscene. Others thought football was obscene. Still others thought there wasn't a problem at all.

Janet revealed more than a little bit of skin that afternoon. She revealed that community standards are not. She revealed that while while all "know it when we see it," we all see it differently.

Obscenity is in the mind of the beholder.

I'm not the first to make this observation. Even in Genesis, Adam and Eve's reaction to nudity was all in their minds. Before they became "enlightened", nudity was no problem. But after eating from the tree of knowledge, boy did they become uptight. Get me a fig leaf, quick!

Okay. So obscenity is all in the mind, and we all have different minds, so we are all offended by different things. Are we all on the same page?

Janet has been forgotten. But the FCC has not. The FCC is on the prowl. It feels it has let the American public down (and, in many ways, it has), and it wants to atone. So it's going after that most dreaded den of obscenity: talk radio.

Congress has not adequately defined obscenity. The Supreme Court has dodged behind community standards. But the FCC sure knows it when they see it. Or hear it. So, they are fining stations that carry talk radio shows that say things that they (the FCC) find offensive. But they (the FCC) have not issued guidelines as to what counts as offensive and what doesn't.

It's an effective strategy. The government won't define it, but it *will* take violators of the unwritten rules to court. And the government *will* fine violators of these unwritten rules. The result? Terror. Radio stations are muzzling their talk show hosts, telling them to lay low for a while while they try to figure out what kind of policies they should follow in order to best avoid getting fined.

As a tactic for keeping broadcasters on their heels, it's brilliant. Of course, it doesn't produce better (or even, necessarily, less offensive) programming. But it *does* produce *nervous* broadcasting.

Long before we bestowed the term "terrorist" upon rogue elements who sought to earn sympathy for their political causes by murdering people (a stretch of logic I still don't quite understand), historians singled out a particular kind of government tactic as rule of terror. Here's how it works:

First, ban some behavior using vague terms.

Next, enforce this ban haphazardly, seemingly on a whim, and make the punishment excessively punitive.

The result? A scared, scared population.

This is exactly the road down which broadcast radio and television are currently heading.

There is a great deal to be said in favor of regulating standards of conduct among public broadcast frequencies. (Private broadcasting mechanisms, such as cable television, is another matter and one for another discussion.)

But what Janet revealed is that those standards need to be specific and well-defined. They must not be left up to the whim of whomever happens to be watching from the FCC that particular day. They must not be left up to the whim of what a given judge in a given court finds offensive on a given day.

This is partially a question of favoring rule of law over rule of terror . . . I, for one, prefer that the United States not slide down that slippery slope that has engulfed so many other democracies which have relied upon rule of terror instead of the rule of law.

But it's also a question of accomplishing your stated goals in the first place. The best way to make sure that standards are adhered to is to publicize exactly what those standards are and enforce them consistently. Don't leave it up to "you'll know it when you see it." The producers at MTV have different standards from the producers of PAX. (And quite frankly, I find both offensive, but for different reasons.)

If *I* set the standards, Beyonce Knowles would have had the center stage for the entire halftime show (she did an amazing rendition of the national anthem at the start of the game, don't you agree?), there would be none of those fireworks or laser light shows or any of that nonsense, and the cheerleaders would have been allowed to perform topless during the game. But only if they wanted to.


PS: if you want to read a funny story from the point of view of a cheerleader, check out this story by my friend Joseph Paul Haines.

Posted by at 12:54 AM in the following Department(s): Essays , Tidbits III | Comments (4)
 March 18, 2004
The Sanctity of Marriage

So, I guess the mayor of San Francisco decided that he (or the city he manages) was above state law and decreed that the city would recognize gay marriages. I don't follow the news as much as I used to, so I'm a bit hazy on the details, but that's about the gist of it, right? And the state of California said, "No, buddy, a marriage is defined as a civil union between one man and one woman, so there's no such thing as a gay marriage." Am I following the story so far, even if only in general terms?

As a result of all of this, the U.S. President says he wants an amendment to the Constitution to codify what the Congress has already legislated, and what the states have already legislated, defining marriage as a one man, one woman arrangement. The Defensive Marriage Amendment or something like that, right?

Now, I'm not sure why a constitutional amendment is needed, insofar as the laws are already on the books, unless one is worried about the laws being overturned by the Supreme Court. But, that said, the rationale I'm hearing for such an amendment is this: that we need to preserve the sanctity of marriage.

Of course, given that there is *supposed* to be a separation of church and state in this country, it seems rather odd to me that the government should be in the business of preserving the sanctity of anything. It's up to the various religions to determine was is sanctified and what is not, right?

Now, before I go too far down that road, let me also acknowledge that yes, this country was founded upon Christian ideals and that, additionally, the government does have legitimate reasons to regulate the legal status of marriage, a civil union with peculiar property rights issues and child guardianship matters and which is much more than merely a public proclamation before the church and any God or Gods concerned.

It stands to reason that our nation would regulate the legal status of marriage in accordance with the Christian traditions that have informed so much of our nation's governing principles. Still, to do so in the name of preserving sanctity is a dubious claim, especially when sanctity is a church issue, and some churches define marriage (and divorce and annulment and so on) so differently from others.

But whether you agree that the government should or should not get into the sanctity business, and whether you agree that the default concept of sanctity should or should not be based upon the traditional Presbyterian (or other Protestant, non-Morman* church of your choice) definitions of marriage, I am struck by the idea that the gravest threat to the "sanctity of marriage" is the idea that women want to "marry" women and men want to "marry" men.

The alleged sanctity of marriage has already been completely and utterly undermined by the trend of men not wanting to stay married to women and women not wanting to stay married to men. In practice, the notion of "Until Death Do Us Part" has been replaced by "Until I Don't Feel Like It Anymore." According to a February 2002 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, 50% of first marriages in the United States are likely to end in divorce. According to this report, as of 1996, a mere 55.9% of first marriages that began in the early 1970's even made it to their 20th anniversaries.

One of the hallmarks of marriage is supposed to be commitment. It is exactly that commitment that is lacking in the modern American definition of marriage, while it is exactly that commitment that gays and lesbians say they desire for themselves. And thus, we arrive at the irony of preserving the sanctity of marriage: that we don't honor our own commitments while at the same time we refuse to recognize the commitments that others (gays & lesbians, polygamists, etc.) would like to make to each other.

Allowing gay and lesbian civil unions, by whatever term you wish to call them, does not cheapen monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Divorce, infidelity, jealousy, annulment, and spousal abuse cheapen marriage.

Protestant Christian America has left marriage in a ditch along the highway of history, nearly road-kill and barely clinging onto its life. How does only allowing straight, allegedly monogomous men and women to degrade it do anything toward preserving its sanctity?

In my next post, I'll describe the most effective way to preserve the sanctity of marriage.

* I am aware that the Mormon church currently officially defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, but I mention them as an exception because they show that even an ostensibly Protestant faith can and has maintained an arguably controversial definition of marriage as including more than simply one man and one woman.

You will also note that I say Protestant rather than Christian. The Catholic version of marriage allows for annulments, whereby wealthy parishioners can buy their way out of a marriage as if it had never existed in the first place -- a kind of marriage-morning-after abortion pill that is not recognized by the legal system in the U.S. despite its status in the church as being legitimate.

Posted by at 05:46 PM in the following Department(s): Essays | Comments (2)
 March 30, 2004
On This Day

Did you know that Eric Clapton was born on March 30? (I love this Eric Clapton quote: "Given the choice between accomplishing something and just lying around, I'd rather lie around. No contest.")

Vincent van Gogh was also born on March 30th.

Paul Reiser, that guy from "Mad About You"? March 30th.

Some guy from the Moody Blues was born on March 30th.

So was Warren Beatty.

Tracy Chapman was also born on March 30th.

***This just in!!! Norah Jones was born on March 30th, in 1979.

And in 1968, on March 30th... Celine Dion was born.

If ever there was proof that Astrology is bunk, it's this: Celine Dion and I were born on the exact same day.

I *am* the Anti-Celine.

"Oh, but Allan," you say, "it's not just what day you were born. It's what *time* you were born..."

Horse-hockey. There were literally *dozens* of people born on this planet at the exact same time as Celine. And yet, she's the only pop-diva of her ilk that was born on this day.

"Ah," you point out, "she may be the exception. The stars do not dictate our paths, but reveal possibilities. There were also literally dozens of people born all over the world at the exact same time as you were, and I'll bet most of them are disaffected, fat, bitter, cranky coulda-beens, just like you."

Well, I don't know if that argument supports the notion of astrology, but at least I can take heart in believing that there's more of me than there is of Celine. any scale will tell you.

Posted by at 01:56 PM in the following Department(s): Tidbits | Comments (6)

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