Friday, October 5, 2007

Free Speech Friday

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the court ruling that declared Allan Ginsberg’s famous epic poem “Howl” not obscene, radio station WBAI-FM aired a recording of Ginsberg himself reading the unexpurgated poem. The catch? The recording was only available on-line; fearing FCC fines for obscenity, the New York radio station did not to play the recording on the air.

We’ve come a long way ... er, maybe not:
Janet Coleman, WBAI’s arts director, said that when the idea of airing the poem to test the law was proposed, “I said, ‘Yes, let’s try it.’” The radio station has a history of championing the First Amendment, having broadcast the comedian George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” routine that resulted in a 1978 Supreme Court ruling on indecency. But after several harsh F.C.C. rulings in 2004 — against CBS for a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl halftime show and against Fox for curse words used during the Billboard Music Awards — “our lawyer felt it was too risky,” Ms. Coleman said. The commission can impose “draconian fines,” she said, that could put WBAI out of business.

I’m a little too young to remember the furor over “Howl” so I decided to read the poem for myself. I didn’t see any of the naughty words that tend to catch the attention of the Donald Wildmon set. I did see a lot of subversive ideas that might have caused 1950s Joseph McCarthy types to run for the smelling salts.

Poet/publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was threatened with jail time and fines for publishing “Howl” 50 years ago:

Mr. Ferlinghetti, 88, who owns the landmark City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, said that when “Howl” was labeled obscene, first by United States Customs agents and then by the San Francisco police, it “wasn’t really the four-letter words.” He added, “It was that it was a direct attack on American society and the American way of life.”

I can’t decide if this whole scenario shows how much we’ve lost under the rule of the Christian right, or how little ground we’ve gained in 50 years. I actually think it’s the former.

I’m a fan of old magazines; I love to pick up old copies of Life and Rolling Stone at the flea market. I noticed that back in the day, Rolling Stone routinely used language like “goddamn,” “fuck” and “shit,” and not just in their interviews with stoner-hippie rock musicians. I’m looking at an interview from 1972 with former Newsweek political reporter Kyle Fleming and he cusses like a sailor, and Rolling Stone reprinted every letter for all the world to see. These days we’ve become so over-sensitive, raw language is routinely edited out. Some might say this shows progress. But are we more civilized as a result? Wednesday night I watched an episode of the CBS show “Criminal Minds” in which a psycho killer kidnaps women and cuts their hearts out of their bodies while they’re still alive. I got to see images of women trussed up like turkeys and screaming for their lives as a man hammered a pick into their chests. This is prime time, folks! Give me a "shit" or "fuck" over this any day.

Nope, I don’t think we’ve come very far at all. "Decency" as defined by the family values crowd seems horribly warped. Cuss words are a no-no, but torturing women is okay? Flash a nipple and you’re fined, but show a rape on television and it’s no problem?

I have to wonder what's going on in our culture. Or, as Ginsberg said: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked..."