The Patron Saint of Obscenity: Evil to Him Who Evil Thinks
Nathan uses "explicit language" in the print version of this audio essay. But all the words have been "beeped" for the FFC-friendly version on the KUCI FM radio broadcast, The SoCal Byte. Check out both versions below.
The other day, my cousin Wayne — who, by his own admission, is a very religious man — told me I’d go to hell because of the language I use. He was half serious and half right. I do use language that could get me in trouble. Let me explain.
The podcast broadcast you’re listening to is designated as “explicit” on iTunes. One definition for the word “explicit” is “precisely and clearly expressed.” Explicit also means “leaving little to the imagination (especially, as far as iTunes is concerned) regarding sex.” The only explicit thing I do on-air, besides being precise and clear, is use the words “fuck” and “shit” — as in “What the fuck” and “Holy shit.” Neither of which regards sex.
In June 2004, during a charged-up debate on the Senate floor about Halliburton's role in Iraq (a role which, could be said, was obscene) Vice President Dick Cheney told Democratic senator Patrick Leahy, "Go fuck yourself." As if by an act of God, Cheney's “explicit” language occurred on the same day the Defense of Decency Act (or, as we like to call it, the “Don’t Ever Say Fuck on Air Law”) was passed in the Senate. The bill allowed the Federal Communications Commission, that’s the FCC, then headed by Colin Powell’s son, Michael, to increase the amount they could fine broadcasters for explicit language. The fine for on-air explicitness rose from $27,500 tenfold to $275,000. Then, Congress, not to be outdone decently, nearly doubled that fine to $500,000 per “fuck” infraction. Thus, the Bush administration created an unrealistic increased in the shock value of the word “fuck.” Broadcasters call this “the fuck bubble.”
Now that you have some explicit background. Let me explain how on-air decency works.
Here at KUCI FM, if I say “we should lock and load for the next election” on-air that’s decent by FCC standards. It may mean that you should prepare for gunplay during the next election. But apparently, it’s not explicit about that. If you’re into metaphors, “locking and loading” leaves room for your imagination. It may, metaphorically speaking, be about locking your door and loading your facebook page. As long as we don’t say “we should lock and load for the next fucking election” on-air, nothing is indecent or explicit.
To the FCC, a word’s explicitness has nothing to do with its context. Let’s use the word “fuck” as an example. There’s nothing explicit in my saying “I’d like to fuck with your head.” If I call you a “fuck,” I’m not being explicit about what aspect of you is “fucked-up.” I can also “fuck around” thoughtlessly which means without explicitness. In fact, I can be so inexplicit that I can fuck up.
It seems that decency and explicitness go hand in hand when it comes to expletives. Yet, the FCC has not been explicit about its consistency on this. Until April 29, 1987, I could talk about angelheaded hipsters "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy."
The sodomized angelheaded hipsters are, of course, from Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” On October 3, 1957, it was ruled that the reading of “Howl” was free speech. That decision, which has never been overturned, was handed down by a famously conservative judge, Clayton W. Horn in The People of the State of California vs Lawrence Ferlinghetti — who was Ginsberg’s publisher.
Horn said that “if written material is disgusting, revolting or filthy… the antithesis of pleasurable sexual desires is born, and the writing, therefore, cannot be obscene.”
Horn also used the famous quote “Honi soit qui mal y pense." Evil to him who evil thinks. But the Federal Communications Commission really doesn’t give a fuck anymore about that ruling. In other words, since 1987, as far as the word “fuck” goes, obscenity is in the mind of the FCC.
Which brings me back to my cousin Wayne. There are those of us, who, when told that we’ll go to hell for saying “fuck” believe there’s nothing obscene about words. But does that belief really protect us from Wayne and the FCC? I think not. That’s why we need an agent in heaven. A Patron Saint of Obscenity. After all, there are patron saints for advertisers, actresses, broken bones and broommakers. Patron saints for hernias, sheep and syphilis. Even patron saints for whales and roller skating. But there is no patron saint for obscenity — someone who has the ear of God and can explain the difference between words and foul, repulsive, detestable acts (like Halliburton in Iraq). You might think that we won’t be able to find a saint who speaks our language. But I disagree. Saints have to put up with sinners — our impatience, our bad manners, our wars, and especially our judgmental nature. If anyone has a reason to say “What the fuck?” it’s a saint.