by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - October 22, 2007) If one looks for a symptom of the drought in which the Bush administration has enveloped civil liberties in this country, one need look no further than the ban on Allen Ginsberg's Howl, self-imposed by WBAI-FM and its affiliate the Pacifica Network. The poem was pulled due to a fear of "indecency" that might elicit heavy fines from the FCC and possibly force the company into bankruptcy.
The suppression of Howl coincided with the 50th anniversary court ruling that found the poem had "redeeming special importance" and therefore -- ipso facto -- was not obscene. But, in the current cultural atmosphere, it is clear that the FCC has a quick trigger-finger and might well impose backbreaking fines, and so a certain decorum is enforced upon the populace, just as those who criticize a failed foreign policy make themselves susceptible to charges of treason. The New Morality would seem be the Old Puritanism writ large.
America was the laughing stock of Europe when the FCC fined CBS for permitting us a glimpse of Janet Jackson's unremarkable breast at the 2005 Super Bowl halftime. Obviously, that sordid spectacle outraged the entire population and paved the way to wide-scale plunder and perversion. Had both of Ms. Jackson's breasts been exposed, the state would surely have toppled and moral decay spread like the Bubonic Plague. George Carlin's "seven dirty words routine" was savaged by the Roundheads and triggered the 1978 ruling on indecency which drew the noose even tighter against mavericks. I am surprised the spectacle of Britney Spears's buttocks and a subliminal flash of her pubic hair (or lack thereof) didn't cause widespread panic throughout the nation. Indeed, it is quite likely the housing crisis that recently roiled the American economy was caused by Britney's random exposures and, some contend, if we go to war with Iran, it will be because of the way she maltreated her baby boys.
What we need is a redefinition of precisely what obscenity is.
Blackwater "cowboys" using innocent Muslims for target practice is obscene; vetoing a health bill, which, if passed, would have provided government health insurance for a vast number of poor children is obscene; running an election like an auction where candidates are graded by how much money they raise rather than how much sense they make, is obscene; sending secret opinions from the Justice Department that countermand prohibitions against "cruel and unusual punishment" is obscene; denying troops returning from Iraq medical coverage by pretending they have "personality problems" rather than post-traumatic stress disorder is obscene; lamenting the fate of Katrina survivors but not financing local companies to rebuild their own ravaged city is obscene; permitting drug cartels to publicize non-existent virtues in products that are not properly investigated by the FDA is obscene; permitting medical lobbyists to prevent universal health coverage is obscene; maintaining a lie about the success of an occupation in a land that is virtually blowing itself apart is obscene. The giant roster of obscenities in contemporary American life can cause the mind to implode and the hearts of people to sunder.
But poetry, whether it is Allen Ginsberg's critique of American values or scatalogical limericks that just brighten our day, is a spiritual necessity. It allows us into the meditations of sensitive minds which we, overly preoccupied with mundane necessities, are unable to undertake ourselves. It hustles us out of a public arena into a private enclosure from which we can better evaluate what is important to our spiritual maintenance. And, as for pornography -- be it soft or hard core -- it is an expression of carnality that nourishes our libido and lulls us with reminders of bodily pleasures.
Today, the Great Obscenity in American life is the hypocrisy that politics, advertising, and mass communication breed in average citizens, falsifying values and encouraging mendacity in the social interchanges between people who siphon those values into their personal lives. Television advertising is an ongoing spectacle that shows us make-believe Americans in bogus interactions between husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, children and parents. They exist merely for the sake of product placement, which in itself is not evil, but when couched in phony dialogue and contrived situations proclaiming false virtues, insults the intelligence of viewers who, more often than not, quietly scoff at the deception. What is corrosive about these specious playlets of commercial advertising is the way their bogus values seep unconsciously into our psyches, engendering fears, desires, and appetites inspired by nothing more than the crudest forms of merchandising strategies.
In this age when truth is held hostage by hype and half-truths metastasize into "big lies," obscenities swirl on our every side -- real and injurious obscenities! But poetry and the brandishing of the human body do not fall into that category. Art, sculpture, poetry, and drama have taken the sting out of those obscenities; have estheticized them into virtues. The obscenities we really have to fear are those that diminish our humanism, cloud our vision, and addle our judgment. These do not stem from people like Allen Ginsberg, George Carlin, and Janet Jackson, but from politicians and religicos who would twist morality into a scourge and then whip us to death with it.
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