Obscenity has once again reared its ugly head like a massive, rock-hard cock. The question is to what degree people in power shall decide what’s acceptable for the public to see and hear, and whether such official oversight will be abused to maintain partisan control over the popular discourse. I was going to say the intercourse of social and political ideas, but I don’t want people to think I’m only interested in this topic for the sake of cheap laughs. Three guys went out for a night of heavy drinking and split up around two in the morning. “How drunk were you?” was the big question a couple of days later. “I was so drunk,” said the first guy, “I crashed my car through my neighbor’s garage.” “That’s nothing,” said the second guy. “I was so drunk I passed out with a cigarette and burned my house down.” The third guy rolled his bloodshot eyes. “I got you both beat. I was so drunk, I blew chunks.” “That’s nothing special,” the other guys said. “We both puked for hours.” The third guy shook his head. “You don’t understand. Chunks is my dog.” That’s cheap laughs.
So far, I haven’t used any obscene language, which is germane to my point. Such expressions as ‘massive, rock-hard cock’ or ‘blew chunks’ are not inherently obscene. The first could describe a large, muscular rooster, while the other is a colloquial term for the sudden aspiration of food particles. Now if I’d said something like “I fist-fucked Grandma in the ass”, there could be little room for interpretation. Obscenity, as it is generally understood, refers to that which is indecent or lewd. The term also does duty (not dooty, which could be regarded as vulgar, but not obscene) as an expression of general offensiveness, as in, “President Bush’s environmental record is an obscenity.” And he’s a cunt, but that’s beside the point. Is the joke about the three guys obscene? Yes, it is, because the entire gag revolves around the double meaning of the phrase “I blew chunks.” Note that the proper name ‘Chunks’ could not be capitalized in its first instance, lest it give the punch line away. The joke is indeed lewd, because its effect relies upon the auditor discovering that the third guy has committed the act of fellatio upon a dog. Fellatio is an obscene act (at least if it’s done properly) and so is sexual congress with any member of another species, except certain aquatic mammals.
Why do I so glibly pronounce oral sex performed on a dog to be obscene? This is where things get confusing, as obvious as the issue appears on the face of it (no pun intended). After all, I’m liberal enough in my views to believe that obscenity is an inherently difficult concept to define or enforce. For instance if I call the president of the United States ‘a cunt’, which is generally accepted to be an obscene term for female genitalia, I’m likely to get thrown in jail. But not for using the salient four letters together, which merely form a commonplace Anglo-Saxon term that has fallen on hard times since English got Frenchified with respectable long words for short subjects. It may share roots with such words as ‘queen’ (cwene, meaning ‘woman’) and the Latin cune, or ‘wedge’ (I leave the inference to you). Wherever it came from, ‘cunt’ is now an obscene word. Yet, at least in writing, it’s not enough to get you in trouble, unless maybe it crops up in ‘My First Dictionary’. Rather I’d get flung into the hole (a colloquial term for prison, you filthy-minded thing) for directing the word at a person of such importance as the president of our nation: public use of pejoratives against persons can get you put away. Especially male persons.
If I called Hilary Clinton a cunt, half of male Americans would probably send me money. After all, the word has a meaning, besides its function as a term of abuse. It refers to the sexual organs of a woman, and can also mean, in a nasty kind of way, the rest of the woman as well. To call a butch fellow like the president such a thing is to attack his masculinity and generally demean him; no legal action there. But it’s an aggressive word. It suggests violence, as do so many misogynistic terms. It could be regarded as ‘fighting speech’, which ain’t protected by law. It could be construed, especially by the fuckheaded wankers currently running the nation, as a threat. On the other hand I could call the president a ‘cocksucker’, which I presume is not technically true (cock in this case referring to the business end of the male genitalia, not Gallus gallus, the common barnyard fowl), and the other half of male Americans would probably send me money (cash only, care of this publisher). Except males who suck cocks. They would regard the association infra dig, particularly if they’re skilled at it, perhaps from practicing on Chunks. In any case I wouldn’t go to jail for calling the president a cocksucker, or, like everyone else in his administration, a fuckheaded wanker, asshole, prick, shit-lunching pederast, or poopy head. Obscenity, then, must be separated from the notion of verbal assault.
Are you offended yet? That’s grand, because it is in just such a reactionary state of mind that the real purpose of obscenity comes into play. After all, if we don’t find something to be offensive, it’s also not obscene, is it? Everything is point of view. In the United Kingdom (our only remaining ally in the War On Terrible), the word ‘cunt’ possesses about the same amount of power as the American usage of the word ‘motherfucker’. It doesn’t mean much, it’s just an expletive. But call someone from Iran, for example, a motherfucker, and he will take it quite literally and plunge a shiv into your neck. It’s a deadly insult, surpassing even the potency of ‘cunt’ in American English. Obscenity, as the law dictates, is only obscene in context.
If I’m sitting around the prairie campfire with my rugged cowboy buddies after a long day in the saddle, and one of them happens to say “don’t be a motherfucking cunt, Earl”, nobody decries the use of the obscenity, although Earl may shoot the speaker as a matter of form. If the same cowboy makes the same remark on national television, he will get fined $500,000 by the FCC and possibly be thrown in jail. Chances are Earl will still come after him. This is why I so seldom hang out with cowboys any more, although they sure can suck cock. What is merely a useful insult in one context, for instance to add emphasis to a statement, in another context is grounds for severe punishment. It has to do primarily with audience. Sexual language or behavior, regardless of the medium by which it is transmitted, is not inherently obscene if the audience is reliably adult.
If Big Bird exposes himself on Sesame Street, it’s obscene: the audience is composed of presexual children and retarded adults who aren’t encouraged to breed. If someone flashes a breast on late-night HBO, it’s not obscene, because the performers and broadcasters are making a reliable assumption that most of the audience is composed of grown-ups, and the kids that watch HBO late at night are weirdos anyway so seeing a little tit is the least of their worries. In this same way, Janet Jackson’s infamous and magnificently pierced nipple, televised during halftime at the Superbowl, was obscene. Why? Everybody has nipples. But Janet Jackson’s presentation is overtly sexual, and the nipple rather emphasized this fact. At least it emphasized it for me, but I’m highly suggestible that way. If she busted it out (so to speak) during a National Geographic special in order to suckle a wee infant, we might let it slide. After all, black people are so close to nature. The obscenity was all in the context. Her nipple was viewed by children, presumably, and certainly football fans, who are basically children, regardless of age. Real adults, mature and intellectually complete, watch baseball. Or better yet turn off the TV and have sex instead. Three themes emerge: first, obscenity has no substance. It is an abstract measure of language or behavior deemed to transgress the margins of the norm, and differs from culture to culture. Second, the notion of obscenity has no function except as a benchmark by which to identify language or behaviors from which society as a whole wishes to protect persons innocent of this L. or B., such as children, elderly nuns, or the Attorney General. Third, for a thing to be obscene, it must reach the audience deemed incapable of surviving exposure to it (and it’s often exposure).
Is cigarette advertising therefore obscene? No, not unless there’s some split beaver in the actual ad. Cigarettes aren’t obscene, they’re deadly. That’s why it’s okay to show mortal peril, violence, and cruelty in children’s movies: mortal peril, violence, and cruelty aren’t obscene. Procreation is bad, killing is fun. No use splitting hairs or beavers over this subject, although it’s a favorite of the call-in guests on talk radio: like it or not, boobs are obscene, guns are not. Nobody’s legislating obscenity in the sense of abomination against all that’s good in this world, only the naughty bits. So don’t cop this semantic linguistical ontologism with me. It’s all just a big skull-fuck. I mean that in the least obscene sense of the term, of course. Obscene is what the people with the most influence say is obscene, and furthermore it’s only what they choose to regulate as obscene that is obscene.
Obscene is what they call, when they say “obscene”, obscene. Obscene is not as obscene does, it’s obscene is as obscene is said to be by one who isn’t doing it. I’m running out of the word obscene here. So what difference does all this make? Keep the naked asses on late night TV and don’t use the word ‘cunt’ on drive-time radio and we’re pretty much free to do as we please, right? No. The real danger in policing obscenity lies in the people policing it. Put a puritanical type of person in charge of government regulation of morality, for example (obscenity is just a transgression of morality as expressed through the premise of ‘good taste’ versus ‘bad taste’), and if the previous arbiter of obscenity was fairly loosey-goosey, maybe even glanced through the occasional smut mag himself, suddenly the rules have changed. Thousands of people who were working the edge of acceptable before, find themselves way over the line. Another mechanism by which this happens is when the person working the edge of acceptability happens to cross some other, unrelated line the obscenity czar has drawn (politics and religion are two favorites, followed by race). Then the penalties for obscenity, heretofore withheld, are suddenly loosed upon the unfortunate filth-pedlar mendicant.
This is what happened to Howard Stern, but not Janet Jackson. Ms. J. knew going in that there was going to be a stir when she revealed her mammary, jiggling like a dish of flan in the faces of millions of sports fans. She gambled that America might have a burst of tolerance, and lost. Howard Stern, on the other hand, was saying what he always said, and for reasons that may or may not have nothing to do with what he did say, the FCC suddenly hit him with such a palpable penalty that his employer (Clear Channel, which owns 1200 radio stations nationwide) cut him loose. They suspended the number one radio guy in the world. The guy whose penchant for peri-obscene, transgressive radio is what earned him that number one spot, suddenly accused of being “vulgar, offensive and insulting” by the company that traded in his vulgar, offensive, and insulting program for over a decade. He was ejected, ironically, not for one of his own crude ejaculations, but because one of his phone-in listeners used an obscene word (actually a racial epithet rhyming with ‘trigger’. If you guessed ‘heathen chinee’, you’re wrong.) What changed? Word is, Stern’s recent turn against the Bush administration may have had something to do with it.
Clear Channel is pro-Bush and sponsored rallies in his favor. Nothing else had changed in the Clear Channel/Stern/FCC triumvirate except Stern’s opinion of the Man in Command. He used to support the Despotic Dauphin of DC on-air, so anything else Stern chose to broadcast, such as the rape of nude midgets, was ay-oh-kay with Clear Channel. But then Stern, coming to his senses, realized Bush was a corn-studded loaf of dog ordure and spoke out against the administration. That’s when the hammer fell. I’m not saying Clear Channel killed their number one cash cow (cow comes from the same Indo-European prefix ‘cu’ as the words ‘cunt’ and ‘coochie’) simply because his politics changed. However there is no other obvious reason for the sudden move; certainly the least likely explanation is obscenity.
So what we have – whether or not the FCC and Clear Channel were using Stern’s skirting of obscenity laws to silence his criticism of the people in power – is an atmosphere in which that’s what everybody thinks happened. So score one for the puritans, and another point for the Bush administration. Who among you is without sin? Let him cast the first naughty word. You’ll get your narrow ass kicked. Obscenity has always been the foremost front in the culture wars; one man’s obscenity is another man’s favorite topic, as Benjamin Franklin never said. But when obscenity, that most elastic concept, becomes a front in the war for political domination, then you have brand-new problem. Because speech is still protected, mostly, by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Hate speech is excluded, along with libel and certain forms of verbal belligerence as noted above, but in general speech is free and cannot be governed against. Obscenity, meanwhile, is ever-growing in its definition, and we are all of us every day transgressing its boundaries. Just about anyone can be accused of obscene behavior or language. Ever used obscene language in mixed company?
George Bush himself, confronting Wall Street Journal editor Al Hunt one drunken evening in Dallas (Bush was drunk; Hunt was dining at a restaurant with his wife Judy Woodruff and their toddler son, all three of them well under the limit), shouted “You fucking son of a bitch. I won’t forget what you said and you’re going to pay a price for it!” He was reacting to an unflattering prediction Hunt made about George’s old man. Aside from being obscene, it was also verbal assault, but that’s another subject. I’m sure the four-year-old was impressed. The point is, nobody can escape the snares of an obscenity rap, not even me. And unless you’re looking to sell books or music as a result of the notoriety, such accusations are a big ole hindrance. You can lose your job, like Howard Stern, or become a pariah with great boobs, like Janet Jackson. It’s no fun either way. And what with the instant-replay technology of today, everything’s under the microscope. Obscenity can be found anywhere, if you try hard enough. Look at ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, by James Joyce:
“Afartodays, afeartonights, and me as with you in thadark.”
Do I see the word ‘fart’ buried in that first nonsense word of his? Aha! Not to mention the rest of it sounds smutty. Burn the book! Burn the author and all the naked boobs! Down with radio and sex and salty language! Obscenity is everywhere. We are all naked under the clothes, stewing in excrement behind our lurid flesh, our brains filled with filthy words and indecent pictures, our groins bubbling with lewd instincts. Destroy them all, I say, wipe our minds clean and stuff Jesus in the cracks to keep out the indecency! Maybe not. Once you dig into the concept of obscenity, we’re all in trouble, because it’s obscene to be alive in the world, hung with sex organs and soaked in glandular secretions as we are, shambling bipedal pillars of base-minded meat. Obscenity is essential to human nature. It’s the wall at our backs.
The government has some role to play in restricting the wide dissemination (is that an obscene word? Out with it!) of that which is popularly found to be obscene. Otherwise it will be all-anal action all the time on ESPN before you know it. But beware the subtle shifting of standards and boundaries in the obscenity game. There are no rules, only opinions. If the people at the top decide to use obscenity, which is nothing more than human nature when propriety has stepped out of the room, to restrict what else we endeavor to do, then we are doomed. I’m so worried, I could blow chunks.
BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and cartoonist. Ben also has a lot of outrageously priced crap for sale here. If his writing starts to grate on your nerves, buy some and maybe he’ll flee to Mexico. If all else fails, he can be reached at: email@example.com