Thursday, 30 October 2008

American Censorship as Class Warfare

"But it was no wonder that I was thus carried toward vanity and was estranged from thee, O my God, when men were held up as models to me who, when relating a deed of theirs--not in itself evil--were covered with confusion if found guilty of a barbarism or a solecism; but who could tell of their own licentiousness and be applauded for it, so long as they did it in a full and ornate oration of well-chosen words."

These words are the beginning of chapter XVIII of the Confessions of Saint Augustine. They are also, it would seem, the standard of American censorship. Tune into any rock station in America and you will hear the word "fuck" bleeped out of half a dozen songs in the space of an hour. While the FCC does not maintain a list of legally proscribed words, it makes no secret of which words it does and does not approve of. It claims to consider the context of use, attempting to censor only that material as "indecent" which is "intended to describe or depict sexual or excretory activities and organs". On this basis the FCC's enforcement bureau deemed Bono's use of the word "fucking" as an intensifier at the live broadcast of the Golden Globes in 2003 not to be "indecent". This decision was, however, subsequently overturned by the FCC's central office. Given this, it is no wonder that stations self-censor in order not to run afoul of the Feds. There are, in practice if not in law, words you are simply not allowed to say on the air here.

If, then, you are a poor, uneducated American, and you have a limited vocabulary with which to express yourself, you will be censored. Your context does not matter, your ideas do not matter, because it is your words that we wish to take from you. The content of your song, for instance, may in fact uphold standards of decency and morality to which most of us aspire, but we will fill it with holes or ugly screeches, and so detract from its artistic impact. On the other hand, if you were fortunate enough to afford a good education, you may extol any manner of vile and obscene behaviour, by virtue of the fact that you know how to couch it properly in lovely phrases. John Lennon's Working Class Hero we simply can't have in its original text on the radio, but if someone wanted to read a selection from Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil, such as the section "...if rape or arson, poison or the knife / Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff / Of this drab canvas we accept as life - / It is because we are not bold enough!", this would be perfectly acceptable.

American censorship does not, in fact, have anything to do with upholding decency; it has everything to do with suppressing the speech of the poor while giving the wealthy complete licence. Words are but the brute capacity for expression. It is ideas, and not words, which are decent or indecent, pure or wicked, and it is ideas, and not words, that ought to be censored. It is not what comes out of a man's mouth which defiles him, but what comes out of his mind.

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