George Carlin died last week at the age of 71.
Most people would call him a comedian, and indeed he was--22 albums, 14 HBO specials. In 1975, he was the very first host of Saturday Night Live.
But his legacy involves something much darker and more serious than that, affecting every American alive today.
In 1973, one of Carlin's routines ("Seven Dirty Words") was broadcast on a non-commercial FM station--WBAI, known for its lefty politics and progressive artsy ideas. After a listener complained to the FCC about the "dirty words" (one listener!), the FCC reprimanded the station owner. The Pacifica Foundation appealed, and won in federal court. But in 1978 the FCC appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the government in the now-famous FCC v. Pacifica Foundation.
Carlin's words were declared "indecent"--an astounding concept when used even today. The year the Cold War raged, the year China lifted its ban on Aristotle and Shakespeare, the American government declared certain words dangerous.
The decision suddenly gave the government the right to decide that certain words couldn't be said on the radio at certain times of day--and to decide which words (and which times). Apparently, the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Bill of Rights didn't apply at all times of day, or to all words.
It still doesn't.
You are allowed to say that "Jesus hates gays" on the radio 24 hours a day. You aren't allowed to say that "anal sex and eating pussy are gifts from God" any old time you like. Is the government protecting God, itself--or you?
George Carlin spent his half-century career hilariously pointing out life's absurdities. One was that the most powerful government in the world was so obsessed about the power of a few non-violent words that it was willing to damage the Constitution to protect society.
The words that required stifling by the Supreme Court were shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.
Click here for Carlin's intensely funny routine about these words. Of course, they're harmless--until they're banned, when using them constitutes a political act.
For 10 minutes, the clip shows Carlin skewering the whole idea that words are dangerous. With an orator's skill and an athlete's daring, he uses the words over and over until they lose their feared meaning, and gain a new one: the words become symbols of power. Banned, the words reflect government power. Spoken, they reflect Carlin's. And, by extension, ours.
Beyond chanting the Sacred Seven, Carlin reminded us that words alone couldn't be bad, that context is everything. It's a subtlety mastered by most adolescents. Our government has yet to catch on to this.
Carlin believed that censorship was wrong and dangerous. To fight it, he ridiculed it so effectively that everyone within earshot laughed at it. When people realize that censors are ridiculous, small, stupid, and selfish, censorship is less likely.
And so Carlin was an alchemist. He took banned words he knew were harmless, and by using them to expose government malice, he made them dangerous.
"You can say you pricked your finger, just don't say you fingered your prick," he said.
To honor George Carlin, tonight you can salute him with any appendage you wish.
South Dakota Requires Doctors to Lie About Abortion
A federal court has affirmed South Dakota's right to require every abortion provider to tell women, in writing, that the abortion they're about to have "will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being."
Where are "activist judges" (those who believe in the Constitution) when you need them (issue #99)? Anti-choice activists would be screaming if the state tried to require doctors to say that abortion does not terminate the life of a living being--and those activists would be absolutely right.
In a disgusting expression of contempt for women--and human logic--the Christian NewsWire called the statute "a reasonable measure to protect the rights of the women of South Dakota." That is, the rights of women to be told how to think. What to feel. What someone else's religion dictates.
The very first sentence of the Bill of Rights says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." This statute clearly establishes a religious principle as law, and so it violates the protections given all South Dakotans by the Constitution.
The Christian NewsWire further said "We are delighted that the [court's] majority opinion recognizes the humanity of the unborn is not a matter of ideology, but rather a simple scientific fact."
When religious belief is portrayed as fact, a demand that licensed medical professionals tell the "truth" is actually a demand that they lie.
That's what life's like in South Dakota--where fetuses are more important than truth and the American Constitution.
This law advocates the overthrow of the American system of government. In any other country, that would be considered treason. Fortunately for some South Dakotans who have shackled government to religion, the American system still protects their speech.
Our Government: Powerless to Outlaw Guns, Able to Outlaw Movies
The Supreme Court recently ruled that the government has virtually no right to regulate guns in Washington, D.C.
You may also have read about yet another obscenity bust in Florida, which ended in a deal that puts more people in jail for selling videos of adults having (consensual, enthusiastic) sex with adults.
If you expect logic from America about sex, the juxtaposition is bewildering. If you're more realistic, it's simply enraging.
Our Constitution says (2nd Amendment) that
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed."
Our Constitution also says (1st Amendment) that
"Congress shall make no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."
To put it simply, Americans can own guns, and Americans can express themselves as they wish.
So if the government can't restrict the first, why is it allowed to restrict the second? Oh, for a similar decision affirming our unrestricted right to free expression!
The right to watch what we want on TV without FCC interference; to buy adult porn without FBI or Andy-of-Mayberry sheriffs busting producers; to see strippers close up and nude without county ordinances requiring tape measures and pasties; to enjoy swingers clubs without city councils closing them by inventing health emergencies out of thin air.
We're used to reasonable limits on our rights of free expression, embodied in the famous prohibition on yelling fire in a crowded theater. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes used the analogy in banning (for better or worse) anti-war leaflets during World War I as presenting a "clear and present danger" to the Republic. A restriction on speech was legitimate if and only if it prevented an obvious threat to public safety.
So why can't you show a picture of a fire in a crowded theater? What about yelling "fuck" in a nearly empty theater? Or your home theater?
Obscenity law started centuries ago not focused on sex, but on power: as a tool to prevent people from making fun of their ruler, opposing religion, or inciting resistance to the state. Censorship protected rulers from the people.
In this century the goal of censorship has become protecting people from themselves and each other. But inevitably, when government attempts to protect people from each other--or from themselves--it's an expression of political ideology.
Our government has decided what's not good for us--our sexuality. Sex is the political agenda of our federal, state, and local governments. And so they continue prosecuting business people, large and small, who provide adults with sexually explicit images of other adults.
This week, the Supreme Court ruled that the government is powerless to regulate something demonstrably dangerous, something provably implicated in tens of thousands of deaths each year. The very same government, however, can regulate pictures and words used in the privacy of one's home, in an activity that hurts no one.
George Carlin said, "I don't understand why prostitution is illegal. Selling is legal. Screwing is legal. Why isn't selling screwing legal?"
We demand an answer to the same question about sexual imagination: selling is legal. Imagining sex is legal. Why is selling someone's imagination about sex illegal?
A Judge's Porn: America's Latest Obsession
A judge owns a car and drives it legally. Should she be allowed to preside over a trial that will determine if a car was used illegally?
A judge collects guns, even displays his collection on his website. Should he be allowed to preside over a trial that will decide if a gun was used illegally?
A judge belongs to a religion which believes that masturbation is a sin, using pornography is a form of infidelity, and sexual purity is the battleground between God and Satan. Should he be allowed to preside over a trial that will establish if something's obscene?
Answers: Of course, of course, and of course--if we believe in the integrity of the judicial process.
So why can't a judge who owns a porn collection preside over an obscenity trial?
Answer: Because when it comes to "obscenity," the judicial system isn't fair.
Obscenity is the only crime you can't know in advance that you're committing. Only a jury can decide if you've created or sold something obscene, and juries across America keep disagreeing with each other.
More to the point, local, state, and federal prosecutors across America keep demanding that juries decide this. Now that's obscene.
You may have heard that Judge Alex Kozinski was asked to run a trial about four DVDs the feds claim are obscene. Apparently the judge has a website that contains essays, legal writings, music files, personal photos--and oh yes, sexually explicit material, including images of masturbation, women's crotches in tight clothes, naked women on all fours painted to look like cows, and a half-dressed man cavorting with a sexually aroused farm animal.
The judge is a highly respected scholar appointed to the Federal bench by President Reagan over 20 years ago. But when the L.A. Times reported on His Honor's website, the blogosphere lit up: an adult man (who happened to be a judge) who looked at porn! It was a real dog-bites-man story, but so-called morality groups saw their opening and pounced.
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council proved that he needs a basic lesson in American civics when he brayed, "Kozinski not only defended the rights of people to sell revolting--and potentially illegal--smut, Kozinski is ill-equipped to try an obscenity case when he clearly does not understand the definition of obscene. We call for his recusal in this case and a reexamination of his fitness" as a chief judge."
We expect extremist "decency" groups to undermine American democracy on a weekly basis, and here the FRC didn't disappoint: "potentially illegal"? "The definition of obscene"?
But we expect better from Kozinski's own senator. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, intoned "If this [website content] is true, this is unacceptable behavior for a federal court judge."
So this is the latest pinnacle of America's porn hysteria: being interested in the (legal) stuff now disqualifies someone for a federal judgeship. An interest in porn affects a man's mind so deeply--or reflects a pathology so deep--that he can't be depended upon to think about legal principles or fairness.
So are divorced judges now unwelcome in family court? Are judges who drink now unacceptable in DUI cases? What about judges who are 20-year sober members of AA? Must judges in bankruptcy cases be rich or poor, stingy or generous?
Demanding Kozinski's recusal from the Ira Isaacs obscenity trial--indeed, questioning his fitness to be a judge altogether--is a fundamental failure of faith in American democracy.
While most people tried on criminal charges are assumed innocent unless the government can prove their guilt, people arrested for the creation or distribution of "obscenity" have to prove that their material has some merit--artistic, scientific, or political. Kozinski's real sin is believing that the government has to justify censorship, rather than believing that the burden of defeating censorship falls on arrested Americans.
Americans would howl if the government tried to criminalize pictures or stories about anything other than sex. As it is, the public--uncomfortable with their own sexuality, easily frightened about others'--is complicit in destroying their own rights. Instead of damning Kozinski, we should be questioning why we care so much about his sexual fantasies, and so little about the terror our neighbors feel about ours.