Howl Howl Howl

Categories: Arts

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A San Francisco court declared Allen Ginsberg's Beat-era poem "Howl" not obscene 50 years ago. What a different world we live in today. By Chloe Veltman.

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness" wrote Allen Ginsberg at the start of his seminal poem "Howl." How ironic these words seem today. 50 years after a San Francisco Municipal Court judge ruled that the poem was not obscene, a public radio station in New York, WBAI, has decided not to broadcast a reading of the poem over the airwaves for fear that the Federal Communications Commission will hammer the network with heavy fines for breaking indecency rules. WBAI has decided instead to publish the poem online. More about the story here.

The amount of energy devoted to chastising media outlets for everything from Cher and Nicole Richie's "fleeting expletives" on screen to Ray Romano's use of the word "screwing" is clearly a waste of public time and money. The FCC as we know it must be destroyed. The things that get me the most are the government's double-standards and it's incomprehension of the contemporary media world. Why, for instance, is it OK to air "Howl" online but not on air? And why is it OK to broadcast Shakespeare's works, when plays like Henry IV Part I and Romeo & Juliet are more packed with "filthy language" than all the expletives emitted from Nicole Richie's mouth in the last five years put together?

I can't help thinking that this grand purge by the FCC is all part of a plot to destroy the "liberal" public media. With several public broadcasting outlets - including San Francisco's KQED - opting to broadcast "clean" versions of Ken Burns' World War II documentary The War last month for fear of incurring crushing FCC fines for the recurring use of swear words in the graphic 14-hour documentary about the brutality of war, it seems that the FCC has the public media under its thumb. A single hefty fine for failure to comply with the government's wishes could put a public media outlet out of business. Perhaps that's what the Feds are hoping for.

I used to laugh when I read stories about the uproar surrounding the first reported use of the word "fuck" on public television in England. On 13 November 1965, during a live TV debate, theater critic Kenneth Tynan, commenting on the subject of censorship, said "I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word 'fuck' would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden."

But now that I realize how little the world has progressed since then, Tynan's four letter word doesn't seem so funny. Our world is clearly not in the control of rational people, Ken. Madness, as Ginsberg stated in the opening line of "Howl," rules.

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