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Nothing is obscene anymore at Three Roads Blog
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Nothing is obscene anymore

Last week, I came across some great footage of Frank Zappa on Crossfire.

The subject was music, obscenity and censorship. The show (it aired in 1986) also featured Robert Novak (who, curiously, looks exactly the same as he does today—old and crotchety), a columnist from the Washington Times named John Lofton, and host Tom Braden.

A lot of commentators say we’re shriller than ever before, but when you look at this video, you’ll consider the possibility that we have made progress since the culture wars of the 1980s.

Not surprisingly, Zappa takes the anti-censorship side. He’s conservative in the libertarian sense of the word—he doesn’t want the government to tell him what he can listen to.

On the other side, there’s the goon from the Washington Times. I say goon not because he supports censorship, but because he’s a ridiculous caricature of the hyperventilating social conservative. Mencken wouldn’t have bothered to dress this guy down. To make your counterpoint is simply to let him talk.

The debate veered toward one song that the Washington Times guy thought was particularly offensive—“Sister,” by Prince. He claimed the song promoted incest. It’s certainly a foul song, and my guess is that Prince, now a Jehovah’s Witness, would like to put it as far behind him as possible. But I doubt that it had much of an effect on the sexual mores of innocent listeners at the time.


Anyway, I e-mailed the Crossfire clip to an academic friend of mine because he’s a fan of Zappa, Prince and Plato, the latter of whom was an advocate of censorship. I wrote that I’d like to see a debate between Frank and Plato.

“Plato would whop him,” my friend wrote.

Well, probably. Maybe Voltaire or some other Enlightenment thinker would be better able to make the freedom of speech argument. (Although I must say Frank was pretty sharp.)

He also wrote about the etymology of the word “obscene,” which he says comes from a Greek word meaning “off the scene.” He gave an example of how the ancient Greeks showed a little more artistic restraint than we do today.

“Oedipus is never shown gouging his eyes out, that happens off the scene, because it’s obscene,” my friend wrote. “Today we wouldn’t hesitate to show it, we think nothing is obscene.”

It’s ironic that he brought up the story of Oedipus, whose name and story is synonymous with incest.

His point about how everything is now on scene is valid. But in terms of music lyrics, we’re talking about profanity that’s transmitted orally, not visually, so it’s sort of both on scene and not at the same time. If you’re listening, it’s there, but if you’re just tapping your foot and enjoying the funky base line, it’s not.

By the Washington Times guy’s standard, the government should ban not only the on stage performance of the story of Oedipus but also the mere telling of it, lest we encourage incest.

OK. I don’t really know how to wrap up this post. But I will say that until I hear a better argument than that put forth by the “frothing” Babbitt from the Washington Times, I’m on Frank’s side.

Hat Tip:

The Wordie Blog


15 Responses to “Nothing is obscene anymore”


  1. 1 John Lofton, Recovering Republican

    I demolished Zappa making him babble on saying, among other idiotic things, that the lyrics I objected to were “just words”! Imagine, him a song writer, denigrating the importance of language. I also notice you refute NOTHING I said. Your remarks are just name-calling. Pathetic.

  2. 2 Jeb

    A well-landed punch, Mr. Lofton. It hit me right on the jaw and I deserved it.

    I guess there’s no such thing as blogging in obscurity! Welcome to Three Roads; I hope you’ll find the discussion more civil from here on out. I’m excited to have you part of the debate and I sincerely apologize for calling you names.

    Your comment is on the money—I didn’t talk about the substance of your argument. But the whole episode—with emotions and insults flying everywhere—made the content of each argument almost beside the point. (Can we agree that the format of these talk shows favors hostile bickering to calm discourse?)

    I disagree that you “demolished” Zappa, but perhaps my view is a function of the biases I had before I watched the video. I have a journalism background, so my natural inclination is toward freedom of expression.

    While I disagree with Zappa’s minimization of the power of words, I think that despite their power, we’re still better off letting them see the light of day. It’s now a clichéd expression, but I agree with the notion of a “marketplace of ideas,” wherein people can freely debate—and discard—theories, hypotheses, wild notions, half-truths, rumors, etc., etc. Additionally, I think the best way to drain repulsive ideas of their power is to let people dissect them. Suppress an ugly idea and you give it more influence than it deserves.

    For better or worse, we’re political creatures, Mr. Lofton, and if we allow the government to tamper with the marketplace of ideas, we invite corruption and totalitarianism–from both the left and right. Forgive me for trotting out another tired expression, but it truly is a slippery slope. The distance between censoring pop music and stifling political dissent or freedom of religion is shorter than you think.

    (There are limits, of course. I don’t think it’s anyone’s First Amendment right to yell “Bomb!” in an airport.)

  3. 3 Mary Dahore

    Lofton, get a grip. Not to say the author of the blog wasn’t a bit offensive by calling you a goon (which, by the way, i checked out your blog and I think you look rather cute), but you did not “demolish” Mr. Zappa. Granted, your skill for debate has to be fairly polished at this point after spending hours trolling the internet for hits on your name looking for a fight, but lets not stretch the matter. Soon you’ll be saying you would have “demolished” the likes of Plato himself. I must agree with the author on this one, especially since your comment is hypocritical as you failed to address anything he actually wrote in the blog. Have fun recovering from being Republican, whatever that means.

  4. 4 John Lofton, Recovering Republican

    Plato demolished himself by being a homosexual heathen.

  5. 5 Nick

    Hello, I’ve been wanting to make a comment for a while, but have been a bit busy with school and family. Anyway, first of all, Plato was not homosexual; in fact, one could easily read his Symposium as a critique of homosexuality. Secondly, Oedipus never intended to sleep with his mother, he had no clue that it was his mother; it is totally different to commit incest knowingly than unknowingly and the latter is not culpable. Therefore I think the ironic comment about Oedipus’s incest is a bit unfair, although I do understand the common association.

    The Zappa conversation was about an interesting subject matter, but the level of discourse was very low – too much emotion and too many insults. It doesn’t seem to me that there is such a great difference between visual and audible media, especially in today’s world of MTV, youtube, etc.; we have ready images of whatever we hear. I want to know more about what you mean by “ugly” or “repulsive” ideas. Should no things be censored? I guess I wish to push you a bit further than your bomb exception. I’m sure you would agree that child pornography should be censored. But what about, say, allowing pornography on public television? Would you want you 11 year old daughter (if you had one) to watch pornography? Why or why not?

  6. 6 Jeb

    Ugly ideas? Well, it depends on who you ask. I think racists put forth some pretty ghastly ideas. Of course, they (racists) think their ideas are pretty neat.

    My point of view (which is scaring me in its conservatism) is that I don’t think the government is the best entity for sorting out what’s ugly and what’s not, what’s acceptable to watch or listen to. I say let cultural norms, markets, families and religions sort that stuff out. They do a much better job. The result is a sort of ‘soft censorship.’

    Should speech be censored by the government? Only speech that will result in or is linked to harm (example: the harm to children in the case of child pornography) or that amounts to physical intimidation. Another example: I agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ban on cross-burning. It’s speech, sure, but it’s also inextricably linked to terrorism and violence.

    Yelling ‘Bomb.’ This would likely cause panic, which could result in injury and death to innocent bystanders. By contrast, if you don’t like Prince’s lyrics, you can change the station (thus performing the most basic act of censorship). No real harm done. If you don’t want your child to listen to it, by all means, censor it!

  7. 7 Cassie

    I’m usually a quiet reader, but this is a topic that for some reason gets me fired up. Not the whole censorship in general, because that’s a lot to wrap my mind around - but the lyrical side of things. I would agree with you completely Jeb that if you don’t like it change it and this shouldn’t be as ridiculous of an argument as these gentlemen made it out to be.

    The arguments here and elsewhere seem to revolve around two main ideas: that music makes people do bad things, and music has the ability to promote incest. Interesting. I LOVE music, listen to an extraordinary amount - anywhere from from classical to rap. I pretty much love it all, and so when I hear that because some kid listens to Marilyn Manson and acts out I have to have my music compromised, it makes me angry. It is no longer that intimate relationship between me and the artist(s), it is now a crowded censorship party and just feels dirty.

    I had a friend once tell me that Pink Floyd saved his life. When I listen to Pink Floyd it doesn’t seem to have the same affect - mine is more of a calming sensation. But my friend was needing to be saved, in a way he was searching it out. So when he listened to it he heard hope (not trying to get cheesy) in the lyrics, not necessarily the specific lyrics. So Mr. Lofton when Zappa says they are “just words” he’s not necessarily “denigrating the importance of language”. I think he’s saying they are just words on paper - they don’t become meaningful until the listener takes over and even then it’s at their discretion. The power isn’t in his words specifically, but in the interpretation behind them. He didn’t write these down in a book to be read, he puts them to music to be taken in, worked out by the listener, and enjoyed.

    I think that if you are listening to a song, such as Prince’s “Sister”, and thought that it was saying incest is okay - then I think you were already contemplating these thoughts. As for it being explicit, sure it is because it goes against what is the social norm. Does that mean it should be banned? I say no. He wrote it for a reason, even if it was just for that moment. People like it, whether it be the beat, the voice, or maybe they can even relate. Who are we to judge or even take that from them?

  8. 8 Jeb

    I think he’s saying they are just words on paper - they don’t become meaningful until the listener takes over and even then it’s at their discretion. The power isn’t in his words specifically, but in the interpretation behind them. He didn’t write these down in a book to be read, he puts them to music to be taken in, worked out by the listener, and enjoyed.

    I think that if you are listening to a song, such as Prince’s “Sister”, and thought that it was saying incest is okay - then I think you were already contemplating these thoughts.”

    Trenchant.

    This is the lesson I take from your comment: If we’re worried about negative outcomes—school violence, incest etc.—of listening to certain music—Marylin Manson, His Purple Majesty, etc.—we’re better off putting our energies into improving the mental health of the listener than into preventing the listener from being tipped over the edge by a song on the radio.

  9. 9 Nick

    Hi, now that I have finished my exams and emptied my basement of two inches of water, I have some time to respond. I agree with many of the things you say, e.g., we should take care of our mental health and self-censorship is a good and necessary thing. However, there are some things I disagree with. I’ll start with the most recent argument about Zappa’s quote because it’s the most important. I’ll get to the others some other day. I think that words have meanings in themselves and I think that it is not simply up to the discretion of the listener to interpret them however he or she wants. If I listen to Zappa’s Dinah Mo Hum (I can’t remember how it’s spelled) and I have very graphic images of sexual acts, it’s not because I was “already contemplating these thoughts” as he says, it is because those words have specific meanings and those sentences put very graphic and concrete images into my head. Zappa choose those words for a reason and decided to put those images into my head.
    Someone might object - what about puns or obscurities? I know that we love making puns and playing on words, and those might seem to point to the opposite, but ambiguities and puns are only possible because words and sentences carry with them several distinct meanings which are separately are clearly understood. If speech is obscure it is because the clarity of some parts impinge on the clarity of others.
    Zappa kept saying, “we’re talking about words”, as if that was some kind of argument against taking words seriously, as if it somehow didn’t count because they were just words (Zappa never clearly states what he means by this). If one were to apply Zappa’s understanding of words to our conversation the conclusion would have to be that this conversation not really worth having because its ‘just about words’. I think these conversations are wonderful and that they concern real things that can be communicated with words.

  10. 10 Nick

    First, I want to make clear that Plato is not pro-censorship. He is for it in his Republic and Laws, but that does not mean he is for it in a liberal democracy; the two forms of government are so different that we cannot conclude he would advocate it. However, I do want to let Plato himself speak against Zappa on the abovementioned quote. Plato coined a word analogous to misanthropy called misology. As misanthropy is hatred of humans, misilogy is hatred (or mistrust) of words. The Greek word for word is logos which in Greek means both word, thought and argument. Mistrusting words is the same as mistrusting arguments, for arguments are made with words. Anyway, I’m pretty sure Plato would think of Zappa as in a ‘pitiable condition’ because he thinks there is nothing ‘stable or sound’ in them – I’ll let him make the argument.

  11. 11 Nick

    “But first let’s be on our guard so we don’t undergo a certain experience.”
    “What sort of experience?” said I.
    “So that we don’t become haters of argument, as some become haters of human beings; for it’s not possible,” he said, “for anybody to experience a greater evil than hating arguments. Hatred of arguments and hatred of human beings come about in the same way. For hatred of human beings comes from artlessly trusting someone to excess, and believing that human being to be in every way true and sound and trustworthy, and then a little later discovering that this person is wicked and untrustworthy – and then having this experience again with another. And whenever somebody experiences this many times, and especially at the hands of just those he might regard as his most intimate friends and comrades, he then ends up taking offense all the time and hates all human beings and believes there’s nothing at all sound in anybody. Or haven’t you perceived that something like this happens?”
    “Of course,” said I.
    “Isn’t it shameful,” said he, “and clear that such a person was attempting to deal with human beings without art in human affairs? For if he dealt with them artfully, he’d think of them just as they are – that both the really good-natured and the really wicked are few, and that most people are in between.”
    “What are you saying?” said I.
    “Just what I’d say if we were talking about the really small and the really big,” he said. “Do you suppose anything’s more rare than finding either a really big or a really small man or dog or any such thing, or again, one that’s really fast or slow, or really ugly or beautiful, or really white or black? Haven’t you perceived that among all such things those at the furthest ends of either extreme are rare and few, while the ones in between are in generous supply and many?”
    “Of course”, said I.
    “And don’t you think,” he said, “that if a wickedness contest were held, those who showed first would be very few here as well?”
    “That’s likely,” he said.
    “Likely indeed,” he said. “Now arguments aren’t similar to human beings in that respect – I was merely following your lead just now – but rather in this one: when somebody trust some argument to be true without the art of arguments, and then a little later the argument seems to him to be false, as it sometimes is and sometimes isn’t, and this happens again and again with one argument after another. And as you know, those especially who’ve spent their days in debate-arguments end up thinking they’ve become the wisest of men and that they alone have detected that there’s nothing sound or stable – not in the realm of either practical matters or arguments – but that the things that are simply toss to and fro, and don’t stay put anywhere for any length of time.”
    “Certainly,” said I, “what you say is true.”
    “Then, Phaedo,” he said, “his condition would be a pitiable one if when there was in fact some argument that was true and stable and capable of being detected, somebody – through his associating with the very sorts of arguments that sometimes seem to be true and sometimes not – should not blame himself or his own artlessness but should end up in his distress being only too pleased to push the blame off himself onto the arguments, and from that very moment on should finish out the rest of his life hating and reviling arguments and should be robbed of the truth and knowledge of things that are.”
    “Yes, by Zeus,” I said, “pitiable indeed!”
    “Then first of all,” he said, “let’s be on our guard against this condition and not admit into the soul that the realm of arguments risks having nothing sound in it. Instead let’s far rather admit that we’re not sound but must act like men and put our hearts into being sound – you and the others for the sake of your whole life hereafter, and I for the sake of death itself…”

    Plato’s Phaedo Translated by Eva Bran, Peter Kalkavage and Eric Salem. Focus. 1998.

  12. 12 Jeb

    Nick:

    I think both John Lofton and Frank Zappa could be accused of being misologists; Lofton because he fears words, and Zappa because he discounts their importance.

    That said, I think Zappa’s repetitive dismissal of the importance of words in the beginning of the clip (”They’re just words!”) was more a failed rhetorical device than a accurate account of his position on words or arguments. Also, at about 16 minutes in, he affirms that words are indeed important, but says that much of the brouhaha is about seven specific words that the FCC deemed too vulgar. I imagine he thought words important (otherwise why go on TV to oppose censorship?) but doesn’t want one entity or ideology to decide which words stay and which ones go. Indeed, he expresses worry that we’re sliding into a “fascist theocracy,” one that would conceivably censor Stevie Wonder for referring to astrology in one of his songs (18:50).

  13. 13 Nick

    Jeb,
    That’s fine. I just wanted to point out that Zappa’s argument about words is a bad argument. In fact, it doesn’t mean anything; it’s a rhetorical device (as you say) which is either dishonest or not well-considered. There is no way he could mean what he says while at the same time giving such importance to the words in the first amendment. I want to add one small point about this misology business: I don’t think Lofton is a misologist because he fears words. Lofton fears words because he recognizes their importance and the power which words can have on people. That being said, I don’t want to be an apologist for Lofton: I thought he was quite rude and annoying in the video. The next thing we should discuss is whether some censorship is good and if that is really a slippery slope towards a ‘fascist theocracy.’

  14. 14 Nick

    Jeb,
    I found this by Richard John Neuhaus and it addressed most of the points I wanted to make, so I decided to use the old cut and paste. Hope all is well.
    Nick

    The End of Obscenity

    Forget about obscenity, writes Jeffrey Rosen in the New Atlantis, the new journal published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Already back in 1973, the Supreme Court was caving when it adopted (in Miller v. California) an impossible-to-maintain distinction between hard-core and soft-core pornography, with the latter limited to adults. The idea of judging by “community standards” was short-lived. Ten years after Miller, a federal court ruled that “detailed portrayals of genitalia, sexual intercourse, fellatio, and masturbation” are not obscene “in light of community standards prevailing in New York City.” Not if the measure is what was then the X-rated Times Square area, which has in recent years been turned into a “family friendly environment.” But those court rulings were in the days before the Internet. Rosen, who is the New Republic’s regular on legal matters, cites data from a number of studies. For instance, one fourth of search engine requests every day are for pornographic material. Far below, one notes, the number of requests that fall into the broad category of “religion.” So Chesterton’s nation with the soul of a church has not closed down its whorehouses. What else is new?

    Men make up 65 percent of visitors to porn sites, reports Rosen. No surprise there. Then there is this: “Moreover, 15 percent of teens (ages twelve to seventeen) and 25 percent of older boys (ages fifteen to seventeen) have lied about their age to access an Internet site, according to the Pew research center.” Only 15 and 25 percent? That strikes me as encouragingly low for boys in those hyper-hormonal years, considering that lying involves nothing more than pushing a button and nobody will know (except, apparently, the people at Pew). Rosen cites international data: 40 percent of adults in Spain, 25 percent in Britain, and 19 percent in Sweden, have visited what he calls “an adult site,” meaning, of course, an adolescent site, all pornography being adolescent. He concludes from this that “there is no country in which consumption of hard-core pornography could plausibly be said to be ‘patently offensive’ to the average person by applying contemporary community standards.”

    I suppose it depends on the meaning of “average.” If 75 percent of adults in Britain have not visited porn sites, despite their ready availability in the privacy of one’s home, might not that have a bearing on what is average? I expect that more than 20 percent of Americans have gotten drunk at some time, which hardly means that they, never mind all those who haven’t, think that drunkenness is not patently offensive. That a minority of a population gets drunk from time to time or furtively—and possibly with feelings of shame and guilt—watch pornography is hardly the measure of “community standards.” Unless, of course, the majority of the Supreme Court is doing the measuring. At this point, Rosen reaches more solid ground. It is not, he notes, the standards of the American people that matter but the opinion of the Court. There probably is nothing to be done about obscenity or pornography if the last word is the Court’s ruling on sexual autonomy in Lawrence v. Texas, which established a constitutional right to sodomy.

    The Sweet Mystery Again

    In that decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, repeated the “sweet mystery of life” rule that was first announced in Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992) in upholding the unlimited abortion license: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Ah yes, those are no doubt the solemn questions pondered by a middle-aged sex addict visiting a site titled “Hot Dudes Do Dixie Chicks.” Rosen correctly observes: “Now that moral disapprobation is not considered a constitutionally rational reason for restricting behavior, no definition of obscenity that relied on communal disapproval could easily pass constitutional scrutiny, unless one could demonstrate a clear harm to others.” He thinks that John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” may still forbid child pornography. I expect he underestimates the influence of experts willing and eager to testify that it’s good for the kiddies. He entertains the possibility that the next thing to be decriminalized is incest between consenting adults, at least if they are “using birth control.” The legal requirement that brothers and sisters, or fathers and daughters, use contraception may strike one as a flagrant violation of their constitutional right to define for themselves the “the mystery of human life.”

    The editors of the New Atlantic paired Rosen’s article with an essay by David Hart, “The Pornography Culture.” Hart is perhaps a bit too vain about not being a lawyer, but it does help him to view the Supreme Court’s rulings on pornography with something suspiciously like common sense. “It is difficult for me to grasp,” writes Hart, “why the Court works upon the premise that whatever means are employed to protect children from Internet pornography should involve the barest minimum imposition possible upon the free expression of pornographers.” He fails to appreciate that the Court has long since decided that pornographers have a constitutional right to do what they do, but there are still inhibitions about their doing it with children or aiming their product at children. We are not yet prepared for the unbounded flight of the liberty affirmed in the “sweet mystery of life” doctrine.

    As for the harm principle, Hart again indulges in dangerous flirtation with common sense. “The damage that pornography can do—to minds or cultures—is not by any means negligible. Especially in our modern age of passive entertainment, saturated as we are by an unending storm of noises and images and barren prattle, portrayals of violence or of sexual degradation possess a remarkable power to permeate, shape, and deprave the imagination; and the imagination is, after all, the wellspring of desire, of personality, of character. Anyone who would claim that constant or even regular exposure to pornography does not affect a person at the profoundest level of consciousness is either singularly stupid or singularly degenerate.” Here Hart betrays his insouciant indifference to jurisprudential precedent, quite ignoring the fact that the Court has long since made the discovery that one man’s stupidity is another’s genius, and that one man’s degeneracy is another’s poetry. Hart goes so far as to say that our courts, reflecting our culture, are confusing liberty with license.

    Recognizing, as Hart does, that “we are already a casually and chronically pornographic society,” one is left wondering what might be done about it. With the Child Online Protection Act, Congress tried to outlaw certain kinds of pornography, while the Supreme Court ruled that the act was not sufficiently solicitous of the rights of legitimate pornographers. That these questions are left to Congress and the Court reveals, says Hart, our supine dependence on the state to impose rules that we are not prepared to impose on ourselves. “We call upon the state to shield us from vice or to set our vices free because we do not have a culture devoted to the good, or dedicated to virtue, or capable of creating a civil society that is hospitable to any freedom more substantial than that of subjective will. This is simply what it is to be modern.” Hart ends with the always pertinent reminder that there is a permanent tension between the biblical tradition and that of liberal democracy. “We belong to a kingdom not of this world; while we are bound to love our country, we are forbidden to regard it as our true home.” To which let all the people of God say, “Amen.”

    However: I think it both unnecessary and unwise to resign ourselves to the inevitability of liberal demo-cracy ending up in the cesspool of libertinism. The founders spoke of “ordered liberty,” liberty ordered to moral truth. Perhaps that understanding of liberty cannot be revived, but it certainly will not be revived if we give up on it. In dissenting from Lawrence, Justice Antonin Scalia said it marked the death of laws reflecting a democratically determined sense of morality, of right and wrong. There is a measure of truth in that, but, in the larger picture, all laws reflect a moral judgment about what is right or wrong, fair or unfair, supportive of or opposed to the common good. So long as we are a relatively free society, politics, including law, will be a process of, as Aristotle would instruct us, deliberating how we ought to order our life together. The “ought” in that formulation signals the inescapably moral character of the enterprise. Justice Kennedy’s notion of “the heart of liberty” is a sure formula for the undoing of law itself. It may not stand. Court majorities come and go. The courage of legislators to challenge judicial tyranny waxes and wanes.

  1. 1 Nothing is obscene anymore … at three roads
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