"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..."
October 5, 2007 11:39 PM   Subscribe

Too Hot To Hear. Fifty years ago today, a San Francisco Municipal Court judge ruled that Allen Ginsberg's Beat-era poem "Howl" was not obscene. Yet today, a New York public broadcasting station decided not to air the poem, fearing that the Federal Communications Commission will find it indecent and crush the network with crippling fines. More on Allen Ginsberg here. Via.
posted by amyms (69 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:49 PM on October 5, 2007


Do you ever get the feeling you've been cheated?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:50 PM on October 5, 2007 [6 favorites]


I'm saving up so I can ruin my mind on expensive drugs, and thereby avoid having to intellectually digest the future we are careening into.

It will be my own little tribute to Howl.
posted by blacklite at 11:50 PM on October 5, 2007


Expensive drugs, eh? What a drag. Back in my day, pot and acid were pretty cheap.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:52 PM on October 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


I hate the FCC so much.
posted by tepidmonkey at 11:52 PM on October 5, 2007


Then again, we used to ingest them in order to better intellectually digest the future we were careening into. And are now in.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:53 PM on October 5, 2007


Can someone explain how the FCC fining the station for this would not break the First Amendment?
posted by scodger at 11:55 PM on October 5, 2007


It should be pointed out that this is consistent with court precedent.

SCOTUS has, through a series of major decisions, decided that the First Amendment applies in different degrees to different media, and that the government has differing degrees of power to control content for different media. If the medium is subject to inherent bandwidth limits, the government may exert more control over how it's used. The more constraint on bandwidth, the more government control is permitted by current SCOTUS precedent. (The logic is that if there's limited supply, the government has an interest in making sure that it's used well.)

There are a lot of weird, almost counterintuitive, consequences of that.

The government has virtually no ability to control content in print, because the First Amendment specifically mentions free press. It has the greatest ability to control content on broadcast radio and broadcast TV.

But it has almost no ability to govern content on cable TV. Broadcast TV is strongly limited by the availability of spectrum, but there are no such inherent limits on distribution of cable TV.

There exist examples of expression which can be printed freely, but which would violate the law if broadcast over the radio. It seems that Ginsberg's poem falls into this gray area.

In the CDA decision, SCOTUS confirmed the conclusion of the 3rd Circuit Court that the internet should be given protection comparable to newspapers and books, instead of the level of broadcast TV which the government asked for. That means that Ginsberg's poem can be distributed over internet radio, even though it would yield fines and possible court action if distributed over broadcast radio.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:58 PM on October 5, 2007 [9 favorites]


Can someone explain how the FCC fining the station for this would not break the First Amendment?

The First Amendment does not apply to speech over the airwaves, because they are a scarce public resource. To quote Dennis Ritchie, you are not expected to understand this.
posted by enn at 12:03 AM on October 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Enn, the First Amendment does apply to radio, just not as much.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:06 AM on October 6, 2007


Moloch whose mind is pure machinery. Moloch whose blood is running money.
posted by DaShiv at 12:06 AM on October 6, 2007 [8 favorites]


Steven C. Den Beste, I was kind of being facetious. But, honestly, are there limits to the degree to which the FCC can restrict radio content? The limitations on broadcast bands are relatively minor, but there are much more severe limitations on other frequency blocks; I believe commercial speech is still prohibited altogether over amateur radio, and there are certain marine VHF frequencies reserved only for emergency use, etc. It seems like the FCC has a hell of a lot of leeway in restricting speech.
posted by enn at 12:12 AM on October 6, 2007


The logic was largely laid down in the Pacifica decision.

George Carlin had developed his classic "7 dirty words you can't say on radio" routine, working in night clubs. It was eventually recorded and distributed on LP. All quite legal, so far.

Someone at a radio station belonging to the Pacifica Foundation actually did play that routine over the air, and the FCC tried to fine Pacifica. They went to court, and eventually SCOTUS upheld the FCC on the action. The decision explains why, but reading it will probably put you to sleep.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:13 AM on October 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Huh. A poem about people going crazy and getting lost in drugs because of an oppressive, shallow and uncaring society.

No, this poem is obviously irrelevant to a modern-day audience.

Can someone explain how the FCC fining the station for this would not break the First Amendment?

Well, you have to understand. I mean, it is one of the most important poems of the 20th century, but try to see it from the other side: if kids out there happen to be listening to NPR [WHAT KIND OF INSANE ROBO-CHILDREN LISTEN TO MUTHERFUCKING NPR?!?] they might hear the words "cock", "cunt" and "semen", which would scar them for life and turn them into rapists and Democrats.

That fear -- the fear that our kids might possibly hear the word "cock" on the lips of an adult -- trumps the entire US Constitution. Of course, I was calling our substitute teachers "cockgobblers" when I was 13, but no, don't think about it. Logic will only hurt you. Thinking is unpatriotic.

Here's some acid. Join me for a trip, won't you?
posted by Avenger at 12:18 AM on October 6, 2007 [7 favorites]


Meant to preview, not post; I left out the most egregious restrictions of all: the equal time rule, still in force, and the Fairness Doctrine. A medium in which editorializing in favor of a candidate can get you fined can hardly be called a medium in which free speech is permitted.
posted by enn at 12:22 AM on October 6, 2007


The Fairness Doctrine is gone, thank goodness. However, some Democrats in Congress want to bring it back as a way of squelching conservative talk radio.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:26 AM on October 6, 2007


I'm saving up so I can ruin my mind on expensive drugs, and thereby avoid having to intellectually digest the future we are careening into.

Never let it be said that all that money the US goverment spends on anti-drug propaganda is a complete waste of resources. blacklite is living proof that it was money well spent.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:26 AM on October 6, 2007


Why democracy? So the right to free speech that’s guaranteed in the laws composed by your brilliant founders can later be neglected by idiot bureaucrats who pee a little when they hear a bad word.
posted by tepidmonkey at 12:31 AM on October 6, 2007


Yep, pretty much, tepidmonkey. And in the Bush regime, ALL of our "rights" can be rescinded. Scary, huh?
posted by amyms at 12:34 AM on October 6, 2007


ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and
now you're really in the total animal soup of
time
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:34 AM on October 6, 2007


To Steven C. Den Beste, I usually find myself on the opposite end of the political spectrum from you, but I appreciate the answers and the links you've provided here. Very interesting stuff, thanks.
posted by amyms at 12:36 AM on October 6, 2007


Not that it's apropos of the FPP or the discussion, but this is my second-favorite Allen Ginsberg poem.
posted by amyms at 12:42 AM on October 6, 2007


The Fairness Doctrine is gone, thank goodness. However, some Democrats in Congress want to bring it back as a way of squelching conservative talk radio.

All the more reason to bury the FCC at a crossroads. It's crack for politicians. It encourages, and its existence legitimizes, their worst impulses. Even the name is Orwellian.

In this case the FCC didn't even need to act; fear of regulatory interference alone prevented this broadcast. Who know what else is being killed because management doesn't want to chance a fine? I'm sure most of these cases are never reported.
posted by enn at 12:51 AM on October 6, 2007


Who know what else is being killed because management doesn't want to chance a fine? I'm sure most of these cases are never reported.

You're right, enn. When a 50-year-old poem can't be broadcast for fear of "indecency," then the terrorists have won.
posted by amyms at 12:58 AM on October 6, 2007


My mother and aunt went to the first reading of Howl at City Lights Books in San Francisco with my late grandfather. My grandfather said that Ginsberg was the reason he became against the war in Viet Nam. Although he was shocked by the temerity of Ginsberg's words in Howl. He knew that until that point, Ginsberg had not created anything worth the public weight. My grandfather was a public speaking trainer and loved Ginsberg's ability to arouse the interest of a room quickly.
posted by parmanparman at 1:03 AM on October 6, 2007 [3 favorites]


Who cares? Is radio even going to be relevant in ten years? The FCC sure is doing their best to ensure that it's not. Ubiquitous broadband = goodbye government-regulated mass media.

Wake me up when they try to censor the internet. So I can laugh at them.
posted by mullingitover at 1:57 AM on October 6, 2007


I saw the best minds of my generation improved by
sanity, well-fed calm clothed,
strolling through the gated community at
midday looking for a Happy Meal,
angel-loving Christians burning for the ancient
heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the
machinery of the cosmos,
who prosperous and fashionable and bright-eyed and clean
sat up sipping decafmoccachinos in the supernatural brightness of
shopping malls floating across the tops of cities
contemplating Britney,
who offered their prayers to Heaven in Baghdad and
saw Mohammedan snipers
on tene-
ment roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool
eyes hallucinating Texas and Oprah-light tragedy
among the scholars of war…
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:07 AM on October 6, 2007 [17 favorites]


pretty much ermetic to me, as a first impression
posted by elpapacito at 2:33 AM on October 6, 2007


This thread is a great example of how much more interesting comments by people with knowledge are than people with just anger and cynicism.
posted by Bugbread at 2:38 AM on October 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


Who cares? Is radio even going to be relevant in ten years?

It better be, as it's my job to improve it mightily. I hope to have a working example of a new radio station for the open market with a watershed above FCC rules and regs in place in the US by 2009.
posted by parmanparman at 3:39 AM on October 6, 2007


Fuck you very much, the FCC...
posted by maxwelton at 3:45 AM on October 6, 2007


I agree with the sentiment and as far as I'm concerned, the FCC should go fuck themselves, but I think someone's being disingenuous here. I sincerely doubt that the relevant parties really believe that the FCC will fine them for broadcasting Howl.

On the other hand, I could be completely wrong. With today's FCC, anything is possible.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:49 AM on October 6, 2007


Allen Ginsberg visited my liberal-Jewish-hippie-integrated private high school back in 1984 or so – he was invited by his friend, my queer, Ph.D.-who-left-Princeton-to-teach-H.S. Lit. Professor.

It was fucking electric.
(He may have even influenced am influential student musician who sat in the audience.)

Classes were suspended and there was an all-school assembly, and I think 'Howl!' was one of the poems that he read. He punctuated his words with a tabourine-like contraption with a purple feather on the end of it.

Sadly, it's only now, more than 20 years later that the poem is something other than free verse – not that I'd have appreciated it at 16 or 17, rather just to have been able to appreciate that hadn't just written some free-association screed.

Thanks for posting this, amyms, in spite of our fading First Amendment rights.
posted by vhsiv at 3:51 AM on October 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


I do understand the logic behind the CDA case, and that scares the hell out of me. Aside from the fact that it makes sense to my law-school-addled brain, the only other thing that really cracked me up was that Thomas and Scalia were both on the side of right for a change. That probably means that a similar case would come down the same way with today's court.

But there's a big difference between ruling that government has an interest in making sure the radio waves are used well, and regulating against pee pee / doo doo words because somewhere, an 11 year old with a mouth like a drunken sailor might be listening. It's the chilling effect here that's most telling. Considering the nonsense over Saving Private Ryan on network television not too long ago, I suspect that yes, the radio station probably does have a genuine fear of getting fined.
posted by 1adam12 at 4:04 AM on October 6, 2007


Why is obscenity a valid reason for censorship?
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:11 AM on October 6, 2007


When is someone going to grep his online howl and just post the obscene outtakes repeatedly so that all the ignorant COCK SUCKERS who do not even know what is in the poem can read it and realize that alas, "Howl", great as it may be, is not safe for work?

The San Francisco Chronicle won't print the frisky parts either.
posted by bukvich at 4:16 AM on October 6, 2007


Was that directed at me, bukvich? Because I'm very well acquainted with Howl.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:07 AM on October 6, 2007


ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe

I knew Carl. He was a really nice guy. And there isn't even a Wikipedia entry for him—it redirects to the one for "Howl." Talk about disrespect. What, the man had no existence except as dedicatee of a poem? He published books and everything. Assholes.
posted by languagehat at 6:06 AM on October 6, 2007


If I heard "fucked in the ass by saintly
motorcyclists" while I was listening to NPR, I'd probably crash my car. Unless Sylvia Poggioli was saying it. Then, it would be hot.
posted by ColdChef at 6:18 AM on October 6, 2007 [3 favorites]


The best part is that the FCC can't tell NPR whether or not they'd get fined - that would be unconstitutional.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 6:44 AM on October 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Allen,

We need you now more than the 50's needed you then. Please send reinforcements, as well.

Love,
Civilization
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:04 AM on October 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'd just like to pointout that these two decisions, while reprehensible, are not necessarily contradictory. "Onscene" and "indecent" are legally different. Obscene gets you arrested, indecent just gets you knocked off the air. The difference was recognized pretty much to give the FCC all the leeway it wants.

And yes, the FCC and everyone involved in it need to die in a fire.
posted by Aversion Therapy at 8:26 AM on October 6, 2007


Don't worry, ColdChef. It'll only be uncomfortable the first time.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:32 AM on October 6, 2007


I saw the best poetry of my generation destroyed by petty bureaucracy.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:55 AM on October 6, 2007


I wonder how many moms got upset over the name Howdy
Doody? Doody! Hey ma, he said, "Doodoo!"
posted by doctorschlock at 9:07 AM on October 6, 2007


It should also be pointed out that indecent material is not banned per se from broadcasting; there is, in fact, the "safe harbor" period. The prohibition against indecency is for the hours of 6am-10pm, the time when the FCC has determined that children will most likely be in the audience. So a radio station could play Howl after 10pm (when no one is listening) if it wanted to. That stations generally choose not to is largely the result of social conditioning.

It's also difficult for stations because the FCC itself does not investigate until someone files a complaint against a station, but it only takes one to start an investigation. And the FCC is notorious for wildly inconsistent rulings in indecency investigations. They do, in fact, suck.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 9:08 AM on October 6, 2007


DiscourseMarker,

That's mentioned in the article. It's implied that the station is worried about being fined even if they played Howl after 10pm.

But he understands why WBAI won't broadcast "Howl," even between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., the hours the FCC has cordoned off for rougher language.

WBAI program director Bernard White fears that the FCC will fine the station $325,000 for every one of Ginsberg's dirty-word bombs. If each Pacifica station that aired the poem - and possibly repeated it - were to be fined for airing "Howl," it could mean millions of dollars in fines.

posted by dd42 at 9:22 AM on October 6, 2007


Short derail - think of it as a commercial break

Silent footage of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lucian Carr.

You don't really think of GInsberg without the baldness. At least, I don't. Caleb Carr later stated (I think I remember this right, correct me if not) that Ginsberg was the only one of that crew who talked to him like a human being).
posted by IndigoJones at 9:34 AM on October 6, 2007


I did two major interviews with Ginsberg in 1987 and 1996. He talks quite a bit about the composition of "Howl" in the earlier one, and immediately after the later one, he saw the Web for the the first time at the HotWired office. I miss him.
posted by digaman at 9:47 AM on October 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


It's long past time to get rid of the FCC and open up the whole spectrum to IP devices.
posted by empath at 9:53 AM on October 6, 2007


I remember being shocked by that poem when I was both in college and in the closet.
posted by Tuwa at 10:00 AM on October 6, 2007


George Carlin had developed his classic "7 dirty words you can't say on radio" routine

George Carlin's 7 Words routine [YouTube | 10:37]
posted by ericb at 10:19 AM on October 6, 2007


The main Ginsberg link on the Web, by the way, is here, at the Allen Ginsberg Trust.
posted by digaman at 12:11 PM on October 6, 2007


amyms , mine too!
posted by drezdn at 3:21 PM on October 6, 2007


Geez you Americans and your crazy ass Government Agencies in what sane world does the agency that sets standards for and regulates the technical aspects of how the radio spectrum is used also regulates the content of what is broadcast using that spectrum?
posted by electricinca at 3:56 PM on October 6, 2007


The San Francisco Chronicle won't print the frisky parts either.

Just before the end of the 11 o'clock CBS5 news here in the SF Bay Area, some ninny from SFGate.com will give a few teasers about what will be in the next day's SF Chronicle.

The night before the Chronicle printed the story, the ninny announced the teaser as "Is 'The Howling' Too Obscene?" And I looked at the TV screen to see if I had misheard her, and the text also mentioned "The Howling."

No lie.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 4:18 PM on October 6, 2007


dd42,
oops, sorry, I should've read more, my bad.

Even given the capricious nature of the FCC in recent years, I really can't understand why they would fear fines for broadcasting indecency in the safe harbor--I don't think the FCC has ever gone so far as to fine a station in *direct* contradiction of its own rules, and though IANAL, legally, I don't think they can. The current cases were all incidents that happened during the 6am-10pm regulatory period.

I think the WBAI PD is being a bit too paranoid even for this political climate.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 5:30 PM on October 6, 2007


electricinca : "Geez you Americans and your crazy ass Government Agencies in what sane world does the agency that sets standards for and regulates the technical aspects of how the radio spectrum is used also regulates the content of what is broadcast using that spectrum?"

Yeah. Most countries break that up into two agencies. Crazy ass Americans.
posted by Bugbread at 7:39 PM on October 6, 2007


Well, sure. Shrug, even.

During a WUSC annual "Moolah for Music" pledge drive back in the late '80s, I called to request the Kinks song "Lola" only to be told by a nervous-sounding college kid, "Oh, no way, man, I'll get in trouble."
posted by pax digita at 3:53 AM on October 7, 2007


Ah, the Beats.

Howl I've had occasion to suffer through (IMHO) several times; only recently read On The Road. What's stroking to me is how many people talk about/criticize/defend/internalize Beat writing, while obviously never having actually read the primary source.

In other words, people have read about, say, Howl, and form opinions (obscene, perfect, etc), and then feel like they instinctively know what it says, and don't need to read it.

The Bible is a lot like that.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 3:15 PM on October 7, 2007


Believe me, Allen would never have wanted you to suffer through a poem you didn't like multiple times.

But you have a point about people not reading the texts.
posted by digaman at 9:50 PM on October 7, 2007


“In other words, people have read about, say, Howl, and form opinions (obscene, perfect, etc), and then feel like they instinctively know what it says, and don't need to read it.”

Well, I know this is true with many classic works (oh, god, how well do I know this is true from unfortunate discussions with people who only know a book from some survey class). But I'll go out on a limb and say that I doubt this is true for Howl, or, for that matter, On the Road. Or, hey, Naked Lunch. My experience is that the people who know about these works are people who've read these works. They're not so well known that they're well known for being well known.

And, anyway, there's no indication that this is true for anyone in this thread. There's no evidence that this is true for anyone, ever, in your comment. So you come off looking mostly like a jerk.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:42 PM on October 7, 2007


Put me in with EB on the jerk conclusion. It really came across as a piece of sophomoric projection totally unbefitting a psychiatrist.

In my totally anecdotal experience, On the Road is probably one of the most widely-read novels amongst my friends & acquaintances, possibly exceeded only by The Catcher in the Rye. Burroughs is also quite widely read. Ginsberg is likewise popular (often the only poetry in peoples' collections!).

On the other hand, most of the other beats, I think, pass underneath peoples' radars. You rarely hear people talking about writers like Diane di Prima, Philip Whalen or Gary Snyder, for example, in the manner you've described - cobbled together from secondary sources or mere reputation. If anything, I'd guess that certain works have a bit of an iconic hipster status - a literary Velvet Underground, if you like - and these are read & praised, whilst the rest of the beats are largely overlooked.

(and yes, i've read all those, and more)
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:51 AM on October 8, 2007


I like that in readings of 'Howl,' he reads the bit 'with mother finally ******' by saying 'asterisk.'

That is all.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:49 AM on October 8, 2007


> You rarely hear people talking about writers like Diane di Prima, Philip Whalen or Gary Snyder

Heh, not in my house! I'm sure my spouse is tired of the anecdotes specifically about these three and the rest. But yes.
posted by digaman at 8:44 AM on October 8, 2007


> I like that in readings of 'Howl,' he reads the bit 'with mother finally ******' by saying 'asterisk.'

He didn't always. Sometimes he would say the original word, "fucked." He changed up his reading style of individual poems like a jazz musician, even on successive nights. But that is funny.
posted by digaman at 8:45 AM on October 8, 2007


For anyone who wants one example of him reading Howl, I have an mp3 of about 26 minutes ... email biriboom@gmail.com.
posted by hypervenom at 8:36 PM on October 8, 2007


I like his performance with Kronos Quartet, though others may find the music distracting.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:07 AM on October 9, 2007


I read Howl in a high school class.

So ... when exactly did the U.S. "jump the shark"? Admittedly, some horrible court decisions led the way, but I'm thinking 1991.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:40 PM on October 9, 2007


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