When Language Is More Important Than War

Sixteen million Americans fought in WWII. A half-million of them died in it. That’s equal to the entire population of Washington, DC. Or of Wyoming.

Very few of those 16,000,000 are still alive, and a dwindling number of Americans actually knows one of them. To create and preserve a record of what actually happened, Ken Burns has made a 14-hour documentary for PBS. It has exactly four instances of words you might hear—or say—if someone were trying to kill you.

The Parents Television Council plans to scour those fourteen hours for the four words they don’t want anyone to say or hear. They will again pressure the FCC—that’s your government at work—to punish stations carrying the program if they think the nation’s children shouldn’t see it, regardless of what their parents want.

The PTC is going to look at a 14-hour program about a war that killed 72,000,000 human beings, and they are going to focus on two “fucks,” one “asshole and a “shit.” How juvenile is this response? How obsessed are these people?

Why do they have a seat at America’s public policy table? Why, in a world of 21st century telecommunications, is the FCC now in the business of counting magic syllables?

How can it be good for America’s families when the government decides what programs parents are allowed to show their children about the most serious subject in the history of humanity—war?

PBS stations across the country are wondering if they need to show a version of the documentary stripped of the four—count them, four—“offensive” words. Each station risks fines starting at $325,000 if the FCC decides they have violated some nebulous, arbitrary, and thoroughly unconstitutional rule about “inappropriate” content. To local stations in Atlanta and San Francisco, much less Little Rock and Kansas City, 1/3 of a million dollars is a lot of money. You can’t use integrity to pay rent and salaries. You need cash.

The PTC is unmoved by any adult discussion about art, literacy, history, parental responsibility, or basic decency. “It’s hard to believe that removing four words are going to significantly damage the program,” says PTC president Tim Winter.

He is clueless about what those half-million Americans died for. And he is clueless about the dangers of writing history to pacify consumers of that history. Ask people who lived in the Soviet Union, where history changed with each new regime. “In most countries, the future is unpredictable,” the joke went. “In the USSR, the past is unpredictable, too.”

Are those four words of any importance whatsoever?

Only if an American can’t say them, and an American can’t hear them, and an American can’t decide whether or not his kid can hear them—because the government is deciding for us.

Goddam it, isn’t this what those half-million Americans died for in that war?


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