You may recall that way back in 2004, Janet Jackson’s right nipple was unexpectedly exposed for exactly one-half second during the Superbowl half-time show.
Grown men cried. Women fainted. Children were driven mad by the brown protuberance. Not surprisingly, the stock market crashed only four years later, soon followed by the meltdown of Japan’s nuclear reactors.
To punish the TV network on which the travesty occurred, the Bush Administration’s FCC levied enormous fines against CBS. Congress also approved huge new fines for anything sexy they didn’t want on TV. Thus emboldened, the FCC then demanded punishment for fleeting nudity (a few seconds of a woman’s backside on NYPD Blue) and for fleeting expletives (for the unscripted, separate utterances of “fuck ‘em,” “cowshit,” and “fucking brilliant” at two Billboard Music Awards shows).
Since then, the FCC and our federal courts have been going back and forth in an attempt to design a TV censorship policy that doesn’t involve, um, censorship. The fascinating legal issue is that on the one hand, the First Amendment protects Americans from laws that censor based on content; on the other hand, the government established the FCC to ensure the “appropriate” use of the public airwaves.
The decency mob (Morality in Media, Catholic Church, etc.) wants more restrictions. They demand the government take more responsibility for deciding what words and images are harmful for people to hear and see, and they would give the government more power to enforce its vision. That’s their program: smaller government when it comes to health, education, science, and food safety; larger government when it comes to restricting one’s private choices of entertainment, sexual activity, and medical decisions.
Fast forward to 2012. The Obama administration has asked the Supreme Court to review a federal court’s decision that the FCC acted capriciously in levying huge fines for a ½-second nipple shot. In this regard, they are clones of the Bush Administration. And in this regard they are no friend of the American people, no friend of free speech, no friend of freedom.
So why are two successive presidencies, not to mention the national morality apparatus, obsessed with a half-second of nipple? Why are millions more of your tax dollars about to be spent attempting to punish CBS for what they failed to prevent over 8 years ago?
“Politics” is too simple an answer. It’s a special kind of politics: coding certain phenomena as sexual (a nipple minding its own business, unmarried people trying to adopt a baby, two men wanting hospital privileges for each other, a beach on which adults and children are naked, etc.), then using opposition to those things to demonstrate a simplistic position (pro-family, anti-sexual freedom, pro-authority, anti-female sexuality, pro-religion, anti-secularism, etc.).
In America, coding behavior or institutions as sexual makes them public, subject to public control. There is virtually no private sexual behavior in America—from the desire to restrict abortion and contraception, to the campaign to eliminate pay-TV porn in hotel rooms, to the extra taxes extorted from patrons of strip clubs—the “public-izing” of sex is a key weapon in the War On Sex.
Bush pursued this War enthusiastically because he could. Obama does it because he feels he has to. Bush was sincere, Obama is cynical. Obama is the more hypocritical of the two.
Today, when corporations contribute money to politicians it’s called free speech. When networks show a half-second of nipple it’s called obscene. Eager to demonstrate their morality, American politicians need the designated obscene, even while they damn it.