March 01, 2005

Now the FCC tells us, three months too late

It is astonishing that FCC chairman Michael Powell should tell us now, weeks after 66 TV stations made the decision not to show the movie Saving Private Ryan on Veterans' Day in case they were fined for the swearwords in the soundtrack (which for contractual reasons could not be edited or bleeped out of Spielberg's film), that really (now it can be told) the movie was OK for network television after all! My own opinion is that in a free society it is unacceptable for any words in the lexicon to be tabooed to such an extent that radio and TV stations can be retrospectively fined if they turn up in a broadcast (even one that the station did not write or produce). But if we are to adhere to the quaint old idea that there are taboo words of such potency that the government should be in charge of their use, the FCC should at least be prepared to say in advance what is going to be allowed and what is not. How can a responsible and decent organization like Language Log make its decisions about what words are fit to put before the public if the answer to its questions about what is currently taboo aren't even known by the fucking FCC? Oops...

"The horror of war and the enormous personal sacrifice it draws on cannot be painted in airy pastels. The true colors are muddy brown and fire red, and any accurate depiction of this significant, historical tale could not be told properly without bringing that sense to the screen," said Mr Powell, in some unusually colorful prose. (Who writes this stuff? And why do they take so long? The decision was actually reached on February 3rd.) Well, I should damn well think so: war is hell. But lots of things are hell. Are we allowed to swear about them occasionally in a free country, or not? The one prime condition to be met by a society whose laws make sense is that you should be able to know up front whether you're about to do something illegal. "We don't know whether we'll fine you or not" isn't good enough. I can hardly believe there has been so little critical coverage of this ridiculous episode of tacit censorship.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 1, 2005 02:22 PM