Sunday, October 10, 2004


Let's get off the whole election roller-coaster for a minute. I sat here this morning and watched NASCAR president Mike Helton explain in the driver's meeting at Kansas City why he felt it necessary to dock Dale Earnhardt Jr. 25 points in the standings for swearing during an interview right after he had won last week's race at Talladega. He said that in today's climate, and he acknowledged that the climate changes every day, that they simply cannot allow profanity on their broadcasts. They had docked two other drivers 25 points earlier in the year for the same offense, and they could not make exceptions for anybody. But it was much bigger then just being fair. It moved NASCAR's most popular driver from first place to second with seven races to go. Fact: if Dale Jr. Loses the championship by less then twenty-five points there will be a small riot at Homestead on the last day of the season.

If you've never been to a NASCAR race you don't realize how rabid Dale Jr.'s fans are. The stands at Dover two weeks ago, the last race I attended, were a sea of Budweiser red. When Dale Jr.'s fans thought he was cheated out of a win by a late caution at the first race at Talladega this year, handing the victory to his arch rival Jeff Gordon, fans pelted the track and Gordon's car with debris. If they feel junior was cheated this time, expect an even bigger reaction. Fans are upset. So are drivers. Tony Stewart has been the loudest, calling the penalty "insanity," but all the drivers think the penalty was grossly unfair. Personally I think it is just bad business. In its efforts to make NASCAR more fan friendly and spread its popularity beyond the South East, NASCAR is castrating its drivers. These are (for the most part) men and need to be allowed to act like it. The popularity of this sport has always been built on personality as much as speed, and in trying to Disnify its attraction NASCAR is turning its drivers into the slick, overproduced cardboard cut-outs of drivers you see next to the beer display in the grocery store. The only possible result is that the new interest in NASCAR outside its traditional region will begin to wane while its core fans will be turned off by having their heroes neutered. As Bill Maher said last night, you got to let rednecks be rednecks. NASCAR insists that it applied its rules fairly in docking Dale Jr. 25 points. Bull. It applied the rule evenly, but not fairly, because the rule is unfair to begin with. You need to let people be themselves.

But the issue here is much more serious. As Helton indicated, this fine is the result of the "current climate" and that climate is brought on by by the FCC, an FCC in the administration of George Bush, which panders to his conservative Christian Base (yes, this base overlaps with NASCAR's, but that's not the point). With Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the Superbowl (which I continue to believe was calculated to sell the album she had coming out at the time--and it worked), and the outrage that followed, the conservatives were emboldened on this issue and the FCC moved to clamp down on obscenity. In the same week that NASCAR penalized Dale Jr., the conservatives finally succeeded in driving Howard Stern off of Broadcast Radio, as he announced he was moving to Sirius (more on that next week). The FCC had a long campaign against Stern and his raunchy show and had, through a series of exorbitant fines over the past few months, convinced Clear Channel, the nations biggest Radio broadcaster, to drop Stern from its stations (Clear Channel's power of censorship is enormous, just ask the Dixie Chicks). When looked at in the broader context, Dale Jr.'s penalty is part of a pattern of censorship which has been going on since Mr. Bush took office and increased markedly after the Superbowl last January. It is the newest front opened in the Culture War (that's the war that the conservatives declared on the rest of us). They want to be able to control speech in this country, to sanitize it, to make it "family friendly" and to promote clean 1950s style America--not one that actually existed in the 1950s--that would be too dirty, too real, for their tastes--but the one you saw on 1950s television. A white bread morality which never existed in America except in people's dreams.

Censorship of any kind of speech is a bad idea. It is not only wrong, it simply doesn't work. Part of Mike' Helton's message this morning was that, no matter what your personal beliefs about speech and how you talk when you are at home or hanging out with your friend's NASCAR has not only the right but the responsibility to censor its drivers. This is seriously misguided, not only from a business standpoint but from a moral and constitutional standpoint as well. History has shown that in the case of vices like sex, drugs, profanity, gambling, and NASCAR's own stock in trade speed, trying to suppress the activity usually only makes the problems associated with those activities worse. But there is a bigger issue here even then that, a political issue, an issue of a powerful corporation threatening the livelihood of someone based on something they said in an interview.

Wal Mart exercises its power as the number one distributed of DVDs and video tapes in America by insisting that R rated movies be censored before they will carry them. Disney tries to silence dissent against President Bush by refusing to release a documentary critical of him, Fahrenheit 9/11, the summer before the election. CBS, bowing to political pressure from conservatives, pulls a film about President Reagan from broadcast and puts it on a cable network with a much lower viewership. Writers of books critical of the United States position toward the Middle East over the past twenty years are excoriated on the floor of the House of Representatives. Foreign Relations departments in universities which do not adhere to a strict government approved pro-US curriculum have their funding threatened. The largest radio network in the country refuses to play Dixie Chicks albums after the criticize the president at a concert in Europe. Howard Stern is driven off the air and Dale Jr. is docked 25 points for an expletive. Taken all together this pattern is frighteningly Orwellian.

Some of the instances of censorship listed above were government initiated, which is covered by the First Amendment, others were corporate censorship, which is not. So to some of the censorship is of political speech, which has more protections, while some was of profanity (or pornography or obscenity, whatever you want to call it), which has less. Robert Bork once wrote that the first amendment only applies to political speech and therefore pornography has no protections, but this is just another example of Orwellian doublespeak. When you outlaw a speech act, when you make certain words (George Carlin's famous seven words you can't say on TV) illegal then getting on TV and saying those words becomes an act of protest, a political act, and Dale Jr.'s and Janet Jackson's and Howard Stern's speech becomes political and censoring the speech becomes political censorship, an effort to silence those with whom you disagree, a stifling of debate, a chilling of public discourse.

And this is why not only should Dale Jr. Be given back his 25 points but why we gotta vote these yahoos out of office. And so we made it back to the election again.


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