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AL MARTINEZ

Beware the mighty moral roar shaking the nation

March 15, 2004|AL MARTINEZ

Ever since Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft ordered the concealment of a statue's bare breast at the Justice Department, America has become conscious of nudity, semi-nudity, bad words, bad jokes, sexual acts and other forms of new wave entertainment that fall under the general category of pornography.

Ashcroft's was no doubt an act of moral indignation that would have pleased the late Utah Sen. Reed Smoot, one of the great smut fighters of the 20th century, who hated sin almost as much as he loved polygamy. His righteous indignation, which lasted for 30 years, faded about the time America discovered sex, booze and the Charleston, all of which proved too much for the Republican senator to handle.

The attorney general's effort to hide the breast of the 12-foot Spirit of Justice statue, other than establishing a metaphor for his own policies of law in the Age of Terrorism, has been viewed as yet another mighty attempt to save us from the gradual downward spiraling of the nation's morality. His action would have been dismissed as laughable were it not for Janet Jackson.

As 750 million mothers, fathers and their little children (give or take a hundred million) watched the half-time happiness of Super Bowl XXXVIII, Justin Timberlake reached over and pulled open the tunic of Jackson's outfit, revealing a well-formed right breast, as they sang, appropriately, "Rock Your Body." That did it. It's one thing for a lascivious sculptor to chisel out statues with oversized erogenous zones, it's quite another for America's favorite ultra-hyped mega-sport to be defiled by a real bare breast. What next, flash cards in the stands that depict acts of procreation?

There have been other indecencies along the way on the road to perdition, but this one caught the attention of Washington, D.C. Nothing was done when Sharon Stone flashed her crotch in "Basic Instinct," although it was a pretty lurid display. She just became more famous and married a newspaper editor. But Jackson flashes a mammary gland and Congress demands a crackdown on indecency.

God help us when the federal government gets involved in anything having to do with, well, anything, especially morality, but that's what it did. Last week, the House, its members bristling with saintly outrage, voted overwhelmingly to increase fines and toughen broadcast license revocation penalties for those who violate federal indecency rules. The fallout from the mere threat of their doing so resulted earlier in the firing of one Todd Clem, who reviled his audience under the name of Bubba the Love Sponge. Then Howard Stern, the king of effluence, was dropped from six stations.

I know nothing, thank the Lord, of Bubba the Love Sponge, but Stern has for years enjoyed a loyal following of those who enjoy humor based on flatulence, mucus, vomit, spit and other forms of bodily functions best discussed in private. His existence seems to have suddenly come as a big surprise to our nation's smut-fighters, even though Stern has been whistling his filthy tunes since 1985.

The threat of tougher punishment for those who outrage public decency has the broadcast industry in a semi-panic. The National Assn. of Broadcasters issued a statement last week that, somewhat nervously, said, "We hear the call of legislators and are committed to taking voluntary action to address this issue." One wonders exactly what that portends.

Does it mean limiting or eliminating the endless stream of shows on television that build their audiences on the basis of sex and violence, those two old TV standbys, or does it mean getting rid of people like L.A.'s delightful comic Sandra Tsing Loh because of one stupid error, or worse?

Loh is an author and actress whose giddy humor has delighted listeners of her show, "The Loh Life," for the last six years on KCRW-FM. On stage, she runs free, as she did recently in a one-woman show at the Geffen Playhouse. But radio, even National Public Radio, allows no such freedom, at least not to the degree that got Loh fired.

She used the F-word on a pre-recorded monologue, not as an invective but in enthusiastic praise of her husband and what she'd like to run home and do with him. Although we were all pleased with her romantic ebullience, it probably could have been expressed in a different manner. The show was pre-recorded and Loh said she ordered the word bleeped out before airtime, but it wasn't, and she got canned.

It was a dumb mistake that a professional, and Loh is one, never should have made. You don't write joke stories that may get into the paper, and you don't make objectionable comments that may get on the air. But Loh isn't generally a purveyor of obscenity. Not a Bubba or a Stern. An on-the-air apology should have sufficed. An abrupt dismissal pandered to Washington's mighty moral roar.

Musical satirist Tom Lehrer once sang in exquisite irony, "When correctly viewed, everything's lewd," and I fear that our vote-driven, attention-demanding enemies of sin might begin taking on the 1st Amendment next in their righteous war. And that would be the worst obscenity of all.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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