“We played dildo golf. We played wheel of sex. We are the last of a dying breed. This is a big moment. We broke every rule known to radio and mankind. The government says, ‘Clean up your act.’ We say, ‘Never.’”
These were Howard Stern’s words as he said goodbye to the public airwaves and hello to the broadcasting possibilities of satellite communication. No longer bound by FCC rules about decency and the public interest, Stern is now free to plumb new depths of depravity for his fans—moving from flatulence, nudity, and pubescent discourse on mammalian emissions to really hardcore stuff—perhaps advanced bestiality and snuff sex.
To hear Stern denounce the regulatory restrictions under which he labored, one would think that former FCC Chairman Michael Powell was a reincarnation of Cotton Mather—if not Torquemada. In actual fact, the number of official no-nos are so few and so threadbare that a large part of the shock jock’s cachet arose from his ability to expose the absurdity of remaining rules. After all, why should one stop at seven unspeakable words when the principle of temperance in public discourse is mocked with every utterance that escapes Stern’s mouth—statements broadcast to millions of Americans whose moral imaginations have been shaped by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Roman Polanski.
Indeed, Stern’s only Mephistophelean virtue is that he illustrates, time and again, that our society isn’t really serious about the limits it sets on public communications. The pitiful restrictions we retain only foster the illusion that the pit of depravity into which we have leapt comes equipped with a plain of reasonable decadence that will, eventually, halt our decent into the abyss. Quite unintentionally, Stern has shown that broadcast prohibitions are window dressing. He has broken them all—proudly and profitably.
Now Stern must search for new taboos to violate in order to perpetuate the popular myth that there is something praiseworthy about someone who will say anything and do anything that doesn’t land him in prison, in the hospital, in the morgue, or—and this last point stands above the rest—in a cheap apartment without an audience. Since Stern doesn’t have Powell to kick around anymore, he must violate broader cultural norms in order to demonstrate for the paying public his disdain for civilized boundaries. Cannibalism and incest are topics that may be ripe for exploitation by the “King of all Media.” It should be worth noting whether Stern’s fans will balk at such “courageous” iconoclasm.
Aficionados of urbane decadence have long spoken about the process whereby counter-cultural activities become mainstream. They note that it took a while before an un-hip society finally accepted Elvis’ twisting hips, just as it took a few decades before Hugh Hefner could plausibly present himself (on Larry King) as an enlightened reformer of “sexual-social mores.” The unspoken premise behind all these observations has been that mainstream behavior is morally inconsequential.
Now Stern is receiving the same treatment. Recently, a TV ad began airing in which a husband fawns over his wife’s telecommunication gift to him—a device that provides access to Stern’s satellite feed. Add to this commercial the amount of smiley-face news coverage that was given to Stern’s career move, and the conclusion is unavoidable: Howard is mainstream--no big deal.
On the other hand, it should be obvious to any thoughtful person that mainstream behavior isn’t always innocuous. Slavery is a clear case in point. It is also obvious to all but a few bi-coastal celebrities that a society devoid of rules is a world where life, in Thomas Hobbes’ famous words, becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
The naïve faith exhibited by Stern’s fans, who equate fraternity pranks with the obliteration of civilized boundaries, will be severely tested when their boy has to market delinquency without the aid of an official fall guy. Envelope-pushing won’t seem so jolly if listeners begin to sense that their imagined safety net is incompatible with Stern’s universal moral solvent. The “war of all against all” isn’t an entertaining prospect—not even for the severely depraved.
One can hope that Stern is the last of a dying breed. As things stand now, however, he is only the most conspicuous representative of a culture on the precipice of self-destruction.