The Commissar's in Town

by Myles Kantor

The Soviet Union wasn't a pluralistic place. To complement its command economy, the Bolshevik barbarians imposed artistic censorship through Glavlit (Main Administration for Literary and Publishing Affairs), created in 1922 through the Commissariat of Enlightenment (got to love that title's pomposity).

Homogeneous expression is entailed by the totalitarian worldview that detests any idea disparate from its dogma. Conceptual competition is treasonous to this monopolistic temperament.

America theoretically believes in freedom of expression and philosophic capitalism, so federal censorship clashes with our liberal tradition. (I admit this is a romantic view. The Sedition Act, after all, appeared within a decade of the First Amendment's ratification.) Yet it is just this kind of counter-constitutional muzzling that continues to be perpetrated by the Federal Communications Commission.

Created by the 1934 Communications Act, the FCC is one of the New Deal's spawn. Section 326 of the act contains a shameless instance of doublespeak:

Nothing in this Act shall be understood or construed to give the Commission the power of censorship over the radio communications or signals transmitted by any radio station, and no regulation or condition shall be promulgated or fixed by the Commission which shall interfere with the right of free speech by means of radio communication. No person within the jurisdiction of the United States shall utter any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communication.

Obscenity, indecency, profanity – these nebulous prohibitions have provided a pretext for the censorship professedly denied to the FCC.

Rap musicians have been the targeted class of late. The FCC fined a Colorado radio station $7000 for indecency that played an edited version of Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady." The same fine has been imposed on stations that play Sarah Jones's "Your Revolution."

This is naked illiberalism. Eminem and Sarah Jones certainly perturb some people, but the same can be said of Kurt Vonnegut and Phillip Roth. In a free society, offensive lyrics and prose are boycotted, not muzzled by the State. If they flop, it is in a free market, not by federal fiat. As Justice John Marshall Harlan famously notes in Cohen v. California, "[O]ne man's vulgarity is another's lyric."

The FCC's premise would equally justify an FLC (Federal Literature Commission) to suppress "obscene, indecent, or profane" writing. Would The Inferno pass muster? How about Donald Barthelme's Snow White or Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian? Why would it be desirable for Beltway bureaucrats to determine either's permissibility?

A good many Americans will feel no ire over the FCC's aggression against Eminem and Sarah Jones, but aggression it is when the State expropriates for expression. Today the commissars muzzle hip-hop. Who knows what they will muzzle tomorrow?

There is only one solution to this menace: abolition.

Myles Kantor Archives