“I have some reservations with the FCC going after performers.”

These are the words of—holy fuck!—FCC overlord, nepotism beneficiary, and Spongebob Squarepants fanboy Michael Powell, in reference to legislation currently being pushed through Washington’s intestines. The bill in question will allow for fines of up to $500,000 to be levied against individual performers deemed guilty of indecency on public airwaves.

The capability has always been there, but up ’til now the fine has been capped at $11,000, and the FCC has never issued one. You think maybe that could change?

And so the legislative jihad against indecency continues to gather steam. Most of the country seemed willing to laugh it off as long as the government’s ire was focused on a nipple and a twenty-year veteran of the airwaves, but now the targets are growing in number. How long before this thing reaches critical mass and eats itself?

That depends, in part, on the reaction of American housewives and college students to recent statements by Michael Copps, another FCC commissioner, regarding — you don’t say, Mr. Copps — sexual content on soap operas:

“It was pretty steamy stuff for the middle of the afternoon.”

(Aren’t kids in school in the middle of the afternoon?)

This comes after John Conboy, Executive Producer of CBS soap Guiding Light, was fired after the show aired a scene featuring a glimpse of a male character’s bare ass.

Howard Stern has been yelling about this on his show for weeks, without making much of a dent in the predominantly sniggering tone of the media coverage surrounding his dismissal from six Clear Channel stations earlier this year. Stern feels CC’s decision to drop his show stemmed from anti-Bush comments he made after reading Al Franken’s latest book. It sounds like tin-foil-hat stuff, and maybe it is, although Texas-based Clear Channel has historically been very chummy with the Bush administration (due in no small part to the Bush FCC’s love for deregulation). After getting no support from his friends in high places, Stern has gone on the offensive — he’s encouraging his listeners to file complaints with the FCC against the Oprah Winfrey Show. On March 18, Oprah frankly discussed salad tossing and rainbow parties with a guest.

In comparison, the show that prompted Stern’s latest FCC fine — a broadcast from 2001 — featured vague references to, among other things, a blumpkin.

The prevailing conventional wisdom seems to have been that it doesn’t matter what the FCC does to Stern, or to his corporate parent Viacom, because he’s a “shock jock” whose show is for morons who like toilet humor. Even the most pro-Stern stuff I’ve read contains the inevitable caveats: “I don’t like the show, but:”

This misses the point, which is: Government deregulation has enabled so many media mega-mergers that it’s now possible to do legislative ends-around the First Amendment. In other words, the government can’t throw you in jail for saying something it doesn’t like, but it can fine one of the handful of major conglomerates broadcasting your show:and if they drop you, good luck finding another job. By its own estimation, Clear Channel alone boasts 110 million listeners, which is something like 38% of the country’s population.

Comparing all this to McCarthyism seems like a lazy parallel, mostly because it’s become such an overused term. But maybe it has some merit. This particular charge has been led by Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who puts passage of the current bill at “50-50 this year” and has previously waged personal campaigns against cloning, etc.

Brownback is an interesting guy. For one thing, even though he’s a millionaire, he lives in a $600-a-month D.C. townhouse. This is not necessarily the result of any frugality on Brownback’s part; rather, the rent is subsidized by a group called “the Fellowship” or “the Foundation”:

“Our goal is singular — and that is to hope that we can assist them in better understandings of the teachings of Christ, and applying it to their jobs.”

His apologists say there’s nothing wrong with this. Maybe they’re right. But, uh, Brownback certainly doesn’t need the help with his rent. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to draw the line between Brownback’s Fellowship/Foundation ties and his rabid crusade against anything “offensive,” whatever that is.

And there’s the problem with fighting ‘filth,’ really. What is offensive? Does Brownback get to decide? His buddies in the Christian Coalition? The FCC?

These ‘pro-decency’ movements, such as they are, seem to flare up about every ten years or so, catch the interest of cranky right-wingers, and build momentum until the public loses interest. The entertainment industry, up ’til now, has been fairly adept at promoting self-regulatory measures to stave this stuff off. But this legislation — these fines — will still be around after this thing dies down. Since 1980, neither Democrats nor Republicans have shown any political will when it comes to fighting deregulation; I don’t expect that to change in the forseeable future. It all adds up to an effective brickbat against dissent.

This matters to you, whether you know it or not. Get in touch with your Representatives, sign the StopFCC petition, and hope Brownback and his fellow crusaders flame out sooner than later.