Rebirth of Reason


Philosophy Lessons -- Courtesy of Opie and Anthony
by Arthur Silber

While it is certainly true that ideas underlie all events, sometimes philosophical instruction comes to us from unexpected directions. Consider the recent case of two radio "shock" jocks, Greg "Opie" Hughes and Anthony Cumia. The New York-based radio hosts, whose show was nationally syndicated and carried in 17 additional markets, had their show canceled by station WNEW-FM on August 22, 2002. An uproar had ensued when Opie and Anthony, as part of a "stunt" on their show, had offered their listeners a live broadcast of a man and a woman apparently having sex in St. Patrick's Cathedral. (The "perpetrators" were arrested, and are now defending themselves by maintaining that they were "only" simulating sex.) This "stunt" was part of a regular feature on the Opie and Anthony show, in which couples could earn points and win a trip for having sex in risky places.

What lessons could such a comical sequence of events have for us (and it was definitely comical, among other things)? First, the ancient philosophical doctrine of the mind/body dichotomy is alive and well. That doctrine, which holds that there is a metaphysically inherent conflict between man's mind -- his consciousness -- and man's body -- the physical form which connects him to this earth -- has numerous ramifications: the moral versus the practical; the ideal versus the necessarily compromised reality; and the spiritual versus the material. In every commonly accepted version, this view holds that the spiritual realm is somehow superior to the material world. This inevitably means that, according to this system of belief, "true" or ideal love is platonic and physically unfulfilled, and that sex is fundamentally a mindless bodily act, devoid of any value or meaning.

According to Objectivism, which rejects this dichotomy and all of its variants, sex ideally represents the ultimate and most personally meaningful unification of the spiritual and the material, in an act of wonderful, sometimes unendurable pleasure, an act of profound psychological and physical meaning -- and one of such significance that it would be a desecration to perform it in public, under the prying eyes of strangers. And for Opie and Anthony that was precisely the point. But they had a double desecration in mind: not only was the sex to be performed in public, but in a church -- and in one of New York's most famous landmarks, to boot.

No matter how mistaken the views of the Catholic Church are -- and they are mistaken, down to their most basic metaphysical roots -- the Church is an advocate for the highest goals toward which men should strive (according to its philosophy), the noble, the ideal, the sacrosanct, the not-to-be-violated. So, if Opie and Anthony wished to shock their listeners to their foundations, and mount an assault on society in general, what could be better than to have an act of supposedly mindless, animalistic, degrading sex performed inside of St. Patrick's Cathedral -- and do it while people were actually praying not far away? Oh, yes: shocking, offensive and revolting -- but not because sex is inherently bad, but because sex is so good, so important, and can be so pleasurable and meaningful, that to treat it in this manner is beneath contempt.

The second lesson is a more familiar one. Although it is not entirely clear, the sequence of events leads most convincingly to one conclusion. As The Washington Post article on August 23 reported: "The cancellation was announced shortly after FCC Chairman Michael Powell directed the agency's enforcement bureau to investigate the broadcast." The threat hanging ominously over the New York radio station was that, if the public protest grew too loud, or if the FCC decided the "stunt" was too "indecent," or on the basis of any other reason the FCC might come up with, the station's license would be revoked. In what seemed to be a transparent effort to mollify the life and death powers of the FCC, the station caved, and fired the two hosts.

Of course, the FCC maintains that stations must serve the "public interest," and that the FCC itself acts only to serve that interest in the ways it deems best. But which "public" is the FCC protecting? The majority of the audience that made Opie and Anthony tremendously popular and successful, in large part as the result of "stunts" like this one? The lesson: the fight against the myth of "public ownership" and the "public interest" has only begun, and we still have far to go. In the meantime, the dead hand of government, using intimidation and fear as its major weapons, looms large in our lives.

The final lesson involves the Catholic Church itself. In view of the Church's ongoing scandals involving priests having sexual relations with young boys and men (and occasionally women), and failing to address those very serious and tragic problems in a manner which convinces anyone of its gravity and commitment, it is truly laughable to have William Donohue, head of the influential Catholic League, celebrate the firings: "I'm very, very happy. It is an example of corporate responsibility in an age of corporate irresponsibility." Corporate irresponsibility? Well, he should know. It is truly stunning in its hypocrisy -- but hardly surprising -- that the Catholic Church, and organizations like the Catholic League, should so eagerly pounce on this ridiculous, if offensive, incident to distract attention from the decades-long, and much more devastating, problems within the Church itself. One only wishes that people like Mr. Donohue would reacquaint themselves with the virtue of humility, and the many appeals of the vow of silence.

But perhaps the best comment came from another shock jock, who has himself been fired for perpetrating unacceptably outrageous stunts. On one television talk show, he said (and I paraphrase): "I don't understand why the Catholic Church is so upset about this, with all their problems with priests having sex with young boys. These people were consenting adults, and they were heterosexual. I would have expected the Catholics to be grateful."

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