The Breast That Ate Pittsburgh
by Peter Kurth

February 10, 2004

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Almost 60 years ago, at the end of World War II, an American journalist in London asked George Bernard Shaw what he foresaw as the future of the victorious Allies – in particular, the United States.

“Three hundred years of the Dark Ages,” Shaw answered promptly. “After that, things will be fine.”

I wish I could believe him, not that it matters -- by the time enlightenment hits these shores again, I’ll have shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the Lord at that great big Super Bowl in the sky. As Texas writer Beth Henry remarked last week on the media website Axis of Logic, “Things have gotten really creepy in the land of the Humvee.”

A confession: Unless I’m badly mistaken, I’m the only person living who’s never watched the Super Bowl here on earth. I’ve never willingly watched a football game at all, so I missed the colossal misdeed, the unspeakable act, the crude, tasteless, anti-Christian, anti-American, anti-family “wardrobe malfunction” that gave an estimated 99 million TV viewers, among them helpless women and children, a 1.7-second glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nickel-plated breast.

"Like millions of Americans," said an enraged Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, "my family and I gathered around the television for a celebration. Instead, that celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt."

It took Powell less than 24 hours to order an investigation – the Feds can move quickly if they want to -- but help came too late for many of the victims. In Virginia, Republican congressman J. Randy Forbes was watching Super Bowl XXXVIII in a hospital room with his “seriously ill 79-year-old-father” when Jackson’s teat hit the screen.

"I felt like they robbed us of a very special moment," said Forbes, calling the prime-time display "irresponsible and reprehensible." Even so, Forbes was luckier than Vivian Mitchell of Modesto, California, who was scheduled to testify at the Scott Peterson murder trial, if it ever begins, but who had a stroke in front of her television on Super Bowl Sunday and died three days later. Mitchell was the only person Peterson’s attorneys could find who claimed to have seen Laci Peterson, pregnant and alive, on the day that Scott supposedly axed her. And so another innocent life has been lost to tragedy – and for what?

"It's been a rough week on everybody," said Justin Timberlake at Sunday night’s Grammy Awards. With Jackson, Timberlake is the man who perpetrated this national outrage, and while he claims, even now, that “what occurred was unintentional,” it plainly was not. This doesn’t matter either, I suppose, in the depths of Timberlake’s twisted mind. The guilty parties have both apologized, you see, and that’s all you need to do in this country to be let off the hook. Just say you’ve “misjudged” something and they’ll lap you up like mother’s milk, forgive the expression.

It’s hard to know, of course, at this very early stage, if the sight of Janet Jackson’s dexter mammary posed an “imminent” threat to public morality and the American way of life, or if it was merely “urgent,” “immediate,” “serious,” “mortal” and “mounting.” Like George W. Bush, “I don’t want to get into word contests,” and it may be that the intelligence I received about Super Bowl Sunday wasn’t so “darned good” after all. Certainly, no nipple has yet been found, despite the best efforts of federal inspectors and the endless replaying of this gross indecency from the moment it occurred.

Indeed, if it weren’t for television, I would never have known that Janet Jackson has breasts, much less that a member of the Jackson family has parts of her anatomy that are apparently real. I wouldn’t have seen the willful and malicious destruction of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, either, engineered by the broadcast networks’ incessant repeats of “The Scream,” which aired a whopping 633 times in the four days after the Iowa caucuses.

Here, the mind begins to boggle. Without TV and its attendant publicity, I’d be blissfully unaware of Laci Peterson. I would never have heard of Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, the savagely murdered Carlie Brucia in Florida or that little girl in Pittsburgh, Brandy McKenith, who last week, at the age of seven, was suspended from school for saying the word “hell.”

To be precise –- because American reporters value nothing so much as objectivity in the news -- Brandy was expelled from Pittsburgh’s Sunnyside Elementary School for telling a classmate that he was going to hell, after she heard him utter a phrase she considers blasphemous, “I swear to God.” The Pittsburgh public school system has zero tolerance for “profanity,” according to news reports; while profanity isn’t defined in its “student code of conduct,” it’s forbidden, all the same, so Brandy was sent home with a scarlet “H” on her back.

“'Hell?'” said Brandy’s father, Wayne. “She got suspended for that? 'Hell' is, like, the least of the words in school today.” What’s more, Brandy learned it in church. The McKeniths aren’t “religious fanatics,” says Wayne, but they have “a healthy respect for the Lord. She’s under the assumption that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell.”

And why wouldn’t she be? TV is how children learn these days, and now that Brandy’s home alone she’ll have lots of time to watch. Thank God for President Bush, is all I can say, who declared last week at the 52nd Annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast in Washington, "Let us never be too proud to acknowledge our dependence on Providence and take our cares to God.”

Domine, Domine – go vote!

Peter Kurth is the author of international bestselling books including Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson, Isadora: A Sensational Life, and a biography of the anti-fascist journalist Dorothy Thompson, American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson. His essays have appeared in Salon, Vanity Fair, New York Times Book Review, and many others. Peter lives in Burlington, Vermont. He can be reached at: peterkurth@peterkurth.com. Visit his website at: http://www.peterkurth.com/


Other Articles by Peter Kurth


* Monkey See, Monkey Do
* Crank Call
* A Cynic's Guide to the Top Stories of 2003
* Talking Turkey
* Let Them Drink Coke
* The Gang that Couldn’t Talk Straight On Iraq
* Party Rules







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