I DON'T PLAN TO APPLY for a Howard Stern license plate from the Motor Vehicle Administration. But the hype surrounding the shock-jock and his new movie, ''Private Parts,'' afforded me an unsettling appreciation of the emotions felt by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Maryland.
The Sons were scorned after someone realized they were driving around with special license plates bearing the Confederate flag. African-American legislators and others were offended by state-sanctioned use of a banner under which slavery was defended. The story proceeded with a bad case of whiplash: Bureaucrats quickly canceled the license plates. Then, a judge reversed that order, citing free-speech infringement.
All the while, the Sons decried the portrayal of their group. Their intent was to honor their ancestry. Promoting racism has never been their aim.
I'm not convinced of the sensitivity of people who insist on driving around displaying a flag appropriated by hate-mongers as if it were as innocuous as the cartoon mascot of some sports team (''Go Klan?''). But I did gain some empathy for their argument in the midst of this hubbub over Howard Stern.
Back to WNBC
I have listened to the guy dating to the early 1980s when he was at WNBC in New York.
If I tweaked the AM dial just right in my car, I could pick up his afternoon drive-time show in the town where I was working, 100 miles outside Manhattan.
Howard Stern was crude, rude and sexist, but plenty before him have cashed in on like material, from Lenny Bruce and Don Rickles to Benny Hill and Redd Foxx. On the radio, he was safe. You could listen to him in the privacy of your car, free. He was, and is, an easy slice of vice.
Flash-forward to March 1997: His movie and its soundtrack are No. 1 in the U.S. His wan, slender face sneers out from what seems like every magazine on the stand. And he's on the tube daily, being interviewed by Peter or Stone or Katie or Jay or Dave or Maury.
Mom knows "Private Parts"
I knew the man most wanted by the Federal Communications Commission had become mainstream when I let slip to my very proper mother I was going to see Mr. Stern's movie and she replied, ''Oh, you mean 'Private Parts.' ''
Unfortunately, the movie has redredged an old argument in my household. My wife thinks it a flaw of mine that I find this idiot at all entertaining. She listened once while he berated a woman mercilessly, confirming her suspicion of Mr. Stern's show as a tumor of incivility in a world with enough meanness.
I protested: The guy's not a sexist or racist. By all accounts, including his autobiographical film, he treats women and his wife with respect, even if he talks dirty into a microphone. Isn't that better than the antics of certain male politicians who are outspoken advocates on women's issues, then grope females in private?
In my defensive argument, however, I'll admit I heard the echo of a Confederate drummer boy drumming: Insensitive? Moi? You've got me wrong.
That unease pinched again last weekend when I went to see Mr. Stern's movie with friends from my neighborhood -- other middle-age dads on a ''boys' night out'' as rare as Comet Kohoutek. As I entered the multiplex, I ran into a family whose son I coach in basketball. The mom asked what I was there to see. I told her.
''You're not going to tell me you're a fan?,'' she sniffed. ''OK,'' I replied, ''I won't tell you.''
We both chuckled and went our ways, but the moment left a bad aftertaste.
I felt like a guy with the ''Stars and Bars'' on my car, trying to convince someone I really was the nice guy they always thought.
Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 3/15/97