Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The language of public life

I was reading Dr. Sanity's recent post, in which she quotes Fred Siegel from the NY Observer. He describes an encounter with some undergraduate Dean supporters prior to the 2004 primaries thusly:

I was taken aback by my conversation with the Deaniacs; their sheer coarseness stunned me. Even at the height of the "Ronald Reagan is going to blow up the world" mania of the 1980’s, I had never seen a "Fuck Reagan" button. But the coarseness was consistent with the dominant mood in academia outside of the sciences.

Well, I hate to break it to you, Fred, but it ain't just academia. At the risk of sliding even further into old-fuddydud-ism (and perhaps even my use of the word "fuddydud" is emblematic of the fact that I'm already hopelessly mired there), I have to say that I myself have noticed recently a remarkable rise of what Siegel delicately refers to as "coarseness" in public life, not just academia.

Clinton donned shades and played the sax on TV. That wasn't any problem; it was fun. But now we have candidates using the F-word in interviews with the media. Kerry in Rolling Stone, describing Bush's Iraq policy--well, at least that was Rolling Stone, which appeals to a certain demography, so there was a bit of logic behind it, although I think it did absolutely nothing to enhance his candidacy or his person. And, just to show that I'm a nonpartisan equal-opportunity critic, there was Dick Cheney dissing Patrick Leahy on the floor of the Senate--although that was a personal spat, apparently, rather than a public interview.

What's up? We're all baby boomers here, and we tiresome boomers used to crow about how we liberated the language (and a lot else) from the confines of earlier ideas of propriety, etiquette, and politeness. Some of this liberation was good, no doubt.

But there's something to be said for propriety, especially in public life. Now Joe Biden, in an article in the 3/21/05 New Yorker by Jeffrey Goldberg entitled "The Unbranding," is quoted as saying, "What is so transformational in the last four years is that these assholes who wouldn't give President Clinton the authority to use force" have now become, he said, moral interventionists. "Give me a fucking break."

Does this make you want to vote for the man in 2008? Does it make him seem more "muscular?" Does it make him seem young and hip, or merely juvenile? To me, it's the latter.

I'm a child of the 60s myself, and not averse to an F-word here and there in my private life. But I can't imagine Roosevelt or Truman giving an interview and purposely using language that they no doubt were familiar with, but thought should be confined to private life, if uttered at all. They were aware that there's public and then there's private words, and as leaders of the Western world they had some funny notion of retaining a little dignity in public discourse.

ADDENDUM: By the way, spellcheck agrees. It wanted me to replace "assholes" with "assails," and "fucking" with "bucking."


At 1:22 PM, March 22, 2005, Blogger Bryan said...

As a long-time single male who spent many evenings hanging out in bars of all types, I've been known to speak French myself. When I'm around my nieces and nephews I find myself having to edit mid-sentence on occasion.

One thing I did find interesting in the "dissing" link, they had no problem using the F-word in the article and then later used "expletive deleted" in place of "asshole"?

At 10:03 AM, March 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, too, indulge in an occassional strategically placed F... for emphsis in a personal conversation but I have to admit I find it dismaying that a politician of Biden's stature would deliberately use it in something for public publication. It just seems so coarse and phony... like, " Oh, I'm such a tough guy." Why didn't he just rip his shirt off and thump his hairy chest for a photo shoot? That's how silly the gratuitis F... is to me.


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