The New York Times served up a front page story Saturday "Foul-Mouthed And Proud of It On the '16 Trail," about how the herd of Republican presidential candidates are swearing far more than has ever been previously heard in public from those who would occupy the White House.
The words that shocked us when Nixon muttered them on transcripts of the White House tapes more than 40 years ago are now being blithely tossed out to crowds that cheer instead of gasp.
Not that the Times said that. Or quoted any of the actual words being used by these candidates. Not directly. Campaigning may have changed, but journalism has not, alas, not enough, and being what is still called "a family newspaper" by the few who refer to newspapers at all, the Times did not reproduce the words and phrases it was writing about, falling back on a variety of stale euphemisms and twee winks. Thus Rand Paul calling any trade-off between liberty and security "bullshit" was rendered strangely as "'bull' before adding a syllable" and Mario Rubio called something "'political B.S. without the abbreviation." The article vaguely referred to "four-letter words," "dirty words," "provocative remarks" and my favorite, "saltiness."
Let me guess. When you read "bullshit" in the paragraph above, your hands did not fly to your cheeks as you uttered a tiny, "Oh my!" People who get worked up over obscenity, I have found, tend to be residents of small towns, blinking at the larger world as if they've never seen it before. A lot of stuff upsets them.
Odd to cater to isolated small-town naifs as your target audience. Only a few weeks ago, the Times felt justified including a chunky virtual reality viewing device with the Sunday paper. Given that expensive and probably fruitless effort, you'd think that expanding their permitted vocabularies to include a few common words most adults hear and utter every day, in conversation and on-line, would be a no-brainer.
But like network television, newspapers linger in the fading past, allowing themselves to be held prisoner by a tiny coterie of complainers.
The Times speculates as to why so many curse words are being heard. Aping Donald Trump for starters — though no obscene word could touch the obscenity of the thoughts being expressed, which are also parroted widely. Or perhaps "a play for machismo ... a signal of vitality, rawness, a willingness to break through the din."
I think that last reason was why I named this blog "Every goddamn day" — to stick out from the clutter while expressing a sense of who I am and what it is this thing is supposed to do.
When the blog was in its early days I got the occasional complaint. Now the only difficulty is self-generated, in conversation, through an excess of politeness. I sometimes find myself blushing to actually utter it -- I was talking Saturday with a bright young member of a Baptist church, preparing an apartment in West Rogers Park for some Burmese refugees arriving later in the week. We were talking about the national mood regarding refugees, and I suggested she read a certain column I had written on the topic, and since the Sun-Times web site is so, ah, problematic, I said she could look it up on my personal blog, "Every ... er... every gah..." and then gently explained the whole genesis of the name. She smiled and seemed to understand—the young are not as easily rattled as we older folks sometimes suspect.
To be honest, as much as I value the right to use more risque words, where appropriate, I would feel a bit threatened if they fell into wide use and general acceptability, because that would rob them of their surprise and power. When every candidate for comptroller is promising to wipe away the bullshit, when every toddler is shrieking "fuh you, Billy!" as they wrestle over a sippy cup, then David Mamet plays will lose a little of their oomph, and my darts will be blunted.
The great William Safire, once the Times' resident wordsmith, now sunk in obscurity, includes an entry on "God damn" in his 1980 "On Language." After slyly bragging that Frank Sinatra insulted him, quoting the singer telling the UPI, "William Safire is a goddamn liar," Safire mourns the merging of the two words into one and, idiosyncratically, decries the final "n" on "damn," which he'd like to remove for two nonsensical reasons: "it's not pronounced anyway" and because, since nothing is being damned, it's more a "whoop of admiration or exasperation."
Yet he titles the entry, "God damn," a head-scratching example of a writer failing to adopt the practice even as he urges it upon others.
Obviously no one listened to Safire, who was laboring under the illusion that star journalists often succumb to: that they're actually directing the river we're all being carried along in.
The UPI, Safire mentions, urged "goddamn ... should not be used at all unless there is a compelling reason."
I consider catching attention, projecting edginess, and shooing away the overly pious, all compelling reasons. I hope the Republican presidential candidates are not signaling a general approval of what the Times would call "potty talk," and that their electoral defeat will reverse the trend they started, assuming they've started a trend, and don't exist in some separate cultural hell reserves for candidates. The politicians can have "bullshit"—it suits them—but I hope they'll leave "goddamn," with its mix of wonder and grumpiness, to me.
"Lord, thank you," Thomas Lux once ended a poem, gloriously, "for the goddamn birds singing!" Exactly.