Pollution of the verbal sort

Published 11:11 pm Wednesday, November 1, 2006

The great state of Texas’ seegar-puffing poseur of a gubernatorial candidate, Kinky Friedman, is in trouble over a comedy skit from 25 ago years wherein the future candidate employed something commonly known as “the n-word.” Calls for his withdrawal from the race, if not for the immediate application of tar and feather to his person, have duly gone forth.

The immediate furor will die down, but the appropriately named Kinky — offbeat author and entertainer — will find himself even farther from the Governor’s Mansion door than before, which was pretty far, actually. Only reason for bringing up the whole episode, so far as I can see, is to remark on what’s happened lately to public standards.

What’s happened is that all our present standards are political rather than cultural, the way they used to be.

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I’ll explain. Thoughtless use of “the n-word” — long forbidden, and rightly so, to well-brought-up Southern youths — can still sabotage a political campaign in Texas, just as Virginia Sen. George Allen’s use of “macaca” to deride an ethnic Indian dogging his campaign appearances has clouded Allen’s once bright prospects for re-election. Nobody but nobody — even a veteran jester like Kinky — wants to be seen as disparaging a non-Anglo-Saxon race, or for that matter non-heterosexuality, now that “diversity” is among the supreme political goods.

What of the culture, even so?

Seen any movies lately — “Jackass 2,” for instance? Watched “The Sopranos”? Eavesdropped on any Gen-X or Gen-Y conversations? No verbal taboos in venues such as these. None.

Whereas in days of old, use of “ bad language” in “mixed company” was out — way, way out — today it seems de rigueur; the expected thing. You hear in public settings the sort of language that once brought forth exclamations like, “Watch your language,” or, “Excuse me, ma’am.”

It was always “ma’am.”

A gentleman — for the term was not yet applicable to males in general — was presumed to have obligations toward women, as toward fellow gentlemen who didn’t hold with verbal pollution.

That’s what I mean by the standards of that day being “cultural.” They applied to almost the whole of life. Of which politics was a part, and by no means the largest part.

People cared in some degree about the “tone” of life — whether it was coarse, offensive, rude. On such grounds, no small number of Southern parents specifically outlawed “the n-word.” It was all those things — coarse, offensive, rude. We weren’t going to have it.

Nor will we have it now — mainly, however, for political, not cultural, reasons. Ethnic put-downs are out because ethnic power-sharing is in. Three or four decades ago, amid Vietnam and Watergate turmoil, politics shoved aside cultural considerations, such as concern for the greater good; such as acknowledgment that there actually might be a greater good; such as respect (not just “tolerance “) for decency and modesty and a bunch of other stuff regarded as impossibly yesterday and irrelevant.

It’s all about politics now, which includes the duty not to push “outworn” cultural beliefs on someone else. Hey, doesn’t that someone have the same rights of self-expression as you? Let him talk; let him blaspheme; let him offend people with presumably no right not to be offended or told off. Just keep him away from “the n-word,” because, you see, these deeply political matters aren’t negotiable. You can make fun of priests and “the Religious Right”; you can pose — like Madonna — on a crucifix; you can talk like a football locker room, wherever and whenever.

Ah, the old days! They weren’t ideal, as to politics or culture, either one. One thing they were was generally intelligent as to the relationship between the two realms. They knew, those old fellers, that you couldn’t have good politics without a relatively healthy culture of norms and standards and dignity and overarching beliefs. You couldn’t have moral anarchy — in other words, the thing we seem to have now