It is one thing when leftists criticize President Trump for dragging our country down into vulgarity and sneer. It is another thing to hear conservatives blame Trump first for the degraded state of our culture.
That’s what happened last week, though, when on the "PBS News Hour" Judy Woodruff asked David Brooks and Mark Shields about Roseanne Barr/Samantha Bee. Ms. Woodruff wondered if we are “in some kind of muck and mud in terms of our language,” a fair concern in the light of the fact that soon after Ms. Bee uttered her filthy remark the Television Academy honored her for “inspiring social change.”
But Mr. Brooks isn’t worried: “I like to look at it as if we are, hopefully, trying to drag ourselves out of the muck.” Things have gotten coarse in the public square, and he singled out two general culprits, social media and “different standards on TV.” Then he added two specific causes in the present moment, Donald Trump “setting new norms” and Trump’s critics “matching them.”
But Brooks went on to predict that manners will improve. It was hard to listen, however, once he had set the president at the center of the current sleaze. Trump is the prime mover of today’s trash-talking? And the people denouncing him and his family in lewd terms only follow his lead?
The only way you can say that is by ignoring a half-century of raunchy speech by leftwing personalities. Consider some of the highlights.
- The most celebrated poem of the 1950s, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which includes the line “who let themselves get f***** in the a** by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.”
- The legal case of Paul Robert Cohen, the anti-War protester who was convicted of disturbing the peace when he wore a jacket that said “F*** the Draft” in a Los Angeles courtroom in April, 1968. The Supreme Court upheld his right to do so.
- George Carlin’s notorious “seven dirty words” routine, which landed a radio station in the Supreme Court but made Carlin a free speech hero.
- Another obscenity case, the 1989 album "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" by 2 Live Crew, whose songs included “The F*** Shop” and “Bad-A** B****,” and whose cover contained the message, “If you don’t like the record, you can kiss our mother f*****‘ a**.” In a column in The Nation, Christopher Hitchens said this about the judge and sheriff who pursued the group: “they are a pair of racist s***heads who should be told to f*** right off.” 2 Live Crew’s most prominent defender in court was liberal professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
- Madonna, lead speaker at the Women’s March following Trump’s Inauguration, going on David Letterman’s show in 1994 and uttering the f-word fourteen times.
- Jon Stewart’s habitual profanities (see a quick compilation here), which didn’t get him fired, but instead invited regularly to the White House.
These examples and a thousand other moments of well-publicized profanity are not random and disconnected. They were not impulsive outbursts. They were planned, staged, and promulgated after the fact. To most Americans who heard them at the time, the language came off as a stunning breach of decency. But the speakers themselves saw it in customary liberal terms of liberation and creativity. Conservatives prize decorum as a matter of mutual respect and dignity. Violations of it drag everyone down. But liberals view decorum as a repressive tool of a status quo that must change.
That’s why the f-word and the c-word are part of a political project. Liberals have wielded them as an assault against middle-class morality and bourgeois norms. Wherever those words go, nothing is sacred, and the more we get rid of sacred things, the more the world seems open to progressive reform. They cross the line and push the limit, making it ever harder for parents to raise children, churches to purvey God’s commandments, and nations to maintain borders.
Donald Trump’s vulgarity is a challenge to liberal irreverence.
Conservatives of a cultural slant realize that leftists from the Beats to Rosie O’Donnell have steered society in a liberal direction. Barack Obama spoke with propriety, but he certainly profited from edgy culture (and smoothly fraternized with obscene rappers). Trump plays a different game. He lets Stephen Colbert et al know that he’ll hit back. Social and religious conservatives don’t like anyone to step into the verbal gutter, but profanity is a liberal weapon and the high road that Dan Quayle and other “family values” voices took utterly failed to disarm it.
From now on, according to the Trump model, it’s tit-for-tat — not the same words, of course, but a sharp, personal retort. And the effectiveness of that tactic is proven by the left’s phony dismay over Trump’s indecency. People who idolize a comedian who spent 15 years attaching vile words to Republicans (Jon Stewart took over "The Daily Show" in January 1999) forever lose the right to judge any other potty-mouth.
Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University and Senior Editor at First Things Magazine. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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