Foul Words, Shameful Acts
This issue marks the first anniversary of The American Conservative, a magazine Pat Buchanan, Scott McConnell, and I established in order to save the right wing from itself. Until now The American Conservative has mostly dealt with the issues at hand: the war in Iraq, the accelerating rates of immigration, the neoconservative desire to attack anyone who may one day pose a threat to Israel, and the neocon notion that waging wars in culturally alien lands to establish democracy will one day make life in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles as exciting and colorful as it is in Tel Aviv. One subject we have not dealt with is the visual junk diet of soaps, smut, and vulgar language: the verbal corruption that has infected our nation’s bloodstream and turned courtesy into a dirty word among the young.
Two weeks ago while in London, I read about Paul McCartney, now alas Sir Paul, visiting Tower Bridge in order to view illusionist David Blaine starving himself inside a glass box suspended 40 feet up in the air. The British press has been covering the freak show as if it were the Second Coming, with serious broadsheets dispatching their best and brightest to see if Blaine is cheating or not. This in itself is pretty horrible. It trivializes everything that matters, starting with the fact the British government lied about weapons of mass destruction—“If we don’t act right now we can all be dead within 45 minutes” (Tony Blair during question time in parliament).
Worse has been the reaction of the masses since the publicity-mad Blaine began his fast in a perspex box above the Thames. People have tried to float pieces of salami past his cage, have tossed eggs at the box, and have showered abuse worthy of the Iranian mob during the takeover of the American embassy in 1979. One man shot non-stop golf balls but obviously was not very good, as he missed with all of them.
“Why hasn’t Blaine got any thinner?” screamed the Sun newspaper, a Murdoch-owned rag that makes those scandal sheets sold in American supermarkets seem to possess plenipotential dignity by comparison. (Ironically, Blaine does not seem to have lost his love handles nor his flabby chest.) But back to Paul the Beatle.
When asked by a reporter why he was there, he answered, “I came to this f – – – – – – place to see this f – – – – – – c – – -.” When a man asked if he could shake his hand, Sir Paul was as articulate as ever. “F – – -off, you c – – -.” It almost makes one want to hear some rap music just to get away from this F-word, which brings me to the root of the lack of courtesy nowadays: Hollywood, pop music, and rap.
The F-word is not only ubiquitous in films, its use is seen to be as cool as it gets. Lewd language is used gratuitously in movies, hard-core pop music, and best-selling novels. No wonder crude and ugly words are now heard every minute of every day and night on our streets, in shops, and, most alarmingly, in schools. Take a walk in any park and watch youngsters playing touch football, softball, or even tennis. Casual swearing is the norm, a way of expressing pleasure, surprise, and certainly anger.
Two summers ago I was on a French island off St.Tropez and went for a run. I passed a camp for young men where a spirited game of soccer was taking place. I stopped to watch for about 15 minutes and did not hear a single swear word.
Now you might think I’m exaggerating in order to make a point. I am not. French schoolchildren are not allowed to swear, and if they do, they’re punished accordingly. The same goes for Greece, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries. In Poland and Egypt particularly, swearing adults are subject to arrest, and indeed people communicate with each other without resulting to vulgarity.The corruption of language in our culture is just one aspect of the general coarsening of our life. I once asked Martin Scorsese why he included so much swearing in his otherwise wonderful films. Cinema vérité was the answer. In other words, that’s how real people talk. But Scorsese makes movies about gangsters and lowlifes, who do speak as if the F-word were going out of style. Yet in the movie Goodfellas, the F-word was used 212 times, whereas in the 1971 film Dirty Harry, despite the violence in it, it was only used once.
Boys, especially those in ghettoes, grow up with this image of what manliness is: angry, dissatisfied, foulmouthed. When they hear millionaire rappers use lewd language, they try to outdo their heroes. The absence of a father does not help. How many times have you heard a black mother asking her son not to swear? Plenty, I’d say, but it takes a father to put the kid straight.
Let’s face it. Moviemakers are out to make money, and their chief audiences are the young. Music-makers ditto. They use freedom of expression as an excuse to push the envelope as far as it will go and scream censorship when their right to do so is questioned.
Just imagine Gary Cooper or Cary Grant swearing like some of the present-day slobs that pass for movie stars. Or the divine Vivien Leigh or Ava Gardner, whose salty language was legendary—in private, of course.
The studios would not have put up with it. Neither would audiences. The result was that when I was growing up I never heard foul language outside the butt room in school (and then extremely limited) or perhaps an after-hours strip joint. One simply did not swear, and it was considered very uncool to do so.
Gentlemanly behavior was looked up to. No longer. I suppose the Sixties and the hippy culture did away with all that. Bleeding hearts eager to accommodate angry blacks salivated at ghetto language. Movies, books, and music follow the trend; they do not set it. So what we got was the lowering of standards, with the general population given a visual diet of smut and soft porn, the effects of which has turned us into a nation of foulmouthed, tongue-tied morons.
Aristotle knew a thing or two about such matters. He said that lawmakers should be extremely vigilant about foul language “for the light utterance of shameful words leads soon to shameful actions.” Hear, hear!
In ancient Greece, the young showed deference to the old in matters of physical convenience. In my time, I was taught to give my seat to anyone older. Just take a look today in any subway. If a youngster offered his seat to an older person or a woman, he would probably be dissed by his peers and excommunicated from the gang.
Some of the most ill-mannered people I have come across are those so-called celebrities who arrive in public places wearing track suits, surrounded by beefy minders and swearing. Their message to the rest of us is that a perk of success is the freedom to look and behave like a lout.
So what happens? Young people don’t bother to wait for the success; they just—as the grotesque shoe ad tells us—do it. Deference is now a dirty word. Yet if the concept of deference were completely abandoned in favor of self-assertion, the world would become even more intolerable than it already is.
So what I propose is applying the broken-window theory—zero tolerance for even minor infractions. The next time you hear someone needlessly swearing, do not put up with it. The next movie you hear of that is full of swear words, do not go to see it. Most important, the next time your child sounds like a Martin Scorsese hero, make sure he regrets it. It took a long time to build Rome, and this will take longer, but we’ve got to start somewhere. Otherwise we’re all going to end up like Harvey Weinstein.