Where, Precisely, Do The Lines Of Propriety Lie?

Martin Bashir, a host on the MSNBC network, resigned yesterday.  His resignation came several weeks after he made an extraordinarily vulgar and offensive comment about Sarah Palin.  In his resignation statement, Bashir described his comment as “ill-judged” and added:  “I deeply regret what was said.”

It’s nice to know that, in a world where popular culture seems to grow irreversibly coarser with each new performance of a song or comedy routine, there are still some lines that can’t be crossed.  Of course, drawing the line at statements that someone should perform a gross anatomical act in the mouth of a political figure doesn’t exactly say a lot about our current cultural boundaries.  Such statements may be off limits — for now, at least — but where does the line lie?  Why didn’t Bashir immediately realize that his contemplated comment was “ill-judged” and then refrain from saying it in the first place?

This isn’t a question of free speech, or rough-and-tumble politics, or rejecting antiquated Victorian notions of correct behavior.  It is a deeper issue that strikes at the core of our society.  It isn’t improper to insist that people treat each other with respect and propriety and recognize that not every public performance or statement needs to push the envelope.  If political figures, Democrat or Republican, have to endure appalling, mean-spirited, over-the-top comments as the price for their involvement in the political world, people who might otherwise help us find our way out of our current predicament aren’t going to throw their hat into the ring.  That’s obviously bad for everyone.  We need to show that we can disagree with each other in ways that are proper and dignified and reflect well on the maturity and fundamental decency of our culture.

I’m glad Martin Bashir realized that he crossed the line with his comment, even if it took him a while to recognize that fact.  I’m hoping that this incident helps to establish a stronger, clearer line that all radio and TV hosts and pundits, regardless of their political affiliation, recognize and respect — a line that falls well short of the crassness, vulgarity, and unseemly personal attacks that we seem to see with increasing frequency these days.

“Knee Ticklers” In The Age Of Innocence

In 1971, our family moved from Akron to Columbus.  We left behind the world of Cleveland TV personalities, like Barnaby and Captain Penny, and moved into the orbit of Cincinnati TV shows that were carried on Columbus stations.  One of the Cincinnati shows was a silly daytime variety show called The Paul Dixon Show.

Paul Dixon was an older man who appeared to wear an obvious toupee.  I’m not sure whether he had any special talent, but he had been hosting his show for years and was a celebrity in the Cincinnati area.  One of his trademark segments was to attach a “knee tickler” — a kind of dangling ornament — to the hems of the dresses of the housewives who made up the studio audience for his show.  Campy music would play, Paul Dixon would make a few lascivious facial expressions at the camera, and then he would demurely attach the “knee tickler” to the one-piece, just above the knee mini-dress of a stocky middle-aged woman with a beehive hairdo.  This routine was viewed as “naughty,” edgy, just barely acceptable stuff in the world of daytime TV in the early ’70s.

It was a more innocent time then.  I thought of The Paul Dixon Show recently when I saw a grown man wearing a t-shirt that had a depiction of a hand giving the finger and used the “f”-word, spelled out in bold letters.  He was at a sporting event where lots of people, including kids, were in attendance.  He obviously thought it was hilarious stuff, but for me it epitomized the increasingly vulgarity and crassness of our popular culture.  We’ve gone from times where putting a “knee tickler” on a woman’s dress pushed the envelope to the point where the queen mother of curses is casually displayed on clothing worn at a public event.

I don’t yearn for a return to Victorian sensibilities, but I regret the direction in which we are heading.  If we’ve reached the point where obscene t-shirts are an accepted part of popular culture, what’s the next stop in our downward spiral?