The Proper Victorian Gent And The Donald

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe depicted the news media as a kind of prissy, proper Victorian gent, applying notions of marriage and conduct to the Mercury astronauts and their families that were outmoded even back in the early ’60s.  As a result, to win the public relations battle, the astronauts and their wives had to relentlessly portray themselves as examples of prim domestic perfection.

victorian-vest-1I thought of Wolfe’s notion of the press as the proper Victorian gent recently as I was reading coverage of the Republican presidential campaign.  The media pundits were reacting with horror at the tone of the Republican candidates, accusing them of falling to the level of schoolyard taunting and insults and — amazingly — being more critical of Marco Rubio than of Donald Trump, whose insults and willing embrace of crassness started the candidates down that road in the first place.  It is as if the press expects, tolerates, and perhaps even celebrates that kind of behavior from Trump — boy, he sure is a rebel who is breaking all of the rules for presidential candidates, isn’t he? — but can’t abide it when other candidates meet fire with fire.  Those other candidates are presented as somehow having lost their cool or taken the campaign to the gutter.

Of course, the press is really the reason why the other candidates have resorted to mocking Trump and trying to do so in ways that will attract media attention. The media is so infatuated with Trump, and the coverage is so lopsided, that the other candidates are starved for attention.  On the night Chris Christie endorsed Trump, I turned on CNN and it was carrying a Trump rally, live, as he sprayed water from a water bottle while belittling Rubio.  Other campaigns need to buy air time to get their message out to that kind of audience, but because of Trump’s antics he gets that kind of publicity for free.  Can anyone legitimately blame the other candidates if they try to respond in kind in hopes of attracting a bit more coverage?  In Marco Rubio’s case, his willingness to hurl a few insults back at Trump seems to have worked and attracted more press attention.  And while Trump won the lion’s share of contests yesterday, his opponents won some, too, and it looks like races were closer because the other candidates finally may be starting to break through the media wall around the Donald.

Of course, I would prefer that political candidates maintain a civil discourse and engage in a spirited, but elevated, discussion of the issues.  With Trump in the race, though, such hopes have long since been dashed, and it is senseless to try to hold other candidates to lofty standards when Trump is breaking all the rules and being effectively rewarded for it.  With the media perfectly willing to cover every outrageous incident of Trumpish behavior, rather than digging into and exposing Trump’s past, the only hope for voters who want to learn about Trump’s record will be the other Republican candidates — and if they need to throw in a regrettable bit of coarseness to get the media’s attention while they do so, I’m not going to wring my hands and bemoan the lack of propriety.  This is a case where the proper Victorian gents of the news media have only themselves to blame.

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When Should Newspapers Use Profanity?

Recently the New York Times carried an interesting opinion piece about when the news media should print profanities, vulgarities, and other offensive terms — the actual words, unmistakably spelled out in black and white, and not euphemisms like the “f-word” or “a racial epithet.”

The writer argues that in modern society the use of profanities has become increasingly commonplace, whether it’s in a diplomatic faux pas or on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and often the use of the word itself is what makes the story newsworthy. Why run the risk that the reader might not actually understand what the word is? In addition, because cuss words have even invaded the titles of books and plays and other literary works, what are newspapers supposed to do when they review those pieces? And the writer also notes that journals in other countries, like England and Australia, are not shy about publishing offensive words in full.

Sorry, but I’m not convinced. We’re exposed to more than enough vulgarity in our daily lives — and so are our kids. Why shouldn’t newspapers strive to maintain a semblance of decorum? The fact that powerful people use profanities may be a news story, but that doesn’t mean we need to have a full frontal exposure to the obscenity itself. I don’t buy that there is a risk of confusion about precisely what the offensive word is, either. When people see the “f-word,” they’re not going to think that the article is talking about fracking. And in response to the argument that Aussies and Brits publish offensive words, my mother would ask me if I would jump off a cliff just because all my friends were doing so. I never came up with a good response to her argument.

I’m sure this makes me seem like a fuddy-duddy, an out-of-touch codger who is arguing for a senseless fig leaf that has no place in our hip, wide-open modern world. But I’ve seen how our culture has grown coarser, and coarser, and coarser as my adult years roll by, whether it is shock jocks on radio or sex- and violence-saturated TV programming or stand up comics who routinely use the “seven forbidden words” without the wit of George Carlin. I don’t like the direction we’ve taken, and each little modification seems to open the door to more coarseness to come.

So, I’m willing to draw a line. In my view, newspapers should aspire to a higher standard, and should draw the line to preserve a small enclave of decency and taste in an otherwise obscene world. Leave the profanities for the internet.

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.

The President’s Speech

During a recent interview with Rolling Stone, President Obama said that kids have “good instincts” and added:  “They look at the other guy and say, ‘Well, that’s a bullshitter, I can tell.’”  Does it matter that the President used “bullshitter” in an apparent reference to Mitt Romney?  It’s just one word, after all.

I think it does matter, for two reasons.  First, the presidency remains an aspirational position — although I recognize that may be an old-fashioned view.  The President is the Leader of the Free World and the head of the world’s greatest democracy.  We want the President, through his words and deeds, to represent the best about America.  It’s what people mean when they talk about a candidate for the job appearing to be “presidential.”

Prior Presidents understood this, and paid careful attention to their public conduct and public speech.  They were careful to keep their vulgarities hidden behind the walls of the Oval Office.  When President Obama forsakes the high tones that traditionally accompany that office and uses crass language like “bullshitter” instead, it reflects a depressing coarsening of our culture.  If even the President uses gutter language to refer to his opponent, in an on-the-record comment, what does that say about our society and American culture?

Second, the President’s comment, as well as much of his recent behavior, is fundamentally contrary to the approach and persona that attracted and inspired so many people in 2008.  In that election, reporters covering an Obama speech often referred to his “soaring rhetoric” — and it was soaring.  During his “hope and change” campaign, the President consciously sounded high-minded themes that were fully consistent with the aspirational aspect of the presidency, and refrained from name-calling, cheap stunts, and other tawdry political tactics.

That is what makes the “bullshitter” reference so jarring.  It suggests that the Obama that so many found so appealing in 2012 is gone, if he ever existed.  It’s hard to envision the 2008 Obama calling someone a “bullshitter,” or making the harsh and patronizing comments about aircraft carriers and submarines in the most recent debate, among other less than idealistic behavior the President has exhibited during this campaign.  That conduct directly undercuts some of the most appealing aspects of candidate Obama in 2008, and makes people feel like they were hoodwinked when they pulled the lever for that candidate four years ago.  Americans don’t like to feel like they’ve been played for fools.