The history of profanity in American political discourse is an untold story out there just waiting for someone to research and write about -- although finding a willing publisher might be a bit of a problem. Because it seems we're back to the Nixonian days of "[expletive deleted]."
I speak not just of Rod Blagojevich, but also of those who speak of him. In other words, all who bowdlerize or otherwise sanitize his direct quotes. Quite literally -- in other words.
One of the more amusing historical stories of bowdlerization in American politics is John Nance Gardner's description of the Vice President's office being "not worth a bucket of warm piss." Gardner was F.D.R.'s veep for two terms, so it is assumed he knew what he was talking about. But this quote was changed (and misquoted for decades) to "... a warm bucket of spit." Gardner himself reportedly called one writer who used the cleaned-up version a "pantywaist," proving that he was probably one of those politicians it would be fun to have a beer with (he also sounds like he would kick your ass if you called him by his middle name).
Examples of foul-mouthed politicians abound, from deep in our history up to what was said yesterday by Senator David Vitter on the Senate floor (talking about the auto bailout plan): "Isn't that putting the cart before the horse? Isn't that, to use a common phrase, just ass-backwards?"
Also yesterday, Senator John McCain poked fun at the whole situation by telling David Letterman "I don't want to talk about the bleeping campaign. Understand? If you think I'm going to go back to that bleeping situation, then bleep you." If you didn't catch it, McCain did say this with a smile, and was quite obviously joking.
McCain was spoofing Patrick Fitzgerald, who (being a lawyer and all) felt it necessary to continually remind the media that when he said "bleep" he wasn't actually quoting Blagojevich. Here are just a few examples from his press conference where he outlined the charges against the Illinois governor, and had to repeatedly quote the governor's words:
"That's a quote. And the word 'bleep' was not the word he used. ... And the bleeps are not really bleeps. ... Those are his words, not our characterization, other than with regard to the bleep. ... And again, the bleep is a redaction."
While Richard Nixon is the undisputed king of recorded American political profanity, for the sheer volume of "secret tapes" transcripts filled with the euphemism "[expletive deleted]," he probably only earned this title because he taped so much of what he said. It's not really a stretch to imagine a few salty words being exchanged between Bush and Cheney, for instance. Cheney, infamously, told Senator Patrick Leahy to "Go fuck yourself!"-- again, on the floor of the Senate. This one bred the highly amusing pseudo-euphemism still cheerfully used by bloggers today: "Go Cheney yourself!"
But, as Blagojevich shows, strong language is a bipartisan tradition. Incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is known throughout the corridors of power in Washington as being quick to use scathing language himself. And one can only assume that this has been pretty constant throughout American history as well (Consider: what do you think Teddy Roosevelt would have said if he hit his thumb with a hammer?). Even George Washington himself was known for his mastery of profanity (to his troops, mainly).
While some mainstream media mavens (such as Sam Donaldson) profess to be sanctimoniously "shocked" by such behavior, a brave few have stated the obvious. Here's an excellent example from Los Angeles Times blogger Andrew Malcolm's hilarious column on the subject:
Who are we $#&*/=@ kidding here? You know =)&%9\ well what every one of these $#&*/=@ euphemisms means. Even if we mix up the symbols in each $-*@/ phrase, you can @/-$* figure it out.
Same on the (bleeping) TV bleeps. It's a royal pain in the bleeping %$*. We don't even allow )%-$ in the Comments section here because that would be $#&*/=@ rude.
And anyone who doesn't $#&*/=@ like that, can go bleeping bleep.
In fact, I would go further.
Since the entire concept of "profanity" is a construct of the way the English language developed, I charge that "bleeping" statements from public officials is classist, elitist, and ethnic snobbery to boot.
To understand my reasoning, we must go back to 1066 A.D., when the Normans overran England. For the next few hundred years, England was ruled by France. Meaning that the court language was French. In other words, the upper classes all spoke French, while the lower classes still spoke English. And French words entered the English language as a result.
But while English was absorbing French, and moving away from its Germanic roots, the language itself got divided into two classes. All the Latin-based words were considered "high class" and all the Germanic-based words became "low class." This still holds true today. There is fundamentally no difference between "defecating" or "feces" and "shit." None whatsoever. The meaning is the same. It still smells just as bad. It's just that a courtesan would defecate, whereas a farmer would take a shit.
Farmers used short, Anglo-Saxon words to talk about just about every aspect of their lives, and we now belittle any of these which talk of bodily elimination (shit, piss) or "naughty" body parts (cock, ass, tits, cunt) as "four-letter words" or "profanity" -- and yet there are "medical" terms for all of these which may be used in polite conversation, even around children. Because the "medical" terms are all Latin-based, and therefore "correct" and "proper," whereas the Germanic terms are "crude" and "obscene."
It is nothing more than ancient British snobbery. It's not even Puritanism, it predates the Puritans. What is being looked down upon is the Germanic base to the language itself. Since I am over three-fourths Germanic ancestry myself, I call all "bleeps" of such quotes to be classism and elitism and jingoist.
And if you don't like it, then in the immortal words of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: "Why don't you take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut? Why don't you take a flying fuck at the mooooooooooooon?"
Ahem. So to speak. But definitely not "in other words."
But enough of that nonsense, we've got some awards to hand out!
In a decision which will surprise some, Michigan's Senator Carl Levin wins this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award this week.
I know, I know, Levin has been the chief enabler of the car companies' absolute refusal to modernize in any way, shape, or form -- for the past thirty years or so. Levin has allowed Detroit to resist such commonsense improvements as airbags and other safety features for decades now. To say nothing of the fuel economy standards he helped kill. He personally bears some of the blame currently being heaped upon the car companies, for facilitating their short-sightedness in the Senate.
But the award isn't for the most disappointing for "The Past Three Decades," but rather for "The Week." And Carl Levin spearheaded an incredible achievement this week that is just not getting the attention it deserves. Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, just issued a non-classified summary of a full report (which is still classified) on American detainee abuse. This is a scathing report, which fully rejects the "only a few bad apples" falsehood which President Bush and others have used to sweep under the rug any talk of their officially sanctioning torture.
From a lengthy statement by Levin, which sums up the report better than any news story yet:
The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody compromised our moral authority and damaged both our ability to attract allies to our side in the fight against terrorism and to win the support of people around the world for that effort. In May 2004, just after the pictures from Abu Ghraib became public, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said that the abuses depicted were simply the result of a few "bad apples" and that those responsible for abuse would be held accountable. More than seven months later, then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Asked about accountability for detainee abuses, Gonzales said "we care very much about finding out what happened and holding people accountable." Neither of those two statements was true.
. . .
The message from the top was clear; it was appropriate to consider degrading and abusive techniques for use against detainees. Given that message, Secretary Wolfowitz's characterization of detainee abuse as the result of "a few bad apples" is simply false. The Committee, in fact, reached the opposite conclusion.
. . .
The abuses at Abu Ghraib, [Guantanamo Bay] and elsewhere cannot be chalked up to the actions of a few bad apples. Attempts by senior officials to portray that to be the case while shrugging off any responsibility for abuses are both unconscionable and false. Our investigation is an effort to set the record straight on this chapter in our history that has so damaged both America's standing and our security. America needs to own up to its mistakes so that we can rebuild some of the good will that we have lost.
The most stunning thing in this story is that Carl's committee passed the report unanimously. While (being a Republican) he's not eligible for a MIDOTW award, I also have to mention that the ranking minority member on the committee was Senator John McCain -- who assumably was influential in getting all twelve Republicans on the committee to approve the report.
I don't know what consequences this report will ultimately have. But I do know it is an excellent first step to make sure this never happens again. And, no matter what he does to protect Detroit's evil ways, Senator Carl Levin fully deserves this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award.
Well done, Carl!
[Congratulate Senator Carl Levin on his Senate contact page to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]
While I wrote a column yesterday critical of Dianne Feinstein's handling of the inaugural planning (she's the planning committee's chair), this was small potatoes indeed when we look at the week as a whole.
Because Rod Blagojevich just blew everyone else out of the water this week. For singlehandedly putting Illinois in contention with Ted Stevens' Alaska for "most corrupt state in America," and for being so obviously and blatantly corrupt while selling Obama's Senate seat, the Illinois governor (soon to be "former, disgraced governor") wins the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week hands down.
For shame, Rod, for shame.
[Contact Governor Rod Blagojevich on his Governor's contact page to let him know what you think of his actions (but do it soon, as he won't be there much longer!).]
Volume 58 (12/12/08)
Because we're running long this week (when does this column ever "run short" for that matter?), we only have an abbreviated three talking points. To make up for the lack, the first two will be longish.
The "National Security" card
Here is a riddle:
Q: Why is it important to save the auto industry?
A: Because you can't buy a 1944 Chevy at any price.
That sounds senseless, but it's not. Classic car enthusiasts know full well that there aren't any American cars of the model years 1943, 1944, or 1945. The reason for that was that the Detroit assembly lines were busy making tanks, airplanes, and other military vehicles. Victory ships and munitions were being built in other factories, as well. In fact, it can be argued that the American production line was key in winning World War II. If we weren't able to resupply our military forces, we might have lost the war.
The automobile industry is one of the last remaining industries in America that actually makes things. There are a few others. We still make airplanes, for instance. But the universe of factories and production lines with American workers is shrinking. And when (for instance) the Chinese buy up an American company, they don't just move the jobs over there, they also crate up the entire factory's production line and move it all over there, too.
Meaning if we were ever faced with a war which required massive production, we would first have to make the machines which make other machines. And that makes it a matter of national security.
I am somewhat surprised that President Bush hasn't advanced this argument yet, since (1) Republicans are always quick to make connections with all kinds of things and "national security" as a rule, and (2) Bush certainly hasn't been any piker at justifying anything under the sun he wants to do as "national security." But just because the Republicans are mostly against the plan and Bush is twisting in the wind of hot air from his own party, that doesn't mean that Democrats can't successfully make the same argument. Because, while the ins and outs of the Detroit bailout plan are much too complex for me to go into here, there is indeed a valid argument to be made here. Make it, and maybe the media will be distracted from blaming everything on the union workers. It's certainly worth a try.
"We won World War II in part because Detroit stopped building cars and started building the vehicles we needed to win that war. If we let the American auto industry die completely, this would put our national security at risk. Remember during the early phases of the Iraq war when we couldn't get enough up-armored Hummers, and later when we couldn't get MRAPs quickly enough? Imagine if America couldn't even produce these vehicles at all. And imagine what would happen if we were in a situation where we had to manufacture such vehicles on a massive scale. This isn't like watching the toaster industry move offshore. Our military, if need be, can eat cold bread instead of toast. But if America is ever forced to wage war on a large scale ever again, we may look back at when we lost the American auto industry as being criminally and disastrously short-sighted."
Torture is a war crime
The Levin/McCain report which I referenced earlier needs a lot more attention than it is getting. It opens up all sorts of questions about what to do next, which the incoming Obama administration is going to have to answer. Should a Special Prosecutor be named? Should a commission be empanelled? One way or another, Obama is going to have to field this hot potato, because just ignoring it and hoping it'll go away is not going to be an option.
The report is long, but any American interested in what was done in their name can read the full thing [PDF version] to understand the magnitude of what happened. If we're going to avoid ever doing this again, then all the details need to be dragged out into the cold light of day.
"Any reasonable person who has read the Levin/McCain report can come to only one conclusion. America tortured prisoners. This torture was approved by George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales, and other high-ranking government officials. Torture is a war crime. It is a crime against humanity. The incoming Obama administration needs to act to insure that this never happens again. America is governed by laws, not by men. The biggest thing President Obama could do to restore dignity and honor to the White House is to get this all out into the light of day, for history to judge. Because this was done in my name and in every other American citizens' name as well. And I, for one, want some accountability."
Blag. A Blaggy week all around.
OK, to end on a somewhat lighter note here, I am picking up my linguistic lance and tilting at the Blagojevich windmill. Or, to be more precise, the "Blago" windmill. Because the blogosphere has apparently (I guess I didn't get the memo) decided on "Blago" as a cutesy shortening of the tongue-twisting full last name of the disgraced Illinois governor. But I think the "O" at the end of that makes it sound a little too cool, and a less of a fool. So I'm proposing two alternatives (in my "moose poop" tradition of trying to inject neologisms into the blogosphere).
The first is "Blag" which has a satisfyingly Cro-Magnon sound to it. It's more of a caveman grunt than the upbeat-sounding "Blago" (try both out loud, you'll see what I mean). Blag. It even has a nice Anglo-Saxon four-letter-word feel to it.
If "Blag" doesn't do it for you, how about "Blaggy" instead? Blaggy sounds like a diminutive schoolyard taunt, which (at this point) seems pretty appropriate.
"I heard the transcripts of ol' Blag begging for money for Obama's Senate seat. Blag is really in the frying pan now. It's going to take some fancy footwork for Blaggy to avoid some jail time, don't you think?"
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com
Full archives of FTP columns: FridayTalkingPoints.com
Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more