Beware the Coarsening

Illustration by Max Burbank

BY MAX BURBANK

Fair warnings: First, the column you are reading is about bad behavior, moral blindness, and filthy language. As such, we need to spend a moment discussing the rendering of cuss words; a matter I have given perhaps more thought to than strictly necessary.

Used for decades in newspaper comic strips, I considered the classic #!*@&%!! — but that offered no way to indicate specific nuggets of potty-mouth parlance, and I’m going to need to reference more than a few. I toyed briefly with alternate spellings, like “phuck” or “azwhole” — but that seemed a tad too twee and precious, the sort of tawdry literary trick a man who described things as “a tad too twee and precious” might use. I’ve settled on inserting random hyphens into bad words, because you can still totally tell what they are and, also, that’s how CNN does it. Hey, CNN! That’s a swell f—ing idea!

Second, I’m aware that since the FBI raid on Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, we have entered into a moment of unprecedented political volatility. By the time you read this, the world I wrote it in might be irrelevant. The president could’ve fired Special Counsel Robert Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, or forgone actual firing and literally set fire to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Maybe, instead, we rained fire and fury on Syria, presumably after warning the Russians so they could leave whatever strategically insignificant field we selected as a target so that none of their soldiers got an owie — but who knows? Oh, hey, look, we did do that, WHILE I WAS TYPING! Are we under martial law yet, or have America and western democracy themselves been saved by the timely actions of a porn star and her super-badass (sorry, bad—) lawyer? Let me check TWITTER!

In any case, I won’t be writing about any of that, except maybe just a little at the end to tie all my themes together like a for-real writer. Everybody else will cover it anyway, from the New York Times to your disgraced Uncle Bernard who, after a longish stint in the pokey, has only just discovered social media. I can’t, because at this point in my career as a pundit, unwritten law requires me to write a column on The Coarsening of America. We’ve all done it since Elvis Presley first lewdly waggled his leather-pantsed pelvis at the youth of America. It’s simply my turn.

“I’m not answering your f—ing questions!” That’s what Corey Lewandowski didn’t get held in contempt of Congress for shouting during testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. It’s a little unusual to say “f—ing” to members of Congress during a hearing, but is it significantly indicative of cultural decline? Lewandowski’s just a minor player after all, one of the many folks president Trump barely knew, who worked for him briefly doing small menial tasks like fetching coffee, running his campaign, or paying porn stars and Playboy models hush money.

There’s an old saying: “A fish rots from the head down.” Michael Dukakis used it to describe the Reagan administration when he ran against Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. He lost, but the point remains. The reason a man can say “f—ing” to Congress is because his boss, a hulking toddler with zero impulse control and a mound of burning garbage for a soul, says it frequently. And yes, I know Lewandowski works for CNN these days, but Trump is still the boss of his heart. Everybody knows it.

It’s difficult to get accurate citations for all the sh-t our president has talked, because papers of record are loath to print it verbatim. You know the biggies: “Grab ’em by the p-ssy,” “Sh-thole countries,” “Get that son of a b-tch off the field right now.” There’s plentiful video evidence he said way worse, repeatedly, on the campaign trail and at rallies since.

When the leader of a country sets the bar that low, there are consequences. Every dark thought and filthy utterance you knew better than to let seep out of your brain and tumble out your chow hole? The leader of the free world has already tweeted it multiple times, probably in the last week, so go for it!

Language is always the tip of the spear. It seeps into the public sphere and changes the way we feel and behave; words become concrete actions, and then legislation.

If the president can talk like that in public, what else is okay? For instance, once upon a time if you were a convicted criminal, you’d be too ashamed to run for office. Now, as long as you’re white, male, old and Republican, a rap sheet is an asset! Three out of the four convicted criminals currently running for Republican congressional seats are citing their crimes as reasons you should vote for them!

Rotting fish head or no, Trump can’t be entirely to blame. He isn’t dragging a nation into the gutter single-handedly; he’s nowhere near that strong. The very system he’s working so hard to tear down has grown weak enough to actively enable its own destruction. The incessant assault on cultural norms may have begun with words, but it’s far more than speech now. The immobility in the face of Russian aggression; the almost daily executive orders stripping away environmental protections and workers’ rights; the genuflecting to the gun rights lobby; the kleptocracy of presidential golf trips and hotel chains; the nepotism; the promotion of the astoundingly unqualified; the vast transfer of wealth: They all lead to an unsupportable level of chaos. When we normalize the language, we normalize the behavior, and invite all this.

Nixon fell, but only when his own party had enough of him. The current iteration of the Grand Old Party doesn’t seem so inclined toward profiles in courage. It’s nice to dream of being rescued by Stormy Daniels and, god save him, Robert Mueller — but this isn’t a movie about plucky, misfit heroes. This is reality. We all have to consciously decide to step away from the precipice.

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