Jonah Goldberg

Newspapers are among the last places in America that have close to zero tolerance for [expletive deleted].

I could give you a hint about what word is between the brackets, but I'd best not for fear of arousing the ire of the editing Comstocks. About twice a year, I quote a profanity from a public figure, using just the first letter of the word and then some bowdlerizing asterisks for the rest. No dice, my editor tells me. You're writing for a family newspaper.

There was a time when such standards were the norm at major media institutions in America. Sometimes things went too far, as when Lucy and Ricky had to sleep in separate beds, lest the public get the right idea about where babies come from.

But, as Lee Siegel wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, vulgarity has become so common in the culture that there's nothing rebellious about it anymore. Elvis' below-the-belt gyrations were taboo-breaking and suggestive.

Today, there's nothing suggestive about Miley Cyrus. Nobody watching her twerk thinks, "I wonder what she's getting at?" Indeed, if there's any larger message to her routine, it is simply to announce that the exception has now become the rule: vulgarity is expected, decency a surprise. (The two most rebellious comedians in my youth were Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld -- because they kept it clean or, in Seinfeld's case, at least kept it suggestive.)

But my complaint isn't really with singers, shock-jocks, comedians or whatever category Cyrus falls under. They're not merely immune to finger-wagging on this score, they actually think such criticism is proof they're rebels. The wiser course is to simply yawn and move on.

No, my real complaint is with how vulgarity has gone viral. We constantly hear that there is no common culture anymore. But that's not really true. Rather, newspapers notwithstanding, almost everyone thinks the common culture is someone else's problem. "Don't like what we're serving? Turn the channel" goes the argument. "There's something for everybody out there."

Well, yes and no. Defenders of vulgarity, and there are many, also say that parents just need to do a better job monitoring their kids, as if the absence of kids is, by itself, a license for gratuitous obscenity.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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