What some of us -- well, anyway I do -- refer to as the Slobbification of America made a good showing the other day on the front page of The Wall Street Journal: the tale of a town talking up a ban on public profanity of the grosser sort. Which ban is up for consideration by the assembled citizenry of Middleborough, Mass. The local police chief, the Journal reported, wanted to fine anyone $20 who "accosts or addresses another person with profane or obscene language in a street."
I write before the actual vote. I think I know the outcome all the same: futility, of the constitutional or the cultural sort, likely both. The Journal quotes a retired policy officer -- and supporter of the chief's move -- as saying, "Back when I was younger you wouldn't think of saying foul language on the street, but now it's (bleep) you or stick it up your whatever. It's not unique to this town..."
"Back when I was younger... "! There's the damning -- er, the condemnatory -- detail. The retired cop, as the Journal reports, is my contemporary. He knows whereof he speaks. No, indeed, back when Ike and JFK were president, "you wouldn't think of saying" X, Y and Z. You "wouldn't think" of doing other things of, shall we say, an informal or relaxed nature, such as tattooing yourself going abroad in your underwear or suggesting, in preference to a first-date peck on the cheek, that we just get right down to it: all marks of the slobbery of our age.
"Men," noted Machiavelli, back in the early 16th century -- which was before even my time -- "ever praise the olden time and find fault with the present." Yes, and you may recall Paul Lynde crooning dejectedly in "Bye, Bye, Birdie:" "Why can't they be like we were -- perfect in every way?" He was referring to "Kids" -- the title and topic of the song. Duly appropriating this historical knowledge, shall we return to the Middleborough police chief's point -- to wit, there's maybe a limit, and if so, someone ought to signal and set it?
A couple of geezers like the chief and me are what you need to note, amid the cultural libertarianism of our time, that slobs and the slobbery they routinely commit against the public weal are disagreeable features of any landscape.
We're not supposed to be offended anymore, it would seem, by anything anybody else does. To take offense is to show inconsideration for others and their "rights." Nothing anyone does is supposed to matter to anyone else. It's all self-expression. Hey, man, we've got a right!
Which is nice to hear. One problem being that if "everybody" has rights, the term necessarily includes those who dislike conceding cultural leadership to the slobs in our national ranks; those who tire of forever giving way to ignorance, bad manners and immorality in the name of "tolerance" and "open-mindedness."
A book bearing the title -- I render the cleared-throat usage of The New York Times -- "____ My Dad Says" leaps to the top of the best-seller list and nothing's wrong with the culture? TV situation comedies invite laughs with language that back in the Middleborough police chief's day would have gotten you sent to the principal's office. Are we to think of it now as good, Jeffersonian free speech?
What am I missing? At all events, here's what the culture of the 21st century is missing abysmally: The once-common understanding that some things are at rock bottom better than other things -- better, cleaner, healthier, nicer, friendlier to the cause of general happiness and prosperity.
The chief has got hold of a point -- leave aside the roar and excitement that free speech controversies always precipitate -- that deserves to re-emerge. An ordinance, a statute or a $20 fine won't send the slobs and the louts back to their natural habitats -- in trees -- but talking about the problem can't hurt. Free speech, you know. What works for one can work for another and, in the present case, deserves to.