Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Da Bomb

Early this morning, before I was probably awake enough, I spotted an online article in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper the subject of which was ostensibly Hollywood actors and US politicians and societal commentary, but really it seemed to center on a term that it could not print, according to its own rules of propriety.

That term was a cuss word. That cuss word is arguably the most potent one that we English speakers can utilize.

It starts with an “F”.

I do not print it, myself, because this space may be read (who knows?) by my students. I don’t assign it as homework, by any stretch; but my students are smart people when they get near a computer mouse. They may Google me, and find this, and read it. They’re also busy people. And they’d probably rather read plenty of other things online before they get to this middle-aged music teacher’s ramblings; but that’s okay too, most times.

Equally important, this space may be read by my mother. I trust I need not go into detail.

The word that starts with “F” and ends with “K” and vaguely rhymes with “aqueduct” has always struck me as a tremendously forceful word. The first time I heard it hurled, out on the playground, it (figuratively) stopped traffic. Of late, it has become the word to drop, in certain forms of music. If a movie’s rating is PG-13 or above, it’s likely that some character has used the word, even once. Its very existence typifies this country’s schizoid take on matters of propriety: the use of the word has expanded quite freely, yet it can stir up equally strong pushback from the FCC and other standard-bearers of polite society. Pervs and Puritans, we can be.

Which, as I’ll detail momentarily, is exactly the contradiction-in-terms raised by the Daily Mail article.

 

Thirty-five years ago, a rather derivative and not-very-successful science fiction television series decided to invent some words that would convince audiences that theirs was a future world quite different from ours. Years were called “yahrons”, minutes were called “centons”, seconds were called “millicentons” … meters were called “metrons”, and – counterintuitively (or perhaps just stupidly) – kilometers were called “microns”.

And the curse word of choice was: frak.

Somehow, ABC television’s Standards and Practices division let it slide. A futuristic “darn,” perhaps. The baseline level of silliness might have been high enough to obscure proper notice of the word.

Ten years ago, when some wiseacre decided to re-invent “Battlestar Galactica” for the (then) SciFi Channel … and it turned out to be arguably some of the best work that television has yet seen … that wiseacre decided to hang on to that curse word. Scripts began to use it colorfully, inventively, in all the ways that its present-day Earth F-bomb counterpart currently can be used*** … right down to the compound word “motherfrakker”, distributed in prime-time viewing hours … and there wasn’t a thing that any network exec could do about it. Remarkable.

(***Here’s a link to a decidedly NSFW mini-audio-documentary about all the different ways that word is currently used … noun, verb, adjective, adverb, imperative, declarative, perjorative, and dangling participle … which is not for the faint of heart or hearing. (Mom, don’t click on this one. Trust me. Click on the link below instead.) A number of my Drum Major Academy staff colleagues from about a dozen years ago will hear the first strains of the accompanying music and have themselves a good old flashback laugh, not really explainable in a compact amount of time. Never mind…)

Some online publishers publish the word without apology or adornment. Some use asterisks to obscure the letters, coyly leaving no doubt as to what the word is that they meant to print. The estimable political and sports writer Charlie Pierce types it without typing it: “fk.” It’s a rare moment in which Mr. Pierce opts to be genteel in his writing.

Me, I can’t drop that bomb, verbally or in print, even in private. I’m no prude … well, I’m a tiny sliver of prude … okay, fine, I can be at least half a prude, with a side of milquetoast, sometimes. Unless I stub my toe. It takes a whole lot of concentrated sudden pain for me to get that word out. Mostly, I start it, and then it morphs into the sound of a leaking bike tire (“Fffffffffff…!”) as, even through my red haze of pain, I self-edit. I could blame it on the way I was brought up, or on the experience of seeing some kid in my elementary school class earn himself a detention for blurting it out in class. Or I could blame it on my journalism-major awareness that English is a rich language, and there are much more creative ways to express myself.

 

So, you are perhaps still wondering, what about this Daily Mail article?

It chronicles a “rant” issued by the fine movie actor Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson goes after President Obama about the way he sometimes speaks to “ordinary Americans”, specifically dropping the “G” from the end of words that properly end in “-ing”. Thereby, states Jackson, he is “promoting mediocrity” in the United States by “dumbing down” his speech sometimes.

I have noticed that when Mr. Obama is speaking to certain audiences, his speech patterns do subtly shift a bit from College Law Professor, with precise and measured intonation and enunciation, to a wee bit of Southern Gospel Preacher. I don’t know that I can entirely blame him … his remarks to live audiences in general often bring out this facet of his person, I’ve noticed, and he uses them to great effect when he needs to gradually and methodically but irresistably bring his audiences, especially his sympathetic audiences, to a slow boil. I’ve often finished watching his speeches by mumbling to myself, “now, that guy can work a room.” Everybody who can do that … has their ways of doing that. That often is his. He doesn’t go nearly as far over in that direction as a Rev. Jesse Jackson or a Rev. Al Sharpton, or … well … go back to the films of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. working a room like, oh, the National Mall in Washington, for example. By comparison, I think Mr. Obama still falls under “restrained”. And he’s probably more qualified to slip into that speech pattern than, say, I am.

Setting aside all the possible ways Samuel L. Jackson’s thesis is either correct, not correct, or so trivial as to be unimportant compared with the subject of, say, the President’s actual policies … and also setting aside some of Jackson’s comments that I do agree with, about how grammatical and other proper self-expression has not made great strides ahead in the world lately (when someone posts on his Twitter feed something like “Your an idiot”, he writes back and corrects them: “you’re!!!”) … what made me curious was the way Jackson phrased his sentiments.

For openers, Jackson advised the President to “be f*****g presidential.”

He said, “Look, I grew up in a society where I could say ‘it ain’t’ or ‘What it be’ to my friends. But when I’m out presenting myself to the world as me, who graduated from college, who had family who cared about me, who has a well-read background, I f*****g conjugate.”

Jackson continued by saying that educated men like the President who try to speak less correctly encourage mediocrity.I mean, we have newscasters who don’t even know how to conjugate verbs… how the f*** did we become a society where mediocrity is acceptable?”

The writer of the Daily Mail article noted that “Jackson’s attack has been described by some as ‘ironic’ after the Pulp Fiction star agreed to appear in a video called ‘Wake the F**k Up. Vote for Obama’ during the last election”, a profanity-laced piece that was inspired partly by the Adam Mansbach book which he had narrated, entitled “Go the F*** to Sleep.”

So Mr. Jackson asks Mr. Obama to be more dignified in his use of language, but drops an F-bomb about every other sentence while he’s at it.

All right, so Mr. Jackson is just as much a public figure as Mr. Obama is. He himself insists that he understands the difference between the environment in which he grew up and the environment in which he now has to present himself as a mature and educated adult. But still, in movies and in “real life”, the F-bombs fly.

Perhaps Mr. Jackson reasons that he makes the sorts of movies in which little kids would be unlikely to see him, or know of him, or pay attention to him, so the profanity will not reach their tender ears. I’ve seen “Pulp Fiction”, and a little piece of “Snakes on a Plane”, and I was one of the few critics who did enjoy his remake of “Shaft”. Even if this were his reasoning, and even if it mattered … yes, he does appear in at least one rather well-known little-kid movie. Kids do look up to you. What do they see when they look up?

The F-word is still, as I suggested before, a powerful expletive; and in spite of its more widespread use, the fact that this “rant” has stirred up such attention goes a long way toward proving that this word’s visceral effect hasn’t been lessened at all.

So come on, Mr. Jackson. You’re a college-educated actor, and a fine one at that. Depending on what researcher you consult, the English language has anywhere from 250,000 to slightly more than a million words available, the vast majority of which cause the FCC no sleepless nights. So please, get creative. Or please access some of that appropriateness while you’re holding others to your high standards of dignity. Otherwise, it may just encourage mediocrity.

‘Cause I’d like to be a Samuel L. Jackson fan again.

Thank you.

 

P.S. I was really, really, REALLY considering a clever last line that involved some permutation of the F-word. But, even in a moment of obvious opportunity for humor … hmph. Haven’t got it in me.

Frak.

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September 25, 2013 Posted by | celebrity, education, Famous Persons, language | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Comfort, If Not Joy

This is really not a political commentary.

Really.

At least, I don’t think it is.

 

A couple of days ago, some SECRET VIDEO!!! was released to the Internet world. You can watch it here, but the upshot of it is, “Mitt Romney speaks to an audience of high-dollar campaign donors at a private fundraising event, has some (at first blush) rather contemptuous things to say about nearly half the American population – and it’s all recorded by a hidden video camera.”

After I got through watching the video for the first time, I sat, slightly stunned, musing that the result of this released video might be anywhere from “a minor media stir that will shortly die down” to “the crashing end of a Presidential candidate’s candidate.” Given the media culture of the early 21st century, I honestly don’t know which is more likely.

The content of his talk, I suspect, is enough to drive (for example) the Occupy movement faithful into flailing, foaming fits of indignant “–see? See?! Detestable! Wealth has blinded him! Awful person! Contempt for his fellow Americans! Vote progressive! Hope and Change!”, and etc.

Although I do see that my offensive linemen have opened up a hole as big as a 747 for me to run through and spike my editorial football in the end zone of Political Commentary … please, I invite you, feel free to pause a moment, stand back and admire that metaphor … nonetheless, the video made me focus, as I watched it a second time, not so much on what Mr. Romney was saying, but how. And it made me think of how we all, all of us, speak to different audiences in different ways.

When I stand in front of middle-school general music students, I speak in a certain way.

When I stand in front of middle-school general music students who are members of the school band, I speak in a certain slightly different way. (I can use different terminology, or at least I don’t have to explain things like “what’s a crescendo?”)

When I talk to my mother on the phone, I speak in a certain way.

When I talk to a telemarketer on the phone, I speak in a certain other way.

When I talk to someone I’m just meeting for the first time, I speak in a certain way.

When I talk to someone I’ve known since I was in junior high, I speak in a certain other way.

When I talk to the TV, after having heard or seen something ridiculous upon it, I speak in a certain way.

When I talk to the police officer who’s just pulled me over (which, for the record, hasn’t happened in years), I speak in a certain other way.

When we’re in our comfort zone – wherever that is, and whoever else is in it with us – we naturally say certain things in certain ways (and with certain body language). We almost can’t help it – or if we can, it takes work.

 

As the Presidential campaign has gone on, through primary season and into this last push before the general election, plenty of people have hurled invective at Mitt Romney. When one runs for President, one gets this treatment. Hopefully the invective has much more to do with one’s policies than with one’s person, but invective does get hurled. Gov. Romney has heard a lot from his critics about both his policies and his person. When his person is the target, the critique tends to be about his stiff demeanor, his seeming inability to “connect” with an audience. One of my favorite political radio commentators has nicknamed him “the RomneyBot 2000”.

During 2011, the New York Times described Gov. Romney’s persona as facts-driven, cautious, formal, socially stiff, and “spare with his emotions.” Whether he’s making stump speeches or meeting individual people on the campaign trail, the media have commented on his body language and speech patterns – he’s sometimes halting, sometimes awkward, sometimes slightly detached; sometimes his chuckle seems more the product of nervousness or uncertainty than the product of being amused; and sometimes his off-script remarks seem borne of a genuine lack of experience with anything but the environment created and fostered by his rather formidable wealth. This leads to the predictable but understandable accusations: he’s out of touch with the middle class … he’s insulated from everyone except rich people … he’s in the “one percent” of the American population who get to play by one set of financial and societal rules, while the rest of the population has to play by a different, less advantageous set of rules.

But, if we can agree that Mitt Romney is in fact a human being, then we can agree that he must be subject to at least one characteristic, the same as any other human: again, we all speak to different audiences in different ways. Up to this point, we perhaps had not seen incontrovertible proof of this, although I remember thinking once, “you don’t get to be a multi-gazillionaire corporate CEO type if your persona is that of a seventh-grader presenting an oral report in front of his Social Studies class.” He must be able to talk in a relaxed, comfortable manner to someone outside his own family… mustn’t he?

Apparently he is. This SECRET VIDEO!!! certainly seems to offer the impression that there are indeed people outside the Romney family that the Governor is entirely comfortable speaking with.

Successful politicians usually either are naturally able to speak, or are trained and practiced in the art of speaking, to just about any audience – s/he needs to convince that audience that s/he understands them and their concerns. (Whether or not that’s true. As Billy Crystal’s “Fernando” character used to say, “It’s not how you feel; it’s how you look!”)

Businessmen and -women need to be just as good at that as politicians do – they have to convince people to come around to their views or buy their products or agree to deals with them, and they have to do it (hopefully) in a way that makes their audiences think, “s/he’s one of us, or understands where we are, and it almost feels like it makes sense to agree with them because we now feel like we understand them and where they are.” Remarkably often, in political speech situations, Gov. Romney hardly looks like a seasoned politician.

In the recently-released video, Gov. Romney is relaxed. Confident. There’s the sound of a smile in his voice, and it’s not a feigned one. He very rarely stumbles over a single word, even though he’s not reading from any script. There are no nervous chuckles, no verbal “gaffes”. Every word is targeted and clear, and in fact Romney is practically speaking in complete paragraphs. And who is his audience? With whom is he entirely comfortable?

 

Up to now, it’s been practically cliché – a meme! – to characterize Gov. Romney as a member of the upper class who doesn’t experience, understand or relate to people of lesser means, or their way of life. And commentators have done this, very often, without really offering concrete evidence to support this assertion.

But this video is a lengthy one, not a quick-hit sound bite that can be thought to have been taken out of context. It’s conceivable that now, with the release of this video, there is at least a little of that concrete evidence to hold up.

And all because in fact, Mitt Romney really IS a human being; and he has to play by that human-being rule, just like everyone else:

We human beings are comfortable (and express themselves most comfortably and honestly) around two groups of people: people we like … and people like us.

September 18, 2012 Posted by | Famous Persons, Internet, journalism, language, media, news, politics, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment