The imaginations of brave men retreat from speculating about what Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower might have said if someone had been so bold as to pose a question about the size of the manhood in his pants. But Mario Rubio, eager to show that he can mud-wrestle with Donald Trump, did not hesitate to set up such a question in the Republican debate last week, and the Donald did not hesitate to answer. We got too much information.
Vulgarity and insults have become America’s lingua franca, the language that links us all. Candidates for president, who are expected to demonstrate knowledge, shrewdness and even a modest guide to public taste, speak in schoolyard expletives. Newspapers, once the arbiters of public discourse, no longer flinch at printing the vilest blasphemy and cursing; only “the n-word” must still be camouflaged lest it wound. Displays of sexual promiscuity are badges of celebrity.
Anyone who calls out offenses to public taste is disdained as prude and prig, fit only as a guest for the table of Grandma Grundy. Taunts and attempts at personal humiliation have replaced discussion of issues and problems of government. Insult inevitably attracts insult, vulgarity invites vulgarity, and soon the conversation would embarrass woodcutters and teamsters, and the teamster’s mules.
It’s getting to be a little tedious, and it’s hard to know what to do about it. The old guardians of propriety — pastors, priests and rabbis — seem to have lost their once important influence on public life. It comes, alas, with the growing secularization of American life, in which religious faith, the source of morality and restraints on coarseness, and those who practice faith, appear to be a smaller and smaller part of the public concern. It further comes from a mistaken understanding of what liberty and freedom, the hallmarks of American life and democracy, actually mean.
The one source left for examples to halt the debasement of the public discourse is elected leadership. The president of the United States has always filled three roles — chief executor of the laws enacted by Congress, the politician who heads, at least temporarily, the majority opinion as expressed by voters, and the last role, hard to define, as the symbol of the nation and its aspirations.
The process of selecting the next man or woman to hold that high office continues, and the process has not, since the early years of the republic, been as rowdy and as slovenly as in the present day. The contest this year is unusually complex. On one side stands a veteran of many political wars, with all the inevitable baggage, and on the other side, several particularly bitter rivals fighting for their party’s nomination. The sheer volume of overheated language invites abandoning whatever standards that survive for educated discourse.
Each candidate is looking for something to set himself apart from his fellows. Noise, insult, and verbal provocation that in an earlier day would have invited satisfaction of personal honor on the dueling grounds at dawn, have not worked, and are not likely to work. But what if one or more candidates turns his back now on what has not worked, and tries something else?
Prim and proper as the unfamiliar might seem, what if a candidate makes it clear that he will rise about the sordid and the surly, and return to formal and discreet discussion of what lies ahead in a time of peril? Then it would be up to the rest of us to make it known that better behavior — what earlier generations did not blush to call propriety — will be duly rewarded. Well, it’s a thought.