Broken windows encourage social chaos, or so the theory goes. The aim of broken-windows policing is not to beautify neighborhoods, but some reduction of their ugliness may be necessary if their safety and functionality are ever to increase beyond a certain threshold.
So it is with speech and the social fabric. The taboo against profanity in public has faded in recent decades. In 1974, White House staff debated among themselves whether the transcripts of the Watergate tapes they were about to release should remain unexpurgated. Press secretary Ron Ziegler prevailed, and so we got that plethora of “[expletive deleted]”s, a form of hypocrisy, the tribute that vice pays to virtue, which includes modesty of speech.
As the editor of a baseball journal, I once ran an article with two instances of the f-word. I toyed with some workarounds: ellipses, “f—.” How about just deleting the word, in both of its occurrences, and calling it editorial license? I silently rehearsed the arguments for the various courses of action and decided as I did. A Catholic priest sent me a letter to object. I was grateful. I was always of two minds on the question, and he spoke up for one of them.
The other mind: An ellipsis or “f—” would dramatize the profanity. And so I don’t entirely agree with Kyle Smith when he accuses the New York Times of applying a double standard by omitting a Democratic senator’s “s—” while quoting verbatim from Anthony Scaramucci’s sustained obscene rant to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. The two cases are different. The quantity of Scaramucci’s profanity was higher and lent his spiel a distinctive quality.
And he used it to produce a disgusting mental image or two along the way. I know people who never do that even though they use the f-word three times a sentence. It’s their synonym for “very.” If the Times touches the Scaramucci story at all, it’s probably going to get its hands dirty. I suppose that it could have minimized the problem by publishing a squib from which readers could link to the New Yorker piece. Of course, it could have passed over the story completely, but everyone was already talking about it.
Ironic that The New Yorker is the source of this infraction, insofar as it’s still a breach of civility to print profanity. William Shawn, the magazine’s longtime fastidious editor, had a reputation. Vulgarity was a hockey puck and he was Martin Brodeur. I was surprised to learn just now that according to Mary Norris, the New Yorker’s star copy editor, Shawn relented as long ago as 1979. A line from Apocalypse Now included the word “s—.” A reviewer (not Pauline Kael) quoted it. Shawn shrugged, stood aside, and waved it into the net. Had The New Yorker retained more of its old-school good manners in this department over the years, it would not have published Lizza’s account of Scaramucci’s phone call to him last week, and then the Times would not have had to decide whether to report what The New Yorker reported. But The New Yorker would not have been able to report it in the first place had Scaramucci left his phone on the desk while taking a long walk to clear his head. Blame not the messengers, at least not primarily.
You would think that more social conservatives would care more about character in politics. How often do they look the other way when a political figure on their side of their issues lapses into obscene or abusive language? They oppose it on principle, less often in practice. They keep their eyes on the prize: restricting abortion and securing religious freedom. As long as he remains true to those two causes, he can talk like a mobster or Wall Street banker and they’ll bite their tongue. Patton was foul-mouthed, too, but he got the job done. If you agree with a politician on policy, his low character and vile instincts are flyspecks and you should ignore them and let him do his work: That’s reasonable if you accept that politics is war. It isn’t.
Some conservatives do protest against the broken window. They could tolerate it but they don’t. It’s not so much the window as the squalor that it signifies and the further squalor that it portends. It’s the toxic gas that we can neither see nor touch, but it smells. It pollutes the air we breathe. No culture of life can flourish in an atmosphere so poisoned: Russell Moore speaks to that point forcefully.