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It is a backhanded compliment to the power of words that some of them are considered scandalous and bad. Unfortunately, when words go bad, moralists sometimes go crazy.
Not my mother, though. She always used to say that anyone who resorted to bad language showed a poverty of expression. To my knowledge, not an oath, curse, indecency or swear word ever crossed her lips — quite a feat, considering she was married to my old man. I picture her arriving in heaven and St. Peter saying: "Holy (bad word)! You're a saint. How did you do it?"
Well, she lived in another era — genteel, reserved and not yet overrun by vulgarians. It helped that she never wore Army boots. Even back then, certain segments of society were expected to swear up a storm, including sailors and everybody else in the armed forces.
My own military service was just one expletive not deleted. Everybody in the ranks swore like troopers, as the old expression has it. Drill instructors in particular were linguistic masters. They took low words and made them into high art. They used indecent gerunds and had adverbs that were off-color (I dare not mention their adjectives). They larded every sentence with profanities and would insert bad words into the middle of innocent words that were just minding their own business.
It seemed, on the whole, entirely proper and natural in that setting. You may look down your nose and tut-tut, but bad language is the elemental scream of humankind, a defense against absurdity, unfairness and pain.
The trouble is that bad language, like screaming, is not appropriate at all times. Today's foul-mouthed legions bring no creativity to the task and don't understand that there's a time and place for everything, even swearing. Some of these darn brats swear on TV.
Still, even President Bush and Vice President Cheney have been known to use bad language on occasion. I do not hold this against them. (Their fault is making the rest of us cuss.) As it happens, their dirty talking was cited in a court case this week.
The federal appeals court panel in New York ruled 2-1 in favor of major broadcasting networks, led by Fox Television, which were appealing a Federal Communications Commission ruling that profanity uttered on four TV shows was indecent. Apparently, the theory was that if the president and his pal can do it, Cher can do it without the FCC having a conniption.
The case was mostly about so-called "fleeting expletives" or blurted-out profanities. Networks are fearful that a celebrity vulgarian can drop a bad word without warning and then the network might be fined heavily by an FCC that believes it is our collective mother.
These incidents date back a few years, but what really got the nanny locomotive rolling was Janet Jackson's right breast, which she shared with us briefly during the 2004 Super Bowl. It was not even a very big breast, but concerned citizens reeled before it, yelling, "The breast is coming, the breast is coming." Meanwhile, Godzilla sat around the Old Monsters Retirement Home on the outskirts of Tokyo, regretting that he didn't have some breasts to spread more terror back in the day.
Well, I am not in favor of breasts popping out unannounced and I hope I would not say a bad word if one were to appear suddenly. Ever my mother's son, I think vulgarians should not be vulgar, but I also think that it is absurd to try to make America's airwaves totally sanitized and unreflective of ordinary, everyday speech as it is spoken in the White House. In the FCC's case, it is doubly absurd, because cable TV and its bad words are outside its jurisdiction.
Maybe it's triply absurd. Consider Monday's press release from FCC Chairman Kevin Martin (the asterisks are mine, and a blush came to my maiden cheeks as I inserted them):
"Today the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York said the use of the words 'f***' and 's***' by Cher and Nicole Richie was not indecent. I completely disagree with the court's ruling and am disappointed for American families. …"
I have never seen an official statement as bizarre as this one. On one hand, the FCC has stood ready to punish networks for explicit fleeting language. On the other, it's OK for the FCC chairman to use the same language deliberately to express his outrage, then post it on the Web.
But at least he treated us like adults, which makes a change for the FCC and its mission of making American TV a G-rated place fit only for the kiddies. Sorry, Mom, but to heck with that.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)