Truth, Decorum, and Lyin’ Ass Bitches

by A. Jay Adler on November 28, 2011
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The public square teeters on the edge of comedy and farce. No, really, it is over the edge, and who can say when the fall occurred – maybe 450 BCE? Every culture, though, reinvigorating the social struggle anew, relives the fall for itself, and the U.S. has had its own. In classical comedy – which is not all yucks – social forces contend with each other amid many ironies and achieve a happy resolution. Farces are contrastingly full of nonsense, with improbable plots that stretch the contours of human interaction to absurd degrees.

A primary purpose of civility and decorum in the public square is to maintain the boundaries among society’s contending parties and enable that happy resolution – or the nearest, highly messy approximation of it. For all our different interests, classes, and views, let us dare to disagree, but let us barely be disagreeable. Let us, instead, be civil. Let us maintain our decorum else we will hardly hold it all together.

That’s the argument for not calling Michele Bachman, by musical suggestion, a “lyin’ ass bitch.” It is the argument that most people who operate in the public arena will advance, even when, in relation to a figure like Bachmann, they feel no personal or ideological sympathy toward the individual. We have to be civil to each other, or the center does not hold.

There were multiple transgressions in the musical joke by Jimmy Fallon’s house band The Roots. The more fundamental rudeness of insulting a guest went unaddressed, though how genuinely we can think of a guest “appearance” on a talk show as the appearance of a true “guest” is a meditation in itself. Politicians who appear on talk shows are the beneficiaries of propped up self-promotion and free campaign advertising; they are not vulnerable supplicants of another’s hospitality. They appear on programs often to face accusatory suggestion, and their own offering of it to the point of scurrilous insult is the stock and trade of the likes of Michele Bachmann. Is “lyin’ ass bitch” worse than “anti-American” and “pals around with terrorists”? What is it, exactly, we are supposed to be objecting to in dissenting from The Roots’ musical joke – the venue, the general incivility, the truth of what they suggested?

Bachmann took advantage, in responding to the prank, of two purported transgressions – those with political weight. She was, she said, the victim of liberal bias. Worse, the joke was a misogynistic attack. Conservatives like nothing better than the manufacturing of a petard by which to hoist some liberal PC. Of course, in this instance, Bachmann was handed an easy yet empty shell of an example. If one checks the Urban Dictionary (and if you don’t have that baby on your cyber bookshelf, you just ain’t referencing) one of the many insulting meanings of “bitch” is “a woman with a bad attitude.” A male equivalent of bitch is “dick,” among the definitions of which are “an abrasive man” and “a bastard.” If you commonly, demeaningly refer to women as bitches, you are undoubtedly sexist, worse, you are certainly a dick. But if, with precision of application, you note both the bitches and the dicks of the world, whether aloud or in the quiet of your own mind, you are an equal opportunity offender, sauce for goose and gander alike. I am of the belief that there are more dicks in the world than bitches, though there are plenty of both, and am inclined to call them out only when either has treat me like the other. But then I am not The Roots and I would not be joking.

To the claim of liberal bias, expressed in the charge that Michelle Obama would not have received such treatment, is it stating the obvious to clarify that Michele Bachmann is not Michele Obama, who possesses, to begin, vastly more intelligence and is absent the abundant record of, well, lies? The point, of course, is to apply words and terminology to the things of this world – the chairs, the egrets, the returning comets – to which they accurately apply. Epithets are not like gold stars for everyone who finishes second grade. If you are not a liar (let’s not be totally focused on “bitch”) then you shouldn’t be called one.

The greater claim in the Obama comparison, however, is that of decorum, of respectful behavior due the office, if not the person, of respect. The reality is that many on both ends of the political spectrum feel their counterparts to be dicks and bitches (for lying, it is believed, there is virtually an academic degree), and if they all went around freely expressing those kinds of feelings, then the institutional and civil comity intended to maintain what is always mostly just a veneer of civilization anyway will chip away. In order to be civil, one must fear that one’s good friend from the great state of Minnesota is in danger of becoming an unpleasant dissimulator of the first order.

The thing is (there is always a thing – it’s what makes thinking so hard) there is a difference between claiming someone is a liar – feeling it, shall we say – and being able to substantiate the lying, which is to say thinking it, and thinking it truly. If we cannot, which is here to say will not, separate the claims from the establishable facts, then we cede all arguments and non-thinking to the lowest common denominator – the ability merely to articulate a charge. The lowest and the highest become thereby equal because they can both claim ill of the other, even though in one case the claim may be provably true and the other not.

The question, then, becomes against how much articulated truth does decorum protect the holder of respected office? This is not a new question, but we have never agreed upon an answer. In recent times, the answer for some has been not much. Bill Clinton was accused of ordering murder, George W. Bush of being as evil as Saddam Hussein, and Barack Obama of pretty much everything (beginning, horrifically, with having origins in Africa). But we rightly tend to treat such people and incidents as outliers, as The Roots’ punking of Bachmann has quickly become so qualified, even by those otherwise without sympathy for Bachmann. Yet the question remains, is there no limit at all beyond which the office shall not protect the holder? Surely, we would all agree there is one, even if we would differ on the location.

Two elements weakened The Roots in their act. One is that it was not their house. The host can stand up for his impropriety without limit, defend it as justified by extremity. It is his house and no one can deny his right, if not his judgment. However, the Late Night house belongs not even to Jimmy Fallon, but to NBC, and, of course, the corporation would apologize and its hired hands be required to express regret. Score one for Bachmann.

Many people, too, will always be offended by profanity, however on the mark it’s message: the curser will be cursed by want of a civil and decorous tongue. Still, there is truth, which can be expressed in many languages. It may offend some people less to have Michele Bachmann declared a scurrilous and ignorant embarrassment to the nation’s political life, but there are those, too, who like their truth less varnished and who reach their limit of pretended respect. You may not want them over for dinner, but that doesn’t make their judgment inaccurate. The world’s got fucking dicks and it’s got lyin’ ass bitches. Look around. Look on TV.

AJA

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