Wednesday, August 2, 2017
At this time of the year in central New Jersey the fruiting of the tomatoes ought to advance more rapidly than the spread of crisis through the West Wing of the White House, but this week the Big Boys in my garden have been dramatically outpaced by the Bad Boys in Washington. In particular, in the short week since I last presumed to put pixel to screen I learned that the President had just appointed a new Director of White House Communications and that he had fired his Director of White House Communications. Being, like, a really smart person, I soon enough figured out that these reports involved the same guy.
His name was, and undoubtedly still is, Anthony Scaramucci. I don’t think I had ever heard of him before. As one definitively not in the know I certainly did not know that he was a freebooting financier rich beyond the dreams of avarice, that his friends (both of them) call him “the Mooch,” that his wife recently filed for divorce from her couch of accouchement, or numerous other details easily gleaned from news outlets factual or factitious. I have to acknowledge a serious deficit in my knowledge of what I shall call popular culture—the category to which I am inclined to assign much current political news. One should not try to make a virtue of ignorance of any sort, but with the limited and apparently shrinking bandwidth of my cerebellum I have had to be pretty ruthless about sticking with my priorities. It is not too easy to shock today’s students, but about thirty years ago I appalled a whole roomful of them by not knowing who Michael Jackson was. I apparently thought it more important to know who Michael Palaiologus and Robert H. Jackson were—information, in the context of that particular classroom, of which I was apparently the sole possessor.
In any event, Mr. Scaramucci, though his portfolio involved the facilitation of “communication,” was clearly outraged that there had been some. Communication, I mean. So he called up one of the communicants, a journalist at the New Yorker, demanding to known the identity of the communicator. He pursued his telephonic inquisition into leaks and leakers with vigor and determination—not to mention with considerable obscenity and verbal violence. A junior high school teacher of mine once expressed horror over an eavesdropped exchange between two of my rowdier classmates by saying “That’s the kind of language army men in barracks use!” She set my imagination racing. As my life developed I never made it into the army or even into a barracks, but I am pretty sure Mr. Scaramucci met the standard. The New Yorker journalist, eager that we the people should know the truth, reported the conversation more or less verbatim. Then the New York Times, similarly motived, gave a full report of the New Yorker’s report. Rather to my surprise there was a swift popular uproar from a citizenry I had thought deeply submerged in revulsion-fatigue.
In a gesture of apology born of a firestorm of outrage, Mr. Scaramucci allowed as how he might be guilty of using “colorful language.” Uhn uhn. You want colorful language? Read the opening lines of the Purgatorio. You want obscene, disgusting, violent, and degrading language—language that exposes the speaker and sullies the hearer? Read the transcript of Mr. Scaramucci’s “interview” with a journalist.
One group who have been somewhat muted in their criticism is the official league of conservative pundits. But then I have been pretty disappointed in many of them since the revelation of the President’s “Access Hollywood” tape when, to cite Edmund Burke on a thematically related topic, I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards. The foundations of the conservative frame of mind, to which I find myself ever more explicitly attuned as I grow older, are respect for the human past, the just appreciation of its achievements, and a recognition of the fundamental value, for communities no less than for individuals, of grounding, stability, and tradition. One of the presumed founders of Toryism, Lord Falkland in the seventeenth century, is believed to have articulated the conservative principle thus: “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” The specific topic he was addressing, ecclesiastical governance, is today a large yawn, but his principle is one, with aphoristic repackaging, espoused even by many self-identified “progressives”: if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
Neither the President nor the Mooch is responsible for the lamentable degradation of American verbal discourse. The rot set in long ago, and the agents of decay are many and varied. I think my old-fashioned teacher would now find that the linguistic norm of most middle schools in the country is a cut below that of army men in barracks. But they are responsible for adopting it, if only for ten days, as the appropriate mode of “communication” from President to people. Sad.