Saturday, July 22, 2006

Swearing In

My apologies to the loyal readers who have been visiting la Jardiniere in the past few days only to keep seeing that inside joke -- i.e., a joke that only makes sense within my own perverse mind -- in which I imagined the recent G8 summit as a fantasy football match. (My thanks to those who have gotten it, and have written me to say so . . .) I continue to be swamped with last-minute diss revisions, trying to sell our house, pack, emigrate, see friends, care for my children, etc.

I also have to admit that since I started reading Language Log on a regular basis, I have started to feel the kind of creeping self-doubts that loopy literary types like myself might feel around a bunch of hard-core linguists. Like, whoa, those folks can marshal statements resembling something like fact. (As you've seen, I tend to fly off on flights of fancy close reading.)

Oh well, gotta play to my strengths, such as they are.

Like Eric Bakovic at the Log, I was immediately struck by the headline in the Times today concerning the FCC troubles PBS is facing regarding a war documentary containing, er, "salty language" spoken by soldiers (that's the Times attributing sailor talk to soldiers, not me). Censorship, and self-censorship, of the fourth estate being a recent thread here, I was of course immediately interested. In all honesty, however, my first thought was that the featured soldiers would be those either in, or having returned from, Iraq. In fact, without having clicked on the link to read the story, I projected an entire narrative -- going off on one of my flights (few emergency exits) -- in which I assumed that the profanity was related to the war campaign in which we are currently (and ostensibly indefinitely) involved: even more specifically, that what would be objectionable to federal censors about the televised profanity was not merely the words themselves, but that they were directed to a government-sponsored occupation in a show on a government-sponsored network. How could those contradictions be logistically and ideologically reconciled, I wondered?

Well, I got the story wrong. The documentary is Ken Burns' latest six-year-production-in-the-making on veterans' recollections of World War II. Remember them? "The Greatest Generation."

As Elizabeth Jensen's article reports, "A new Public Broadcasting Service policy that went into effect immediately when it was issued on May 31 requires producers whose shows are broadcast before 10 p.m. to adhere to tough editing requirements when it comes to coarse language, to comply with tightened rulings on broadcast indecency by the Federal Communications Commission." Jensen also reports that "Mr. Burns, perhaps best known for his prize-winning series 'The Civil War,' insisted that 'The War' would be shown in the preferred time slot of 8 p.m. He said he was 'flabbergasted' that F.C.C. policy was being applied to documentaries, particularly when President Bush himself was inadvertently heard using vulgar language, broadcast on some cable newscasts, at the recent Group of Eight summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia."

Ah, yes.

Just think of the peculiar confluence of events, preoccupations, and, yes, hypocrisies here. After all, veterans' recollections of Guadalcanal, D-Day, and the Battle of the Bulge are hardly equivalent to a "wardrobe malfunction" inadvertently broadcast on a national sporting event. And, "Swift Boat Veterans" notwithstanding, we're all aware of our President's shabby showing during his own stint in the National Guard, let alone his recently reported profanity, and media outlets' angst in reporting it. In the end, while I feel abashed to have learned that the objectionable program is not about Iraq but about World War II, I still feel as though the kind of censorship the Burns program is negotiating, whether externally or voluntarily imposed, effectively serves to squelch any discourse about the experienced realities of war, which affects any statements, perceptions, or (dare I say) critiques of the current one.

And here you will find the difference between me and the folks at Language Log. They do have more answers there, whether their statements are facts or merely resemble them. I, on the other hand, tend to raise questions, voice doubts, and air anxieties, and play fast and loose with the facts and their contexts to see connections -- like those between the G8 summit and a fantasy football match -- that others, certainly not hard-core linguists, might not see (though that backrub Dubya recently offered Angela Merkal is starting to make my cheeky reverie look increasingly plausible. . .)

While I tune in for the occasional Frontline or Charlie Rose, I still associate PBS largely with Sesame Street, the chief purveyor of language and letters for children of my generation. I recall a piece in The Onion a couple of years back, during one of the GOP's most recent attempts to squelch the network, in which the letter D was reported to have pulled his "sponsorship" of the show on account of the new gay muppet who had joined the cast. I couldn't remember the new muppet's name -- my fits of giggles must've hampered my long-term memory -- but sunny day, wishing the clouds away, here's the link. Simply brilliant.

Of the roster of muppets we are all familiar with, who do you think would be most likely to indulge in salty language? I'm envisioning a scene in Grover's dressing room in which he takes long pull on a Pall Mall non-filter, and spits contempt at the effers in Congress . . .

Helloooo everyboddeeeee!

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