I'm a fan of Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury. How could I not be? I work in public radio, after all.
But recently the strip had an especially smart and funny series spoofing the press-conference speech patterns of Donald Rumsfeld. The joke was how the Secretary of Defense turns reporters' questions into his own rhetorical questions, which he re-asks himself and then answers.
As Trudeau had him saying: "Am I thrilled our troops in Iraq are publicly disparaging of me? Of course not."
The punchline in the series was a soldier in Iraq learning about the combat death of a fellow American, and then, in his response, going Rumsfeldian. He says:
"Would I characterize that as sucking? Heavens, yes."
To me, that was about as perfect and dark a piece of comedy as I hope to encounter in a newspaper, not least because it derived its humor from a subtle deconstruction of language.
But a few of the newspaper editors who run Doonesbury took it upon themselves to bowdlerize the strip, changing the word "sucking" to a series of dashes or, in another case, to the euphemism "stinking."
Americans used to be famously plainspoken. But we've gotten into a bad habit in this country of defaulting to euphemism , reflexively replacing any word that somebody might find disagreeable with a word that is sure to upset nobody.
Always resorting to euphemism is a bad habit, a way of infantilizing the culture by artificially sweetening the language. Euphemisms are lies - maybe white lies, nice lies, polite lies...but still, not the plain truth.
In other words, the impulse to euphemize amounts to a kind of infectious Orwellian new-speak -- censorship lite. And euphemism becomes so entrenched so quickly we don't realize our language is being switched on us in a million tiny, everyday ways.
The other day in the grocery store, I was trying to buy a package of bittersweet chocolate. But I discovered that Hershey's doesn't sell bittersweet chocolate these days -- they now call it "mildly sweet" chocolate. The word "bittersweet" apparently has been deemed too harsh.
And euphemism starts to rule in large ways, as well, so that instead of using perfectly good, clear words like "invasion" or "coup d'etat," we feel obliged to invent the clinical, weasely phrase "regime change."
Or instead of putting on a production of Victor Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame," we change the name to "The Bell-ringer of Notre Dame," so as not to offend people who suffer from scoliosis.
I once asked a record executive I know why his industry lumped together every genre of predominantly African-American music -- hip-hop, R & B, gospel, soul - as "urban music."
"What are we are supposed to do," he said, "call it 'black music'?"
"Why not?" I asked.
"Well," he pointed out, "the biggest audience for hip-hop consists of white suburban kids."
"Right," I said, "so why do you call it 'urban' music?"
This is the problem of euphemism: by striving to avoid offense, it fuzzes up language, and leeches out meaning.
Which I would characterize as sucking.
This is Kurt Andersen in Studio 360.
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