04 June 2007

Naughty business

There are times when I think, in 2007, that every idea for a film, book, song, etc. must have been taken by someone. When I heard that director Steve Anderson had created a documentary of the word "fuck," what surprised me was not so much that Anderson had thought of it but that no one had thought of it before.

Anderson's film, aptly titled "Fuck," is a salute to our most cherished and most revolting profanity, reveling in its incomparable versatility and trying to understand how, exactly, the word became the equivalent of linguistic duct tape and simultaneously for cultural conservatives became a magical force of corruption. What it does not do is spend a great deal of time haggling over the word's origins, of which surprisingly little is known with certainty. It is Germanic in origin, was probably used first sometime in the 15th century, and has always been known in English as a crude term for the act of copulating. What it is not, contrary to competing popular legend, is an acronym for "Fornicating Under Consent of King," or anything else.

Though the film generally takes a steadfast libertarian position on free speech, featuring interviews with the likes of Drew Carey, Kevin Smith, Ron Jeremy and others as well as a tribute to pioneer Lenny Bruce, who once noted "if you can't say 'fuck,' then you can't say 'fuck the government.'" But it also tries to understand the arguments of cultural conservatives like Alan Keyes, Miss Manners, and radio gasbag Dennis Prager, and gamely tries to make them seem reasonable, a nearly-impossible task given their insistence on sounding ridiculous.

The primary argument we hear repeatedly from the pearl-clutching puritans about the word "fuck," or any other so-called "obscenity," is that it marks the speaker as crude and "low-class." Yes, that's the word one of them uses. I might have been disappointed the film did not explore the classist nature of the words our society considers profane, but it works out when we get this critique from an unlikely source. Our "foul language" comes from, in various euphemisms, sailors, soldiers, ghettos, and other unclean commoners who might soil the pristine ears of our stuffier classes (I have not seen "The Aristocrats," which may address this in more detail considering this is integral to understanding the joke).

The other old favorite of the cultural conservatives--something you've probably heard many times from your parents or teachers--is that saying "fuck" betrays a lack of vocabulary, and therefore intelligence, and you would not say it if you were intelligent enough to think of something different to say. This is perhaps best exemplified by the two great scribes of modern conservatism, George Will and William F. Buckley, who believe drowning people in multisyllabic words and impeccable grammar is necessary and sufficient to make enlivened writing. The other two words that come to mind are "Left Behind" and, subsequently, the rest of "Christian publishing, which should prove to anyone that abstention from use of "fuck" is no guarantor of quality.

Prager insists, as many of his ilk now do, that "fuck" is now a necessary imprimatur of authenticity for any artwork in our eroding Western culture. This is no doubt true for a certain segment of people. Unfortunately they are all in high school, and this juvenile belief will pass most of them by, an idea (that children eventually grow up) that seems to give conservatives fits. Like on other fronts on the great Cultural Crackdown, what we are led to believe is done to protect the innocent children is really there to simplify and degrade all of us into becoming like children ourselves. As a childless know-nothing, I can imagine a necessary conversation about what how our children need to be protected, but I can't conceive of any scenario in which hearing the word "fuck" has ever corrupted anyone.

It is a marker, to be sure, but only for people looking for an easy way to pass judgment on their fellow man, which, come to think of it, fits our cultural conservatives like a glove. It is an easy way for them to do their God-appointed task of separating wheat from chaff without having to work hard, or do any consideration of of a person's life or works, a penetration that would too often prosecute themselves, an implication which is to be avoided at all costs.