The other day, a colleague at work said the best story in that day's edition of the paper was buried as a brief on Page A2. It described how television executives in Britain asked comedian Joan Rivers to leave their show during a commercial break. They were angry that she had just used two ugly and profane words.
"Don't you wish people in this country would do that?" my friend asked.
That got me thinking about what would need to happen for America to go beyond the legal wrangling that takes place whenever the FCC tries to impose standards of decency over the public airwaves and get to a place where things that offend decency are stopped dead in their tracks by universal outrage.
The main obstacle seems to be a nationwide case of amnesia. Over the past seven years, we have gone through culture-jarring events that were supposed to change us as a nation for good. But each one seemed to wear off quicker than the one before.
Remember how everyone felt right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Time magazine's Roger Rosenblatt penned a memorable essay a week or so later that said the attacks "could spell the end of the age of irony." By this, he meant the age in which "the good folks in charge of America's intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously. Nothing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes ... declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life."
The attacks, Rosenblatt said, had brought reality home. That reality included notions about freedom, honor and fair play.
His essay was followed by opinion polls elsewhere showing that Americans had become more religious and serious-minded after the attacks. That lasted a few weeks, maybe a month or two. Then the nation's serious face broke into an ironic grin again.
Remember Michael Richards? It hasn't been two years since the comedian, best known for playing Cosmo Kramer on "Seinfeld," exploded at a comedy club, firing a racial-epithet-laced tirade against two black hecklers. That wiped the grins away again for a few weeks. Some black comedians, such as Paul Mooney, even announced they were swearing off the notorious N-word because now "it's a whole new world."
This time the pause was so short before the nation's smile returned, it almost seemed like perfect comedic timing.
Then came radio shock-jock Don Imus, who last year hurled racially charged insults toward the Rutgers women's basketball team. It took eight months before he was let back on the air, a self-described changed person. In the meantime, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held its national convention and symbolically buried the N-word in a pine box. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said it was an act not only to banish that word but everything that goes along with it in the culture.
A few months later, the rapper Nas released a CD that had the N-word in the title.
I am reminded about the old joke that asks how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb. The answer is that the light bulb first has to really want to change.
Of course, many Americans already get it and do not fill their lives with rude behavior or degrading humor. They won't watch shows such as CBS's new comedy "Swingtown," which makes wife-swapping and drug abuse seem normal and acceptable.
But as the Information Age provides freedoms never before experienced in what we view on our televisions and computers and how we react anonymously to things online the tug-of-war over the future direction of the culture becomes more pronounced.
Rivers had been warned ahead of time that the British show she was on was live and that guests should avoid profanity. The World Entertainment News Network said she followed her eviction with a public apology that also contained profanity.The age of irony is nothing if not resilient.
Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected].