It feels like we’re “Falling Down” again. Fourteen years ago, Michael Douglas’s badly coiffed Everyman captured a cultural moment of impotent white rage: Furious at downsizing, outsourcing and the increasing falseness of American life, but powerless to stop any of it, Douglas’s character finally snaps — and we watched, mostly sympathetically. That year, 1993, came the dawn of both globalization and true multiculturalism in America, and so, on both Left and Right there was a sense of something spiraling out of control.
Today, the outburst is back — and while our official response is condemnation, the truth is far more complex. Consider the eruptions in the past few months alone: Don Imus (who’d gotten away with years of sexism and homophobia) lost his job, thanks to the words “nappy-headed hos”; the word “macaca,” uttered by former Virginia governor George Allen, arguably tipped the Senate in favor of the Democrats; Michael Richards’s use of the “N-word” wound up on YouTube; Mel Gibson’s drunken antisemitic tirade made headlines. Even the professionally obnoxious Ann Coulter got in trouble for calling presidential hopeful John Edwards a “faggot.”
The pattern that followed was strikingly similar in all these cases. With the exception of Coulter, these offenders were found guilty in the court of public opinion, no matter the profuseness of their apologies — not because they offended American public opinion, but because they expressed it: These celebrities expressed anger, fear and prejudice that many people feel, and feel guilty about feeling, and in language that we, like frightened schoolchildren terrified of punishment, have been sternly warned not to use. Indeed, we have a very Jewish system of condemning certain acts, and a very Christian one of implying evil intents. The result? A cultural moment of intense anger roiling under ubiquitous false speech. And when someone’s ire comes bursting to the surface so publicly, we can’t help but stop and stare.
Consider first the rage, which transcends political ideology. For those on the Left, the reasons include a lost and pointless war, unstoppable globalization, an inept president, climate change, the homogenization of American culture and a shocking erosion of civil liberties. For those on the Right, they include a loss of American prestige, an implacable and barbaric enemy, the “pornographication” of American society, the loss of traditional values and, not least, the loss of European-American hegemony: Classical music and classic rock both giving way to the barbaric beats of rap. Indeed, fully a quarter of the nation thinks that we are trapped in a doomsday war of civilizations, and that “American culture” is being destroyed by unchecked immigration and loss of “values.”
Yet on both the Right and the Left, the rage that is at the heart of these concerns goes unaddressed, even unspoken. Not since Barry Goldwater (or perhaps Pat Buchanan) has a mainstream conservative politician “told it like it is” and given voice to anti-multiculturalist rage — unlike in Europe, where French, Dutch and German elites do so all the time. And on the Left, the last politician to seriously criticize American imperialism, hyper-capitalism and globalization was Ralph Nader, and we all know how that turned out. With mainstream public figures having calibrated their message for maximum inoffensiveness, to actually give voice to any of these deep concerns relegates one to the blogosphere.
Juxtaposed with this infuriating cocktail of rage and repression is a pervasive culture of B.S., surrounding us with meaningless nonspeech and pointless legalism. By now we’re all used to endless phone trees (“To ensure customer service, this call may be recorded”); operators in Bangalore pretending to be from Topeka; divesting ourselves of shoes and fluids at the airport; flight attendants reciting legal formulae from rote and ubiquitous “customer service” initiatives.
Enter the outburst. Again, the press tends to treat these explosions as if they’re offenses against the American way, but really they’re expressions of it. These bigoted outbursts are angry, honest and against the rules — rules with which many, many people do not agree. No wonder we can’t help but watch; we get both the frisson of a taboo being transgressed and the sense that there but for the grace of God go I.
Americans have never much liked double-talk, at least in theory; “fancy speech” is for the Europeans, and “Give ’em hell, Harry” Truman is the kind of hero only this country could produce. But our current culture offends an even deeper norm: that people are supposed to be judged not by how best they conform to a set of written rules, but by the truth of their souls. In our idealized town squares, courtrooms and homes, we’re meant to be judged on who we really are, not just on what we say or do. After all, aren’t we supposed to evaluate our fellow citizens by “the content of their character”?
If this sounds religious, it’s because it is. Our current agon around political correctness is a direct repetition of one of the fundamental struggles of Judaism and Christianity: the great debate between Paul and the talmudic rabbis. In Jewish law, the emphasis is on acts, not intentions; deed, not creed; external duties, not internal predilections — circumcise the flesh; avoid forbidden foods; do not do work on the Sabbath. Early Christianity, in contrast, places the emphasis on the internal rather than the external — circumcise the heart, not the flesh (“Real circumcision,” said Paul in Romans 2:29, “is a matter of the heart — it is spiritual and not literal”); act with love, not with ritual purity; have faith. The Talmud spelled out the details of tort law, but Jesus asked us to love our enemies. Jewish law governs the body (what you say, what you do), Christian faith the soul (what you feel, what you believe). For biblical and talmudic Judaism, there is no “who we really are” apart from what we actually do, but Jesus called the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs, which on the outside are beautiful, but inside… full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (Matthew 23:27)
Today we have cooked up a toxic brew of the Jewish and the Protestant. On the one hand, our taboos are very “Jewish.” They govern the external (what one says), not the internal (what one feels); in the hyper-PC world, you can be as racist or communist as you like, as long as you keep your mouth shut. (Indeed, the whole post-outburst conversation is like some political parody of “Seinfeld,” parsing the meanings of “nappy-headed” and “macaca,” condemning the utterers of these talismanic phrases.) On the other hand, our response to these Old Testament transgressions is a New Testament assumption that racist speech means a racist heart. At the risk of oversimplification, the Jewish approach is “Thou shalt not say this word.” The Christian approach is “Thou shalt not have this thought.” And our current approach is “If you say this word, you probably have this thought, and so we condemn you.” Thus by necessity we’ve all become whitewashed tombs, ever on the lookout for the slightest trace of filth.
Of course, we should not simply legitimize offensive speech; surely by putting some comments beyond the pale of civility, we do make our society safer and more inclusive. But code-based legalism is diametrically opposed to evaluation of inner character — and combined, they lead to disaster. Our culture is so filled with dissemblance that when a public figure blurts a single epithet, we instantly see evidence of a corrupt and bigoted heart: “Aha! This is what he really thinks! This is who he really is!” We can’t help but look, because we ourselves are under the same yoke of repression as our celebrity heroes. Thus the repression of speech that led to the outburst in the first place is strengthened, and the deep causes of prejudice left unchecked. (In this regard, it’s noteworthy that such homophobic statements as Coulter’s “faggot” joke or former NBA star Tim Hardaway’s “I hate gay people” radio rant do not lead to banishment; regarding gay rights, unlike racial/ethnic multiculturalism there is still a public debate on the merits.)
Without a respectable forum for conservative concerns about race, sexuality and ethnicity, or liberal ones about economic and social justice, we’re reduced to a nation of pathetic and puritanical detectives, looking for hints of animus in cryptic utterances, and ever more closely holding the reins of what we are and are not allowed to say. Yes, our Pharisaic system of speech-patrol has made hate speech unacceptable in polite circles. But is enforced politeness really the way to truth — or reconciliation?
Jay Michaelson has a law degree from Yale and is pursuing his doctorate at the Hebrew University, where his masters thesis was on “Anti-lawyerism and Anti-Semitism.”