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Biden, Putin, Zelenskyy, Penn — and the true nature of obscenity

Let’s talk about what’s obscene. First, consider what President Joe Biden considers “obscene.”

“Putin has the gall to say he is “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. This lie isn’t just cynical. It is obscene,” Biden declared in a speech in Warsaw, and later tweeted.

How so, one might ask?

“President Zelenskyy was democratically elected. He is Jewish — his father’s family was wiped out in the Nazi Holocaust,” Biden’s tweet continued.

Well. For Biden, the idea of Putin as a de-Nazifier is obscene. The Merriam-Webster dictionary has a lot of definitions for “obscene,” but first and foremost it has this: “disgusting to the senses: REPULSIVE.”

And yes, the capitalization is what the dictionary uses.

Not to be outdone, actor Sean Penn — who has been in Ukraine and Poland making a documentary on refugees — also used “obscene” in a political context involving Zelenskyy, though Penn managed to comment without mentioning Putin. And, in a CNN interview with Jim Acosta, Penn promised to publicly melt down his own Oscar statuettes if the Academy doesn’t offer Zelenskyy the chance to speak on Sunday night.


If the Academy had “elected not to pursue the leadership in Ukraine, who are taking bullets and bombs for us, along with the Ukrainian children that they are trying to protect, then I think every single one of those people and every bit of that decision will have been the most obscene moment in all of Hollywood history,” Penn said.

Whew. That’s a lot of play for the word “obscene” in a weekend news cycle.

And all that was before the extremely obscene moment at the Oscars. “Best actor winner Will Smith walked onstage and slapped presenter Chris Rock across the face after Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head,” as The Washington Post put it in genteel fashion.

ABC cut the audio for 15 seconds. In some countries, viewers actually heard what Rock said immediately after the slap, which contained a word not appropriate for this publication, followed by Smith screaming and repeatedly using another word not acceptable in this publication since some might deem it, well, obscene. One rabbi even went so far as to draw a parallel between the treatment of Will Smith and the failure to check Putin.

I’d advise you to spare yourself the experience of putting the word ‘obscene’ into a Twitter search, because you’ll get a whole lot of images you didn’t want to see that confirm the secondary meanings of the word “obscene” according to Merriam-Webster:

2a: abhorrent to morality or virtue specifically: designed to incite to lust or depravity

2b: containing or being language regarded as taboo in polite usage

Instead of “obscene,” consider pondering “smelt,” which is another example of the dramatic language and imagery Penn used to describe what he might do to his Oscars. “I will smelt mine in public,” he said, suggesting that Oscar attendees walk out if Zelenskyy wasn’t given an opportunity to speak.

Talk of Oscar walkout is interesting to contemplate.

What really may be going on with the word “obscene” is an attempt to delineate a red line (for Penn, on a red carpet), an all-out attempt to formalize what the world considers unacceptable.

In a dramatic speech in Warsaw, Biden did something similar when he said that Putin “cannot remain in power.” Biden was, perhaps, trying to suggest that Russians walk out on Putin, and that the world walk out on the idea that Putin can be allowed to stay in power.

Journalists scrambled to clarify exactly what Biden meant.

“It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Biden’s apparent call for the ouster of Mr. Putin was one of the off-the-cuff remarks for which he is known or a calculated jab, one of many in the speech. But it risks confirming Russia’s central propaganda claim that the West, and particularly the United States, is determined to destroy Russia,” Michael D. Shear, David E.Sanger, and Michael Levenson wrote in The New York Times.

The White House press office tried to tone it down. “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” one official said. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”

The phrase “the President’s point” hinted at the fact that Biden has said a bit too much in public before. Yet some prominent conservatives cheered Biden’s comments, noting that past foreign policy “gaffes” have become future reality. Consider Bill Kristol’s comparison of Biden’s Putin comment to Reagan’s famous exhortation to Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.

Kristol’s tweet just emphasized that this is a public war, amplified by social media. Words matter hugely, and so do images. And Ukrainian leaders — and many ordinary Ukrainians — are using social media to great effect, highlighting the obscene elements of the military campaign, namely its “crass disregard of moral or ethical principles” (or Merriam-Webster definition 2c) and the obscene wealth of oligarchs who are backed by Putin, or “so excessive as to be offensive” (Merriam-Webster “obscene” definition 2d).

Of course, most people don’t need to look up “obscene.” We know it when we see it.

As a comedian-turned-President with a flair for public statements fights against a man who came up in the secret police, what’s in public view matters more than ever. Zelenskyy, Biden and Penn are waging a war against secrecy, all working to secure the hugest possible public platform and audience for what is happening in Ukraine.

All this talk of what is and isn’t obscene is a dramatic reminder of all that is evident in the bright lights of the cameras but has long been minimized or excused away about Putin’s regime. This language is an effort to end the suffering enabled by the cover of darkness.

Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of “Wolf Lamb Bomb” and “The Grammar of God.” Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner

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