Last month, while Vice President Dick Cheney was working behind the scenes in Washington, D.C., to kill an amendment that would ban the use of torture by U.S. troops, torture fans—Cheney, conservative bloggers, right-wing media outlets (Fox News, the Wall Street Journal)—noted that the folks who land in America's torture chambers aren't nice guys.
But, as liberal icon Molly Ivins pointed out in a column that ran in the November 14 issue of the Seattle Times, we didn't torture members of the SS or the Gestapo during WWII, and they weren't exactly nice. (Plus, there's the small matter of the number of completely innocent noncombatants who have been tortured and killed by U.S. troops.)
But I haven't come to condemn torture—I'll leave that to Ivins and Andrew Sullivan and John McCain and the European Union. No, I've come to praise the editors of the Seattle Times for running Ivins's column on November 14 as written.
"I hear the familiar tinniness of fake machismo I know so well from George W. Bush," Ivins wrote, "and all the other frat boys who never went to Vietnam and never got over the guilt. 'Sometimes you gotta play rough,' said Dick Cheney. No shit, Dick? Now why don't you tell that to John McCain?"
For fans of daily newspapers, the appearance of the word "shit" on the op-ed page of the Seattle Times is a welcome development.
Daily papers are barely keeping their heads above water—in the past six months the Times' circulation dropped seven percent, and the Post-Intelligencer's fell nine percent—and the "family newspaper" anvil dailies insist on holding onto as they tread water isn't helping. Shit, fuck, bullshit, asshole—these are all words that adults use for emphasis when they discuss politics, sex, religion, sports, dinner, spouses, pop culture, Pop-Tarts, and Wal-Marts. Daily papers and daily-paper websites are for adults, and adult language has a place in both. When a publication uses profanity in print, it communicates to its readers that they're not being condescended to, or treated like children who have to be protected from language they use every fucking day.
The Stranger uses profanity constantly. Are we being juvenile? Not at all. I challenge our critics to find profane words in The Stranger that can't also be found in, say, the New Yorker, or in mainstream films, or on basic cable—or in the fucking Financial Times, where I recently encountered the word "shitburgers," a fresh piece of profanity that I intend to work into my Savage Love column at the earliest opportunity. When we use profanity we are not being glib or attempting to shock. We're being grownups. When the New York Times lists the best-selling book On Bullshit as On Bull---- because it's a "family newspaper" it's not just being juvenile, it's also alienating adult readers.
Why do so many daily newspapers refuse to let their writers use words like "shit"? Because they're afraid. "Why all the fear?" one friend who works at a large East Coast daily asked rhetorically. "Have you answered phone calls from angry old men all day, telling you how many years they've subscribed (usually longer than my life span), giving you a point-by-point rundown of the decline of civilization? It gets old after the third call, but guess what, 150 calls to go."
But is the timidity justified? James Vesely, the editor of the Seattle Times' editorial page, made the decision to run the Ivins column as written.
"I received a few calls objecting to the word in the Ivins column," said Vesely in an e-mail. "Not a great number of complaints—about a dozen..." But don't expect to see adult language become commonplace in the Seattle Times. "I felt in this case her punctuation of that sentence by using the word made the whole point. I can't promise I would use the word again, or the others you cite."
That's too bad, because daily newspapers need to start winning back adult readers, and adults don't trust papers that are timid and condescending. Allowing writers to use the word "shit"—naturally, not gratuitously—in print screams, "This is not a publication that is written and edited under the bizarre, erroneous, suicidal assumption that adults sit around reading daily papers aloud to their children at bedtime." As a fan of daily newspapers, I want to see them survive. So I hope the Seattle Times lets go of the "family newspaper" thing permanently. It's an anvil, not a floatation firstname.lastname@example.org