The end of tolerance

August 31, 1994|By Russell Baker

AGE CONTINUES to have her way with me. Nothing can be done about it, not even by Science, which I capitalize not to denote the name of a magazine but out of respect for one of the world's more civilized religions.

Just as insufferably wise menpredicted years ago, age has driven me from smiling residence in a tolerant Christian liberalism to the sour and prickly solitude which is the natural habitat of the reactionary mossback.

No longer am I cheered by free expression's brutal triumph over Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt and what used to be called etiquette. Some say the world will end in fire and some in ice, but a terminal case of bad manners seems likelier to finish the job while fire and ice both dawdle.

So I favor a three-strikes-and-you're-out law: life imprisonment for all caught more than twice trying to conceal the 11th-rate quality of their minds by using the four-letter words that were once so deliciously shocking.

Those superb old Anglo-Saxon words, once so effective in rare doses, have been beaten to death by lousy novelists, bush-league demagogues, hack screenwriters, entertainers with no talent and proponents of sundry "liberations" trying to show off their freedom from convention by using words that once drove mothers to wash out children's mouths with soap.

Mothers had good reason for doing so. In their marrow, mothers knew that those words were some of the language's most precious assets, and that their value depended upon keeping them locked in the jewel case except for vital occasions.

Mothers realized that children spouting them freely would allow familiarity to destroy their magic. The mouthwashing was a civilized language-preservation act.

My three-strikes-and-you're-out plan would be a start toward restoring life to these great words so they may once again be available to enliven the work of our fine novelists, playwrights and screenwriters.

Putting these language assassins away for life is no more absurd than the present common practice of filling precious prison cells with narcotics users.

Tolerant Christian liberals -- the sort among whom I dwelt in youth -- will protest that free expression of the utter emptiness of one's mind is a sacred right and that, even if it were not, the punishment I propose would not fit the crime.

This is balderdash, a word my reactionary mossbackery now licenses me to use without feeling silly.

People are tucked away for years for using narcotics and ostensibly sane people applaud the idea, don't they?

If the country is to be run on asinine ideas enacted into law because our statesmen lack the courage to forgo pandering to their silliest colleagues, why draw the line against equally brutal measures for the nobler goal of preserving our magnificent heritage, the English language?

With equal reactionary fervor I cheer for the Florida television station that curtailed the Rev. Jerry Falwell's speech rights the other day.

The news report says a 9-year-old boy came to his mother fresh from the TV set asking her what "oral sex" was.

She asked where the child had heard about "oral sex." He said he had been listening to Mr. Falwell on television. Complaint was made to the TV station, which dropped Mr. Falwell's show.

Mr. Falwell is of course a leader in the Republican Party's conservative legion, and my mossbackery is not so innocent that I am blind to the possibility of Democratic Party deviltry behind this deed. Mr. Falwell uses his TV pulpit to denounce President Clinton while raising tax-free funds.

This doesn't alarm me as it would have before age showed me the delights of mossbackery. Tax-free parsons have been abusing the cloth for political reasons almost forever. It's one of those hypocrisies that constitute the American way of life.

However, preachers promoting their political agenda by discussing oral sex before vast unseen audiences stretch my tolerance for the good old-time hypocrisy.

It typifies the decadence that results when incivility becomes terminal. When preachers know no manners both fire and ice would be superfluous.

Russell Baker is a syndicated columnist.

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