Ed Driscoll

Punks, Meet the Godfather

Oh, that higher education bubble.

“It appears that the decline of standards — indeed, the abolition of any standards at all — has come to the world of college debate,” John Hinderaker writes at Power Line, before quoting an ugly-sounding passage from the Atlantic:*

On March 24, 2014 at the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) Championships at Indiana University, two Towson University students, Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson, became the first African-American women to win a national college debate tournament, for which the resolution asked whether the U.S. president’s war powers should be restricted. Rather than address the resolution straight on, Ruffin and Johnson, along with other teams of African-Americans, attacked its premise. The more pressing issue, they argued, is how the U.S. government** is at war with poor black communities.

In the final round, Ruffin and Johnson squared off against Rashid Campbell and George Lee from the University of Oklahoma, two highly accomplished African-American debaters with distinctive dreadlocks and dashikis. Over four hours, the two teams engaged in a heated discussion of concepts like “nigga authenticity” and performed hip-hop and spoken-word poetry in the traditional timed format. At one point during Lee’s rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. “Fuck the time!” he yelled.

I think it’s a very safe bet that in less enlightened days, that last quote would be grounds for an instant forfeit, but “Progress” marches on. Or, “Forward!” as they say at MSNBC and the Obama administration.*** In any case, about 15 minutes after reading that quote at Power Line, I downloaded Charles Murray’s new book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life into my Kindle and came across this passage early in the book:

5. On the proper use of strong language.

One of the things that curmudgeons have a hard time believing about the twenty-something generation is that the f-word in all its variants has become for many of them just another word, not much more intense than darn was for my generation. But people who are in a position to know have persuaded me that it has become just another mild expletive among a good many Millennials. Even so, my advice is that you never use it around senior executives unless you know for a fact that they use it freely themselves.

* * * * * * * *

It’s not that curmudgeons don’t use the f-word. Some don’t — a surprising number of highly successful people don’t swear at all — but most of us (including me) do. But we try to use strong language appropriately, and that’s the point of the rest of this tip. Life’s vagaries confront us with situations that call for us to express the full range of reactions. One of the glories of the English language is that it has vocabulary that can be called upon for all those situations. The heedless younger generation has frittered away that patrimony. Explain it to me: If you use the f-word as a kind of oral punctuation mark, how do you convey to your fellow human beings that you are really, truly shocked or angry about something? Say it five times in a row? The dialogue on some cable TV shows suggests that is indeed today’s solution. It’s pathetic. What’s true of the f-word is also true of the other classic Anglo-Saxon monosyllables. Their ubiquitous use is tiresome and pointless, casts a thin coat of grime over the conversational landscape, and degrades your ability to draw upon their shock value when needed.

* * * * * * * *

[A]bstaining from casual obscenity gives you the aura of an adult. Maybe I’m just out of touch, but ask yourself if I might be right: No matter how commonly the classic Anglo-Saxon monosyllables are used, they continue to carry with them a whiff of the jejune. In some small way, they say to those around you, “See, I’m still not a grown-up.” That’s not something you really want to advertise in a job setting.

I would definitely recommend that the would-be debaters quoted above read Murray’s Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead. But then, halfway through the book, based on what I’ve read so far, I would recommend that just about everyone under the age of 40 read it as well.

* Of course, the decline of standards came to the Atlantic itself sometime in the last decade, manifesting itself last year in spectacular fashion in print, and more subtly behind the scenes.

** Lyndon Johnson, call your office.

*** As with many examples of America’s declining standards, Britain got there first, thanks to their own “Progressives.” In 2012, Theodore Dalrymple explored “How polite Britain became addicted to foul language.”

Related: Speaking of new books, don’t miss my interview with James Delingpole on his Little Green Book of Eco-Fascism.