Several years ago I had lunch with novelist-travel writer Paul Theroux. In the midst of talking up his latest book the conversation turned to work he had done earlier in his career for The New York Times. While obviously a superb platform for any writer, the job had its frustrations. Like the piece Theroux was asked to write on the city/subway environment, circa mid-70s.
As you know the Times, (aka “The Grey Lady”), has a rather precious policy towards slang, informality and matters of basic human function. The paper that will invariably refer to “Mr. Hitler”, “Mr. Stalin” and “Mr. Manson” also has a hard and fast rule against vulgarisms such as the word … “shit” … which Theroux noticed in appalling amounts all over the streets of Manhattan and in the subways. (The town is cleaner now, thanks to nanny state regulations.)
But in attempting to offer a full, complete and immediately recognizable portrait of the environment he was asked to report on Theroux was required by his Times editors to imbue the stuff he saw fouling the surface everywhere with florid synonyms that were more, well, refined … like “defecation”, “scat” and “droppings”, the latter of which might lead less alert readers to think the city was cursed with a plague of discarded handkerchiefs.
As we enter the stretch run of a truly appalling siege of electioneering, and look at the roots of the disease that has infected today’s Republican party I’m convinced it would be useful to take Theroux’ advice and “describe what you see on the ground in front of you”. “Useful” at least if your intention is to communicate directly, immediately and without possibility of misunderstanding.
Hence, the indisputably appropriate and valuable use of the word “dick” to describe so much of what has gone in the past few years in conservative media and politics. Karl Rove. “Dick”. Dick Cheney. “Dick”. FoxNews. “Dick”. Michael Savage. “Dick”. Tom DeLay. “Dick”. Dick Armey, “Dick”. Frank Luntz. “Dick”. Michelle Malkin. “Dick”. Eric Cantor. “Dick”. Steve King. “Dick”. Louie Gohmert. “Dick”. Todd Akin. “Dick”.
While respectable, proper dictionaries avoid defining “dick” as 100% of Americans undoubtably understand it, (I think “private dick” has a whole new understanding in 2012), various urban dictionaries get it right, offering “jerk” and “asshole” as common, accepted synonyms.
Test it out. Ask the next half-dozen people you meet to define “dick”, in the context of a person or type of behavior. You and I both know what you’ll get: “A completely self-absorbed asshole.” “Someone who doesn’t give a damn what happens to anyone else as long as he gets his.” “One of those jerks who is constantly fucking over you and everyone he deals with.” “A guy (or gal) for whom the truth is some kind of hostile, alien concept to be routinely ignored and polluted at will.”
Others might just say, “Rush Limbaugh”.
My point is that in the era of Tea Party/talk radio conservatism, when garden variety political bullshit has devolved to shameless “dick-ishness”, the culture as a whole would be healthier if professional observers and reporters described it as precisely what they and their audience both know it to be. If you truly have respect for civility and reasonableness it seems to me you have an obligation to call out the dicks who are polluting those virtues.
For example: If NBC’s Chuck Todd were to come on one night and say, “GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, already well established as a self-glorifying, onanistic dick for lying about his marathon prowess, claiming to have ‘climbed’ dozens of 14,000 foot mountains and inexplicably bragging about his body fat ratio being less than most Olympic athletes doubled down on his thoroughly dickish plan to gut Medicare and fatten the fortunes of his corporate cronies by accusing the Obama administration of destroying Medicare as we know it”, people everywhere would take notice – because they’d immediately and fully understand what he was talking about.
I’ve long believed the new “dick” conservative has consciously strategized their dick-ish policies and behavior knowing they can rely on the quaint prissiness of the mainstream media to put a “Grey Lady” gauze over their most vulgar distortions, flagrant lies and transparent duplicity. The likes of Michele Bachmann (a Queen of Dicks), Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney can operate as baldly as they do because their essential dickishness will be given an inappropriate, misleading, respectful makeover by a responsible, respectful, civil press uncomfortable describing — precisely, in a language most familiar to their readers — what is right there in front of them.
A couple of days ago, while out in the Aspen area, I made a pilgrimage to Hunter Thompson’s favorite bar, the Woody Creek Tavern, where you do reflect on how rare, wonderful and valuable it is to have someone describing the game of politics so vividly and precisely. When Thompson described Hubert Humphrey as campaigning “like a rat in heat” you knew exactly what he was talking about. Likewise, his description of the soul of Richard Nixon as emblematic the “dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character”, was a completely apt description that made an indelible imprint on the mind of the reader.
There are only a few practitioners of Thompson’s “call-a-dick-a-dick” art on today’s mass media scene. There is of course Charles Pierce at Esquire, who so accurately describes Paul Ryan as a “zombie-eyed granny-starver” and ” … a smiling, aw-shucks murderer of opportunity, a creator of dystopias in which he never will have to live.” (I’m also quite fond of his description of Scott Walker as, “… the goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to run their midwest subsidiary formerly known as the state of Wisconsin”.)
Likewise, Thompson’s far less chemically-infused heir at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, fully exploits his license to describe a dick as a dick.
But notice how infrequently either appears in the allegedly in the-tank liberal press.
Too much vividness and precision is a liability when you have to be concerned with upsetting a handful of customers who prefer the look, sound and feel of Dick World.