Friday, December 12, 2008

Is It the [bleeping] Language that Increases our Indignation Toward that [bleeping] Rod Blagojevich?

by Barbara D'Amato



Lawrence Velvel, Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law and Professor of Law, wrote an interesting blog recently about our governor. It also has a bit to do with Chicagoisms and by extension Chicago fiction writing.

Quoting Professor Velvel:

‘I suggest that Fitzgerald and the FBI agents were really outraged by the language they heard (just as a lot of people, even Republicans, were outraged by the language they heard Nixon use on the Watergate tapes). Bleep this and bleep that obviously means "fuck this" and "fuck that." Around the country, most people don't punctuate every other sentence with fuck this, fuck that, fuck him, he's a fuckin' asshole, etc., etc. Nor do they like it when they hear people talk like that. But in Chicago that is how a lot of people regularly talk. (Not everyone in Chicago speaks like Obama, you know.) Many of us who grew up there learned to talk like that, and, when we've lived elsewhere, have learned that people elsewhere dislike and won't listen to the views (no matter how intelligent) of someone who speaks in a way that is par for the course in Chicago. (You may remember that people used to react badly to a southern accent (which they considered a sign of stupidity) or to a Brooklyn accent or speech. The same is true of the Chicago style of speaking that I am discussing here.)

‘That this is one typical Chicago style of speech is only the more clear because it is well recognized that, as has sometimes been discussed here, some very famous Chicago writers combine very bad language, language from the streets of Chicago, with their otherwise high falutin' writing. Think Mamet. Think Terkel. Think Bellow.

‘One might say, "Well, Fitzgerald grew up as a poor kid in New York City. The language there is pretty bad, so he should be used to it." Here is one writer who begs to differ, and I know others who differ also. Though rough, the typical language of New York is not as rough as the language of Chicago. As someone knowledgeable about the speech pattern in both cities recently said to me, "Chicago is cruder." Yes it is. Much cruder as a general matter, and the crudeness often extends to the highly educated. It is one Chicago style. (It would be interesting, incidentally, to see a comparison by professional linguists of the styles of speech in Chicago and New York.)

‘(I note that Fitzgerald has lived in Chicago for a few years, so perhaps one could argue he should be prepared for or inured to the Chicago style. But on the other hand, there are those who think he is prissy and straight arrowish, and could never become used to such talk.)

‘So I think that even the ex New Yorker, Fitzgerald, was not prepared for the kind of language that was heard on the tapes (just as people weren't prepared for Nixon on tape). And I cannot help thinking that, in addition to not wanting the Senate seat to be sold before they acted, the Federal officials acted in major part because they were taken aback by the kind of language used.

‘You know, it might behoove Blagojevich not only to put on the stand a parade of witnesses who are knowledgeable about what has gone on in politics for scores of years in this country, but also linguistic experts who are familiar with and knowledgeable about the style of Chicago speech typified in the tapes of Blagojevich and, to a lesser extent, present in the works of some of the great Chicago writers. And maybe Blagojevich's counsel should seek to cross examine Fitzgerald himself and some of his staff about their reactions to Blagojevich's style of speech and what effect this had on them. But wouldn't it be a hoot if a Chicago federal trial judge were to deny efforts by Blagojevich to introduce evidence of the "widespreadness" in Chicago of Blagojevich's style of speech, and to deny examination of Fitzgerald and company by Blagojevich's lawyers, with the ruling of denial being encapsulated in a two word Chicagoesque ruling, "Fuck that." What, you say that can't happen? Well, I can dream, can't I?’


This ends the Velvel quotation.

I think that part of people’s indignation at Nixon’s or Blagojevich’s use of bleepable words is outrage at what they see as hypocrisy. These people campaign as if they are holier than the rest of us. The tapes sound far less than holy.

All of this is not to minimize Blagojevich’s hideous behavior. I mean, threatening to take funds away from Children’s Hospital if he isn’t paid off? The Blagojegrinch!

But what do you think of this view of Chicago talk? Hey! Whaddaya think? I’m bleeping talkina you!

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

I wonder where in Chicago Dean Velvel grew up? I've lived in Chicago all my life and I've only overheard a handful of people who come close to speaking like that. Maybe they are the same as those legendary Bridgeport guys who say deese, dem and dos all the time.

I've watched other Fitzgerald press conferences where he's announced indictments and his delivery Tuesday was not appreciably different from those occasions. He had that same little stutter of outrage, but I think the source of the outrage was the blatant corruption rather than language.

Jamie

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Yeah, I think the professor is missing the point completely. I've lived in five different states (and went to a college that drew liberally from every part of the country) and people in Chicago aren't any cruder than people elsewhere in America. Why I can go days around here without hearing someone referred to as a "fucking asshole."

I think Velvel is conflating the effects of professional subcultures with geography. Politicians, no matter where they are from, are generally foul-mouthed in private. So are cops and stock brokers and professional athletes. If I was going to draw my own half-assed opinion about why, I'd say it's because all four professions have been traditionally male dominated. I will say this much with authority: There is a direct relationship to the amount of time men spend in a room together without the presence of a woman and the frequency of casual swearing.

College professors, in my experience, swear considerably less than outfielders and alderman. I think that's where he's confused.

But I think this is right to Barb's point. Blagojevich has a public persona (it's the persona that we actually elected) and that persona uses the word "fuck" a lot less than the real Blago. So the shock isn't necessarily one of delicate regional sensibilities. It's the shock of realizing this is not the governor we recognize. And it underscores the degree to which he has defrauded and betrayed his constituents.

Personally I don't think Patrick Fitzgerald gives a bleep how much the governor was swearing. I think he read those quotes in the press conference to emphasize that Blagojevich is not the man he wants us to think he is.

Mark Combes said...

Oh yeah, you betcha. Can you guess where I've spent the last 20 years?

Every city seems to have its "dialect" and not being a Chicagoan I'll not comment on whether this is or isn't "classic Chicago lingo" and defer to others that know better than I.

But I do know that public faces and private faces can be and often are very different. I once heard a priest say, when he thought no one could hear him, "That f'ing bitch is crazy." It's the Jekyll and Hyde in all of us...

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Mark, I actually came back here to bolster my argument by adding the priesthood to the male-dominated professions where swearing is commonplace. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but I spent four years at Notre Dame and a great many Catholic priests, just in casual conversation, sound like David Mamet hitting his thumb with a hammer.

Alison said...

Whoa, Kevin.

"He swears like David Mamet hitting his thumb with a hammer" is totally the new "He cusses like a sailor."

:)

Brian said...

I think that this is an interesting post because it's close to something that I thought. Each time I hear a part of that tape or someone reading a part of the transcription I keep thinking to my self, what if he's just talking shit?

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thanks, all. I tend to think Kevin is right. A bunch of males toether will try to outdo each other in tough talk.

I should add that when one of us female persons walks into a room and suddenly everybody quiets down, it's unsettling.

On a different topic, my husband has long believed that the missing eighteen minutes from the Watergate tapes showed Nixon swearing more densely and more unpleasantly than the rest of the tapes. Which were nothing to play at the church tea, either.

Sara Paretsky said...

The people I've been around--which include a couple of carpenters, a bunch of physicists, and a stay-at-home mom-- have been outraged because of the Senate seat for sale, and the effort to get rid of the Tribune editorial board. These acts seem to be the last straw, especially after just sending Ryan to jail. No one seems to think that the language was the outrage, but the arrogant cynicism of it all.

By the way, in 1910, when state legislatures still appointed U S senators, William "the Blond Boss" Lorrimer bought his seat from the Illinois leg for $100,000. In today's money, that's $2.2 million. So Rod was letting the seat go bleeping cheaply.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Sara, that's amazing. I'd never heard of Lorrimer buying his seat. Maybe Rod was willing to take less because of the present economic crisis.

Sara Paretsky said...

This morning's NY Times ranks states by the number of convicted public officials. Illinois is only number 7!!! Florida is first. California, NY, Texas, Pennsylvania and even Ohio all lead us.

MysterLynch said...

Some folks and I were talking about this last night.

I do think the vulgarity makes it, at least for me, all the more offensive.

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