October 20, 2018

MARTY KAPLAN: Springtime for Schmucks

If I hadn’t seen the word plastered on a billboard on La Brea Avenue, I would never have remotely considered using it in print myself.  But there it is, in a five-foot font, just a few miles from the West Hollywood club where Lenny Bruce was arrested for saying it in 1963.  Soon, no doubt, promoting a movie that will open on July 30, it will be seen on buses and benches and 30-second television ads airing in family-friendly prime time, and on the robotic lips of Mr. Moviephone:  “Please confirm your order!  You have purchased TWO tickets for the 7:20 showing of DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS.”

Whether this constitutes a deeply troubling milestone in the coarsening of American culture depends on two things. 

The first is whether the word really is obscene.  It is arguable that its original meaning – a Yiddish profanity for penis, often part of an insult beginning with “You are such a – ” and ending with an exclamation point – has been so diluted by widespread usage that nowadays it’s no more offensive than any other common synonym for “jerk.”  This would explain why, at High Holy Day services at my synagogue last year, the associate rabbi, the lovely mother of three young children, could innocently say the word from the pulpit without imagining for a moment that it would cause the shocked sharp intake of breath among half the congregants that followed.

Languages are living organisms.  They evolve.  A generation or two ago, network censors wouldn’t let shows use words like “pregnant” or “abortion” during prime time.  For a long time, words like “suck” and “crap” were beyond the public pale.  ” target=”_hplink”>compound variants only when they thought the microphone was off, or in off-the-record trash-talk designed to macho up their images.  Until quite recently, elected officials wouldn’t dream of saying on television the synonym for turd that George Carlin included among the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”  But today—from Barack Obama and ” target=”_hplink”>Jim Bunning, ” target=”_hplink”>Facebook page supporting his campaign, it must be admitted, has at this writing attracted only 64 members.

The Onion-Mel Brooks “Schmucks for Schmucks” crusade makes me laugh.  So why was I startled to see the word on a billboard and hesitant about repeating it in print?  Probably because – like a lot of people, I suspect – I don’t like confronting the fact that most of the strictures hammered into me when I was a kid turn out to be cultural and political, rather than natural and eternal.  It’s so much more comforting to believe that our rules are transcendent instead of tribal, that our morals aren’t just mores.  Life would be so much easier if the social contract didn’t have to be renegotiated every 20 minutes, if the sanctions said to be written in stone weren’t actually written on earth.

It’s perfectly appropriate for me, or anyone, to declaim the moving of the profanity goalposts, and to try to push them back.  That’s what being in the cultural and political fray is all about.  The key is not to confuse dismay with righteousness, not to equate satire with sinfulness, not to criminalize boundary-testing, not to mistake nostalgia for a simpler time with signs that the apocalypse is nigh.  After all, it’s much more appealing to imagine you’re protecting civilization as we know it than to acknowledge that you’re actually being – to use another Yiddish word – a bit of an ” target=”_hplink”>Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.