The past week provided us with two glaring examples of how very rude, vulgar, and indifferent to any standards of civility of America has become. One happened in what used to be known as the legitimate theater, the other happened on the presidential campaign trail, and between the two they left us with little hope for the future.
The first affront to our old-fashioned sensibilities was a production of “The Book of Mormon,” which in case you’ve haven’t already heard is the most profitable and lavishly praised Broadway musical comedy of recent years. After nine Tony Awards and countless rave reviews, “The Book of Mormon” is still playing to sold-out audiences for every performance on Broadway four years after its opening, doing the same standing-room-only business after two years on London’s West End, and has spawned three sanctioned road shows filling halls throughout the hinterlands. One of those road shows passed through Wichita’s Century II theater, filling the sizable venue for each performance of a five-nights-plus-matinee sstand, and we were left wondering what all the fuss was about.
Except for a somewhat erratic sound system we couldn’t fault the production, which featured all the high-tech stagecraft that audiences have come to expect for their high-priced ticket purchases, as well as a talented cast of earnest of young professionals, so our problems were with the show itself. It wasn’t so much the immediately forgettable score, or good-but-not-great choreography, or even the relentless profanity and blasphemy and obviously intentional offensiveness, but rather the utter lack of anything remotely amusing. We’d had high hopes for the show, given all those Tony Awards and rave reviews and sold-out performances, not the mention the authorial involvement of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose sharply satirical “South Park” cartoon series and “Team America” movie are profane and blasphemous and intentionally offensive but frequently hilarious, so it’s not as if we’re the easily offended types, but we do expect some laughs to leaven the offense.
A predictable plot about two dangerously naive and unfashionably wholesome Mormon missionaries in a Ugandan village ravaged by AIDS, warfare, and stultifying superstitions might seem to have some comic potential, but the resulting jokes about raping infants and the forced genital mutilation of women and religious texts being forced into anal cavities never quite came off for us. At one point a character sings “I’ve got maggots in my scrotum,” which somehow got a huge laugh, and then two more times when it was it re-used and once again during an ensemble encore number. We were treated to the high-priced ticket by our Pop, who is old enough to remember when “Oklahoma!” was playing its first run on Broadway, and he was having such trouble with the aforementioned faulty sound system that he couldn’t quite make out the line — he thought it might be, “I’ve got magnets that I’m toting”– so we were forced to break the bad news that no, he had somehow reached a point in the evolution of American popular culture when the big bring-down-the-house laugh line in the most profitable and lavishly praised Broadway musical in years is “I’ve got maggots in my scrotum.”
The good news is that Pop couldn’t make out most of the rest of the lyrics or dialogue, which included a chorus line of natives happily singing about sodomizing God, Jesus uttering expletives, and a big musical number likening Baptism to sexual intercourse. Much of the material was about the admittedly unusual beliefs of the Mormons, which might have seemed funnier to us if we had anything against Mormons and other unfashionably wholesome types, but we couldn’t help noticing an insinuation that any sort of religious system except perhaps unmentioned and unmentionable Islam warrants similar ridicule. There’s a tacked-on bit at the end about how even ahistorical myths can provide helpful wisdom, which all those raving critics have seized on to explain that the show is not insulting people of faith, but to us it seemed a crassly commercial cop-out to the hinterland road show audiences and hardly enough to balance the preceding two hours of unabashed blasphemy.
At least those oh-so-sophisticated raving critics will probably share our indignation about that other glaring example of rudeness, vulgarity, and indifference to any standard of civility. We’re talking about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s performance at one of the sold-out halls on his highly successful road show, where the big bring-down-the-house laugh line involved mocking the physical handicap of a particular reporter. If you haven’t already seen the viral video, suffice to say that it surpasses an average “South Park” episode for offensiveness but not for laughs.
Following the countless negative reviews Trump insists that he was mocking the press in general and not a particular reporter, but it’s clearly a crassly commercial cop-out to the Back East sophisticates he’ll once again be forced to rub elbows with after his show finally folds. He opens his act by referring to a specific article written by a particular but unnamed reporter, then says “you ought to see this guy,” then perfectly mimicks the way that particular but unnamed reporter’s congenital joint disease has frozen his hand. Trump says this is mere coincidence, as he has never met that particular reporter, but that particular reporter can prove by previously uncontested stories that he had interviewed Trump dozens of times during his career, including lengthy interviews in Trump’s apartment and yacht. Although the particular reporter was almost certainly a memorable annoyance to Trump over the past many years, and although Trump claims to have “one of the all-time great memories,” he contends he has no recollection of ever meeting that particular reporter. So far every Trump supporter we’ve encountered has lauded his courage and honesty, so we’ll dare to be blunt enough to say that Trump is telling the same sort of cowardly lie that all schoolyard bullies tell when they’re finally called to account.
Trump’s defenders can still claim that he’s making a valid point, no matter how rude and vulgar and indifferent to any standards of civility, and at least there’s more to it than the claims being made for “The Book of Mormon.” What got Trump into this mess was his earlier statement that “thousands” of Arab-Americans in New Jersey cheered the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the immediate effort by the press to disprove it. Pretty much all of the big media concurred that there was no basis to it, with The Washington Post’s “fact-checker” saying there were no contemporaneous media accounts of it ever happening, even though that the very paper had reported it and numerous radio stations had as well, and although Trump’s “thousands” might well be an overstatement he had every right to criticize the critics. There surely were some Arab-American celebrants in New Jersey on that day, and if “thousands” is an exaggeration it’s not such a dangerous one as Hillary Clinton’s assertion that all Muslims are “tolerant and peaceful people,” which goes mostly unchallenged by the press. That particular reporter who wrote that story for The Washington Post is now at The New York Times and suspiciously equivocating about the accuracy of his report, so Trump was also entitled to take a shot at him specifically, but there’s no justifying ridiculing the entirely-beside-the-point disease that has frozen the reporter’s hands.
The good point that Trump was making was lost in the rudeness, vulgarity, and indifference to any standard of civility, as so often happens in his ongoing reality show. Sen. John McCain is such an annoying old political squish that Trump was right to call him out about it, but in doing so he chose to impugn not only McCain’s honorable military service but everyone who has ever endured wartime captivity for the country by saying “I like a guy who didn’t get captured.” There are legitimate reasons to question if Carly Fiorina should be president, but Trump chose to say “Look at that face,” which isn’t one of those reasons, and then the brave truth-teller had to meekly say that he didn’t say what he’d said. Sen. Rand Paul’s isolationist foreign policy and criminal justice policies deserve criticism, but Trump would rather make a joke about his looks during a presidential debate. Much honest and even blunt talk is clearly required to deal with the overwhelming problem of illegal immigration, and Trump must be credited with providing that, but even on his signature issue he can’t resist helping the opposition with the most outrageous overstatements. The shtick plays well at at those sold-venues on his thus-far successful road show, but in this multi-channel age even the biggest hits sometimes have only a niche audience.
Fans of both “The Book of Mormon” and Donald Trump like to boast how they’ve struck a blow against political correctness and thus expanded the boundaries of public discourse, but we have our doubts in both cases. Mormons have always been fair game, only those who make obscure YouTube videos critical of Islam risk going to jail, curse words have been ubiquitous ever since the martyrdom of St. Lenny Bruce, and at this point even jokes about raping infants and having maggots in one’s scrotum don’t seem all that daring. All of the Republican candidates have been jabbing back at the press ever since Newt Gingrich showed how in his failed but notable run in ’08, and most have been doing without resort to jokes about a reporter’s physical appearance, and most have been talking just as tough about illegal immigration but without the generalizations and with more plausible solutions, and so far as we can tell the only boundaries that Trump has broken are the ones of politeness, respectably, and standards of civility.
It’s more than doubly depressing when you put them together, as the rudeness and vulgarity and indifference to standards are occurring at both the high and low ends of the American culture. We long ago stopped expecting anything of cultural value from from such highfalutin venues Broadway, and as far back as the good old days of Cole Porter he was lamenting how “good authors who once knew better words now only use four-letter words,” but to find the same phenomenon way down the cultural scale in a Republican primary is most dispiriting. Out in the hinterlands among the hicks there used to be some civilized standards.
— Bud Norman