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Walk Aggressively and Carry a Small Twig?

by Sal Moriarty

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. Max Ehrmann

Driving to work the other day, I was at a red light behind a pickup. Three bumper stickers:

  • pic of a semi-automatic weapon with the text, “If you can read this, you're in range.”

  • pic of a stick figure mounting the words, “Your feelings.”

  • Baby On Board.

At Starbucks I saw a woman, probably in her sixties, wearing a tee-shirt with no text, just a middle finger extended toward the viewer. In the same establishment, I saw another woman with a tee shirt that read, “51% Sweetheart, 49% (female dog). Don't push it.” Not long after, saw a guy in a family restaurant with a tee shirt displaying a picture of a tow truck. The text read, “Pay your _________ bills or I'm coming to get you.”

I am not so much offended by these encounters (which grow more numerous by the day) as fascinated by the fact it was not that long ago anyone venturing out into the small towns of the east Texas in such a fashion would have faced a ton of blow back. My late mother confronted folks on more than one occasion for an inability to exhibit basic etiquette and civility while in public. She was small but fierce and prone to quoting scripture. The recipients always backed down. That's what loudmouths do.

George Carlin had the famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” bit back in the day, but you can say them all now and not a few more. Carlin was correct for the time (for everything there is a season, I once read). There were absurd limitations placed on what Americans could see and hear and say. Those were the days when something as innocuous as a white woman touching a black man's arm on television could cause a firestorm (Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte, 1968). Rules needed to be challenged and Carlin was always up to the task. But we live in different times now.

Tattoos, motorcycles and swearing – for example - used to dwell on the periphery of polite society. When I was a kid riding with the family out in the middle of nowhere and a group of bikers appeared in the rear view, well, the atmosphere got a bit tense. Now days, it's probably The Orthodontist's Motorcycle Club out for a weekend joyride.

A couple of my uncles had tattoos. Not everyone and their grandma had them back in the day and they carried some degree of meaning – usually hard earned. Good or bad, they were not there as fashion statements or to fit in with the crowd. To the contrary. My uncles got their tattoos in places like the south Pacific and France during The War. Tattoo shops these days are as common as coffee shops, though not nearly as frightening.

Profanity? It's always been there, of course, but not as commonly found on the bumper stickers of vehicles in church parking lots on Sundays. In the past, in some cases, the use of profanity might be used to challenge restrictions on free speech (think Lenny Bruce). Now days it's more likely just a crutch for the inarticulate. It's certainly not shocking anymore.

So why the dramatic change in the social mores of Americans? I guess it's accurate to say it's been gradual. The sixties certainly carved out a new path for American culture. That said, the changes have been so dramatic from my perspective (especially of late), there must be something more. I believe some of it hinges on a lack of confidence in much of the population. It's a big, bad frightening world – now, more than ever – and we know far more about it than we used to. Maybe it's a fist being waved at wokeness. That said, I think there's a lot of swagger going on in order to try and convince others we're tough and we don't care what people think because we don't take no crap from nobody (I apologize for what I believe was the use of a triple negative there).

I would argue confident men and women do not feel the need to wear their most reactionary thoughts on their sleeves. Or t-shirts. Or bumpers stickers. My uncle served with valor in the Pacific during The War. As a child, I asked him if he ever saw a kamikaze. He nodded and said, “Yeah. Saw a few.” And that was it. If he had killed Osama bin Laden, it would have been all the same – no books deals, no interviews. He was a man and did not need to demonstrate it for anyone. That would have been humiliating.

Teddy Roosevelt said, “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” As far as I can tell that philosophy is dead in America. We seem to feel the need to thrust out our chests and tell everyone how tough we are and our points of view on every subject. There was a time, not that long ago, when driving through a small town with a bumper sticker dropping F-bombs on a politician – where children might see – would have been regarded as a sign of weakness and vulgarity. Not today.

I do not have a Facebook account. I don't know how all of that works and am happily ignorant. Now and then, however, a friend will text me a screenshot of something he finds amusing (we share a similar interest in the death of irony). A couple weeks back he texted a screenshot of someone's Facebook page. The top entry was a prayer the Facebooker was asking people to share with others. It talked about, among other things, striving to be deserving of the love of Jesus. The entry just below was a link to a news story with a headline asserting a certain politician was an imbecile (fair enough, most are), but proceeding the word imbecile was the word “freaking”, only not the word “freaking”.

Yep. Irony, it appears, is dead in America. That, and carrying big sticks.


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