Linguistic taboos protecting corrupt officials

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An article in The Economist's latest issue is a bit more revealing about Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's corrupt private chats than the more prudish print and broadcast media have been so far.

"Fire those fuckers," he said of those who wrote critical editorials about him at the Chicago Tribune, and threatened to hurt the paper financially if it did not oblige. "If they don't perform, fuck 'em", he said of an effort to squeeze contributions from a state contractor. But the most stunning charge is that Mr Blagojevich, who can appoint a nominee to hold Mr Obama's seat in the Senate until the scheduled election is held in 2010, wanted to sell the seat to the highest bidder. (The governor called the seat "a fucking valuable thing, you don't just give it away for nothing" and is alleged to have sought to get a big job in return for it.) . . . The complaint also alleges that Mr Blagojevich knew whom Mr Obama wanted to see in the seat, apparently his close adviser, Valerie Jarrett, and was less than happy ("fuck them") that all he would get in return for giving her the seat would be "appreciation".

Americans don't think well of people who talk like this when they have important roles in public life. That means that a small additional offense by such individuals may go unnoticed: their hypocrisy in being elected on fair words and clean talk and then relaxing into a very different foul-mouthed persona once in the job. By censoring even mentions of the taboo vocabulary of such hypocrites, the mainstream press helps to protect them. Less of the evidence of what they're like gets out there.

Naturally, I agree that trying to sell a Senate seat is much worse than swearing on the phone. But somehow you don't get the measure of Rod Blagofuckinjevich's coarseness and contempt for the public by merely learning that he regarded his gubernatorial privilege as valuable; "a fuckin' valuable thing" gets across more of the flavor of the man. And his "fuck them" about the advisory team of our recently elected president is revealing too. So that's what he thinks of their preferences, and ultimately ours too. It's not just that we're supposed to put up with having whichever Senator pays him the most; it's pretty clear that if we told him who we thought should be named to the seat, he would later talk about us behind our back to his trusted confidants, and what he'd be saying into his cell phone about us would be "fuck them". The linguistic extra shoe flung at us should not be overlooked.

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