Washington, DC - Even two generations ago, I was probably a sheltered middle-class child. Perhaps my upbringing was closer to “Victorian” in ignorance of sex and sexuality than even 20th century protocols. At an age when today’s children are getting explicit, detailed information on pregnancy, homosexuality, etc, I was still being told that “the stork brought you” or that I was “found under a cabbage leaf.” It generated an inchoate sense of frustration, but not living on a farm where normal animal activity would have clued me in, I had no obvious source of information.
Concurrently, my family use of language was grammatical, accurate, educated, and nonscatological. I never heard the spectrum of four-letter words from my father (let alone from my mother or from other members of my extended family). My maternal grandfather famously said, “Damn” when he tripped over a divider between kitchen and dining room and plunged headlong into the kitchen. Were these repressed, buttoned down lives or just reflecting disciplined self control?
So, having made a short story long, I didn’t encounter the “F word” until early adolescence when its meaning was intuitive rather than explicit. Needless to say, however, during my years in the Army, I heard (and used) it as adjective, adverb, noun, verb, often times in the same sentence and combined with other scatological specifics.
But the “F word” outside the armed forces in what might be characterized as “polite society”--or really even just normal life--was not part of standard conversation. And, unless you were reading “banned-in-Boston” material or semi-pornographic material or watching “blue flicks,” you didn’t see four-letter-words in print or hear them in movies.
The “F word” was more akin to rhetorical blunt force trauma; linguistic characterization to be used only in extremis when no other language could express your position. An un-nuanced instrument when professionals used scalpels.
Obviously, such is not the case in 2014, nor has it been such for 20 years. We have been well-aware from released Nixon tapes that “locker room” language was not unknown at the presidential level (Nixon was, one might remember, a Navy officer). Nor have we been ignorant of the dangers of electronic intercept, notably of the “open mike” variety where unvarnished comments from persons such as Prime Minister Chretien discussing President Clinton prompted embarrassment.
Indeed, Canadians should well remember such dangers. During the 1992 Charlottetown national referendum, Quebec premier Bourassa’s Deputy Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Diane Wilhelmy’s scathing denunciation of the agreement and Bourassa’s role were captured from a cellphone intercept. Subsequent court decision declared that such open air conversation was not privileged and essentially the equivalent to garbage left at curbside.
Moreover, the never-ending stream of revelations from former U.S. National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden has certainly hammered home the dangers of telephonic communications. At least to those with a scintilla of self-preservation.
Thus to the obvious present contretemps: U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, and her “F…the EU” comment on 6 February regarding EU (in)action in the Ukraine crisis. Ms Nuland’s denunciation of the EU and ancillary critiques of Ukraine opposition figures apparently were intercepted from a cellphone conversation with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Nuland is no trivial figure; she is the USG highest ranking diplomat addressing European issues and, inter alia, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO. However, “Toria,” as she is known to some, also has a longstanding reputation, from her earliest days at State, for being a “potty mouth”--perhaps considered cute when she was a twenty-something, but now just crude. Presumably, none of her mentors/enablers ever firmly suggested that using “F…” implied a dearth of creative rhetoric in her vocabulary.
And, to say the least, Europeans are not amused. Germans, who have just absorbed stories of USG interception of Chancellor Merkel’s cell phone conversations, are even less. It is a little difficult to play “forgive and forget” when you have offended every European diplomat.
But most amusing is USG reaction--blame the Russians. Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, one spokesman suggested that Nuland’s childhood work on a Russian fishing trawler internalized such language. But just as desperate was the attempt to say that the Russians were acting inappropriately by drawing global attention to the comments, presumably first by intercepting and then releasing them. Well, duh. Moscow is at fault for your scatological incompetence?
In another world/era, such would be a firing offense. But Washington has moved beyond being embarrassed, let alone admitting error.
And a year from now, we will be puzzled why Europeans don’t support our demarches.