Transcript

267:

Propriety
Transcript

Originally aired 06.11.2004

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/267

Prologue.

Ira Glass

An apple, nobody gives their teacher an apple anymore. In her first year of teaching first grade, here are the sorts of things that Mindy got from her kids.

Mindy

A typical first grader will bring me things that would range from students that wrapped up their old McDonald toys, a pencil from the dollar store wrapped up. Some people sent in homemade cookies, which is very sweet.

Ira Glass

So last Christmas, the day before vacation, she has all the kids sitting on the carpet. And some of them have presents for her that they're all excited for her to open. And she has treats for them. And all the kids want to be picked. And they're raising their hands.

Mindy

So I have one student sitting so quietly and so anxious. So I call on him, and brings me up this bag. I start opening it. Like, oh, this is great.

I pull out these black slippers with little silver speckles. And on the top, there's that puffy fssh, fssh kind of material, the real soft and feathery type of thing. And on the front of the slipper, in bright red cursive writing, they say "Playerette," with a little Playboy bunny on the back of the slipper.

So I pull these out, and I'm like, oh, aren't these fancy? And they all start chanting, 27 six-year-olds, put 'em on, put 'em on, put 'em on! And they're all just cheering and shouting. And the kid's face, he was so proud and so excited about the slippers. But in my head, I'm thinking, did the parents have no idea?

Ira Glass

Do you think, from a kid point of view, when they saw the slippers, they just read them as fancy?

Mindy

Oh, absolutely.

Ira Glass

That's what it was.

Mindy

They had no idea that they said Playerette. They had no idea, at least, I don't think that they had any idea what the bunny would have represented. All they saw was fancy black slippers, silver sparkles, fuzzy things.

Ira Glass

That's what I love about this so much, is that it wasn't just one kid's judgment that this is the perfect present, that it's the entire class of six-year-olds. Like we might disagree on other things, but there is one thing that we can agree on.

Mindy

Oh yeah. It wasn't just a boy or a girl or a couple of kids. It was the whole class shouting, cheering.

Ira Glass

After school that day, as you might expect, Mindy nearly runs down the hall with her new slippers, eager to share the magic with a fellow first grade teacher.

Mindy

So I'm walking down the hall, knock on her door. You're never going to believe what one of my students gave me today. I walk in. I put the slippers on. She says, oh yeah? She pulls out her little lovely gift, some lingerie. And I literally, hhhuu, gasp.

Ira Glass

The actual lingerie?

Mindy

Yeah.

Ira Glass

What was it?

Mindy

A thong and a little tank top.

Ira Glass

Wait, a first grader gave her teacher or his teacher a thong and a tank top?

Mindy

Yeah. Yes.

Ira Glass

Was it sexy? Or was it cotton, like, cute girl?

Mindy

I would say cute girl.

Ira Glass

I say this as if it makes any difference at all. It's still a thong.

Mindy

Yeah. At what point, exactly, are you in the store, or shopping online, whatever you're doing, at what point is that something that's OK to give your teacher, is what I'd like to know. Do you agree? Am I a little bit out of line?

Ira Glass

No, I think all of America, well, not all of America, but I think many people are with you on this, including me.

Mindy

OK. Because at that point, when she held them-- and then I'm thinking, when they're looking through the sizes, are they checking you out?

Ira Glass

And that's clearly something that the parents helped order, yes?

Mindy

Oh yeah.

Ira Glass

The parents were in on that.

Mindy

I would say the parents completely ordered that.

Ira Glass

It seems like that would be kind of an uncomfortable parent-teacher meeting after that.

Mindy

If I was dating somebody, and they gave me a thong, and I hadn't known them that long, or we'd only been dating a short period of time, that would be like, OK, how inappropriate, right?

Ira Glass

OK, maybe this is the kind of etiquette question that we should all already know the answer to, but I have to say, I found it kind of a stumper. You're a first grade teacher, and the parents of your students buy you a thong, or slippers that say Playerette on them, not the right kind of gift for a teacher, you think. So is it impolite to actually say something to them about it? Or do you just accept graciously? Both teachers, in this case, accepted graciously.

Mindy

So I, yeah, when I was writing out my thank-yous to my students, I just said, thank you for the thoughtful gift. It was greatly appreciated. And I leave it at that, I guess, not really make it more of an embarrassing or strange, awkward situation.

Ira Glass

Perhaps there was a time when social rules were clear, when people knew what to say and do in certain situations. But the world changes fast. There are constantly new situations out there that leave us all improvising, inventing our own rules of propriety. And that's the subject of today's program. We have three stories of people forced to figure out how to maintain some decency and dignity in the face of some very unsettling situations. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Act One of our program today, Governments Say the Darnedest Things. In that act, government officials who want nothing more than a little civility, thank you very much, even when the facts contradict a lot of what they're saying. Act Two, Dems Gone Wild, in which a Republican tries to run for local office in a very Democratic district in New Jersey, evoking some rather disturbing behavior from his friends and neighbors. Act Three, Swiss Near Miss, a woman follows the rules of propriety. A man does not. Stay with us.

Act One. Government Says The Darnedest Things.

Timothy Jay

The Wall Street Journal called me the preeminent scholar of profanity. And the Boston Globe called me Dr. Dirty Words.

Ira Glass

His other name, the one his mom gave him, is Timothy Jay, a professor of psychology and author of academic books with titles like Cursing in America and Why We Curse. A warning to listeners that in his interview, we mention directly and indirectly a number of curse words. He turns out to be very familiar with the basis of this FCC ruling.

Timothy Jay

Our whole obscenity law is predicated on this idea that exposure to obscene material will deprave or corrupt children. And we've had that in our law since the 1600s. But there's no evidence that a word, in and of itself, harms someone.

Ira Glass

So what studies exist? What do we know about children and curse words, and what it does to them?

Timothy Jay

I've done a number of studies over the years where we've gone into daycares, and we've collected what kids say to each other, kind of unobtrusively. I've also had informants go who worked in summer camps, and we just write down everything that happens. We carry these little 3x5 cards around and write down the who, what, where, and when. And by and large, every normal kid knows how to swear. As soon as kids learn how to talk-- we've got two-year-olds in our sample saying four-letter words. And a lot of times, they don't know what they're saying. But they are repeating what their parents and siblings say.

Ira Glass

Reading Timothy Jay's studies is the kind of experience that simultaneously makes you feel hopeful and hopeless about the very idea of social science. The daycare and summer camp data are broken down into pages of charts, listing dozens of curse words, and breakdowns of who says what at what age, and what kind of situation they're saying it in. The single most popular curse word, by a huge margin, no other word is even close, among children age 5 to 12, is the F-word, starting around age 5, followed by the S-word, when they are about 7. Suck, damn, and Jesus get a lot of play in the summer camp data. Hell, bitch, bum, and ass do pretty well in the daycare data.

Timothy Jay

I just did a sample of 200 college students and asked them about what their parents did when they swore, and how they learned how to swear, and whether they were punished or not. And 96%, 97% of these kids grew up swearing. And most of their parents had rules against swearing, but most of their parents swore anyway in the house. And so everybody knows how to do this, swearing, and almost all kids do. And it goes on day after day with very little consequence, very little harm.

Ira Glass

Let me just read to you from the recent FCC decision about Bono using the F-word. FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said about the decision against using the F-word at the Golden Globes, she said "Today we take a strong stand against indecency on our public airwaves, and a significant step in protecting our children." What's your take on that?

Timothy Jay

Most seven-year-olds already know what that word is. Most four-year-olds have heard it. I don't know what you're protecting them from. And most kids use this kind of language.

Boy

I'm not going to lie. I've said some of them out loud. I hear it all the time in the hall and stuff. And I guess I'm used to it.

Ira Glass

When one of our producers, Lisa Pollak, went out and talked to kids around Chicago, aged 9 to 12, in their schools, they pretty much confirmed everything that Timothy Jay had seen. Bad words are everywhere.

Girl

I get mad at my parents sometimes when they say it, because I have two younger siblings. And I think that it's just better if, for little kids, they don't learn it when they're younger.

Lisa Pollak

What age do you think when you say little kids? What age is OK to know those words?

Girl

I think that around when you get in, maybe, third grade or fourth grade, that's a good age to actually know what the words mean. Because you're smarter.

Lisa Pollak

Do you think there are any kids today who haven't heard these words?

Boy

Probably a newborn baby, like a new newborn baby that's still in your mom's stomach, but well, the babies that can't talk probably know it but just can't talk, I think.

Ira Glass

Now to be clear, these are very simple studies. They don't follow the kids who use more curse words for years, and then try to find out if their lives turned out differently than the kids who use fewer curse words. All the research can show so far is that most kids use these words, even if they think that it's wrong to use them, even if sometimes they aren't totally sure what certain words mean. And the research also shows that kids use the words in exactly the same way that adults do, in moments of frustration, or for emphasis, or in moments of surprise, or in jokes, or in anger. No difference.

Boy

Like when I get into a bad mood, because my cousin, he broke something of mine yesterday, and I had got mad. And I didn't mean to curse and it just slipped out. And I said, you F-ing idiot, you broke my D stuff. And then I had got in trouble.

Boy

When you're in an argument with somebody, and they take it too far, and then you just want to say, dude, what the H is your problem? Or there's just things you want to say.

Girl

I think I used the first curse word when I was eight, because someone got me real mad and I was in an argument with my friend. And then I was like, you F-in' B, why don't you get out of my F-in' face?

Lisa Pollak

What did it feel like to use those words for the first time?

Girl

Well, sort of, I felt relieved, because she actually listened to me. She actually got out of my face.

Boy

You cuss when you hurt yourself and it really hurts. I'm sure you cuss, don't you? Do you?

Lisa Pollak

I have been known to cuss.

Boy

Because you can. You're an adult. You have to let yourself free sometimes.

Ira Glass

This has great relevance to the law. In the past, the Supreme Court has said that the FCC is right to keep words off radio and television, if hearing the words could, quote, "enlarge the child's vocabulary in an instant." And that's one of the justifications cited by the FCC in the Bono decision. Quote, "We believe that even isolated broadcasts of the F-word in situations such as that here could do so as well, in a manner that many, if not most, parents would find highly detrimental and objectionable."

Timothy Jay

I'm not even sure that most parents would find it detrimental. If you've got 60% of your parents using this kind of language in the home, why would it be more detrimental to hear it on TV than to hear your mom or dad say that kind of stuff?

Ira Glass

Has anybody studied the actual thing that the FCC is regulating, which is, what is the effect of seeing certain words or seeing certain things referred to on television and radio? What is the effect of that on children's development and behavior?

Timothy Jay

The closest we've come to that, there's people who have been studying the effects of kids watching violent television and playing violent video games. And the closest they get to language is looking at rap music and the lyrics in rap music. And those studies show it doesn't have harm like watching violence. That's been clearly linked, correlated with later incidents of verbal or physical aggression, but words, no.

Ira Glass

The Commission in this decision said-- I'm reading from their decision-- "The F-word is one of the most vulgar, graphic, and explicit descriptions of sexual activity in the English language. Its use invariably invokes a coarse sexual image." The implication of this is that when Bono says F-ing brilliant, the five commissioners of the FCC actually are picturing penises and vaginas. "Its use invariably invokes a course sexual image." Is there any evidence that when people say F-ing brilliant, or use the F-word in this kind of way, that anyone else in America is picturing a coarse sexual image?

Timothy Jay

Well, no. I have done my Master's thesis and dissertation on how people interpret taboo words. And usually, we think of them connotatively. So you do think of the emotional overtones of the word. You don't think of it in its denotative meaning. That's one of the unique things about this word. If you said, the F-ing good convention, people wouldn't think it was a convention where you had intercourse. They would think it meant it was a really good convention. F-ing brilliant doesn't bring up what the word denotes. It brings up the emotional feeling behind it. That's why we use this kind of language, because it's emotional.

Ira Glass

Do you have any sympathy for the idea that there's a general coarsening of the culture that's happened, more graphic stuff on movies and television and on radio, and that that is not an entirely desirable thing?

Timothy Jay

I have no sympathy for that whatsoever. I've been asked that question for 30 years. It's the same question, aren't we going to hell in a handbasket because somebody said the F-word. But I don't know what people thought the common people talked in Chaucer's time or Shakespeare's time. I think this language has been around forever. On the other hand, I think we're a more civil society. We have laws now against harassment at work and discrimination at work, where racial minorities and women were excluded from a lot of places in our culture.

Ira Glass

Wait, you're saying there's more civility now than there was 100, 200 years ago.

Timothy Jay

Yeah. I don't think swearing is part of some coarsening trend.

Ira Glass

If Timothy Jay is right, what it means is that most of our current law and Supreme Court decisions about indecency are based on some very unscientific notions of what bad words and images do to kids. And we wanted to discuss all this with one of the FCC commissioners, or FCC Chairman Michael Powell. The commissioners that we contacted declined our invitations to appear.

But Chairman Powell's legal adviser, John Cody, said, sure. And we started with the studies. If there's no evidence that even repeated exposure to bad words hurts kids, I asked him, why ban these words?

John Cody

You know, Ira, I think you're right. At the end of the day, we haven't, as a Commission, or nor do I think, as a government, seen very many studies that have documented the causal link between indecency and its impact on children. It's kind of hard for the Federal Communications Commission to have to weigh what its actual impact is on children. And that's more of Congress's job. For us, we have a law that's been in place for 70 years that we, by statute, are forced to implement. And our hands are a little tied in the area, and in all areas in which our job is to enforce the laws that Congress writes.

Ira Glass

Let's talk about the Golden Globes decision. And I understand that you can only talk about this to a limited extent, because you guys have a kind of appeal that's up in front of the Commission still, right? OK, just to review for people what happens in that case. Bono gets this award at an awards show. He uses the F-word.

And the FCC says, basically, the F-word deserves special treatment and special restrictions in its use. And the reason that it gives in the decision is this. "The F-word is one of the most vulgar, graphic, and explicit descriptions of sexual activity in the English language. Its use invariably invokes a coarse sexual image." It seems like what the commissioners are saying is that when Bono says "F-ing brilliant," they're saying that the problem with this word, and the reason why it deserves special scrutiny under law, is that literally, they're picturing an actual act.

John Cody

Right. I don't know that it's what they picture. I think part of that decision, though, is that the word in and of itself, maybe for the young who think about it, that's what it means.

Ira Glass

But the rationale is so strange. They're saying that the reason why it's important to do it is because the use of this word in any context invokes this coarse sexual image. And if you think about how it's used, for example, Pat Tillman, the football player who was killed in Iraq, his brother at a memorial service, saying, he's F-ing dead. So that clearly does not invoke a coarse sexual image for anyone. And so the premise of the ruling seems to be questionable.

John Cody

Well, part of that is, to be frank, as I think NBC argued, and some of the recon petitions argued, and we will have to look at again, when these words are used as intensifiers, as opposed to in a sexual context. But I think you're right. The Commission, at that point, felt, boy, when you use this word, and you're a kid, I don't know that there is such a thing as an intensifier. I think it is the utmost, it is the word at the top of the list. And that is kind of the basis of the decision.

Ira Glass

It's kind of a weird justification.

John Cody

Again, and that will be the subject of the recon.

Ira Glass

The recon, that is the petition for reconsideration. As you point out here that the FCC's own staff initially ruled that when Bono said "F-ing brilliant," it did not have any sexual connotation, and for that reason, it was not indecent. And it was the commissioners, the guys at the top, who went back and reopened the case, at the urging of a lobbying group, declared that "F-ing brilliant" means sex. We did ask the 9 to 12 year olds we interviewed around Chicago what Bono might mean by the phrase "F-ing brilliant." None of them saw it the way the commissioners did.

Boy

Well, I think he meant that it was a really great award that he got.

Girl

Yeah, I think he was just really happy and wanted to express his feelings.

Boy

It's a word that you use when you're either very something. If you're very happy, I guess you'd use that. If you're very sad, or very angry at someone, you'd use that. He was very proud of his award. And he was exaggerating brilliant by just using F-ing.

Ira Glass

Recent decisions by the FCC are about more than just the F-word. In the Bono decision, the FCC explicitly puts broadcasters on notice that it is changing the legal definition of profanity. In the past, the Commission gave some weight to the idea of context. The F-word and other potentially offensive material could sometimes be allowed on the air, if it was in a context that had some redeeming value, if it was in a news report, for instance. But with these recent decisions, the FCC has moved the line on where context counts. Now they're saying the rule is, if a word is deeply offensive to some members of the public, or the Commission thinks that hearing the word might enlarge a child's vocabulary, that could be enough to overrule context.

So the line has moved, though exactly where it has moved to is not totally clear yet. For instance, the Bono decision declared that now even euphemisms for the F-word, which presumably include the phrase "the F-word," are probably illegal most of the time. In our interview, John Cody of the FCC made a point of saying that context does still count lots of times. He pointed to page five of the Bono decision, where the commissioners specifically say that if there is quote, "political, scientific, or independent value," the stuff you're broadcasting might be OK.

John Cody

There is still wiggle room now. For instance, we did not overrule the Branson case, which is an old, I believe, NPR case with the Gotti tapes, in which he uses the F-word over and over, and--

Ira Glass

Yeah, let's just explain what that is. That's a case where NPR had a wiretap of John Gotti, and used it in a news report-- this is back in the '80s-- and didn't beep out the F-word. And someone complained to the FCC. And the FCC said, no, no, no, it's OK in this context, because there's a clear news value to this. And you're saying that this decision did not overturn that?

John Cody

That's right. That's still good law, in fact. And I think what the decision really stands for, at the end of the day, is gratuitous uses that don't have a newsworthy reasoning behind them are more in the indecent camp than not.

Ira Glass

One of the things that's happening is that I think a lot of broadcasters are having to guess what's going to be OK under the law since the Bono ruling. Recently, another public radio show, Fresh Air, faced this decision where there's a singer named Nellie McKay who uses the word "suck" in a song, and not in a sexual connotation, more in a connotation like, that sucked, sort of thing.

John Cody

S-U-C-K.

Ira Glass

Yeah. And the producer of Fresh Air went to the lawyers for, you know, and they basically said, are we OK? And they said, absolutely not. That's just too risky.

John Cody

Yeah. My personal opinion is, I think that's a little bit of an overreaction on the broadcaster's side, while understandable. Again, they take these things very seriously. And they have to first and foremost think about their audience and their licenses. And they don't want to put them at risk. And I understand that.

You know, I hear this a lot from the broadcast community, which is, just tell us what the rules are. Show us, give us bright line rules. But I don't know that you want the government to write a Red Book on what you can say and not say. I just think that that gets into a very dangerous situation.

Ira Glass

But on the other hand, not issuing a Red Book and saying-- it also does a kind of damage, because people are forced to guess and tend to-- they'll overreach, as in this case.

John Cody

Well, that might be right. And like you said, it's overreaching. I think with time, what is likely to happen is you're going to see the Commission do the opposite, which is it's going to deny some of these cases and give broadcasters more and more precedent by which to go by over time.

Ira Glass

When the decision says political, scientific, or independent value, could independent value also be literary value?

John Cody

Of course, of course.

Ira Glass

That's funny, because there's a David Sedaris story that we ran on our show years ago, that takes place in a bathroom, that violates all three of the FCC criteria for indecency. It's explicitly graphic in talking about excretory activities, which is one of the criteria. He repeats and dwells on the descriptions at length, because he's trying to be funny.

And he absolutely means to pander and shock. That's the joke of it, in a way. So it violates all three standards. And my understanding was that today, we really could get in trouble for that, because context might not protect us.

John Cody

Well, again, I think we would look at the context. But I think you might have given away the-- again, I'm not familiar with it-- but you might have given away the context, in that he's trying to be funny, as opposed to be-- is he talking about Irritable Bowel Syndrome in a health-conscious way, or is he just trying to crack jokes? I think that's the distinction, that--

Ira Glass

Can I play this for you? It's only two minutes long. And if at the end of it, you feel like, oh, you can't actually--

John Cody

Yeah, I'm not going to be able to. But again, I'l let you play it.

Ira Glass

All right. Let me play it and then see if you have anything you can say about it. Here we go.

David Sedaris

We had Easter dinner at John's house, a big afternoon meal which we ate in his backyard. Everyone had taken their places at the table when I excused myself to visit the bathroom. And there, in the toilet, was the absolute biggest turd I have ever seen in my life. No toilet paper or anything, just this thick and coiled specimen. I flushed the toilet, and the big turd [? rousted ?] around. It budged and bobbed a little, but that was it. This thing wasn't going anywhere.

Just then, someone knocked on the door, and I started to panic. Just a minute! At an early age, my mother sat me down and explained that everyone has bowel movements. "Everyone," she said, "even the President and his wife. Everyone in the world. Everyone but me." And I could picture them all, everyone from Red Skelton to Ladybird Johnson. But something this big-- just a minute!

And I seriously considered lifting this turd out of the toilet and tossing it out the window. I honestly considered it. But John lives on the ground floor, and a dozen people were seated at a picnic table 10 feet away. And these were people who would surely investigate and gather 'round. And there I'd be, trying to explain that it wasn't mine. But why would I bother throwing it out the window if it wasn't mine? No one would have believed me. Just a minute! And I scrambled for the plunger and used it to break the turd into manageable pieces. And even then, I had to flush twice just to get rid of it.

It was Janet at the door, and she said, well, it's about time. And I was left thinking that the person who left the huge turd had no problem with it, so why did I? And later, at the table, I examined each guest, trying to figure who was capable.

Ira Glass

Anyway.

John Cody

It's hard to say. But it goes back to that it's an area in which there is a lot of gray.

Ira Glass

See, but I would argue this one on just straight-up literary merit. If you think about the mission of literature, it's to describe situations that we all can relate to and have had some feeling of ourselves, or can imagine having a feeling of. And that seems to be what he's doing.

John Cody

I don't disagree with you. And we would take that segment that you had just produced. And the reason you add it is for, in part, news value, right? You're conducting an interview with a public official, and you're trying to explain to your audience the state of indecency law. Again, that would be factors we would have to take into consideration.

Those are the types of things that I think the Commission has, and will continue to take, in consideration when we talk about context. We're outside of the isolated word, gratuitous use of the F-word here. We're in that gray area, and I would say in an area of the gray that traditionally has been more on the not indecent side than indecent before.

Ira Glass

But also thinking about what the Supreme Court says, the Supreme Court says, well, another problem is teaching a kid a word. If we teach a kid a word, then that's a problem. But in this, I don't think any kid would be learning any words from this. And in fact, I have to say this is a little monologue that a seven-year-old would love.

John Cody

There's no question. Again, you're right to be questioning. At the end of the day, what I think you're really questioning is the foundations of these rules, and do they make sense for that medium? And I think that's the right question. And my personal perspective is, I stand not just beside you, but behind you on that one, and in front of you.

Ira Glass

Well, so in a way, the best thing that can happen for the status of the law, and I sort of hate to say this, is that people would write in right now at your website, would go to www.fcc.gov and basically complain against me on this Sedaris thing. And that's the only way we would get a ruling that would define the law.

John Cody

Certainly on that particular incident, I think that's right. If the Commission were to come out and say, no, that wasn't indecent, then that would go in the ledger of those cases of, OK, well, this is seemingly OK. Are these things more like this case, or are they more like the Bono case?

Ira Glass

It seems the most likely outcome if listeners complained about this story is that the FCC would not rule at all. The current commissioners are much more exercised about sex than about bathroom humor. And the fact is, we did play the Sedaris story as part of a policy discussion, which makes the whole thing much more of an open-and-shut case for the FCC. It would fall into a more questionable area, and set more groundbreaking precedent, if we just played it on its own, no policy angle at all. There's no telling how that would come out. So.

There is a bigger question in all this. And it's a question that, weirdly, Timothy Jay's cursing research is no help at all with. The question is this. Let's say that you agree with Timothy Jay's findings that show that cursing does not hurt kids. Well, then what do you do?

I think most of us still would not feel very good cursing around children. Even Timothy Jay tries not to curse around kids, or his students, or strangers, for that matter, even though he's sure that it harms no one. In the same way, I think most of us wouldn't want wall-to-wall unregulated profanity all over radio and television, day and night.

The kids we talked to were unanimous, by the way, on this point. They did not want more cursing on radio and television. It gave them an odd feeling, the swearing. Listen to how a group of seven of them reacts when one of the kids, in front of an adult and a microphone, simply refers to a swear word that her mom said. She doesn't even swear.

Girl

She runs a day care. And then she had said go upstairs before I bust your S-H.

Ira Glass

Seven kids look at each other, hands over mouths, eyes wide open, in disbelief, embarrassment, giddiness.

[LAUGHTER]

Girl

Then--

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

When these 9 to 12 year olds talked about how they thought that swearing was bad, it was not in a way where it seemed like they were parroting things adults told them.

Boy

Well, I just don't see what the horrible deal is with swearing. But in my opinion, I wouldn't want my grandparents to hear swear words. If we were in a car, and the radio, I wouldn't mind it. But I wouldn't want my grandpa, my grandma to hear the lyrics and the music that I like to listen to.

Lisa Pollak

Why wouldn't you want them to hear it?

Boy

Because it's inappropriate. It might upset them. It might, you know, why does he know these words? Why are we listening to this music?

Lisa Pollak

So it kind of comes down to being polite?

Girl

Yeah, because some people are really offended. There's a lot of people out there who take that really, really, really strongly.

Ira Glass

A more sensible FCC policy might start right here. Instead of getting all hysterical about the harm that bad words are supposedly doing to innocent young psyches, we could all just agree as a country that some channels on radio and television should be as curse-free as possible. Not because it's healthier for anyone, not because we want to avoid teaching these words to minors who apparently already know them already, but because it just feels like good manners, because it's polite.

[MUSIC - "STUCK IN A MOMENT YOU CAN'T GET OUT OF" BY U2]

Coming up, if Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev could be polite to each other, send each other handwritten notes, joke around, why can't Democrats and Republicans in New Jersey do it? Or men and women, well, lots of places?

[MUSIC - "STUCK IN A MOMENT YOU CAN'T GET OUT OF" BY U2]

That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Dems Gone Wild!

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week in our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, propriety, stories of people trying to keep a sense of decency and decorum in new and difficult situations. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two: Dems Gone Wild.

Ken Kurson had been around politics, but he had never actually run for office. He works with Rudolph Giuliani, co-authored Giuliani's book, Leadership, with him. And last year, Ken Kurson entered the political mosh pit himself. He ran for state assembly as a Republican in New Jersey's 34th district.

Democrats dominate Jersey politics in a way that seems almost quaint to most of us who live in other states. Democrats control both houses of the state assembly, and the governor's mansion. And there hasn't been a Republican senator from New Jersey in over 30 years. Ken Kurson's district is overwhelmingly Democratic. It includes the town of East Orange, where Al Gore beat George Bush by a 40 to 1 margin.

Ken Kurson

I knew this race would be just about impossible. Not only have I been personally unpopular my entire life, but the registration advantage alone was insurmountable. When Rudy Giuliani wrote a check for the campaign, he asked me, who should I make this out to, sacrificial lamb? So I wasn't getting into the race with any delusions about winning. But I did welcome the opportunity to shine a light on what I thought were some overlooked issues in New Jersey: property taxes, illegal campaign contributions, and public officials who hold multiple public jobs.

Going in, I realized that if I managed to make it a race, my opponents would do whatever they could to make things difficult. I expected disagreement, apathy, maybe even anger. But what I hadn't realized was how darn uncivil my town could get. The vitriol and nastiness that would come from my own neighbors caught me off guard. In my own hometown, Montclair, plenty of residents are so sure of the correctness of their opinions, so convinced that their little voices in the wilderness are the only thing protecting this great democracy from the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Aschroft-Wolfowitz-Scalia cabal, so righteous in their indignation over the fact that a town son would dare call himself a Republican, that the gloves are way off.

In late August, I campaigned at the train station a block from my house. Now if you ever want to feel like a douchebag, I recommend concluding eight years of anonymously riding the train by suddenly interrupting your neighbors to talk New Jersey politics. By that point, I'd done this kind of retail campaigning hundreds of times in all five towns of the district, from the scariest all-night chicken joint in East Orange to the toniest country club in Glen Ridge. I'm not someone who finds it easy to introduce myself to strangers. Yeah, I know, a liability for a political candidate. Luckily, everybody was polite and even interested in talking over some issue or other.

Plenty of people asked tough questions or challenged my positions. Most voters in my district are Democrats, after all. But I never, not even once, encountered anything uncivil. Even those who clearly had no intention of voting for me were courteous. And I was genuinely grateful when someone would say, no thank you, and save me the time and money of handing them a piece of literature or a Kurson for Assembly pen.

But that day in August at the train station, one woman saw me standing there and started yelling at me. I mean top of her lungs, pop out crazy eyes. "Republicans are evil! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" Stunned, I managed to stammer, "Why are you speaking to me like this?" She pointed to the embarrassing little name tag that all candidates wear and said, "You wearing that badge gives me the right to yell at you. You're killing innocent Iraqis!" Um, I guess you won't be needing a pen.

I wish I could report that this was an isolated incident. But it wasn't. The next time was at the Bluestone Cafe, a home away from home where I'd have breakfast several times a week. In the middle of September, the Sunday New York Times ran a long profile of my candidacy, headlined "One Montclair Republican Looks Strong." The piece was a total Valentine. The photo even managed to obscure my bald spot.

It was a home run for the campaign and the day after it ran, my team met at the Bluestone to savor it. A bunch of the regulars congratulated me on the coverage. And then a woman sauntered up to our table and said, "Are you the one who's running for office?" "Why, yes, ma'am, I'm Ken Kurson. And I'd like to earn your support on November--" "I would never vote for you. And I can't believe there are Republicans in my town." She pronounced the word "Republican" the way one describes symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

All of these attacks on me were one thing. But when people started to question my wife, it became downright bizarre. One time, the woman who heads the Democratic Party in Montclair called our home and yelled-- yelled-- at my wife. "Your husband is a liar. He's trying to trick everyone by not saying he's a Republican. Are you so ashamed of it that you can't even admit it on your mailings? We're disgusted with your lies." Click.

This tirade was prompted by one of my mailers that reprinted the Times article in full on one side, an article headlined "Montclair Republican," and on the other side featured a picture of my family with Rudy Giuliani. I'm not sure how I could have proclaimed my affiliation more overtly. But to be honest, I can't tell you how punk rock it felt to set off these little tizzies of outrage: the guy who took my little handbill at the train station and theatrically shredded it in a silent, heroic gesture of defiance, the woman who told my campaign aide that she cannot accept that a Jewish candidate would ever belong to the same party as a Nazi like George Bush.

Montclair prides itself on its reputation as a bastion of liberalism and tolerance. Montclair voluntarily funds its own busing program. And Chris Rock joked that a newspaper called Montclair the nation's best place for mixed race couples. The worst place was everywhere else. So what kills me about this particular form of nastiness I encountered in Montclair, and only in Montclair, and only from white liberals, is that it came from people who would be mortified to hear themselves described as intolerant or hostile to those unlike themselves.

In my campaigning in blue collar Clifton and minority East Orange, I experienced many polite no-thank-yous and plenty of passionate disagreements, which tended not to be about Iraq or President Bush, but over the actual stuff New Jersey assemblymen deal with, like tax rates and the state's notorious Department of Youth and Family Services. But not once, not a single time, did anyone stray close to the line dividing discourse from abuse. My campaign even made inroads into Montclair's minority community, especially after I was endorsed by the leader of the town's enormous Christ Church and was the only candidate to address its largely black congregation.

But when it came to white liberals, how about the aging hippie who lectured one of my campaign's black volunteers on the obligation minorities have to support progressive candidates? When I asked an artist friend, someone I'd been very close to for 10 years, to design a t-shirt for me and my crew to wear in Montclair's 10k race, she refused. She explained that a cartoon elephant was a powerful symbol she could not abide. We're not friends anymore.

I didn't win. I did far better than I was supposed to. And almost 2,000 voters crossed party lines to cast a ballot for me. But in the end, the district's two seats both went to the Democrats, as everyone knew they would. The incumbent, a man so dedicated to public service, he also holds three other jobs on the public payroll, and a woman whose chief attribute seems to be that she only has one other public job.

Look, there are really nutty people on all sides of American ideology. And I'm not suggesting that Democrats have cornered the market on incivility. That's obviously not the case. Anywhere one party has numerical dominance tends to breed bullies. So the Democrats are bullies in New Jersey, and the Republicans are bullies in Texas and Utah. What's galling is when the Democrats doing the bullying pride themselves on their tolerance, or when Republican bullies cloak themselves in their religious faith, a faith founded on notions of forgiveness and turning the other cheek. Montclair is a beautiful town, but it's not for me. After the election, my family moved out.

Ira Glass

Ken Kurson is Director of Communications at Giuliani Partners and co-author of Rudy Giuliani's book, Leadership.

[MUSIC - "ROCK HARD TIMES" BY EELS]

Act Three. Swiss Near-miss.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Swiss Near Miss. Samantha Hunt has this story that, among other things, is a story of manners, of one person acting with complete politeness and good manners, and another person not doing that. Actress Claire Beckmann read her story for us.

Claire Beckmann

My mother lowers her voice to a whisper, even though we are speaking across a telephone line from her empty house to my empty apartment, barring the slimmest chance that anyone might hear our conversation. Still, she quiets herself, as if to say, the story you're about to hear is too dangerous for broadcast on the regular frequencies.

My mother has never been good with secrets. She used to think keeping them was akin to lying, so the secrets she did keep were special, only for her and my father, kept as a hedge against their children, as a private world for just the two of them, as a reminder of their lives before six kids invaded. This story was one of those secrets.

She decided to tell me out of the blue recently, and she behaved as though it was no big deal. "Haven't I told you this before?" she asked. She had not. But things have changed since my father died three years ago. Now it seems the doors to mystery have blown wide open in my mother's life, as if proximity to the greatest secret of all, namely where my father went, diluted the power of the secrets she once kept. Now she'll tell anybody anything.

In 1964, my mother was a 26-year-old divorced woman living in the town of Pleasantville, New York. In the months leading up to my mother's divorce, her first husband had plowed through dates with a humiliating tally of local women. My mother's first remedy, smashing her car into his when she found him engaged in a passionate Lover's Lane moment with a woman from the Episcopal church, failed to produce helpful results. So she left, joining the world of single women again. Single, but in 1964, not unstained.

The divorce was painful. Her ex became abusive and so she needed a distraction. My mother convinced her friend, [? Kappy, ?] a lady with a large and fierce laugh, that they had to travel, they had to escape. Europe would be a good start. Switzerland seemed safe. Both women were itching to flee. However, Kappy's father, a Catholic, stood in the way. He would not allow [? Kappy ?] to be in the company of a divorced woman until he had first interviewed my mother. This unbearable interview included repeated uses of the verb "to know," employed in the biblical sense. Despite the odds, my mother passed his test.

That's how they found themselves in the spring of '64 in Geneva, where waves of relief and sudden joy swept over them at each sighting of non-American packs of chewing gum, each pair of funny Swiss shoes, every syllable from a foreign tongue, all the small things that proved the world was not at all small in 1964.

"We ate fondue every night. We'd never even heard of fondue before," she says. It was at the end of one such dinner when a waiter interrupted their hilarity. "Excuse me, mademoiselles. The gentlemen seated by the window there," and he pointed to two young Swiss men, "have insisted on paying for your meal." "We tried to protest," my mother says through the telephone, "but the men had already paid. And the waiter refused to return the money to them. So we shrugged and invited the men to join us."

There's a twist in my mother's voice that is audible through the phone line. "They were extremely polite, manners that American women could only dream of finding back home then. Maybe a Midwesterner could have been this polite, but there were no men like these men on the east coast," she says. "These men held the doors, pulled out chairs, listened intently, paid for everything, and stood each time [? Kappy ?] or I even considered visiting the ladies' room. These were very different times," my mother clarifies.

"After coffee at the restaurant, the four of us decided to go out dancing. They took us to a magnificent night club. And by this time we had coupled up, [? Kappy ?] and I having decided that she preferred one man and I preferred the other. I got the handsome one. His name was Hans. He knew how to tango beautifully," my mother recalls across the long-distance line. "The men were engineers working for an American company in Switzerland," she says. "Their relationship was that of business colleagues only, not friends. Still, we were all enjoying the night, and so continued drinking and dancing until 2:00 in the morning, when it was decided that what we needed was some fresh air. We thought a walk near Lake Geneva could provide that."

The four set off on an early morning stroll. [? Kappy ?] and her date had a seat on the bench beside the lake, while my mother and Hans kept walking down to the end of the pier that jutted out across the surface of the water. "This was back before you just rushed into a hotel room and slept together," my mother clarifies yet again.

Out on the pier, Hans stood directly behind my mother. The thousand lights of the city reflected off the lake. Romance was nigh, my mother felt. And again, a moment of relief passed through her, thinking of her ex, and then thinking of the exotic Swiss engineer who was just then no doubt preparing to kiss her. She exhaled, and at that moment, Hans placed his hands around my mother's throat.

He squeezed. He tightened once. He crushed the cavity of her trachea. Hans wrung her neck thoroughly and effortlessly, as though he were a soldier trained in the exact art of compressing an enemy's jugular.

No air could pass in or out of my mother's body. She could not move. She could not yell. She could not breathe. She stood staring out across the lake, her arms dangling by her sides, her feet nearly lifted off the ground by the vise about her throat.

She thought, "This is unbelievable. A Swiss stranger is about to kill me." And then she thought of her life up to that point, as if to see how it could have led her here. She wondered, "Are these the wages of my divorce? Do I deserve this?" By the shore of Lake Geneva, my mother noted the moments that passed. Hans said nothing, only continued to squeeze, as if in answer to her question. Yes, this is exactly what you deserve.

"The strangest part," my mother whispers, "is I remember the superb mental clarity I achieved as I was choked. In that clarity, I thought, I am going to die now. And the lights on Lake Geneva are beautiful. How sad, I was thinking, that beauty ends here. You really study these things when you think you're going," she says.

Time, that all night had been a torrent, slowed to a drip. After a minute or two of strangulation, she was losing consciousness. She was staring down into the water, when finally, silent Hans spoke. He asked my mother, "What would you do if I didn't let go?" His breath was on her neck. And she thought, "He's breathing." He held the choke a moment longer. He let go.

That part of the story is awful, being choked by a stranger in Switzerland. But both my mother and I believe that what came next is far more sinister. Rather than screaming bloody murder when she caught her breath, my mother, perhaps out of fear, or even scarier, perhaps out of fear of impropriety, simply turned and walked back to the bench, where [? Kappy ?] and her date sat talking. My mother said nothing. The four of them regrouped, walked back to their hotels, and politely said goodnight.

40 years later, my mother still has Hans's business card. She keeps the card in a bureau drawer filed beside a buffalo nickel her grandfather gave her, a clutch of two-dollar bills she saved, and a tiny red bean filled with miniature carved ivory animals. When I asked her why she kept his card, a reminder of how she almost died, she sounded surprised. "To get revenge?" I asked. "Oh no, not at all," she said. "I keep it because it's part of my life."

Ira Glass

That story from Samantha Hunt. Her novel, The Seas, comes out in the fall, and is published by McAdam-Cage. The story was read for us by Claire Beckmann.

Credits.

Boy

You F-in' B, why don't you get out of my F-in' face?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.