Media

Meet The Tor Johnson of Cultural Critics

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LA Timesman Tim Rutten is the Tor Johnson of culture critics: a slow, lumbering space zombie who takes forever to get to whatever inelegant point he's making (typically a coupla-three weeks after it's relevant). And talk about subtlety! Here he is on the RDIB (recent descent into boorishness):

Our recent descent into boorishness didn't begin on the political platform but on the stage—not with our politicians but with our stand-up comics. Sometime in the late 1950s, the taste for comedy based on edgy political satire (think Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl) mutated into shtick based on insult (think Don Rickles and Jackie Mason). People, as it turned out, found it highly entertaining to watch other people being insulted.

It was, in economic terms, the commoditization of incivility.

It wasn't long before foundering AM radio found a savior in the proto-shock jock, Howard Stern, who turned rudeness and transgressive humor of every sort into a morning staple for millions of Americans. Incivility the commodity had found a broad new market, built on the animating insight that people found insults entertaining.

Whole brutish pile here.

Oddly, despite taking a couple of weeks to comment on Rep. Joe Wilson's idiotic and churlish outburst during Barack Obama's congressional address, Rutten couldn't rouse himself to throw in the obligatory Serena Williams comment, perhaps because the role tennis has played in coarsening the culcha upsets his easy morality play (I think it's fair to say that Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Ilie Nastase did as much to legitimize boorishness as Don Rickles, Jackie Mason, and Howard Stern—who, by the way, was funnier and more insightful into the American psyche at his peak than St. Lenny ever was).

Are people more, er, expressive than they used to be? Yes, in all sorts of ways. Are we a "coarser" society than in the past? I'm not so sure. Depends on how you define it (wasn't Joe McCarthy coarse? LBJ?). Does the coarseness flow one way, toward the Glenn Becks and GOPpers of the world? Certainly not, even in Congress, where Dems en masse can boo the president and Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) can say from the floor George W. Bush and the Republicans send our kids to Iraq "to get their heads blown off for the President's amusement."

But at least Joe Wilson wasn't wearing flip-flops.