Geoff Nunberg

I have been listening to Fresh Air since I was in college, lets say it has been 16 years. In that time my favorite part of the show has been listening to Geoff Nunberg. When I hear him talk I feel smarter just by listening. He is a linguist and he writes about language. He writes about what people mean when they use words and how it effects the world.

Last week he did a Fresh Air commentary about Ann Coulter and public discourse. I suggest you listen to it because he has an amazing voice. Here is the transcript in case you want to read it yourself. It was an amazing commentary. First he makes it clear that what Ann Coulter does it not Satire.

Satire depicts things as grotesque in order to make them seem ridiculous -- what Stephen Colbert does in his Bill O'Reilly persona or Christopher Buckley does with the pointed caricatures of Thank You For Smoking. But Coulter isn't actually sending anybody up -- not herself, certainly, and not the targets of her remarks.

He points out that what Ann Coulter's rhetoric is more like smut.

That rhetorical maneuver doesn't really have a name, but it's a close relative of what we think of as smut. In the strict sense, of course, smut is the leering innuendo that veils sexual aggression.[1] But in a broader sense, smut can be any kind of malice that pretends to be mere naughtiness. It might be a leering vulgarity, a racial epithet, or simply a venomous insult -- what makes it smut is that it's tricked out as humor, so that if anyone claims to be offended you can answer indignantly, "Can't you take a joke?"

In that broad sense, smut can sometimes be innocuous fun. It's a staple of sitcoms, in what you could think of as a Wooo! moment. That's the moment when a character who's comically malicious or catty (think Betty White, Rhea Perlman, Joseph Marcell) makes a remark that's just offensive or risque enough to brush the limits of taste, and the studio audience reacts by saying "Woooo!!"

The current world of political dysfunctional discourse is nothing new. It just seems new because of the way it is televised by 24 hour news channels and written about in blogs. I am happy that I can listen to people like Geoff Nunberg cut through it.


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