Prohibitive Power

In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan utters one jarring line which has been since quoted and re-appropriated almost as often as Dostoevsky’s epilepsy would manifest itself.

That introduction, you see, was utterly tasteless, much as the Wall Street Journal has, over the past few years, devolved into a vulgar organ for pink-faced men gurgling cholesterol and spewing intellectual shortcuts and claptraps. If you’re ever having a particularly pleasant day, I would urge you to take a look at their opinion section, even if only to remind yourself how brutish and reptilian the human race really is. Daniel Henninger is one of my favorite columnists;  I always enjoy reading his articles on my iPad, where his defense of the War on Women is bordered by nifty ads for ExxonMobil.

That being said, this venomous publication’s bottom-front page always graced with some cutesy cultural nugget, presumably something light to counteract the heaps of dreary, not-even-suitable-for-kindling pages devoted to financial analysis. It is this nugget, a story about a down-to-earth 50-something year old woman with cropped hair and an irrevocable sense of righteousness trying to impose a fine on swearing, which prompted me to obtusely introduce the blind nihilism of Ivan Karamazov. What he said was that, “without God, everything is permitted;” something which Slavoj Zizek cleverly reversed to note that social trends demonstrate that without god, nothing is permitted. We have become more secular (well, some of us, generally speaking, sort of), and smoking bans run amok: sin taxes, recycling regulation, and social pressures where enlightened yuppie-hood is about as revolutionary as 30-somethings get has taken the place of doctrinal orthodoxy.

So what’s the point of putting a fine on people who swear? Might this be similar to fining (young, urban minorities) who sag their pants? Is this sort of prohibition morally permissible? Would it even be effective?

Well, considering the fact that swear words derive their meaning and value from lying outside of the bounds of acceptable discourse, it could be inferred that such a prohibition would strengthen the power of a “fuck you shitbird.” Perhaps an underground economy might surface, where dealers peddle new phrases to innocent middle-school youths, prompting a police surge and lexical stop-and-frisks.

These concerns are, of course, inane. A better question to ask is why would the Wall Street Journal print such a thing? Now, this is no meditation on the journalistic standards of this less-than-perfect publication (*snicker*), but rather an investigation as to whether the editors are pandering to readers’ fear of “statism” and “big government” or rather their comfortable familiarity with “family values” and general bourgeois propriety.

What piques my interest is that government is one of the primary organs of power which enforces cultural codes and creates social familiarity for white bread America. Sure, it’s society and culture as well, but if we’ve learned anything from red-eyed readings of Foucault, it’s that forms of power are always inextricably linked. It therefore seems that someone is being a hypocrite or else acting on bad-faith: I don’t think anyone of our founding fathers (so esteemed by today’s right, their prodigal sons) would support decreasing the government’s power so that other power-sinks (churches, fraternal organizations… what have you) can create sociocultural values unhindered. Maybe they should realize that a giant bureaucratic state is just one form of totalitarian power which can spring up from nearly any source; maybe then we would realize that we’re all really fighting for the same thing, albeit by a different name.