With the passing of George Parker, Columbia, Boone County, Missouri and America are markedly poorer. We lost yet another member of the greatest generation (a bomber pilot who flew missions over Utah Beach on D-Day), a politician respected by all for his honesty and integrity; one who valued civil discourse as much as he rejected discourtesy and vulgarity; a man who believed in America, the two-party political system and in every citizens’ duty to participate in government; and I lost a friend.
Although a lifelong conservative, Mr. Parker encouraged debate, political education and participation as demonstrated by his creation of the Pachyderm Club – a local political information vehicle that morphed into a national organization. His political legacy is best portrayed in this paraphrased portion of the club’s preamble: “most of the corrupting influences in American politics could be erased and government generally made more responsive by one basic improvement...for more good citizens to participate in politics.”
I don’t intend this column as a eulogy or an elegy — those have been done by people far more qualified and eloquent. Instead, it is my intent to project and build upon his lifelong pursuit of civility and aversion to obscenity and vulgarity in our society. George Parker was the epitome of, “reasonable people can agree to disagree.”
Anyone who does not think civil discourse has deteriorated in concert with increased vulgar and obscene language over the past two generations must reside in a cave. We have progressed (if one can call it progress) from the culture shock of Clark Gable’s use of the word “damn” in the movies, to country music’s censure of “hell” in Big Bad John through George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” skit. Fast forward to today and it has become anything goes — “accepted vocabulary” seems to be that which was once restricted to toilet stall graffiti.
And, why is there an acceptance of this obscenity-laden speech on our streets; outright porn or sexual innuendo posing as humor on television, in the movies and on the stage; vulgarity permitted in both school and home; and a lack of respect for propriety or the rights of others? Because we as the public not only tolerate this repugnant behavior but, in some instances, welcome it as freedom of expression.
This rebellion against society’s norms originated at the University of California, Berkeley, with the 1964 Free Speech Movement, designed to lift a ban on campus political activities and to recognize student rights to free speech and academic freedom. This gave way in 1965 to the “Filthy Speech Movement” which, while it didn't receive the support of its predecessor, opened the door for outrageously juvenile and offensive behavior that is still with us on an upward incline.
Those who overtly support unregulated use of obscenity and vulgarity as well as those of us who tacitly permit it point to the Constitution’s First Amendment freedom of speech clause as a license for indecent conduct and, conversely, an excuse for inaction. I am well aware and extremely respectful of the court's interpretation of the amendment’s freedom of expression; nevertheless, I find it impossible to believe those who penned and ratified it intended it to be used to abet behavior repulsive to the vast majority of the people.
I am neither a prude nor unwise in the ways of the modern world — as a career Marine infantry officer for 30-plus years, I have heard language that could peel the paint from a Cadillac along with the vilest of insults. However, like most of us (hopefully), I find no redeeming value in obscene or unkind remarks nor do I view them as necessarily permissible merely because the Constitution tacitly enables their utterance or publication. Base and offensive speech require only an absence of intellect and class.
Ratification by New Hampshire on June 21, 1788, put the Constitution into being, which, other than by amendment, has not been materially altered to this day. Through my early years and before, acceptable personal behavior was largely established by custom and morals and enforced by the public as an adjunct of civil courtesy; however, a combination of apathy and “let George do it” usurped the founder's intent.
Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart stated it best on the subject of porn: "I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.” Incivility and vulgarity are as easily recognized and we are equally responsible for their proliferation as for, in the immortal words of Barney Fife, “Nipping it in the bud.”
George Parker thought the real power of government resided in its citizens and that power could be channeled to ensure civil and decent discourse — with power comes responsibility. Let's make it so.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.