Profanity: There’s A Time and A Place…


While many Americans expected to be privy to the Senate’s Permanent Investigations subcommittee hearings on Goldman Sachs this April, I doubt anyone would have anticipated the derogatory turn in the trial’s proceedings as Michigan Sen. Carl Levin read executive emails in blunt verbatim.

The Democratic chairman neglected to censor himself as he continually quoted Thomas Montag, Goldman’s former head of sales and trading, as the executive described what he referred to as “one s***ty deal.”

Levin repeated the curse word eleven times while questioning Daniel Sparks, the former head of Goldman’s mortgage department, who allegedly encouraged his division to make the deals. 

News coverage of Levin’s dubious interrogation tactics was streamed live by CNBC. 

Of course, Levin is hardly the first government official to suffer a very public lapse in verbal judgment.  In fact, just the week before, Britain’s incumbent Prime Minister Gordon went under fire in the UK press for an electoral gaffe that is now being referred to as Bigotgate.

But when you factor in the abrasive quality of Levin’s recitation alongside the fact that the news cameras were in plain sight, a little scrutiny seems called for.  Especially since the senator’s grandstanding served no purpose other than to detract attention away from the already inflammatory foundation of the trial.

The purpose of the hearings is to examine Goldman’s part in the 2007 housing market crash and the ensuing financial crisis last year and allegations of the firm’s disreputable mortgage practices.

Even if I were to put aside the argument that profanity doesn’t belong on any airwaves, televised or otherwise, I would still feel compelled to point out the complete impropriety of Sen. Levin’s obscene recitation.

Of course, I realize that there are instances when use of profanity is a measure of disrespect.  In fact, Leesville’s code of student conduct even differentiates between a slip of the tongue and a verbal attack. 

Moreover, while the Wake County Public School Board specifies against profane language towards a staff member, Leesville also holds students accountable for cursing at another student.

Leesville considers a violation of that policy worth of the discipline as theft, defacing school property, and fighting, all of which usually result in several days of Out-Of-School (OSS) suspension because it can be so offensive.

“That’s why it [the student handbook] says at someone,” said Principal Lyons. “When someone curses at someone it’s like a verbal assault.  They don’t have to hit anyone—that’s battery.  But if the person is made to feel threatened or uneasy because of someone’s language then something needs to be done.”

Along these lines, something needs to be done about Sen. Levin’s behavior on April 27.  Not because he victimized Goldman Sachs because I don’t believe that was the case.  But because every American should feel uneasy when a government official seems so blasé over speaking so unprofessionally while overseeing the investigation of a national matter.

And although he doesn’t owe Goldman Sachs an apology, his position of authority demanded better from him. 

Especially when I have no doubt that a man with Levin’s experience could have found a more suitable way to present a tough exterior.   Carl Levin is a thirty-year veteran of the Senate who made the conscious choice to use profanity while chairing a congressional sub-committee. 

After a week to let the dust settle, maybe it is time he apologizes for making such an ill-advised decision.

Since politicians achieve office by putting their best face forward, it stands to reason that their expected to serve office in the same manner that won them their jobs in the first place.

Personally, while I prefer to imagine that politicians live with same lily-white personalities behind closed doors that they effect in front of the cameras, I don’t care if Sen. Levin likes using colorful language—in private.  In public, however, and in the Senate especially, Levin is representing the state of Michigan first and as such, his personal feelings come a far second.  

If he is as outraged as most Americans by the shenanigans of Goldman Sachs, then that’s great.  I’m glad he and his constituents are on the same page.  But if the senator truly wants to do right by the people, he—and his colleagues—have to learn to leave the histrionics at the door.


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