Keith Olbermann and sixth grade

I didn’t go to the local “tea party.” I think unprecedented government spending is a legitimate issue, but it’s not exactly my passion.

Yet it has been unnerving to follow the news coverage a bit. I don’t have cable television, but from what I can gather from all the griping and Youtube clips, apparently one cable network was acting as de facto publicist for these events while another had a reporter trying to shout down protesters.

I suppose it’s no longer really news that we’re descending back to openly ideological media.

What’s worse is that apparently some of those ideologues found great joy in unleashing vulgar double entendres. Apparently sometimes a tea bag is not just a tea bag. There’s a related term used for some sex act.

When I was a sixth-grade boy a few decades ago, sometimes we would sing an old song like “Johnny Comes Marching Home,” which would use the world “gay,” meaning happy. But some years before, a group of people had determined to make it mean something else, and we knew the new meaning. Already the meaning the word had always had was fading into disuse until now it is practically extinct.

When I was a sixth grade boy, it was considered a bad thing if you giggled about this. That sort of game was treated as a sign of immaturity.

Had an older substitute teacher come along and used the word as it had been used for centuries, not knowing how it had been corrupted, we very well might have laughed at her. And that would have even more clearly marked us as immature and disrespectful. Only … well, only a sixth-grade boy could imagine knowing such a base piece of trivia was a sign of being smarter or wiser than the teacher.

That was then. I recently saw a clip of Keith Olbermann defending the vulgar monologue of disguised sex jokes he delivered while impersonating a journalist. His defense boiled down to this: “Hey, they are the ones who picked a tea bag as their symbol.”

Now, I know that Olbermann is no more a journalist than his conservative counterparts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Whatever news they might break, their primary purpose is to be entertaining and polemical. Unfortunately, in this culture that means pushing (and sometimes shattering) the bounds of decency.

But let’s think about his argument, especially the assumptions underlying it. In order for it to make sense, he must assume this obscure term is known to most of his viewers, and indeed to all intelligent people. Not only that, he must assume that it is in some sense now the normative use of that phrase. Anyone who hears “tea bag” and thinks of a little paper bag full of Lipton, or who thinks our culture can be trusted to hear the term and distinguish it from whatever the Sexual Revolution kicked up in a dark corner yesterday, is a hick, a naif not suited for engagement in grown-up politics.

We live in a time when what presidents do with White House interns turns cigars and SUV names into vulgar punchlines and a congressman’s arrest teaches us through the news media the sordid signals used to solicit anonymous sexual encounters in public restrooms.

Once upon a time, the mark of an informed citizen was knowing the names of high-ranking public officials, the records of candidates and the contents of pending legislation. But we’re all sixth-grade boys now.