December 19, 2018
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The problem with Robert De Niro’s F-bomb wasn’t the vulgarity

Michael Zorn | Invision
Michael Zorn | Invision
Robert De Niro on Sunday introduces a performance by Bruce Springsteen at the 72nd annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

The problem with Robert De Niro’s using the F-word against President Donald Trump isn’t the word itself — it’s the absence of underlying content.

Indeed, even Trump himself seems a bit confused by the meaning of De Niro’s weekend outburst. As if the actor hadn’t reached a wide enough audience, the president decided to weigh in while flying back from his Singapore meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “Robert De Niro, a very Low IQ individual, has received too many shots to the head by real boxers in movies. I watched him last night and truly believe he may be ‘punch-drunk.’”

Punch-drunk, or maybe just missing the mark. The Academy Award winner dropped the F-bomb onstage during Sunday night’s Tony Awards, where he was supposed to be introducing the equally famous Bruce Springsteen. Veering off-script, De Niro declared: “I’m going to say one thing, F—- Trump.” He doubled down. “It’s no longer down with Trump. It’s f—- Trump.

At this point, awards shows are generally understood to be glamorous fountains of not-particularly-helpful political commentary rather than go-to sources for incisive critiques. The practice of smug liberalism, with its divisive fallout, seems to reach its apotheosis during events such as the Oscars, Tonys and Golden Globes. Still, De Niro’s “F—- Trump,” much like Samantha Bee’s recent vulgar description of Ivanka Trump on the comedian’s own late-night show, marks a new and rather disappointing moment in our already embattled discourse.

It’s not even that such statements are obscene or unkind, as many on the right rushed to declare, no matter that the right can be performative in its own grating way. For better or for worse — or, just for worse — obscenity has become an embedded feature of our discourse, emanating from the top down. It’s an almost pleasant surprise that Trump limited his own rebuttal to “punch-drunk,” rather than, say, the p-word he’s famous for.

What’s more worth sighing over is the fact that statements such as these are contentless, and thus useless. They are sound and fury, signifying nothing — inflammatory eruptions that degrade the quality of existing discussion without building anything in its place.

“F—- Trump.” Well, sure, if you must. Then what? It’s not clear that De Niro spurred the Tony Awards crowd (which, considering the estimated wealth and influence of its near-6,000 in-person attendees, might well be in a position to make some sort of change) to do anything but stand and cheer, and then proceed to the after-party.

Some would say the vulgarity, cruelty and systematic harm created by the Trump administration demand a cutting response in turn. For instance, writer Rebecca Traister argued in New York magazine that “Bee is acting on behalf of less powerful people (the immigrants whose children, including babies, are being taken away from them) and speaking out against the grotesquely powerful and abusive (the administration that is creating and enforcing this barbaric policy).” She concluded, “Words matter, and sometimes only the strongest ones will do the job.”

But there are words, and then there is the actual “job” — that of improving the administration, seeking to change it or attending directly to the needs of those affected by its policies. The one can influence the other. Language changes how we think. When we use increasingly divisive and polarized language in the public square, we change how we are able to interact, discuss and exist together. The F-bombs and c-words are a distraction from the actual work that could be done and cut off possibilities for cooperation in the future. And, as professional entertainers should have figured out by now, they’re boring.

But how much can you expect from an actor, really? Well, more than these latest statements have delivered. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded De Niro the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in part because of his work as a philanthropist, something that his latest attempts at discourse have obscured. Instead of just declaring “F—- Trump” from the stage, perhaps De Niro and those like him could climb down and do something about it.

Christina Emba is a Washington Post opinion writer and editor.

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