Not to be too dramatic about it or anything, but what that obscenity-laced email from the University of Maryland sorority girl to her "sisters" represents is pretty much the death of the middle class.
Death, next-to-last gasp, whatever -- we've been heading in that direction for a long time. The viral capabilities of the Internet have simply sped things up.
If you don't know what email I'm referring to, I congratulate you -- and I mean that. There is no need for you to search online for the misbegotten missive that got loose this month.
All you need to know is that the president of the Delta Gamma chapter at the University of Maryland sent her sorority sisters an 882-word tirade laced with 41 "f-bombs" and dozens more various and sundry vulgarities, all summoned to drive home the earth-shaking point that they were not friendly enough to their Sigma Nu brothers at the Greek Week events.
One young woman's -- not "one young lady's" -- relentlessly ugly rant does not spell the end of civilization all by itself. It's just the latest center of a big, depressing picture.
Nearly every account I read referenced or linked to actor Michael Shannon's hilarious, raging but nuanced delivery of this email as a monologue, filmed in a shadowy, "Sopranos"-worthy setting.
And everyone's right: It's very funny -- for a minute or two -- and then it's just demoralizing, because not even a brilliant actor can disguise the letter-writer's utter lack of discriminating thought. There's nothing like the overuse of any word, but especially expletives, to make them lose their power and meaning.
And to use torrents of them for this? How small is this chick's world that a lackluster frat party merits the most horrendous language she can summon? What verbal weaponry will she have left when something truly terrible happens?
Obviously the email went viral after being posted on Gawker.com: Lots of people took delight in publicizing a (presumably) snooty sorority girl's meanness and assisting in her deserved humiliation. But is national humiliation appropriate for a very local crime? (She resigned from the sorority Thursday.)
The university hopes it will be "a teachable moment." Really? Exactly what, dear institution of "higher" learning, do you think you are obligated to teach her?
It used to be that acquiring a university education meant something. It meant a person aspired to learn about and experience the best that civilization had to offer. It meant she wanted to recognize and appreciate higher culture, to learn to think critically, to acquire discernment and refinement.
For the middle class, it meant her family had sacrificed financially so its young could better themselves. But even as the portion of annual family income devoted to college tuition has skyrocketed, the humanistic value of the diploma has plummeted.
It is now apparently just an insanely expensive reassurance to prospective employers that the job applicant can read, write and perform basic math. (I suppose we can be grateful this young woman can conjugate verbs so skillfully. )
If this is a teachable moment, the only "lesson" I've seen anyone propose is that nothing's private and everything lives forever on the Internet. Yawn.
You mean, this girl should have kept her astonishing ugliness of spirit better hidden? That's it? No moralizing to be offered about the ugliness itself?
Well, I'll go there. The girl's family, university and culture have failed to instill any fineness of character in her, and no one with a public pulpit wants to "judge" the content of what she spewed, just her foolishness -- she'll harm her career! -- for spewing. How bankrupt are we?
What the whole deplorable affair sums up is the death of the middle class -- the end of the middle-class majority's desire for self-improvement, for purposeful lives, for -- pardon me -- what is uplifting and noble and good.
We wring our hands over studies showing that poor children grow up with caretakers whose vocabularies are much smaller than those of wealthier, smarter families, while -- judging from the juggernaut of hit movies and cable TV shows that this email sounds exactly like -- our middle class increasingly talks like those deprived lower-class people that we spend so much money pretending not to be.
We lament the unceasing erosion of the middle class's net worth but not the unceasing erosion of what's worthwhile in the culture we consume. In our recession-wracked nation, there's a more important poverty to mourn, and that's the poverty of our imagination. The moral imagination, the cultural imagination, you name it -- it's broke.
A majority of us do not aspire to anything better than life as a Quentin Tarantino script. Ignoble language, ignoble thinking and ignoble lives are inextricably linked. Or -- garbage in, garbage out.
Ruth Ann Dailey: email@example.com