The Decline of Insult

Paul Greenberg

5/7/2008 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

Dear Polemicist,

Thank you for your comprehensive e-mail attacking Barack Obama's politics, religion and ancestry. What, not his choice in neckties?

It wasn't the scope of your dissatisfaction with the junior senator from Illinois that disappointed - it was certainly wide enough - but the insipid language in which you expressed it. It makes one wonder what ever happened to the art of insult in this country.

We still have the insults but not the art. Where has it gone - the wit, the brevity, the intellect, the finely honed viciousness, the perfect touch?

Every four years, we hear about how this presidential campaign is the most vitriolic ever, but a little historical perspective would reveal that contemporary political races are mild affairs indeed compared to, say, the showdown between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1800. If you believed both sides in that contest, the country had a choice that year between a royalist tyrant and a libertine atheist.

The passage of time, and the human propensity toward ancestor worship, now has crowned both Adams and Jefferson with halos in the popular imagination. But contrary to legend, the Founding Fathers were not a collection of plaster saints. Their driving ambition, their zeal for their country's honor and their own, their unbridled competition for the public's favor - it would all make the current Clinton-Obama match-up look like a ladies' tea. Without the sophistication.

What are we to make of your attempt at diatribe? It starts off with the less than original observation that the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree, and goes on to note that "in Obama's case, it is reported, and not denied, that his mother was an atheist and her two chosen husbands were Muslims." Which leads you to this rousing peroration, which turns out to be more of an anti-climax: "In my opinion, if this man is elected president, our country will enter a period of total eclipse in regard to good political and economic decisions."

Sir, we live in meager times for rhetoric when that kind of plodding prose can pass for vilification. You sound as if you're responding to an offer in a mail-order catalogue. "In regard to," indeed.

Just compare your long-winded aspersions on Sen. Obama's lineage to John Adams' concise summation of his fellow founding father, Alexander Hamilton, whom he dismissed as the "bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar."

Beautiful. In only six popping words, Mr. Adams had touched so many fruitful bases of prejudice, moral, ethnic and class. Bastard Brat of a Scotch Pedlar. Note the alliterative start and the rhythmic, almost explosive succession of consonants compressed into the smallest space. How trippingly it comes off the tongue. Who knew that our second president, that dour old puritan, was a poet?

As for Col. Hamilton, he gave as good as he got - usually better. (Imagine the peak of mutual virulence these two good Federalists could have achieved if they had belonged to different parties.)

But perhaps intraparty rivalries are the bitterest, like family fights. See Obama-Clinton, a spitting match that may be only warming up, although Mrs. Clinton's apoplectic spouse already seems to have gone over the top, repeatedly.

See hubby's rant not long ago on YouTube; it brought to mind a small boy dutifully working himself into a royal tantrum. What a show. (Believe me, if you've never had the privilege of being yelled at by Bill Clinton, you've never been truly amused.)

But it's always the spouse who takes these things more seriously than the candidate, isn't it? Abigail was definitely the tougher of the Adamses in a political fight. A practitioner of the snub supreme, she never did forgive the cagey Mr. Jefferson for his behind-the-scenes campaign against her husband, not even when he tried to deny it and cozy up to his rival in their old age.

Age could not wither nor custom stale Mrs. Adams' contempt for her husband's nemesis. As the Irish would say, she had a tongue you could cut a hedge with. The sainted Abigail would have made Hillary Clinton, who passes for an alley fighter in these tough-as-tapioca times, look like a sweet little thing.

Sir, you must try harder. You might not be able to do as well as John Adams, but surely you can do better than, "In my opinion, if this man is elected President our country will enter a period of total eclipse in regard to good political and economic decisions."

After "total eclipse," which has a nice astronomical drama to it, it's all downhill. Maybe it's the "in regard to" that gives this attempt at dire prophecy the flavor of a standard American business letter circa 1924.

Pull up your socks, man, and start crying Impending Disaster. Picture grass growing in the streets, planets in collision, "a conspiracy so immense, an infamy so black, as to dwarf any in the history of man." That was Joe McCarthy going after a real patriot, George C. Marshall, back in 1952.

To warm up, read some of Robert Welch's old John Birch Society tracts. American political literature is full of examples to draw inspiration from.

With a little practice, surely you can do better than a form-letter phrase like "in regard to good political and economic decisions." Anybody could.

Better luck next time,

Inky Wretch