Friday, February 3, 2012

The Art of the Witty Put-Down

The U.S. political season thus far has not produced any memorably witty insults, nor is it likely to, the kind that Terry Eagleton calls "tumbrilisms."

A tumbril, as you may know, was a farmer's cart used to haul manure; it was also, more famously, used to carry prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution. Either denotation will suffice for what Eagleton calls the "cavalier, let-them-eat-cake put-downs honed by the British aristocracy." Think of Maggie Smith in "Downtown Abbey," the current PBS sensation, or the ripostes used in most of her other roles (as in Gosford Park).

Eagleton's essay is a tribute of sorts to the late Christopher Hitchens, who called Prince Charles a "morose, bat-eared and chinless man, prematurely aged, and with the most abysmal taste in consorts." It takes a certain amount of polish (wide reading and an Oxbridge education) along with Hitch's upper-class British roots (not to mention a gifted mind steeped in equal amounts of vitriol and alcohol) to utter such literary insults.

I could never forgive Hitchens for his blind hatred of religion and his sloppy (and highly profitable) attacks on God, or rather his limited idea of God. But that is a topic for another time.

The fine art of the tumbrilism is seen in many of Winston Churchill's witticisms. Referring to Clement Atlee as a modest man, he added: "he has much to be modest about." Churchill could sometimes rise to the level of Oscar Wilde, as when he said, about another political opponent, "he has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."

I can't imagine any of the pols this side of the Atlantic rising to this level, or even to that of Adlai Stevenson, who ran unsuccessfully against Eisenhower for the presidency in the 1950s. Said he: "Accuracy is to a newspaper what virtue is to a lady, but a newspaper can always print a retraction."

Kennedy had a self-deprecating wit, put to best use in his press conferences, and Reagan made quips, some spontaneous, most of them scripted. Since then, it has been pretty tame and cautious on the national political front. Maybe U. S. presidential candidates avoid political jokes because they know how many of them have been elected--on the other side, of course.

The Brits retain a flair for public put-downs. It has a lot to do with the class system, I think, and their appreciation of cleverness. Most of those who run for office over here are unable to be clever: they are either dim-witted and carefully scripted or afraid to be thought brighter than the average voter. And we know how ill-informed or ideologically retarded most American voters tend to be.

The dismal state of the American electorate brings me back to Adlai Stevenson. When a supporter congratulated him on one of his speeches in the 1950s, she said, "Governor, every thinking voter in America will be voting for you." He replied, "Madam, that won't be enough. I need a majority."

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