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Elevating the put-down

May 5, 2016

I am a habitual Facebooker. I don’t use it to let people know that I am currently at CVS or Publix and only infrequently use it to pass along items of general interest. My primary purpose for spending so much time on Facebook is to spread my political views and to educate the world at large about matters in which the world at large is sadly ignorant, i.e., the truth about Israel’s history as opposed to the falsehoods invented by Israel’s enemies, or the facts about Sharia Islam as opposed to the fiction created by those who would have us believe that “Islam is a religion of peace.”


As you can imagine, therefore, I am the recipient of large quantities of insults. As a result, I have come to notice the incredible lack of imagination and creativity in the imprecations that are aimed at me. The vast majority of the taunts that I receive are at the creative level of “you’re an idiot” or, if the giver is being particularly expressive, “you’re a ****** idiot.” Most of the invective is at the intellectual level of a high school sophomore. At first, I was crushed by the thought that my readers thought so little of me that they made no effort to be clever or creative in crafting the calumny they hurl at me. However, I have come to the conclusion that the majority of my critics simply lack the requisite imagination and intelligence to insult properly. Bless their hearts!


The insult, when well and truly administered, has the potential of rising to high art. When properly composed, the remark should have the capacity of stunning the recipient into amazed silence. To my mind, the greatest practitioner of the art in modern times was Sir Winston Churchill. Some of the insults that he created were pearls of unparalleled beauty. One of the most famous of these was this exchange between him and Lady Nancy Astor:


Lady Astor:  “Winston, if I were your wife, I’d poison your tea.”

Churchill:  “Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.”


That is too brilliant for words and breathtaking in its exquisite dissection of the recipient. Another example of Sir Winston’s mastery of the art of derision is the following:


Mrs. Braddock:  “You are drunk, Sir Winston. You are disgustingly drunk.”

Churchill:  “Yes, Mrs. Braddock, I am drunk. And you, Mrs. Braddock are ugly. But tomorrow morning, I will be sober.”


What a perfect example of how a truly beautiful insult should be crafted:  subtle, understated and devastatingly vicious.


My Grandma Rosie (of blessed and eye-rolling memory) had her own brilliant technique for taking apart the object of her vituperation. For some reason, insult can have huge effect when cast in a foreign language. Not every language (somehow, the idea of being insulted in Finnish doesn’t really evoke significant feelings of anxiety); it requires a language with huge components of emotion (Italian or French come to mind). My grandmother’s chosen language of vilification was Yiddish. She was the queen of the one word Yiddish put-down. Her chosen word was “putz” (vulgar slang for a part of the masculine anatomy, not to be used lightly; more offensive than “shmuck”). Grandma Rosie had an added flip that made the word rise to the level of exquisite contempt. She would pronounce it:  “puuuuuhhhhhtzzzzzzzzzzzz!!!”Anyone who was on the receiving end of that would have preferred a firing squad. It was creative and devastating. It was “art.”


Of course, the choicest aspersions in history have been and continue to be motivated by political differences. One would think that the current political contests would give rise to some pretty choice mockery. But the results so far have been distressingly meager, with only one candidate really dispersing random vituperative attacks:  Donald Trump. A recent analysis of his campaign rhetoric revealed that he uses the vocabulary of a fourth grader. His childlike slurs —“Lyin’ Ted,” “Li’l Marco,” “Crooked Hillary”— similarly reflect a fourth-grade-level of wit and inventiveness. Surprisingly, these juvenile slurs have proven effective, despite their lack of imagination and finesse.

            In contrast, there is a description of Trump coined years ago by the New York real estate community that remains a perfect characterization to this day:  “Donald sells sizzle, not steak.” It contains all the elements — brevity, wit and truth. In five choice words, it skewers Trump with perfect precision. Unlike the political campaigns of yesteryear, this year’s political season has devolved into a series of half-baked pejorative cracks and simple-minded slurs that would be better suited to the schoolyard than the venues of high minded political discourse.

            In my opinion, the best put-down of a political candidate in recent years was made by Pat Buchanan:  “Bill Clinton’s foreign policy experience is pretty much confined to having had breakfast at the International House of Pancakes.” Since the most devastating tactic against politicians is humor, this one slams right into the heart.


Sometimes the insult has no subtlety, but in the right hands, it can be devastating. John Quincy Adams called Thomas Jefferson “a slur upon the moral government of the world.” Right there is a far better expression of the contempt in which I hold Obama than any that I could invent! Similarly, in discussing the fecklessness of the current administration, wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear Secretary of State John Kerry described the way Teddy Roosevelt described William McKinley:  “He has no more backbone than a chocolate eclair,” or as former Australian Prime Minister Keating slammed a political opponent:  “He’s like a shiver waiting for a spine?”


Properly administered, the truly adroit insult can reduce its target to a puddle. Benjamin Disraeli made the observation:  “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune. If anybody pulled him out, that would be a calamity.”And in a study of exquisite subtlety, Winston Churchill described Lord Roseberry as “a great man in an era of small events.” It takes a certain precocity to recognize this as an insult at all!


Like Disraeli and Churchill, the 18th-century libertine John Wilkes was infamous for the brilliance of his japes. Witness the following exchange between Wilkes and Lord John Montagu that contains all the necessary elements:


Montagu (after a heated exchange with John Wilkes):  “Sir, I do not know if you will die on the gallows or of the pox!”

Wilkes:  “That, sir, depends on whether I first embrace your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistresses.”


SNAP! Can you imagine Montagu’s reaction — speechlessness, followed by spluttering. It has all the elements, but Wilkes’ capacity for creative mockery raises him into the stratosphere. Nothing can redeem the character of the vile John Wilkes, but he certainly had wit and brilliance.


The insult should not only frame the target of the insult, it should have the ability to display the character and intelligence of the artist who creates the insult; Donald Trump’s lack thereof is in evidence with every puny pejorative he aims at his opponents. Whining is not a very potent frame for brilliant vituperation. It is a velvet Elvis painting instead of a Vermeer.


We all can’t reach John Wilkes’ or Churchill’s level of brilliance in the casting of scorn. But it seems to me that, if we are forced to submit to a season of vituperation and insult, the least that those who aspire to lead us can do is show a bit of imagination and panache in the effort.


Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it.



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