Thursday, October 17, 2013

Nobody Ever Called John Boehner a Bull's Pizzle
(And Maybe That is the Problem)

Thanks to Brad DeLong for shipping me out to the so-called "Tea Party insult Generator."  I say "so called" because apparently it does not "generate" the insults; it just records some of the dead cats and rotten bananas that have been hurled at John Boehner, the poor hapless Speaker of the House of Representatives.

As you might expect, it can be compulsive reading, the website. Also depressing, for a reason you might or might not expect.  That is: for good or ill I can't get too worked up about the level of spleen and vituperation here: Mr. Dooley told us a hundred years or so ago that politics ain't beanbag.  But  my stars the quality, or more precisely the utter absence thereof.  I've combed through pages of this stuff and I have yet to find anything that rises much above the level of schoolyard pottymouth.

You can't do better?  Maybe not, but Shakespeare did.  His reputation depends, in no small part, on his capacity to generate lurid, baroque, unexpected--and often, very very funny, fusillades of abuse.  So Sir John Falstaff when he let loose with "you starveling, you elfskin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish!" ("fustilarian" is a later offering).  

All this is old news to theatre goers: you can get books of Shakespearean insults; also coffee mug and refrigerator magnets. The point being that they are great theatre, the kind of stuff you want to cosset and cherish.

More important, it doesn't stop with Shakespeare. Anybody who knows the least particle about black culture recognizes that, e.g., athletes and rappers and suchlike have reduced it all to a high art. "Yo mama so fat when she back up she go ding ding." "Yo mama so old  her birth certificate says 'expired.'"  "Yo mama so ugly the Rice Krispies won't talk to her."  Now, that is imaginative. It's edgy, sure, but virtually all good comedy is edgy.  It's also funny.

Which introduces an important subtlety: yo mama jokes and suchlike are insults of a sort, but they are insults so structured that they become a kind of comedy, serving as much to reduce and dissipate tension more than to enhance it.

I can add another context. One of my law "profs" was in real life a labor arbitrator who hung onto his professorship mainly so he could have a title for his resume. When he wasn't prepared for class, which was usually, he could always fall back on war stories from his arbitration practice (this goes back to the days when there really were labor unions, and where business agents had 17-inch necks, and when arbitration came near to being a blood sport. Anyway--) Anyway my "prof"  liked to tell how in many cases, at the start of the arbitration session with the parties around the polished tabletop in the oak-lined library, he would just let them yell at each other for a while. Tended to let off steam, he said; to lower the temperature and get people ready to focus on the work at hand.

You can see where all this is going: at the beginning of each Congressional business day, 15 minutes of compulsory verbal abuse.  Maybe in lieu of the chaplain's prayer.  Maybe a weekend slanging camp.  I doubt they'll ever be as clever as Shakespeare or the guy who invented yo mama, but with time and coaching (they can afford to staff up), they might be able to get into the swing. Who knows? A brief interlude of public slanging might just make its own contribution. And if nothing else, I admit that once, just once, I would love to hear Patty Murray call Louie Gohmert a dickhead.


Nancy Rapoport said...

I can't remember which Barth novel involved two solid pages of inventive curses (Giles Goat Boy? Sot-Weed Factor?), but they were marvelous.

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

And of course there is Yiddish, a language in which it is difficult to express a thought without a putdown. According to our host's logic, maybe it should be a requirement for being seated in Congress. It might create a slight partisan tilt, you say? Well, that's okay these days.

For a flavor of no real authenticity but variable quality:
The long form is Michael Wex's "Born to Kvetch."