Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Art of the Political Insult

Bessie Braddock, MP: Winston, you’re drunk.
Winston Churchill:Bessie, you’re ugly. And tomorrow morning, I’ll be sober.

The recent flap over Sandra Fluke (The “Fluke Flap?”) has got me thinking about the role of insult in political discourse. Some of my left-of-center friends argue we should eliminate it entirely. But we have a rich heritage of political insults; without it we would be poorer indeed. More about that later.

I do think that some standards of civility should be maintained, and when it comes to insult humor, I try to follow two rules.

1. Tell jokes that are actually funny. Insults (or for that matter, cuss words) by themselves are not generally funny. They need to share with other forms of humor the things that make them humorous – a play on words, a surprise, repetition, etc.

2. Never make fun of real-life victims of recent and genuine tragedies.

For example, numerous liberal commentators joked about how glad they were that Andrew Breitbart dropped dead at the age of 43. They fail on both counts. Rush Limbaugh, in his Sandra Fluke remarks, passed the second rule; Ms. Fluke is a victim in her own mind only. I’ll leave it up to you whether Mr. Limbaugh passed the first rule.

Anyway, I promised to say more about our rich heritage. Here are some of my favorite political insults over the years. Mostly I’m quoting from memory – might not be the person’s exact words.

According to the official genealogy, King James I of England was the son of Mary Queen of Scots and her consort, Lord Darnley. But many believed his real father was the queen’s musician, David Rizzio. Later in life, James gained a reputation for wisdom and was often compared to King Solomon. “Why not?” said Henri IV of France. “He was the son of David who played the harp.”

Nell Gwynn, actress and mistress of James’s grandson, King Charles II, was riding in her carriage one day. It must have been an ornate vehicle, because a crowd mistook her for the queen and started booing (the queen was unpopular because she was a Catholic). Nell leaned out the window to reassure the populace. “I’m the Protestant whore,” she said.

When Theodore Roosevelt was running for President as a Republican, a heckler interrupted one of his speeches to yell, “I’m a Democrat!”
“Why is that, sir?” Teddy asked.
“Because my daddy was a Democrat and his daddy was a Democrat.”
“And if your daddy was a jackass, and his daddy was a jackass, what you be?”
“A Republican!”

One day Clement Attlee, the leader of the British socialists, was peeing in the House of Commons men’s room. Winston Churchill came in and stood at the far end of the urinal trough, as far from Attlee as he could get. “Feeling standoffish today, Winston?” Attlee asked.
“No,” Churchill replied, “But whenever you see something big you want to nationalize it.”

What’s the difference between Rush Limbaugh and the Hindenburg? One’s an inflated, Nazi gasbag and the other’s a dirigible.


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