How To Insult Your Political Opponents – By Margaret Talbot
Let’s say that you are a public figure, and in that capacity, you sometimes want to express your moral disapproval for behavior that is not illegal, perhaps, but is, in your estimation, gross. The art of the political put-down involves some simple rules. You need a stinging rebuke, and you need it to sting in the right places. You don’t want terms that are cruel, or that demean people who can’t help who they are or have no control over what happened to them, or are otherwise vulnerable and in need of protection. And—here’s one that gets forgotten, surprisingly often—you want the insult to make sense.
By these standards, “knuckleheads”—the term President Obama used to describe the secret service agents who partied with prostitutes in Cartagena—is right on target. Knuckleheads seems a very good word for people doing something ill-advised that has almost certainly been done by other people in their positions who were lucky or clever enough not to get caught. It was an apposite dis for Obama to deploy in a case in which the real aggrieved parties were the men’s wives at home and, perhaps, some of the prostitutes, who were apparently underpaid—rather than the President himself.
Knucklehead is a term that seems to date back to the eighteen-nineties, but became popular in the nineteen-forties, when a cartoon character named R. F. Knucklehead became a stock figure in Air Force training posters warning against dumb behavior that could cause accidents. In its slightly old-fashioned, slightly fatherly tone, knucklehead, even more than the closely related “bonehead,” suggests a familiarity with the person being so labelled. Though not quite as soft and grudgingly affectionate as say, “goofball,” it sounds funny in a Three Stooges kind of way, so it seems a little kinder than say, “idiot” or “moron.” A “knucklehead” might yet knuckle down and improve himself.
“Crucify,” the word an E.P.A. administrator in Texas used in a meeting with staff to describe what the agency did to companies that did not comply with clean-air and water standards, was another matter. “It is kind of like how the Romans used to conquer villages in the Mediterranean—they’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere and they’d find the first five guys they saw and they’d crucify them,” the official, Al Armendariz, said in a speech he gave in 2010.
“Then that little town was really easy to manage for the next few years.” This was a metaphor for the deterrent effect the E.P.A. was going for, he went on explain in the clip, which was publicized by the conservative E.P.A. hater Representative James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma. Sure, it might offend some people, but the worse sin was that it didn’t make sense. “Crucify” is not a serviceable synonym for “make an example of,” which is what Armendariz, who subsequently apologized and resigned, apparently meant by it.
Some Republicans returned fire with their own brand of gobbledygook. John Boehner, for instance, tweeted, “Obama admin admits ‘crucify’ strategy for job creators,” a nonsensical twofer in that it asserted the existence of a sanctioned, Administration-wide “crucify” policy while invoking the handy-dandy “job creators,” a phrase designed to deflect criticism on contact. Still, “crucify” was a problem.
The political insults we remember best from recent years—“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” “Governor Moonbeam,” “the wimp factor”—worked because they were sharp, vivid, and appropriate. They didn’t necessarily have to be new coinages or all that au courant; they just had to hit their mark, without a lot of collateral damage.
And then there’s slut, a word that is currently undergoing a reclamation project. In February, you’ll remember, Rush Limbaugh trotted it out to smear Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who testified in Congress about the importance of health-insurance coverage for contraception. Now, a group calling itself Sluts Across America has launched an online birth-control-advocacy drive which calls upon women to complete the phrase, “I am a slut because…,” with their reasons for supporting birth control.
Sluts Across America, like the marchers in the recent Slutwalk demonstrations, embrace the word and its spirit, minus the scabrous implications. But why? Rush Limbaugh was in the wrong not only, or even mainly, because he said a nasty word, but because he said it in a context and for a reason that was unfair and misplaced. The behavior Limbaugh was excoriating was Fluke’s speaking in public about policy and health matters. His comment was hysterical and off-target—an unwitting exposure of an ugly substrate of prejudice.
As L. V. Anderson writes at Slate this week, you can understand “the political trick” being attempted here, but still ask, is “embracing Limbaugh’s nonsensical categorization really doing feminists any favors?” Slut is an old word that used to mean “drudge” and came to mean (and demean) a promiscuous woman (the defining of “promiscuous” being itself a form of power).
Now slut and slutty are words that women have come to use jokingly amongst themselves—in dressing rooms, say, when they’re trying on certain clothes. But, like fag and nigger, they don’t mean the same thing when they go public—or viral. It wouldn’t be any great triumph to see slut become the common form of address that bitch has, shouted across subway cars and store aisles by people oblivious to the idea that not everybody thinks it’s nothing.
Maybe it shouldn’t be necessary to say so, but context matters when it comes to “bad” words. Curiously, this is something we often seem to disregard. It’s astonishing, for instance, that the movie system is so hooked still on counting swear words. The peculiar result is that movies that many parents would be more than happy to have their tween and teen children see are off-limits without an accompanying adult, and many they would strongly prefer they not see are rated PG-13 or even PG.
“Once,” a gentle movie about creative collaboration, in which the romantically-inclined couple does not even kiss, but Glen Hansard does say “fook,” in an Irish accent thick enough that you’re not entirely sure what he’s saying, was rated R. So was “The King’s Speech,” an uplifting story about a man conquering a speech impediment, in which Colin Firth utters “fuck” several times in a lightly comic scene involving a vocal exercise.
So was “Beats, Rhymes and Life,” a thoughtful documentary about the peaceable and talented hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, and most recently and notoriously, “Bully,” another documentary that got an R rating because kids are not supposed to hear in a movie what many of them evidently hear quite often from each other.
It’s a knuckleheaded approach.
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