Thursday, May 26, 2005

Wit & Invective

I finished reading The Fine Art of Political Wit, and does it have some choice stuff in it.

Here's Aneurin Bevan, a real prole, laying into the British rightwing:

"Political toleration is a by-product of the complacency of the ruling class. When that complacency is disturbed there was never a more bloody-minded set of thugs than the British ruling class.

[They have] the deepest nostalgia for a dying order, and from nostalgia nothing comes but inertia and self-pity.

The Tories always hold the view that the State is an apparatus for the protection of the swag of the property owners... Christ drove the moneychangers out of the temple, but you inscribe their title deeds on the altar cloth.

Regarding the allegedly Tory-Lite Anthony Eden, Bevan gave an appraisal that would well apply to our allegedly compassionate conservatives and even to our allegedly leftist neoliberals:

He is more pathetic than sinister. He is utterly outmatched by his international opponents. Beneath the sophistication of his appearance and manner [well, that may not apply -- R.] he has all the unplumbable stupidities and unawareness [now that's more like it! --R.] of his class and type.

Attractive in the narrow, conventional sense. Always a possibility as a stopgap... League of Nations society at Geneva introduced him to a whole range of ideas strange to a Tory. There he acquired a progressive vocabulary, and this, allied to the amiability that flows from weakness of character, deceives many people into thinking that his political intentions are honourable. Actually there is nothing in his conduct to justify such a conclusion. His resignation from the Government of Mr. Chamberlain over our Italian diplomacy provided him with a balance at the political bank on which he has drawn generously ever since. His behavior during the civil war in Spain proves conclusively that whenever he has to choose between his Tory instincts and his progressive inclinations his instincts can be relied upon to win every time.

And with regard to a certain vainglorious Prime Minister's penchant for military costume, Bevan said, "I wish he would recognise that he is the civilian head of a civilian Government and not go parading around in ridiculous uniforms." Quite so. It would have been better if the heir of Marlborough had emulated in this regard FDR rather than his other ally, Stalin. Anyway, you can imagine the certain fucktard I thought of as I read that one: Dear Leader. And at least Churchill had served in the Boer War, was honest when he said he would have ran away from it if no one had been looking, and, as leader of his country, though he might have had improperly Peron-ish tastes in clothing, by God at least he was fighting a real war.

The wit and snark of other personalities are covered: Ben Franklin, Disraeli, JFK, Lincoln, Lloyd George, others. Not one was a conservative save Disraeli, possibly the wittiest of the lot, though he personally wasn't of any ideology unless opportunism counts as one. But one chapter is devoted to a classic reactionary. As opposed to strict conservatives, by nature a bovine lot, certain reactionaries can be engaging, pleasantly outrageous, brilliant. It's rare but it happens. One such reactionary was John Randolph of Roanoke, cousin of Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall (all hated each other's guts: such was family values for the Founders). A sample:

[Edward Livingston] is a man of splendid abilities but utterly corrupt. Like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, he both shines and stinks.

on the floor of the House: "Mr. Speaker, I have discovered the Philosopher's Stone! It is this, Sir: pay as you go! Pay as you go!"

on Richard Rush being selected as Sec of the Treasury: "Never were abilities so much below mediocrity so well rewarded; no, not when Caligula's horse was made Consul."

on Thomas Jefferson: "I cannot live in this miserable, undone country, where, as the Turks follow their sacred standard, which is a pair of Mahomet's green breeches, we are governed by the old red breeches* of the prince of projectors, St. Thomas of Cantingbury; and surely, Becket himself never had more pilgrims at his shrine than the Saint of Monticello."

In a toast to a delegation of Pennsylvanians: "I want to offer a toast to the two greatest Pennsylvanians who ever lived; Albert Gallatin, a native of Switzerland, and Benjamin Franklin, a native of Massachusetts."

To a gladhander who said, "I have had the pleasure of passing your house recently", Randolph immediately floored him by saying, "I am glad of it. I hope you will always do it, sir."

*This requires some explanation. TJ, though the Ur-democrat, loved luxury items and was something of a fop. He kept the best table in Virginia or Washington; he dressed in Turkish style clothing (bright baggy pants, curved slippers) when at home. Given a choice between Randolph and his cousin TJ, one would of course pick TJ every time (though I'd probably not pick him from, say, 1803 to 1809), but that does not mean Jefferson didn't frequently deserve harsh criticism.