»  National Review Online

July 18, 2000

  Madam, You Are a Parallelogram

It is alleged, with evidence from (at the moment of writing) three witnesses, that following the failure of Bill Clinton's congressional campaign in 1974, Clinton's lady swore at his campaign manager, calling him "an expletive Jew bastard."

This allegation has thrown the pundits, spinners, political entrail-gazers and guardians of public virtue into a frenzy. Will Mrs. Clinton's already weak grip on the loyalties of New York Jews slip even further? Will there be a backlash of sympathy for her as the victim of "negative campaigning"? Could any human being possibly have uttered any words so vilely, so unspeakably horrible? Will anybody actually believe her and her husband's indignant denials? (I note that the President, issuing his, refrained from wagging his finger.) The Anti-Defamation League has put to sea under full canvas. Meanwhile, from the great American public, one hears the exasperated, nationwide sigh: "Oh, for crying out loud — who cares?"

OK, truth or consequences; let's all 'fess up. Have I ever called anyone an expletive Jew bastard or equivalent behind his back? Yes, I have. To his face? Er, I think I may have. How about the "n" word? Behind a back? Yes, certainly. To face? No, don't think so. Recently, in either case? Yes, quite recently. With much malice aforethought? No, in the heat of a moment, without any lasting malice at all — followed by shame and regret, in fact. Am I an antisemite? Certainly not. Do I hanker for the re-establishment of race slavery? Don't be silly. Am I a lone, twisted freak? Don't think so. As Dennis Prager pointed out in a spirited Wall Street Journal piece (7/18/00), Richard Nixon, the best U.S. President Jews ever had, was given to occasional antisemitic remarks in private. So was Harry Truman, on whose watch the modern state of Israel was born. Abraham Lincoln — the best President blacks ever had — enjoyed hearing and telling race jokes.

What is it they want from us, these schoolmarms wide-eyed in horror at Mrs. Clinton's alleged deployment of the "f," "j" and "b" words? That we cease losing our tempers? Stop hurling insults? That a mode of speech universal to the human race, across all times and cultures, be prohibited? Or that, if we must let fly at someone who has vexed or disappointed us, we do so using only a limited vocabulary pre-approved by PC Central? What they want, actually, is to turn us into Houyhnhms: bloodless, odorless creatures guided by cold rationality at all times, living a life which — as Orwell pointed out in his essay on Swift — resembles death as closely as possible. Are our sensibilities now so exquisitely refined that we cannot be expected to suffer hearing about our ancestry, physiognomy, religion or color when we have bent someone's fender? The point of insults is to pierce and offend. An insult that gives no offense is … what? It's like non-alcoholic beer. I hereby give notice that anyone who finds occasion to get into a yelling match with me is at entire liberty to allude to my being English, a conservative, an Episcopalian, white, male, cheap, ugly and badly dressed. Go ahead, have a blast.

I do not think it is reading too much into this absurd incident to say that American society has a serious problem with the whole business of taking and giving offense. With due allowance made for momentary explosions of rage or frustration, I believe that there is an obligation upon civilized people not to go around wantonly giving offense to others. I also believe, however, that there are reciprocal obligations (a) to take no lasting umbrage at those occasional explosions, and (b) to exercise some sensible judgment about what a speaker's intentions are — in particular, not to go seeking out offense when none is intended.

David Shipler, in A Country of Strangers, tells of black journalist Roger Wilkins's offense at being greeted by Senator John Danforth, on their first meeting, with: "Hello, Roger." Wilkins heard this too-intimate use of his first name as white condescension. Shipler — a card-carrying New York Times liberal — tried to soothe him, pointing out that Washington is a town full of bogus familiarity, and that Danforth would have treated a white man just the same. No, said Wilkins, not a chance. A white man would have been greeted with respect. A year later, Shipler happened to meet Senator Danforth — also for the first time — at a luncheon. "Hello, David," said the Senator. Shipler took this back to Wilkins. See, there was nothing in it. He first-names everybody. Wilkins would not be mollified. With a black person, Danforth should have known better, he insisted.

When someone is so desperately determined to take offense, what can one do? And rather a lot of Americans are in this frame of mind. I say again: while there is an obligation on us not to offend wantonly, there is also an obligation not to take offense wantonly. This obligation is being widely shirked. It has to be added, of course, that it has been precisely virtuecrats like the Clintons that have been most to the fore in cultivating these odious speech codes and wildly exaggerated notions of offense and grievance, and there is much satisfaction in seeing one of these prigs hoist by her own petard. Still, we are all losers when speech is curtailed or deracinated. Distasteful as it must be for any person of discrimination to find himself supporting Mrs. Clinton, in this matter she must be supported.

One of the many advantages of life in these United States is that we have obvious markers of race, tribe and religion to draw on when we vent at each other. Those who are determined to eschew such allusions should seek inspiration from the imprecatory customs of monoracial, monocultural nations. "Turtle's egg" is very effective in Chinese, while among desert Arabs there is supposed to be an insult that translates as: "Thou cross-eyed son of a three-legged hunchback with no thumbs." I am not sure, however, that even these ethnically-neutral barbs will pass muster with the virtuecrats. P.E.T.A. might have something to say about the first, while the second would surely fall foul of the disablist lobbies. If we really seek the blandest, least offensive ways to give offense, perhaps our model should be William Hazlitt, who scandalized a London fishwife by telling her in a loud, firm voice: "Madam, you are a parallelogram." I offer this to Mrs Clinton for use next time she flies off the handle. Let them try to make political capital out of that.