Already on the evening of July 15 I regretted having written in that morning's Portable Bohemia newsletter that Donald Trump's tweets about four congresswomen were un-American and anti-American. Regret was brought on not by negative feedback or second thoughts about the accuracy of the charges but upon reflection as to the wisdom and efficacy of this sort of language. The better course might be to focus on the content, laying bare the lies and shining a light on misconduct and objectionable acts, rather than invite endless wrangling about whether the president's words and deeds are un-American, anti-American, racist, sexist, and so on, where opposing sides get locked into a tedious, fruitless loop: is too / is not / is too / fake news, is not, &c., ad nauseam.
The president says things about Ilhan Omar, for instance, and more recently Elijah Cummings and his congressional district that are demonstrably untrue. The disgraceful smear campaign against Omar extends well beyond the Oval Office. I have addressed it at some length elsewhere (A Lonely Word on Behalf of Ilhan Omar, Shoulders to the Wheel, Make Good Trouble), so will not go into it again here. Now come the vicious attacks on Cummings, a man who when Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib accused Republican Mark Meadows of a racist act immediately came to his colleague's defense:
When Tlaib and Meadows had their showdown in February, on live television, Cummings stepped in and insisted that Meadows was “one of my best friends.” Because of Cummings, Meadows and Tlaib literally hugged it out the next day. When Cummings was asked by Paul Kane of the Washington Post about the two hugging again he said “interaction, man. Human interaction, that’s all.” (Stoddard)
When Baltimore erupted in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray, Cummings was in the streets with his constituents calling for calm, urging them to demonstrate peacefully and observe the curfew.
When Cummings questioned acting head of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan about conditions on the southern border, he spoke in the voice of honest indignation that ought to be the voice of each of us when we witness what the Trump government is doing is our name.
Four related columns published this week, three in the conservative Bulwark, one in the left-leaning Guardian, may be of interest:
Andrew Egger, Does It Matter If Trump Is a ‘Real’ Racist?, The Bulwark, July 30, 2019
Jonathan V. Last, Why Does No One Care That Trump Is Lying About Elijah Cummings’ District?, The Bulwark, July 30, 2019
Francine Prose, Trump's language is cruel, hateful and infectious. But we can rise above it, The Guardian, July 30, 2019
A.B. Stoddard, Republicans Can Defend Elijah Cummings Any Time Now, The Bulwark, July 29, 2019
On the other hand, or OTOH, as I might write if I were younger and more hip, the use of colorful language, hyperbole, insult, and invective in political polemics enjoys a venerable tradition. It so happens that my John Milton study project has turned up a wealth of examples, such as the pamphlet warfare of 1641 where the two sides contended over the rights of parliament, the king's perceived absolutist tendencies, and church reform demanded by Puritans, Presbyterians, &c., to restrict the power of the bishops or abolish them altogether, "with some tracts denouncing the bishops and demanding reforms and others decrying the threat of civil and religious anarchy and the proliferation of sects" (Barbara K. Lewalski, The Life of John Milton, p. 134; Blackwell Publishers, 2000).
The son of Bishop Joseph Hall sought to confute a "scandalous and scurrilous libell" against his father with a 40-page response to the anonymous author (Milton) that among other things "offers to infer the unkown writer's immoral character and lifestyle from 'some scattered passages in his own writings.... It is like he spent his youth, in loytering, bezelling, and harlotting [after which] grown to an Impostume in the brest of the University, he was at length vomitted out thence into a Suburbe sinke about London.... He that would finde him after dinner, must search the Play-Houses, or the Bordelli, for there I have traced him.... [Now he] blasphemes God and the King as ordinarily as erewhile he drank and swore.'"
To this Milton replied with a tract of 55 pages entitled An Apology against a Pamplet Call'd A Modest Confutation of the Animadversions upon the Remonstrant against Smectymnuus [Smectymnuus being an acronym formed from the initials of the Presbyterian ministers who submitted the tract addressed to Parliament against which Bishop Hall remonstrated, An Answer to a booke entituled, An Humble Remonstrantrance. In Which, the Original of Literugy and Episcopacy is Discussed].
Milton "engages the Confutation section by section, with jibes, sarcasm, fierce banter, vituperation, and ad hominem argument, heaping scorn on Hall as prose stylist, satirist, and theologian, and on the supposed young speaker—'thou lozel Bachelor of Art.'" He rails with gusto against Hall's "coy flurting stile" and "frumps and curtall jibes." "This tormenter of semicolons is good at dismembring and slitting sentences, as his grave Fathers the Prelates have bin at stigmatizing and slitting noses." "A more seditious and Butcherly Speech no Cell of Loyola could have belch't." The Confuter "comes so lazily on in a Similie...and demeanes himselfe in the dull expression so like a dough kneaded thing, that he hath not spirit anough lefte him...as to avoide nonsense." The Anglican liturgy is "in conception leane and dry, of affections empty and unmoving, of passion, or any heigth whereto the soule might soar upon the wings of zeale, destitute and barren," while Anglican pulpits display "the lofty nakednesse of your Latinizing Barbarian, and the finicall goosery of your neat Sermon-actor." (all quotations from Lewalski, pp. 136, 137).
Please forgive the extended digression. I love this stuff.
Maybe my words of July 15 were not so ill-chosen or ill-advised after all. Maybe the greater offense lies in failure to heap on scalawags and scoundrels, men and women of middling intellect and malleable morals who exhibit nothing of integrity and honor, the scorn that is their due.
Against this can be weighed a more restrained style exemplified by Albert Camus, who is a model for engagement, integrity, and conscience. Tony Judt in his book Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944–1956 is another. Which is more effective and compelling is a matter of taste and judgment. Both can be read for edification and pleasure.