Thursday, April 18, 2019
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Tucker Carlson and the Art of the Insult

Tucker Carlson is making waves in the political news cycle once again, this time for a comment he made on his Fox News television show about MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes.

“Chris Hayes is what every man would be if feminists ever achieved absolute power in this country,” Carlson said Monday, “apologetic, bespectacled and deeply, deeply concerned about global warming and the patriarchal systems that cause it.”

Carlson also has treated his counterparts at CNN with no less contempt in recent weeks, often in his famed and fiery monologues. He has referred to Brian Stelter as a “palace eunuch” and CNN CEO Jeff Zucker’s “marionette,” Carlson purposely mispronounces Don Lemon’s name as “Don Lé-mon.”

One can’t help but conjecture that Carlson single-handedly could launch a renaissance in political branding. President Donald J. Trump’s nicknames, while often humorous, sometimes lack a trained wordsmith’s sharp bite. Trump’s most recent appellation — “Pencil Neck Adam Schiff”–might stick on his campaign merchandise, but there’s no guarantee that it possesses the half-life of the more memorable jibes from the 2016 campaign (the success of “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” and “Low-energy Jeb” appear irreproducible.)

Why shouldn’t we expect “eunuch” to become a household insult, displacing that much-overused term “cuck” (derived from the English, “cuckold”)? And what’s wrong with the resurgence of “marionette” at the expense of that trite label “puppet,” even if people must Google that word?

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And, contrary to the gripes of some pundits who bemoan the decay of “civility,” invective is a time-honored tradition in the political, artistic and philosophical realms.

The Founding Fathers — universally esteemed for their intellectual prowess and literary eloquence — were not above stooping low and rolling in the name-calling mud.

In the election of 1800, old comrades-in-arms-turned-political-enemies Thomas Jefferson and John Adams traded barbs unlike anything seen in modern times: Jefferson’s team fingered Adams as a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adam’s supporters called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

The famously eccentric American expatriate artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler picked so many a fight with his art-world critics that, instead of “going high” as Michelle Obama famously recommended, he went as low as possible. In 1890, the first edition of Whistler’s “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies” appeared,  showcasing the insulting letters and articles that had been published about Whistler — and his brutal responses.

Even the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche indulged in invective. On the Genealogy of Morality, his magnum opus, is subtitled, “A Polemic.” It is rife with ad hominem attacks against European Christianity. (“Judaeo-Christian,” a term he coined that is popular with American conservatives, was no compliment but an insult. For millennia, many Jews and Christians have held each other in mutual contempt.)

Nietzsche, for his part, wrote upon hearing of  Strauss’ death, “I hope very much that I did not sadden his last months, and that he died without knowing anything about me. It’s rather on my mind.” Clearly, Nietzsche’s polemical style wasn’t born of a personal animus, but merely technique.

While it indeed might be the case that Carlson and Trump’s attacks are fueled by a strong dislike of the people they ridicule, insults remain are a valid means to counter one’s political opponents, especially when they veer into satire. Carlson’s monologues are not just meant to humiliate — they’re meant to poke fun at and deflate self-important people whom Carlson believes are ultimately dishonest or alarmist. If, as George Orwell once said, “Every joke is a tiny revolution,” then every nickname is one step toward overthrowing those who engage in lying, pomposity, and groupthink.

In short, there is no truth to the claim that Tucker Carlson or President Trump represents a heretofore unseen vulgarization of public discourse. Rather than an aberration, they reflect a return to normal.  Americans should be grateful that politics rapidly is becoming a far more colorful — and honest — place, thanks to this newfound free-flow of invective.

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