Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Annals of Political Discourse

Infrastructure challenge in Detroit

"We got to keep an eye on the battle that we face: The war on workers. And you see it everywhere, it is the Tea Party. And you know, there is only one way to beat and win that war. The one thing about working people is we like a good fight. And you know what? They've got a war, they got a war with us and there's only going to be one winner. It's going to be the workers of Michigan, and America. We're going to win that war," Jimmy Hoffa said to a heavily union crowd. "President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let's take these son of bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong," Hoffa added.
                                                   James Hoffa (as quoted in the American press)

I have in the past expressed my admiration for the great Doctor Samuel Johnson, one of the first and best of bloguistes, and especially for his utter unflappability with regard to writing deadlines. He frequently would not even begin writing his required periodical essay until the printer’s boy appeared at his door urgently demanding copy. What Johnson achieved through sangfroid can be achieved also through mere oblivion and distraction. Tuesday offered a most pleasant distraction: an exhilarating doctoral defense by a brilliant young scholar of my acquaintance. The experience was so tonic that I went home and wrote a few scholarly paragraphs of my own. And though Wednesdays have been following fast upon the heels of Tuesdays even since my earliest youth, it was only latish on Tuesday that the significance of the time-tested sequence dawned upon me, blog-wise. Now what has dawned upon me is Wednesday itself.

Though I try to avoid current events, the week’s political developments have been importunate. First there was the flap over the President’s really pathetic attempt to upstage the orgy of self-promotion, posturing, and pandering that the Republican presidential candidates are pleased to call a “debate.” Hardly had this battle of titans achieved its uneasy resolution than alarums sounded on a new front: Detroit, where the president had gone to preview his speech (now scheduled for Thursday) before a friendly audience of “working Americans”. Among the friendliest of all (as in Johnny Friendly) was James Hoffa, whose office it was on this occasion to welcome the President to the podium. His introductory remarks, which according to Rush Limbaugh and numerous others included a generalized incitement to violence against members of the Tea Party, have become the object of journalistic--and now bloguistic—scrutinty.

My treatment of Mr. Hoffa’s remarks, though perforce censorious, will also be dispassionate. I have no animus against Jimmy Hoffa. In fact, I find Jimmy Hoffa rather reassuring. He is the living proof of the greatness of our democracy. For in this country it is not merely the presidency of the Republic that can be passed from father to son like the lordship of a thirteenth-century manor. The same is true of the Teamsters’ union. Nonetheless I must agree with Hoffa’s critics that the “Detroit remarks” crossed a line.

Johnny Friendly                                                                and                                                         Friendly Jimmy

But what line? You undoubtedly have heard the academic Q and A joke about the Mafioso and the Deconstructionist. The small degree of cultural literacy required for its appreciation—a passing familiarity with the Godfather movies—will be child’s play for my erudite readership.
     Q: What is the difference between the Mafia Don and the Deconstructionist?
     A: The Deconstructionist makes you an offer you can’t understand.
I had long since recognized the Mafioso style in the American labor union bureaucracy, but only now do I fully appreciate the more subtle influence of Deconstructionist style. In a stirring medley of striking but utterly indeterminate martial images Mr. Hoffa seemed to posit a “war” between “workers” and the “Tea Party,” a war in which the former must triumph. His specific and vigorous encouragement was this: “Let's take these son of bitches out.” The phrase “take out,” even when not being used of fast food, is I suppose sufficiently slippery that we must give Hoffa a pass. Take me out to the ball game. My husband never takes me out. That sort of thing. “Son of bitches” is another matter.

Even in American politics, where almost anything goes, this is entirely unacceptable. The term son of a bitch, a term of opprobrium dear to such great twentieth-century politicians as Roosevelt, Truman, and Nixon, is nearly as venerable as the eighteenth-century English whoreson, which in America it replaced. Its vernacular variant forms esohbee and sumbich are also amply recorded in our political discourse. But you simply cannot say what Hoffa said. You would never talk about “Knight Templars” or “mother-in-laws”. The proper plural is sons of bitches, with sons of a bitch being at least theoretically possible, if somewhat stilted. The English professors of America demand an apology. As for beating the war and giving America back to an America, those sound like sensible bipartisan suggestions.


A note for regular readers.  Travels in England for the next two weeks may disturb the wonted schedule of postings.