The Old Cuntry: There’s Method To America's Mealymouthed Madness
Even without watching the Oscars or reading The Onion, I know that the biggest thing on Oscar night was a joke The Onion made about some child actress being a cunt. Apparently it was some kind of stupid meta-joke, like The Onion does, where the whole point was how ridiculous it was to call a nine-year-old such a terrible name, but that was way too subtle for the deplorers. We’ve got a lot of ’em in this country, deplorers and language cops. So by the next morning The Onion’s CEO tweeted out an apology—a non-ironic one, though I’m not sure how anybody could tell.
The only people arguing that we should lighten up on The Onion were a few Brits who tried to point out that “cunt” isn’t what you call a “gendered” insult in the UK. I know from experience that’s true, because my Brit-Peruvian friend Carlos, who worked with me in Saudi but grew up on a housing estate near Manchester, was always calling people either “cunt” or “twat”. I think “twat” is “cunt’s” working-class cousin. And I know he didn’t mean it in a gendered way because we were in Saudi Arabia, which means Carlos, who was there on his own, didn’t see a woman until he got to the Dubai Airport. So it made as perfect a laboratory setting as you could ask, to prove that Brits don’t use “cunt” on women in particular. Everybody Carlos called a “twat” was male--and believe me, it was a big enough sample to satisfy any stat wonk ever born.
So in a way this is all down to Americans trying to talk like Brits and not getting it right. I hear Brit bits all the time, like “spot on.” Since when do Americans say “spot on”? Every time I hear some dork from Portland say that, I want to give him a Glasgow kiss, or is it a Liverpool kiss?
Even if you used this lame Brit slang right, you’d still be thinking like an American, with a totally different set of potholes in your brain, especially about how you use language. We Yanks (a word never used by any Yank in history, by the way) use language to lean into each other, to find the ol’ “consensus.” I remember real well when I was trying hard to be popular as a young guy in California, I’d overhear people’s conversations and notice they never finished their sentences. I always finished mine, mainly because I only talked to imaginary people in my head, but I realized if you want to be a good Californian you have to leave off the end, go something like, “I know, I tried that place but it was…”—you stop there, and if the other party doesn’t jump in to agree right away, you prompt ’em with, “It was…ya know, kinda…” By then they have to agree with you: “Yeah, it was, I dunno, all…” Or if they disagree way deep down in what passes for their souls, they might do a one-second pause and then go, “Well yeah but…” And then you both scriggle to dead center like a couple of coyotes shouldering each other to be first at the corpse’s anus.
If you understand that, you’re well ahead on getting the local politics and a lot else, up to and including the stateside career of the late and over-lamented Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was a Brit; he’d been trained to use language to hurt people. Americans are damn good at hurting people, but not with language. More with silence. Well, silence and Glocks. Well, Glocks and bombs.
The Brits, without so many Glocks, have to fight like mere primitives, with words and fists and feet. Especially feet: I remember watching a cop show from the UK where this Scottish cop is watching CCTV footage of four drunk chavs—though who knows if “chavs” is even the right word—kicking some unconscious guy. They were doing a goosestep move over his head and then coming down on his face with the heel of their boots, and the cop doing voiceover was chortling, “Oh aye that’s the new fashion, it’s all heel these days!”
That’s for the commoners. In Hitch’s world, you smash people’s faces with words, and when someone from that school hits the ground in DC, he’s like Superman landing on Earth and finding out he can just put his fist through the locals as if they were jell-o statues. And not just Hitch, either; if you saw George Galloway vs. Sen. Norm Coleman, you saw a Brit street-mouth fighter end the career of a mealymouthed, consensus-sucking American politician in ten minutes. Oh, and on the way to the hearing where he mulched Coleman, Galloway paused long enough to TKO Hitch, who tried to ambush him. The argument between Hitch and Galloway was like that scene from the old Superman movie where a couple of other expats from Krypton landed on earth, and for once Superman had to fight hard enough to work up a sweat, while the helpless papier-mache earthlings hid and screeched.
Of course being a mealymouthed, positive-thinking American can pay off in Brit-land, from what I’ve heard. I talked to some guys who were stationed over there, and they said women were all but dragging them into the nearest broom closet, because these Yanks actually tried saying something nice to them, which had apparently never happened to them in their lives before. One of them told this guy that the usual flirting method for British guys is to insult the girl as grossly as he can, then wait for her to fall in love with him.
So if you had to sum it up, quick and rough, it’d be that Americans try very hard to pretend there’s no violence in our language, whereas the Brits, in language and everything else, pretty much worship cruelty. It makes no difference that I can see in the body counts; we’re both killers, very scary peoples. So I’m not whitewashing the Brits here. I’ve always said I suspect the body count from the Empire will end up much higher than anybody has dared to say yet. It’s just that they don’t police language in the same overcautious way we do. When they commit murder, they traditionally clamp down on the story completely, instead of putting a can of Pillsbury icing on it. Look at the Kenya thing, the hush-up on the dead Kikuyu; they didn’t come up with nice words for it, they just shut down the info flow for half a century.
When you compare our murder styles, you see why the uproar over The Onion’s “cunt” joke peaked with a tweet by this Brit comic Frankie Boyle:
“You a yank up in arms cos of a joke about a 9 yo girl? Your government kills kids every day so you can stay 100lbs overweight you freakshow.”
As a plus-sized American myself—and please note the preferred nomenclature, there, Frank—I have to object to your inappropriate and hurtful tone. Those are big words in American language fights, “hurtful” and “inappropriate.” Especially “inappropriate.” That’s the biggest word-bomb you can drop on somebody under the US Constitution. Once you call something “inappropriate,” it may as well get itself drafted by the Raiders, because it’s finito.
And listen, Frankie, I got a better comeback for you: There’s a method to our mealymouthed madness. It worked in the last century, after your grim Imperial way of talking fizzled out. Just look at the military history of the Twentieth century: the two biggest powers of the century, the US and USSR, were also the smiliest, most euphemism-friendly great powers in history. Just compare these two relentlessly smiling killers with Germany. In 1900, Germany was the smartest, strongest, most advanced, confident country in the world. The 20th was all set to be “the German Century.” Well, it didn’t turn out that way. Germany now? It’s like Tony Montana says to the corpse in his passenger seat: “Lookitchu now, juuu stooopi’ fock!”
And why did Germany fail? Well, I direct you to your own world, Frankie: British comedy. You know that famous Mitchell and Webb skit where the Wehrmacht soldat is sitting in an outpost watching his comrades sew skull-insignia scarves, and then pans around to see everybody wearing skull-insignia caps, coats, belts, medals and other team gear? You remember how the guy slowly turns to his friend and asks, “Are we the baddies?”
All the losing powers went for the gory, bloody images: the Japanese Imperial Army used to publicize its beheading competitions in China. Mussolini,? The guy never smiled in his life, and look where it got him.
Now compare that with the US and USSR, the two happy-talk powers of all time. Nobody loved pictures of smiling kids, and smiling workers, and smiling dead frozen political prisoners, more than the USSR, and they were still the good guys, to most of the educated West, until they got slack and started letting depressing types like Solzhenitsyn infect what we’d call their “public discourse.” They tried to fix that, but it was too late, see? Quit smiling in the 20th century and it was all over for your ass. But just look at Soviet posters from the late 1930s, where the NKVD was doing three shifts to fulfill and overfulfil their torture/murder norms: those posters of chubby girls and white-jock boys are the happiest things ever made by the hand of man.
The only people who beat the Soviets at smiley posters was us, the mealymouthed, squeamish Yanks you love to make fun of. Well listen, Frankie, that stuff may not play with self-hating Irish-wannabe Brits like your good self, but it works damn well in most of the world, where people actually think that everybody in California goes to the beach every damn day. I never surfed in my miserable life, but I liked the way everybody in Saudi thought I had, and you can believe it helps when you want to kill large numbers of people if they think you’re Jimmy Stewart. That’s what people remember from the raids that set Japan’s paper cities on fire: Jimmy Stewart bravely giving up his Hollywood career to fly the napalm dump-trucks, smiling all the way, and Rosie the Riveter showing women could be strong by screwing the fuses on those incendiaries.
See, it’s not about killing. We all kill, when we can. I don’t know who racked up the biggest body count, between us, the Soviets and the Nazis, but I know the great powers always kill in big numbers. Just look at you Brits when you were the greatest power—well Hell, Frankie Boyle, with a name like that you ought to be able to tell me which European island had a population of 9 million in 1845 and 3 million in 1900, and which Great Power made sure that happened. The Empire did the total-silence treatment on that one; Tennyson himself toured Famine Ireland in a closed carriage, shades down, and made it a rule that nobody was even supposed to mention “Irish distress” to him.
In the 19th century, with nothing but a few newspapers to worry about, that media strategy worked. But by 1930, with more media to deal with, we and Stalin, the two media mavens, we figgered out you need to smile aggressively to get rid of that bad smell. And we smiled and bombed our way right through the century.
It’s a little thing called style, Frankie. You might not have heard of it there in your row house, what with the fetal alcohol syndrome problem and all. See? That’s how we insult somebody, Frankie: with compassion.