‘A Perpetual Hissing’

by Jay Nordlinger

Notes on an unfavorite practice

A few nights ago, I had an interesting hissing experience. I was in a movie theater, and a preview for W. came on — this is the film about President Bush by Oliver Stone, the leftist director. The hissing was very strange: sort of tentative, unsure. It seemed to me that my neighbors were confused. They wanted to hiss the subject of the film, Bush, because they hate him. But they didn’t want to hiss the film itself — which they were sure to like. They were kind of caught. So what came out of them was a half hissing, or trial hissing: Should we hiss or not, gang? Amusing, actually.

But there is nothing amusing about hissing in general, as far as I’m concerned. It is one of my least favorite practices, and it may well be one of yours. I have written on this subject in my column for National Review Online from time to time. Once I wrote, “I grew up with the sound of the Left hissing.” That was a bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one. In my hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich. — a small citadel of the Left — hissing was de rigueur. They hissed at what they didn’t like, and what they didn’t like was usually conservative, or politically incorrect, or otherwise nonconforming. They especially hissed in movie theaters — not the ones out in the malls, but the ones on campus. (The University of Michigan.)

When I wrote specifically about Ann Arbor and hissing, I received an e-mail from Gilbert, Ariz. The man said, “I have heard hissing only in Ann Arbor. And it stands to reason that creepy ideological people should adopt this odious reptilian practice.” He added that there was no hissing in Gilbert.

But there is definitely hissing beyond Ann Arbor! For example, it is common on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where I live, and where I saw the preview for W. Hissing, wherever it takes place, is always, or almost always, hateful. It is sinister, menacing, sneaky, insidious. (Note how those words sound like hissing itself.) It is sort of anonymous, hiding itself, rather than being out in the open. I like what another reader — not from Gilbert — wrote me: “Hissing is underhanded, and it expresses disapproval without accountability. People can hiss with their lips and jaws in a neutral position — and they can drown out that which is disapproved while obscuring the source.”

When people hiss as a group, the specter of the mob is raised: bullying, united, dangerous. Group hissing is an expression of groupthink. Booing, certainly by individuals, is far better, I believe: It is more forthright. But best, of course, is neither booing nor hissing. If you can’t stand what is being presented, you can leave (i.e., vote with your feet).

Hissing is almost surely as old as man — who may well have gotten it from snakes. There is plenty of hissing in the Hebrew Bible, for example in Jeremiah: where people have been caused to “make their land desolate, and a perpetual hissing.” There is plenty of hissing in Shakespeare, too, where both snakes and people hiss — at speakers, at ideas, and so on. Caliban says, “Sometime am I all wound with adders who with cloven tongues do hiss me into madness.” I know the feeling. And the hissing in Milton’s Paradise Lost is horrible to ear, mind, and heart. Recall just one instance: when we hear “from innumerable tongues a dismal universal hiss, the sound of public scorn.”

Now and then, hissing can be benign — as in vaudeville, when you hiss the villain, who has entered twirling his mustache. But how often do you watch vaudeville? In movie houses, my neighbors hiss anything and everything, starting with the ads for Coke. It’s not just that they don’t like ads in theaters, which is understandable; it’s that they don’t like all that Coke represents (or so I would wager). And, of course, they hiss anything they consider objectionable in the main feature itself. A man from Madison, Wis. — another small citadel of the Left — wrote me to say that he once tried rebuking his hissing neighbors. “Do you realize the actors can’t hear you?” he said. “Or are you just advertising your virtue? Now that we know you’re virtuous, can the rest of us enjoy the movie?”

One time, on the Upper West Side, there was no hissing — like the dog not barking. And it was so remarkable, I wrote about it in my NRO column, on June 24, 2002. An ad for the Marines came on before a movie. My stomach tightened: Uh-oh. And no one hissed. There was not so much as the beginning of an ess. I wrote that this showed something different about the culture, for surely they would have hissed pre-9/11. The non-hissing took place more than six years ago, of course. What would the Marines bring today?

I myself have been hissed a number of times — and not just when speaking about politics. I was hissed at the Salzburg Festival once! What happened was this: I was conducting a public interview of a famous singer, and I mentioned what had happened to song recitals: Everyone had to have a “theme” now, rather than a mixed program. “You know, you have songs to texts of Rilke, or songs about water, or songs by left-handed Hispanics.” Most people laughed or chuckled — including the interviewee — but one woman (I think it was a woman, somehow) hissed. I have never forgotten that hiss: It cut through the general appreciation and good feeling like a knife.

It should give some comfort to know that even the best have been hissed. Do you know that Solzhenitsyn was hissed, when he gave his historic commencement address at Harvard? If you can hiss Solzhenitsyn — after his years in the Gulag, after what he struggled to bring to the world — you can hiss anybody. Of course, he faced a lot worse.

According to my e-mailers, Harvard — or more specifically, its law school — is, or was, a hotbed of hissing. (A snake’s nest of hissing?) The New York Times has noted this, too. Last year, the paper published an article about Barack Obama at Harvard. And the article mentioned the ideological ardency of students, who would “boo and hiss one another in class.” (Well, at least there was booing.)

A reader of mine recalled being at the law school in the mid-1980s: “one of a handful of conservatives speaking up against the party line in class.” He was amazed to find that hissing was “a common tool used to drown out” disapproved opinion. “Things became so bad in our classes that the professors hosted a discussion of hissing, and, to their credit, discouraged the practice. It didn’t help.” But our reader had a nice story to share:

During my first year of law school, Ronald Reagan was campaigning for his second term in the White House. He showed up in Boston for what was billed as his final campaign appearance (in his own behalf). So my buddies and I decided to skip out of contracts class and attend. We did, and heard the great man at his best.

The next day in class, our (very lib­eral) professor announced that he had handed out an important assignment the day before, but that several students had been absent. He said there was a rumor that they had been in Boston attending a Reagan rally (much hissing). He then declared that if those students wanted a copy of the assignment, they would have to walk down to the front of the room (an auditorium-style lecture hall) and take one from his desk. He apparently thought we’d be too shamed to an­nounce ourselves. We, of course, were proud of our views, and we all marched forward to get the assignment as our classmates hissed with great energy.

Not exactly heroic, but a great memory.

Well, if not exactly heroic — not exactly unheroic, either. Another reader wrote of her time as an undergrad at Stanford. She attended a Nader speech — and, be­fore the great man came on, a local Green-party candidate warmed up the crowd. He took an informal poll of the audience’s party affiliations: About 95 percent identified themselves as Dem­ocrats; most of the rest said they were Green or unaffiliated. And “ap­proximately ten of us identified ourselves as Republicans and were soundly hissed.” Said this reader, “I often think that the experience of sitting (nearly) alone, surrounded by leftists and angry, meaningless noise, beautifully represents my undergraduate experience.”

Would you care for something lighter? I have an instance of what you might call preemptive hissing. A Yale alum wrote about his experience in a production of Iolanthe. (Gilbert & Sullivan — not Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta.) A character, Lord Mountararat, says, “This comes of women interfering in politics.” Our Yalie wrote, “We knew that the line would offend the audience — never mind that the line is ironic. The audience would simply have heard a sexist 19th-century white male. Our solution? As soon as Mountararat said the line, the women’s chorus onstage hissed him. That got a big laugh — at least partly, I think, because the chorus looked and sounded exactly like the types we were worried about.”

Finally, a different reader said, “At summer camp back in the ’60s, the director prohibited hissing on the ground that the Nazis did that. (The camp was predominantly Jewish.) Have you ever heard anything like that?” I have not, no — but it’s the kind of thing you like to think is true.

I must say, in all my years, I have never heard a conservative or conservatives hiss. Then again, I have probably hung around in the wrong places. And I was sort of touched by a note received from yet another reader not long ago — when I again addressed this subject in my column: “Every time you write about hissing, it makes me feel bad. We got to go see President Bush speak in Dallas, and when he would mention some awful Democrat, I would hiss. Now when you write about how distasteful it is, I wish I hadn’t.”

A few days from now, I will participate in a debate at Yale. Will there be hissing? Perhaps. But I’m done with the topic of the Left and hissing for now. Next up: the Left and Alger Hiss (a joke that, no doubt, deserves a hiss).

– This article first appeared in the November 17, 2008, issue of National Review