EDITOR’S NOTE: Get your weekend off to a sis-boom-bang with this Grade-A cut of prime ribbing from Florence King. Unlike our previous Friday features della Firenze, this is not one of her Misanthrope’s Corner columns. Even better, it is a full-fledged 3,000-plus-word essay (first run in the February 11, 1991 issue of National Review) appropriately subtitled “In Praise of Misanthropy.” You will love it.
It marks one of Miss King’s earliest entries in America’s favorite conservative magazine, and was so admirable that NR readers were left begging for more of this unique, witty, brassy, unrivaled writer. They got what they wanted.
If you’re begging for more Florence, we suggest you stop whatever you’re doing and get STET, Damnit–the complete, unabridged, rip-roaring collection of her Misanthrope’s Corner columns. It’s available here.
And now, on with the show . . .
Many Americans are unfamiliar with the word misanthrope, as I discovered when I tried to discourage a persistent Southern women’s club that wanted me to serve as its guide on a literary tour of Europe.
”I can’t, I’m a misanthrope.”
“Oh, honey, you don’t have to let it cramp your style! My sister-in-law’s a diabetic and she can go anywhere she wants as long as she takes her little kit with her.”
Like any personality trait, misanthropy is a matter of degree. Taken in the literal sense, the obvious problem is one of logistics: hating the entire human race is hard to do, though a few flinty souls have done it. In the figurative sense, however, misanthropy is a realistic attitude toward human nature that Americans would do well to understand and adopt.
We hold dual citizenship in the Republic of Nice and the Republic of Mean. Torn between smile buttons and happy talk on the one side and Balkanization on the other, we are going as crazy as Timon of Athens, the philanthropist-turned-misanthrope of whom Shakespeare said: “The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends.”
As citizens of the Republic of Nice we are so afraid of our dark side that hostile situations barely get started before somebody pops up and announces, “The healing has begun.” Fear of getting mad is so widespread that nobody says mad any more. The word is angry: somehow it sounds less mad than mad. To make sure nobody gets angry, we pre-soften each other constantly in ways that are becoming more and more bizarre.
Recently I sent away to a Danish import house for a table that arrived unassembled. I didn’t have too much trouble putting it together–it was a five-goddammit job–but what got me worked up was the packing label: “Warning! This box contains confusing instructions from Denmark. Please use our friendly instructions packed outside this box.” Friendly has become a synonym for clear and concise because clarity and concision are cool qualities. It began with “user-friendly” computers to make cold technology warm, and now nearly every inanimate gizmo is touted as friendly.
In the Republic of Nice, the soft-spoken are king. Television anchors, who must somehow project an air of unthreatening authority, are lately solving this conundrum by swallowing the end of their sentences. Peter Jennings is the worst offender; his voice disappears into a prissy smirk and a little nod that recalls Colette Dowling’s description of the speech patterns of unassertive women. In The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence, Miss Dowling says that female executives afraid of losing their femininity turn orders into questions by raising their voices at the end of sentences, e.g.: “I want that report by tomorrow?” Miss Dowling calls this the “Diffident Declarative.”
The Republic of Nice has a Rumpelstiltsken Complex. Living in dread of exploding in foot-stamping, purple-faced rage like the foul-tempered gnome in the fairy tale, we have devised various safeguards.
Plugging up safety valves is our favorite way of keeping everybody calm. In her horrified appraisal of my last book, Lump It or Leave It, Martha Peters of the El Paso Times insists that satire is only funny when it is neither embittered nor mean.” That would be news to several people in the pantheon of Western civilization, but Walter B. Schwab of Providence puts Jonathan Swift and Anatole France in their place in his May 14, 1990, letter to Time: “Disparaging humor is verbal abuse and can be as damaging as the physical kind, if not more so. It destroys self-esteem.”
An obstetrics ward became a brooding ground for self-esteem when a couple sued a Nashville hospital for $4 million on learning that the nurses had nicknamed their baby daughter “Smurfette” because she was born blue from blue dye injected into her mother’s womb during a prenatal test.
“Painful though these events have been, we have all learned a great deal about how sensitive and fragile our society is, how deeply people and groups can be hurt if great care is not taken in conducting public discourse.” No, that has nothing to do with Smurfette. That’s CBS president David Burke after suspending Andy Rooney for allegedly making cracks about people of another color, but it fits any self-esteem emergency. It also fits on a Miranda-sized card so that the five remaining spontaneous citizens of the Republic of Nice can carry it around in their wallets in case they slip up and say something interesting.
Code words are the pretty packages full of friendly instructions in which we wrap our real meanings. Some, like inner city, have been around for years, but the one that is all the rage lately is dialogue.
Not long ago a member of the Nation of Islam gave a speech at Fredericksburg’s Mary Washington College. It was the usual Farrakhan farrago: up with Hitler, down with Jews and other whites, plus a locally tailored insult to George Washington’s mother, for whom the college is named. The speech triggered such hysteria on campus that professors had to use class time for “tension-defusing” discussions of racial issues. Our local paper’s letters-to-the-editor column divided along black-white lines and a town-gown split emerged, but how did the college administration describe it all? The banner headline read: MUSLIM SPEECH CREDITED FOR SPURRING DIALOGUE.
Another way the Republic of Nice puts the lid on its Rumpelstiltsken Complex is through “stress management,” phrase so suggestive of gritted teeth that you can almost hear the scrunch. The stress industry has cooperated by abandoning medicine’s earlier claim that letting off steam is good for you, and so we have: TRUST HELPS HEARTS. BLOWING YOUR TOP COULD BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH, TWO STUDIES INDICATE.
One of these “wellness” studies took place at Duke University, the house that tobacco built, and involved 118 male lawyers who scored “hostile” on a personality test. The testees were described as “rude, abrasive, surly, critical, uncooperative, condescending, and disagreeable”–the law firm of choice for litigious Americans. Among the researchers was Dr. Redford B. Williams Jr., author of The Trusting Heart, who warns: “Having anger is bad for you, whether you express it or not. But we found that people who said they made a point of letting other people know they were angry had higher death rates.”
The best way to bottle up anger is to turn men into women. After years of consensus seeking, reaching out, coming together, building bridges, linking arms, and tying yellow ribbons, the feminization of America is now complete. American men have been turned into their own secret police, under orders to kick down their own doors in the middle of the night and arrest themselves for insensitivity.”
A beau ideal of the New Man is columnist Richard Cohen, the Washington Post’s resident oh-dear, who is such a bundle of sensitivity that if he had been on the Titanic he would have apologized for damage to the iceberg. Male soul-searching is in and Cohen is its undisputed champ, having searched his own so often that he has become Butterfly Dundee, the man every woman would least like to have with her if she met a mugger.
Today’s men have adopted the age-old feminine stratagem of hurt feelings and the newer feminist technique of politicized nagging to get their points across, as when a snippy Dan Rather demanded of his man in Alaska: “Did Hazelwood ever apologize for the Valdez oil spill?” But nothing is more infuriating than female strategy. Armed with her silken weaponry of ambivalence, circularity, and freighted silences, woman burrows into her adversary’s very soul–sideways, like a tick crossed with a mole crossed with a crab. Instead of “humanizing” men, it would have been far better if women had copied men’s stoic virtus. A nation of self-controlled people is less likely to blow than one giving off beta-consciousness waves. The hatreds we are trying to tamp down and deny have a much better chance of coming to the surface when people are “in touch with their feelings.” If they do, they will be all the more violent from having been subjected to the feminized tactics of the Republic of Nice.
REPUBLIC OF MEAN
The flip side of the Republic of Nice is the Republic of Mean. Closet misanthropes lie thick on the ground.
How about some proportional misanthropy? “Beef! Real food for real people.” George Bush in Omaha: “It’s good to be away from Washington and out here with the real people.” Rosalynn Carter’s press secretary: “She’s in touch with the real people.” Take your pick and hate the rest.
Egged on by the compassion-impaired, some of the handicapped have turned into ogres hurling epithets at anyone who says “confined” to a wheelchair, or who does not say differently abled.” Somerset Maugham anticipated these closet misanthropes when he wrote: “It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”
Our eagerness to get away from each other has made the ubiquitous “Ten Most Livable Cities” article beloved by closet misanthropes. People are desperate to escape crime, pollution, noise, rudeness, and traffic jams–i.e., people. Once they move somewhere new to get away from people, they find that they are hated by people who hate people who are trying to get away from people they hate.
The Welcome Wagon is dead. I see the handwriting on the mall, and it’s a bumper sticker: Seattle: DON’T CALIFORNICATE THE STATE OF WASHINGTON. Oregon: COME SEE US BUT GO BACK HOME. Atlanta: GENERAL SHERMAN, WHERE ARE YOU NOW THAT WE NEED YOU?
EQUALITY OF BIGOTRY
Rainbow misanthropy? It’s a mystery to me how anyone can look at the proliferation of support groups and not see them for what they really are: a lunatic quest for birds of a feather by people so sick of our great diversity that they unconsciously reject it by joining Tone-Deaf Parents of Lefthanded Anorexic Kleptomaniacs just to be with their own kind.
A leading rainbow misanthrope is Sonny Carson, the black convicted kidnapper who worked in the campaign of New York Mayor David “Gorgeous Mosaic” Dinkins. Accused of being anti-Semitic, Carson replied: “Anti-Semitic? I’m anti-white. Don’t limit my anti-ing to just being one little group of people.” Spoken like a true misanthrope.
A movement toward equality of bigotry is leading to misanthropy by accretion. Karen Schwartz of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) said of the Andy Rooney flap: “GLAAD opposes all forms of bigotry and believes that if you scratch a homophobe you’ll probably find a racist.” By this logic, the scratched racist, if scratched repeatedly, will prove to be anti-Semitic, will prove to be anti-Catholic, will prove to be anti-Slavic, and so on down the list until we achieve raw misanthropy -literally.
The widespread hatred of television is a form of closet misanthropy of special interest to anyone who grew up in the radio era. We didn’t hate radio and blame it for all sorts of ills. We didn’t worry about how many hours a day our radios were on, and we didn’t lie about our radio habits (“I never listen to it”).
Today we have Judy Mann in the Washington Post on “Turning Off the TV Habit,” about her family’s cold-turkey withdrawal from the electronic beast.
“I don’t miss it at all,” she insists in the third paragraph. It’s a one-sentence paragraph, standing alone for greater dramatic emphasis.
She goes on to say, “you realize how stupid the sitcoms are,” “It is a terrible time-waster,” and “Television is a lot like smoking: you only realize what a rotten habit it is once you’ve stopped.” She also quotes her husband–”He thinks it destroys the mind”–and a Washington-area English teacher: “If TV is like a drug that numbs the mind, excessive viewing amounts to drug abuse.”
Television rouses us to instinctive loathing because it is the only medium of entertainment in which the great do not keep their distance. In the Thirties and Forties, radio was a disembodied voice, while movies presented godlike stars who were figuratively larger than life and made them literally larger than life on giant screens. But the democratic size of the television screen and its permanent presence in our homes have deprived us of personages awesome and mysterious, damaging thereby the psychic dynamo that powers religious faith. In the primitive recesses of our minds, television is to us what Antichrists and heretics were to the Middle Ages.
The most revolting form of closet misanthropy is the “Oprah’s Guest” syndrome. Masquerading as compassionate broad-mindedness but really driven by the notion that dignity is undemocratic, it demands that people strip themselves of all that is seemly and wallow in maudlin sludge.
MARYLAND COUPLE SHARES A GIFT OF LOVE: HER KIDNEY. After the area’s first spousal transplant, the couple crept together through the hospital corridors, both slightly bent with pain,” while their teenage children “hung out with them, looking after mom and dad and making home videos of them.”
When they left the hospital to go home, the husband wore a T-shirt inscribed: “My wife gave me her heart and all her love. Now she gave me a kidney.” He went on: “I was so glad. I had my catheter and my bag of what we call liquid gold. I said, “Timmie, look at this,’ indicating that the new kidney was working.”
Added the Washington Post reporter: “The Warners are the kind of people who view obstacles as challenges–the glass half full, not half empty, as Kenneth Warner put it. And they are ‘goal-oriented’ people, he said. Warner decided he wanted a transplant kidney, and he set Christmas as his personal deadline.”
But who would donate it? Said Mrs. Warner: “We woke up on a Saturday morning and I said, My can’t I give you a kidney?’” And so she did. And left the hospital wearing a T-shirt inscribed: “I gave my husband my heart and all my love. Now I gave him a kidney.”
My coffee cup is half empty. While I pour myself a refill, look at this:
It’s a Christmas postcard from Congressperson Patricia Schroeder, who evidently culled my name from the Ms. subscription list. The picture shows the whole family, including the dog, frolicking in the snow. The message reads: “Santa’s back! So are Jim, Pat, Scott, Jamie & Wolfie Schroeder! Jamie is a sophomore at Princeton studying Chinese. Scott works at ABC News in D.C. Jim works at paying bills and Pat works at passing them! Wolfie sleeps! Best Holiday Wishes for a great 1990. Pat & the gang.” Of course, Pat contains a smiley face in the circle of the P.
It is not necessary to like people to respect them. The Schroeders among us miss a vital point that we of cooler temperaments instinctively understand: Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it is contempt.
The suspicion that David Souter might share this view–might, in fact, be a misanthropic hermit–sent America into a tailspin when the fifty-year old bachelor was nominated to the Supreme Court.
“Judge Souter is our Rorschach test,” wrote Washington Times columnist Suzanne Fields, “telling us more about ourselves than about him.” He certainly did. The vaunted independence that Americans cherish consists of two things: the single-issue pressure group and the automobile. We boast about our rugged individualism, yet when an avatar of it draws near to a position of power, we go nuts.
Women’s groups demanded reassurance that Souter would “empathize” with women’s issues. Presumably they meant “sympathize,” though with feminists you never know. Alan Dershowitz seemed to hint at something really nasty: “I mean, this is a fifty-year-old bachelor who lives with sheep in Weare, N.H., out of this world.”
Time called him “An Eighteenth Century Man,” forgetting that the Founding Fathers were too, and warned: “The more serious question about Souter’s ascetic ways is whether a man who seems to prefer books to people can empathize [there it is again] with and understand the problems of ordinary people.”
Finally, somebody dredged up a Souter date from the early Sixties, Ellanor Stengel Fink, who did her best to reassure the land of the free and the home of the brave.
What doesn’t come across in the accounts I’ve read is what a warm, friendly guy he can be,” she rhapsodized. “He comes across as a steely intellectual. All head and no heart. He is a very bright person and very interesting, but he’s not all brain. He’s a friendly, warm person and extremely considerate.” Not only that, his parents were very warm, friendly lovely people. A traditional, close family.”
I daresay many people fully expected Souter’s isolated cellar to yield up a dozen or so female corpses murdered by him over the years. And why not? Every newspaper reader in America knows what murderers are like: SLAYING SUSPECT DESCRIBED AS LONER. According to the suspect’s neighbors, he always “kept himself to himself” and “had trouble at work.” But the victim? Listen to his neighbors: Everybody loved him, he got along with everybody. He didn’t have an enemy in the world. He was such a happy person. I remember he always said a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet. He would give you the shirt off his back. One day a homeless came to the door and asked him for a drink of water, and he invited him in for a meal. He was always smiling, I never saw him frown, no, not once. Our kids were crazy about him.”
To suggest that this hot, wet paragon might have had a fatal flaw, and that it might have had something to do with America’s blackout of the maxim, “Everybody’s friend is everybody’s fool,” is not permitted. Nonetheless, it is a truth universally unacknowledged that loners go happily through life, keeping themselves to themselves and having trouble at work until they die in their beds at the age of 96.
Unabashed misanthropy evokes a surprising response, as Robert Lewis Taylor notes in his biography of W. C. Fields: “Fields’s defiance of civilization, over a period of 67 years, became an institution in which the public took pride…. Most persons, as a scholar has noted, harbor a secret affection for anybody with a low opinion of humanity.”
This secret affection springs from a universal familiarity with the grind of daily life. The misanthrope has little to offer victims of crushing evil, but he is the nemesis of humanity’s little meannesses, the ones that hurt most of the people most of the time. In his ceaseless battle against hypocrisy and pettiness, the ostensibly uncharitable misanthrope inadvertently becomes a warrior for the meek majority who never get even with the people who do them wrong.
It’s not a bad life. For an American especially, it carries a priceless purity. Nobody can call you -ist, an -ite, or a -phobe when you have already called yourself a -thrope.