Speak No Evil?
From Springfield's literature of abuse
May 23, 1980
In which your author laments that one of the causes of our present unhappiness as people is that we have lost the ability to insult each other. In 1980, scarcely a word escaped into the public realm that had been not been reviewed by an editor who'd gone to Sunday School. The rise of the internet, and in particular of vile social media, means that every man and women is her own editor—with predictable results.
There are among many people—by whom of course I mean me—who do not lament the anger of so much of public comment today but its lack of wit.
The IT associate editor mentioned below was me.
One of the causes of our present unhappiness as a people is that the more things we give ourselves to curse at, the less well we are able to curse. Invective, or the art of speaking ill of others, is a crucial skill in any advanced culture. I think it was Freud who pointed out that civilization began when people first flung a curse at an enemy instead of a stone.
Sadly, American invective has been discouraged for years by Sunday school teachers and TV network executives who maintain that one shouldn't say anything about some one unless one can say something good about him. Good invective is not easy to find under any circumstances, since it requires a rare blend of literary imagination and precision and malice. Most Americans are reduced to using either a cliche or an obscenity. Or, now that obscenity is a cliché, both at once.
Over the years I have culled many personal favorites from the local literature of abuse. That literature is vast; Springfield, which was excoriated in the 19th century for wallowing in the mud of its unpaved streets, wallows today in mud of a figurative sort, and it should surprise no one that these eccentrically 'centrifugal' 'People'—of Sangamon" (as an Alton editor called them in the 1830s) should pick it up and sling it occasionally.
In the 1850s, for example, an anonymous letter (purportedly written by Lincoln) was published in Springfield's Republican paper. "They wouldn't let no Democrats in," the author said of a recent social event, "for fear they'd disgust the ladies, or scare the little gals or dirty the floor." (We are not so squeamish today, and let Democrats in anyway.) The Democratic press gave as good in return, of course; when the antics of a succession of Republican city halls led local voters to adopt the commission form of government in 1911, the Register described the vote as "a jolt for the 'grafter' and a reverse for the 'moocher,' the special privilege-seeker and the pestiferous ward-heeler."
Local politics has been bringing out the Don Rickles in Springfieldians ever since. About his mayoral opponent who had previously spent several terms as county coroner, Nelson Howarth (himself a three-term veteran of city hall, and obviously the wiser man for it) said, "He's always had trouble with the living." And of the fondly remembered 1975–1979 Springfield city council (which one observer likened to the Italian parliament) one exasperated voter told a local editor that the council had subjected the citizens of Springfield to four years of the most asinine, childish and stupid arguments, squabbling and pettiness experienced in the history of the city."
No collection of vented spleen is complete without samples of that vented at the city of Springfield itself, which seems always to have inspired insult in the way Venice inspires poetry. The story's been told many times before, but perhaps the best of these was told by Paul Angle in Here I Have Lived. A man applied to Thompson Campbell, Illinois's secretary of state in the 1850s, for permission to deliver some lectures in the Statehouse." 'May I ask,' said Campbell, 'what is to be the subject of your lectures?' 'Certainly,' was the solemn reply, 'they are on the Second Coming of our Lord.' 'It's no use,' Campbell said, 'if you will take my advice you' will not waste your time in this city. It is my private opinion that if the Lord has been in Springfield once, he will not come the second time."' That is still true today, the Prairie Capital Convention Center notwithstanding.
Echoes of Mr. Campbell's lament can be heard even today; two cross-country cyclists stopped in Springfield in 1979 and said, "This town sort of looks like Fort Wayne, Indiana." (That depressed me for days. I can't imagine the effect it must have had on [tourism promoter] Fred Puglia.) Defending themselves against such jibes for a century and a quarter has made Springfieldians pretty good at this sort of thing, too. I recall with special admiration former mayor William Telford's 1978 remark that hiring a city manager for Springfield "would be like the way the school board hires a superintendent. They go out of town and it takes him two years to find [the school board offices] Monroe Street."
Invective might be said to be in the ear of the behearer, as when Springfield health and safety commissioner Pat Ward says, as he did in 1977, "I don't want somebody from New Jersey running the city of Springfield.” The phrase, "somebody from New Jersey" may be taken to mean anyone from out of town, in which case it is diffuse and thus harmless. It may be taken literally, however, to mean a Garden Stater—in which case Ward's disapprobation is specific and not at all harmless. It all depends on what you think of people from New Jersey. It is useful to keep this example in mind when reading what Marge Hensey, the late Paul Powell's secretary, told the Chicago Daily News a few years back about William Scott. "He is a very nice man," she said, "only he drinks milk whenever he goes out." Nothing more insulting need, or could, be said.
Ethnic invective is out of favor, at least in print, and I suppose one must consider that progress. But I confess I miss the smell of brimstone that wafts from the pages written by an itinerant preacher who described Washington Street's Levee district in 1910 as a collection of "blazing lighthouses of hell" including "Negro dive saloons, Bohemian saloons where the English language is never spoken [where] low-browed, pig-eyed, pug-nosed, potbellied products of the saloons . . . are lined up at the bar, drinking goblets of sheeny booze."
Indeed, the pulpit used to be a rich lode of invective; as recently as the 1940s, a Springfield anti-vice minister noted that if the people of Springfield could elect the then-incumbent mayor, "they can put on gas masks and prepare to stand any kind of stench." Alas, one seldom hears that magnificent outrage anymore. Springfield is a duller town than it used to be, and its pulpits populated by duller men. Nowadays sermons sound like Rotary Club luncheon speeches.
This dullness owes itself to more than just dull times, however. Commercial strictures on the organs of expression is a factor too. A few years ago a colleague of mine named Paul Rusdorf described one of Springfield's Big Three banks in a student newspaper as "just another predatory camorra of back-slapping Babbits." (Strictly speaking, this is not an example of invective, but of good reporting.) Those of us who write for real papers could never say that. It is widely assumed that politicians are so often the targets of verbal lashings because of our universally low opinion of them. I think it may be because politicians are the only people who need the press more than the press needs them.
Strangely, though, Springfield never accumulated much of an anti-government literature, in spite of its being the capital; perhaps it's because nearly every woman, man and child in the city has expectations of feeding at the public trough at least once in their lifetimes, and sensibly do not wish to antagonize a future employer. Oh, once in a while someone will describe the General Assembly as one 19th-century observer did, as "a tumultuous rabble from whose hands went forth paper balls, inkstands, law books and occasionally a chair—all with vile outrage of noisy words." But such frankness is rare, and to this day the bitterest words aimed at the General Assembly are aimed from outside the capital.
Favorite targets of the past, such as labor unions or ethnic groups have one by one been exempted from verbal assault by the rules of our modern, polite politics. Even intramural abuse has been curtailed as groups, having acquired a new sophistication about image, air their disputes in private. Lacking more recent examples, the very young may wish to study the 1930s. That was the era of the coal mine wars between John L. Lewis's United Mine Workers and the rebel Progressive Mine Workers. To the Progressives, Lewis was a "gangster" and a "dictator" whose associates were described as "coke fiend and booze-crazed cohorts”—which sounds like my high school class. Lewis, of course, was the Bard of Billingsgate, the best Springfield has ever seen; he once said that a rival "should file the sight off his gun So that it would not hurt him so much if it was taken from him and stuffed down his throat."
Nancy McPhee, author of The Book of Insults, complains that we live in an age of "fuzzy words and a mealy mouth." Too true. But here and there the spark burns still. A few months ago, an angry public schoolteacher wrote in response to a piece which appeared in these pages, "We doubt that a progressive publication such as Illinois Times can survive the narrow, unenlightened, often second-rate journalism (if the word is applicable) of its associate editor." No mealy mouth there. There's hope for the republic yet. □