“He is a self-made man and worships his creator.” The quote from the British statesman John Bright appeared in my Facebook newsfeed this week. The short quip about a current American politician was so spot on that I had to jot it down for future reference.
The Bright insult caught my eye for a few reasons. It made a point without the use of the overused F-word. The statement was short and economical. It was deliciously relevant and intelligent without being effete.
The remark made me wonder what has become of the once grand art of insult. If you look back on historical figures a few generations ago, to the first half of the 20th century or further back, to the Victorian era, we find examples of cutting insults that are not crude.
Some of the best insults and their retorts were made by British politicians of the past.
A representative in Parliament once said to Prime Minister Disraeli: “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.” The PM responded with: “That depends, Sir, whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”
One of the smart people I miss most is Gore Vidal. Whether or not a person agreed with his point of view, one must admit that he had the art of insult down pat. His insulting commentary could be short, sweet, and relevant. Many of his old barbs could easily be recycled for use by today’s commentators:
“By the time a man gets to be presidential material, he’s been bought ten times over.”
It takes a moment to understand this political jibe: “Didn’t George Washington say, ‘He who controls Afghanistan will carry New Jersey?'”
I like this one: “Television is now so desperately hungry for material that they’re scraping the top of the barrel.”
While we indulge in the Schadenfreude of hearing or reading insults pointed towards famous people, it’s important to remember that an artful insult is not made simply to hurt someone’s feelings. The best insults are attempts to awaken the intended audience to a serious fault.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” Who was Wilde thinking of when he wrote, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”?
When Akkosina heard that the Buddha did not get angry, the man decided to visit the sage and insult him over and over. Akkosina called the Buddha terrible, disgusting names.
After the lengthy tirade, the Buddha asked Akkosina if he had any friends or relatives. The man said that he did. Then the Buddha asked whether he brought gifts when he visits these people. Akkosina affirmed that he always brought gifts. Then the Buddha asked what happens if his friends do not accept the gifts. The man said that he takes them back home and instead enjoys them with his own family.
The Buddha said that he does much the same thing. Then the Lord Buddha said to Akkosina, “You have brought me a gift here today that I do not accept; and so you may take that gift home to your family.”
Enjoy wise insults and use them sparingly.